Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Authority in the Church

by Mark M. Mattison

As Steve Jones has written in The Multiple Pastor Model, the office of the one-man pastor h as no Scriptural support. Nowhere does the New Testament ever imply that one man is to have authority over a local congregation. On the contrary, the earliest churches enjoyed the ministries of multiple elders whose job it was to pastor the flock (cf. Acts 20:17,28; 1 Pet. 5:1,2).

We have noticed, however, a most unhealthy trend among some churches which have tried to implement this more Scriptural model. Many churches rightly eschew the one-man pastor and ordain multiple pastors of the body. However, the nature of the pastoral office and its authority remains unchanged. In fact some churches with multiple leaders are, paradoxically, even more authoritarian than ones with single leaders. The purpose of this article, then, is not to argue for the multiplicity of pastors within the local church. The multiplicity of pastors-elders will be assumed. The point of this article rather will be to argue against the traditional (worldly) view of authority in the church bound up in the concept of the church "office."

"Offices" Unscriptural

That might sound strange at first. After all, didn't Paul write to the Romans: "inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office"? (11:13, KJV). And in his first letter to Timothy did not Paul write of "the office" of a bishop" and "the office of a deacon" (1 Tim. 3:1,10,13, KJV)?

Those words certainly do appear in the King James Version of the Bible. But what is truly astonishing is how foreign to the Greek text those terms are. In the Romans text it is his diakonian, his ministry or "deaconship" which Paul magnifies. In 1 Timothy 3:1 it is episkopes, "an oversight," which is sought, which may or may not bear the traditional connotation of "church office." Most interesting of all is how the King James Version translates a single Greek verb, diakoneo ("to serve") with the clumsy phrase "use the office of a deacon" in 1 Timothy 3:10,13.

Are these mere semantics? Does it matter whether or not we regard elders and deacons as holding "offices"? I believe it matters insofar as it presupposes a worldly authority structure in which person dominates person. This type of authority has no Scriptural sanction.

"Obey Your Leaders"

But is not this type of authority implied in the New Testament's exhortation of believers to "obey" our leaders? "Obey your leaders and submit to them," wrote the author to the Hebrews, "for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing - for that would be harmful to you" (Heb. 13:17). We might note also the basic meaning of the term "bishop" (episkopos), which literally means "overseer."

At first blush this concept seems to create an immediate tension with the concept of diakonia, "deaconship" or "service" or "ministry." In fact these two terms, "deacon" and "bishop," evoke contradictory images. Yet we know that all elders are deacons (i.e., servants).Reference1 How can these two concepts be reconciled? How can the same people both rule and obey?

Spiritual Authority

We believe the key to unraveling that tension is to be found in passages such as Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-45. In these passages Jesus clearly points out that spiritual authority is exercised in an entirely different way from worldly authority. To rule or "oversee" the church means to serve the church. In the household of God, the concept of "oversight" is radically transformed and interpreted entirely in terms of "deaconship" or "ministry" or "service." Peter states this explicitly in 1 Peter 5:1-5. "I exhort the pastor the flock of God among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly" (vv. 1,2, my translation). Furthermore, they are not to exercise authority as "lords" but as "examples" (v. 3). " In the same way" younger Christians are to accept the authority of the elders (v. 5a); "and all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another" (v. 5b, NRSV).

Note that key phrase in verse 5a, "in the same way," as well as the sentiment in the remainder of the verse and the context of the passage. Yes, younger Christians are to submit to the older and wiser Christians in the church; but the elders in turn submit and defer to the interests of others. Pastoral authority must not be taken out of the context of the mutual business of submitting and serving in the church.


The ramifications of this fact are far-reaching. It means that the elders are not the primary decision-makers in the church, contrary to much church practice. In the early church it was the Holy Spirit operating through the context of the entire body which made decisions on behalf of the church (cp. Acts 13:2,3; 15:22; 1 Cor. 1:10-15).

To illustrate this point we need look no further than Jesus' great disciplinary outline of Matthew 18:15-20. Of course it is the duty of any member of the body, not just a (serving) leader, to approach the one who has sinned; and in any case a member who has been sinned against must also approach the offender to reconcile (cp. also Luke 17:3,4). If reconciliation and/or repentance is not achieved, does the case then go to the elders? Not necessarily. A third and possibly fourth party is brought in, but Jesus doesn't indicate that the third or fourth parties need to be elders. If that effort is unsuccessful, does it then go to the elders? No. On the contrary, it goes straight to the entire church body for prayerful resolution.

Just where are the elders in all of this? If they truly are the "rulers" and decision-makers of the church, surely they would figure prominently in this passage. But they don't.

This is what most strongly implies that the oversight of the church is not an office but a function. Leaders lead by example and by submission. Elders are just that: older, wiser people in the church who are known and trusted and admired and imitated, whose opinions and insights and advice are sought, whose character and spirituality are beyond reproach. This pastoring is a role or function, but it is not an office invested with certain powers or policitical authority.

This has implications also for the titles that we tragically associate with church leaders - an association which should be precluded by Jesus' teaching in Matthew 23: 8-12:

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (NIV).

Difficult words! How are they to be taken? Obviously Jesus wasn't teaching that there are no human fathers or teachers. Paul writes about human fathers in Ephesians 6:4 and pastors-teachers as gifts from God in Ephesians 4:11. The context of Matthew 23 - which is about the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees - makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is talking about religious titles. Jesus' disciples are not to attach titles to their names, nor are they to use religious titles when addressing others. Why not? Because such titles set the leaders apart from and above the rest of the body, marking them out as greater.

Pastors who would prove that they aren't above their congregations would do well to heed Jesus' command and drop their titles altogether, eradicating them from the bulletins and letterhead and discouraging their use. "Hey Pastor Bob!" "Please don't use that title. I'm not to let anyone call me that, for we have one Pastor, the Christ."

Why isn't this commandment taken more seriously? Wasn't it spoken by the same Christ who said "Love one another"?

This is not to say that church leaders should not be respected and given honor in the body. On the contrary, they "are worthy of double honor" (1 Tim. 5:17,18, NIV). In fact it behooves all members of the body to speak respectfully to one another, and even more so to those who are older (1 Tim. 5:1,2). Mutual respect and honor is to be the rule of the day. With while showing deference and respect we must be careful not to reinforce a two-tiered caste system within the body, placing priestly power into the hands of a few.


1This includes even the apostles: Cp. 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:23; Eph. 3:7. The distinctions between "deacons" and "bishops/elders" in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 indicate not that elders aren't deacons, but rather that deacons aren't necessarily elders. This observation is strengthened by the fact that nearly all of the stated qualifications for "deacon" or "servant" in the church are also qualifications for elders, whereas the reverse is not true. To serve in the church does not make one an elder; but to be an elder is to serve in one of the servant roles of the church.

What is a Christian?

by Mark M. Mattison

"Are you a Christian?" I once asked an acquaintance. She creased her eyebrows and thought about that.

"I'm not really sure," she said. "What is a Christian?"

I was impressed with her honesty and the profundity of her question. She knew very well who Jesus was. As I talked with her I found that she had grown up in the church. Yet she didn't really know what a Christian was. And I could hardly blame her.

What is a Christian, anyway? Someone of European descent? A persecutor of Jews? Someone who votes for only the most conservative Republicans? At times all of these answers have seemed plausible. Some use these definitions to this day.

In Christian circles the answers are no clearer. A Christian is sometimes said to be someone who has made a decision; sometimes, someone who belongs to a church; far too often, someone who confesses the right creeds. Which brings us right back to our question: What, really, is a Christian?

A Derogatory Term

Surprisingly, the word "Christian" appears only three times in the New Testament. The New Testament's use of this term indicates that it was a term of derision, a term placed upon Christ's followers by their critics.

We find the term, for example, in Acts 17:28 on the lips of King Agrippa, an unbeliever: "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'" (NIV). It is also found in 1 Peter 4:16: "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name" (NIV). This text indicates that early believers in Christ suffered persecution as "Christians." In fact, in 1 Peter being a "Christian" seems almost synonymous with suffering (1:6,7; 2:12,19-23; 3:9-17; 4:1,12-19; 5:9).

This thought leads us directly to the third text that uses the term "Christian." It appears in Acts 11:27, where we read that "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (NIV).

This key text tells us two things about the Christians. First, "Christian" was not so much a name that they chose as a name that was applied to them (they "were called Christians"). This is consistent with our observation that it was a term placed upon them by hostile critics. Second, it was a term that was placed on "the disciples." This helps us to establish the meaning of the term: A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, one who clings to the gospel. Furthermore, a Christian is one who is prepared to suffer for the sake of Christ, if necessary. This suffering, as we have seen, is described in detail by Peter. It entails a life patterned after the life and death of Jesus, a life of service to God and others. This is the Scriptural picture of what a Christian is.

Discipleship and Brotherhood/Sisterhood

This is not to imply that the Christian will perform that service perfectly. We read in 1 John that Christians will always struggle with sin and selfishness, and are in constant need of God's grace and forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). Nevertheless, though not morally perfect, the Christian is one who strives to follow Jesus. "This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (2:5,6, NIV).

In other words, a Christian is defined, Scripturally, as one who follows Christ. This is the most logical and trustworthy answer to our question. A Christian is not necessarily someone who has been sprinkled or baptized, who can boast membership in a religious institution, who can claim a certain ancestry or who believes in the best creed. A Christian is simply someone who follows Jesus, who calls upon Jesus Christ as his or her Lord as well as Savior (Rom. 10:9). Similarly, Christianity is an ongoing journey of discipleship to Jesus.

But how is this journey undertaken? Scripture clearly indicates that it is not taken alone, but with the help of spiritual brothers and sisters who can encourage us along the way. We can surmise this from the fact that the word "brother" is the New Testament's most common term for Christians. The church is a spiritual family, dependent upon a heavenly Father and led by an elder brother (Jesus). "But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast" (Heb. 3:6, NIV).

What is a Christian? A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, a spiritual brother or sister to others - one who strives to be like Jesus, regardless of denominational background or creedal preference.

What is the Gospel?

by Mark M. Mattison

The word "gospel" means "good news." Christians lay claim to "good news" for the world today - news of hope, comfort, and the ultimate answer to the problem of humankind's troubled existence.

The Problem

This problem has been experienced by every living person. It has been aptly described by the atheistic versions of existentialist philosophy: There is no God, no meaning; humankind has been brought into the world alone, with a deep and abiding sense of the absurdity of life. This resigned plea is echoed in the Scriptures: "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless'" (Eccl. 1:2, NIV).

Why does evil have to exist? Why can life be so hard? Why is there so much unfairness in the world? Why do children die and suffer? Why is it sometimes so hard to do what is right, and how do we deal with our sense of personal guilt?

Each of us is born into a certain cycle of life and death, into a life defined by death. Our cells decay daily and we grow toward certain death. Death may be staved off for a short while, but its coming is inevitable. And the failing health, broken relationships, and physical hardships make our short time that much more troublesome.

Mortal death, and its accompanying ills, is a certainty. That is the bad news, and that is why we need good news. There is a solution.

The Solution

The solution is found in an historical person: Jesus the Chosen One (the Christ) from Nazareth. The good news is that this special person, God's own Son, has conquered death. We read in the New Testament that he was put to death on a cross by an antagonistic world, but that God counted this tragic event as a perfect sacrifice offered to Him (Isa. 53). Those who identify themselves with this sacrificed Jesus now have hope: The hope of life.

The Apostle Paul wrote that "if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" (Rom. 6:8). God's raising of Jesus from the dead means that He also will raise those who follow Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:11). "Brothers," he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, "we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep (i.e. die), or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him" (1 Thess. 4:13,14, NIV).

This is the beginning and the end of the good news. Jesus the Christ has died for us, and has risen for us. The death and resurrection of Christ is the gospel message. See 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. Because Jesus lives, we can live too if we follow him. Death will be defeated (1 Cor. 15:54,55). We will be raised to eternal life like Jesus.

Eternal life is God's precious gift through Jesus. But there's more. You see, this promise of life eternal profoundly changes the present. If we are convinced that suffering and death are not the final word, we can look at the world in an entirely different way. We can know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. Something has gone horribly wrong in the universe. Evil and sin (offence against God and others) have entered the picture, but they will be eradicated. Evil and death will be defeated.

This hope transforms our current sufferings into redemptive suffering. We now suffer the consequences of evil not as helpless victims, but as victors with a purpose. We share in Jesus' sufferings (Rom. 8:17) and participate in his self-sacrifice (Heb. 13:13-16). This means that our suffering can now absorb the violence and the evil and transform it (Rom. 12:21). When we suffer, it is for a higher cause: God's Truth. When we are wronged we can forgive, because God first forgave us in Jesus Christ: "Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13, NIV). This divine love and forgiveness transforms our lives and helps further to give us meaning. Jesus' example clearly shows that meaning is found in self-sacrifice and service to God and others (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).

So the follower of Christ is promised not only life after death, but a higher quality of life now. This higher quality involves a greater potential to cope with our problems and draw strength from the Healer of our souls. "I have come that they may have life," Jesus said, "and have it to the full" (John 10:10, NIV).

That is God's promise, and that is the good news. If you have not yet responded to that good news and sought God through Jesus Christ, please consider doing so today. Feel free to respond by E-mail with any questions. Jesus has promised to make a difference in your life, both now and in eternity. Turn to him and be saved from sin and death.

A Theological Foundation

Ephesians 4:1-16 as Church Paradigm
by Mark M. Mattison

When the last moments of life drained out of Jesus' tortured body, a new covenant was forever sealed with his blood. After he rose from his tomb in glory and ascended into heaven, he poured out his Spirit upon his followers, and into that covenant a new community was born: The church, the community of the redeemed. We write about this gospel and this community, because one can hardly talk about the one without also talking about the other.

The twofold theme of cross and community is spelled out in several places of the New Testament. In Titus 2:14, for example, the apostle Paul writes of Jesus Christ, "who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify f or himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good" (NIV, emphasis ours). Christ died not only to save us from our sins as individuals, but also to create a holy community in which we as individuals can better resist the harmful ravages of sin. That is why, for Paul, the doctrine of church itself is bound up in the gospel message: "Paul develops his account of the new community in Christ as a fundamental theological theme in his proclamation of the gospel."Reference1

In what way does the church grow out of the cross? What is it about church that protects us from sin, leads us to purity, helps us to become more like Christ in his death and in his life? In short, what is the theology of church? To consider these questions we will turn to Paul's epistle to the Ephesians.

A Starting Point

Why start with Paul, and why Ephesians? After all, Paul isn't the only New Testament writer to consider the topic of church, and Ephesians isn't the only epistle in which he writes about it. We could just as well start with Jesus' words in Matthew 16:13-20, or with Hebrews' teaching about the new covenant. Why Ephesians?

For the present study, Paul is a fine place to start because he wrote more about this topic than anyone else in the New Testament, and because he grappled with the theory of church as much as its reality. Ephesians is ideal because unlike most of his other epistles, like Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Colossians, and a host of others, Paul isn't dealing with immediate church crises. Rather, Ephesians recapitulates in a more measured way what Paul's vision was all about. In a telling chapter entitled "The Quintessence of Paulinism," F. F. Bruce writes that Ephesians"in large measure sums up the leading themes of the Pauline letters, and sets forth the cosmic implications of Paul's ministry as apostle to the Gentiles."Reference2

This brings us to another reason why Ephesians is ideal for our purpose. Other Pauline epistles, like 1 Corinthians, may contain more detailed information about church order and practice, but those writings largely address local churches. The epistle before us was also written to a specific congregation ("To the saints in Ephesus"), but it lacks the local concerns of most of his other epistles. Paul doesn't include greetings to specific people in the Ephesian church at the end of his epistle, and he doesn't address issues of specific concern to the Ephesians. Many scholars believe Ephesians was intended to be a circular letter, carried and read to Ephesus and then to other churches as well. As such its teachings articulate basic, fundamental church issues, rather than grappling with specific issues in light of these basics.

The structure of Ephesians is also helpful. Of the six chapters, the first three outline the basic theory of church, and the last three spell out the practical implications. The primary theme of the first half revolves around "the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (3:5, NIV). The content of the mystery is spelled out in the following verse: "This mystery is that through the gospel Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (v. 6, NIV). These two groups of people, basically Israelites (people of the promise) and non-Israelites (Gentiles), were united into one body when Jesus died on the cross (2:11-18) to be formed into a spiritual household (2:19-22), the church. In our key text, 4:1-16, Paul draws out the implications of Christ's death and resurrection for the overall structure of the church.

Local or Universal?

Before considering our text, however, it will be necessary to reconsider an even more basic question. Is Paul describing individual, local churches, or the "cosmic, universal" church - that is, the collective sum of all churches together? In other words, are the teachings of Ephesians intended as the blueprint of each individual church, or the blueprint of the abstract, collective church? Since it is very hard to conceive and practice these teachings on an abstract level, some have suggested that what Paul writes here applies only to each local congregation as a separate entity. This approach certainly brings Ephesians' goals into our reach.

However, this approach can hardly be sustained. Paul writes here, not of many churches, but of a single church, a single spiritual body whose head is Christ (1:10; 5:23). After describing Christ's resurrection and ascension in 1:20,21, Paul writes that "God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (1:22,23). It is difficult to see how this "church" could be a single congregation. The scope is cosmic; the "chuch" in view is the entire church, the sum of every individual church.

This is not the end of the story, however. As we read through the final chapters of Ephesians we see that Paul does indeed place these principles within our grasp. Certainly his description of the church's activities in 5:18-21 are to be carried out in each congregation's individual assembly. We are to "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (5:19) and "Submit to one another" (5:21). I can sing and submit to the brothers and sisters across the room, but it's a little more difficult to practice this in relation to my brothers and sisters in China. We are led to the conclusion, then, that the ecclesiology of Ephesians reflects both the universal church and the local church. Though Paul writes about the cosmic church as a single, universal entity, every local church represents, acts on behalf of, the universal church. How can this be?

The Unity of the Spirit

The dual tension between the cosmic church and the local church is reflected in Ephesians 4:1-16. The tension is compounded by Paul's apparent inconsistency as he writes about church unity. In the beginning of the passage, he urges us to "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit" (v. 3, NIV), as if this unity is already a reality. On the other hand, by the time he completes the passage he writes about our active ministry "until we all reach unity" (v. 13). How can these two ideas stand together?

Commenting on verse 13, Francis W. Beare points out that:

"The unity is here presented as the goal toward which we strive, whereas in v. 3 it is a possession to be guarded. The two aspects are complementary. That which is given us by God must be made our own by progressive appropriation....What was before described objecively as the unity of the Spirit, in terms of its source and sphere, is now described subjectively, in terms of its content of thought and experience - of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God."Reference3

There is another way to describe this dual reality. As in so many other aspects of Paul's theology, so here there is an "already" and a "not yet." On the one hand, there is only one church in the cosmos (1:22); this is "God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (2:12b,20, NIV). This is the church which Christ has built which will never be overcome (Matt. 16:18). This unity already exists in the spiritual realm. On the other hand, however, this household has not yet been perfected. In many respects it is in a state of disarray; the body has not yet fully matured (vv. 13); we have yet to "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (v. 15, NIV). There is unity in the church, yet there is disunity. Commenting on the disunity in Christendom, Beare writes:

It is a mark of incompleteness, of spiritual immaturity, that we are still disunited; and the remedy is by no means to be found in a reduced Christianity, in a lowest common denominator of agreement; but in advance to the higher levels where the fullness of truth will overcome all our deficiencies.Reference4

These points will prove to be crucial later. For now, let's consider the positive side, the unity which we as a church already possess.

This spiritual unity is communicated forcefully in verses 4 through 6 by an enumeration of seven "ones":

There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (NIV).

This intense description of unity, though unique to Ephesians, nevertheless reflects many of Paul's arguments in earlier letters. In his letters to both the Galatians and the Romans, Paul cites the truth of one God to argue for his doctrine of justification - Gentiles and Jews alike are united on one ground by one and the same God (Rom. 3:29,30; Gal. 3:20). Paul also invokes the truth of one God and one Lord when writing to the Corinthians about the knotty issue of whether it is permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:4-6). In chapter 12, Paul argues from the Corinthians' baptism "by one Spirit into one body" for unity in the church. Just two paragraphs earlier, however, Paul had described "different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit....different kinds of service [ministry], but the same Lord....different kinds of working, but the same God" (vv. 4-6). Here we begin to see a critical aspect of the church's unity: The aspect of diversity.

This same dual aspect is present in Ephesians 4:1-16. Paul takes us from our unity in verses 3 through 6 to the diversity of our giftedness in verses 7 through 11. For unity does not mean uniformity; it means rather complementarity. That is to say, the strength of the church's unity is to be found precisely in the diversity which makes it up - a common theme in Paul's epistles, particularly as he develops his analogy of the human body (cf. Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31). The members of the human body are not identical, nor should they (or could they) be if the body is to function properly.

What is the basis for this diversity? It is not at all founded in sheer disagreement or division, but rather in God's provision through Christ: "But to each of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it" (v. 7, NIV). What is the basis of this distribution of grace? The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ (vv. 8-10). The diverse gifting of the body is rooted in the Christ-event; that is to say, it grows directly out of the cross.

Works of Ministry

In 4:11 Paul begins to specify some of the gifts which Christ has given to the church. Unlike Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, however, Ephesians 4:11 lists gifts not as abstract abilities but as the people to whom the abilities are given. Four gifts are enumerated (not five, as is commonly believed): "It was he who gave some to be [1] apostles, some to be [2] prophets, some to be [3] evangelists, and some to be [4] pastors and teachers [or, "pastors-teachers"]" (v. 11, NIV). The leaders of the church, then, are themselves gifts to the church.

Notice, however, the crucial function which these leaders play in verse 12. Their task is not to minister to "God's people," but "to prepare God's people for works of service [ministry] so that the body of Christ may be built up" (NIV). Preparing God's people for ministry in turn enables the body of Christ to build itself up toward full unity (v. 13). The body's ability to minister, then, is a necessary requirement for the body to achieve maturity and concrete unity. Why? Because, as verse 16 puts it, from Christ "the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (NIV). If not every member supports the others - if each part does not work - then the body is stunted in its growth toward perfect maturity in Christ.


If we are to consider church doctrine and practice in the context of this paradigm, we must ask some very basic but very important questions. How do we conform to God's blueprint of unity in diversity? What is it that equips each member of the body to function? We believe the answer is to be found in the open house church. The local church must be open in two ways: First, open in its relation to other churches, recognizing the cosmic "unity of the Spirit" of the overall church (4:3, NIV); and, second, open to the participation of each of its members, not only allowing them but enabling them to perform their part (4:12,16). The open house church, we believe, best facilitates the type of body life described by Paul. And that's why we want to make a Case for House Church.


1Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco), 1996, p. 32.

2F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1977, reprint 1989, p. 424.

3Francis W. Beare, "The Epistle to the Ephesians," in George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Bible (New York, NY: Abingdon Press), 1953, p. 692.

4Ibid., p. 693.

The Case for House Church

by Mark M. Mattison

If our theology of church is grounded in the cross, our experience of church is grounded in the love engendered by that cross. The Scriptures nowhere bear this out as explicitly as in John's first epistle:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18, NIV).

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10,11, NIV).

This is also a feature of Paul's ethical exhortations (cf. Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11). It is by participating in Christ's sacrificial death that we become part of God's new creation (cf. Rom. 6:1-14; 2 Cor. 5:14-21). When we give of ourselves - when we share our gifts in service (ministry) to one another - that's when we experience the fullness of life that God intended for us.

A Theological Foundation concluded that the open house church best facilitates that mutual ministry. What is it about house church that can unleash the power of Christian fellowship? As indicated in the article What is a House Church?, no one denies that the earliest Christians met in houses. The book of Acts regularly describes Christian assemblies taking place in peoples' homes (Acts 2:42; 5:42; 20:20). Church meetings are recorded in the homes of John's mother (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Aquilla and Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Gaius (Rom. 16:23), Nympha (Col. 4:15), and Philemon (Philem. 2). But why?

Apostolic Command?

Some argue that the basis of house church is apostolic mandate. This is the hermeneutic of the New Testament Restoration Foundation: "In summary, if there is a direct command in the N[ew] T[estament], we must follow it. If there is a definite church pattern, we should follow it."Reference1 What sort of church patterns do they have in mind? Not reading by oil lamps and donning togas, Steve Atkerson explains, but the early Christians' "religious customs, and especially those that went against their culture."Reference2 Eric Svendsen of NTRN writes, "It seems best to say (as we do) that it is the distinctive practices of the early church that are normative for today. This would include those things that have to be seen as church customs and not culturally conditioned practices." Atkerson and Svendsen do not overlook other arguments, such as "the theology behind each practice," but the distinctiveness of early church custom is "the foundation upon which [they] will build [their] hermeneutic." Reference3

However, this approach seems deficient on at least two counts. First, the practice of meeting in homes was not unique to early Christians. Numerous Hellenistic private cults and social associations also met in homes.Reference4 If anything, the Church's evolution from a body of people to a building has its parallel in the Jewish synagogue.Reference5 Initially the word "synagogue" or "gathering" referred to the Jews who met together, then later to the buildings in which they met. The first synagogue buildings were renovated homes which had been dedicated for the purpose. Similarly, the "church" or "called out ones" met originally in the intimate settings of the members' homes. By the third century, houses were being donated as "churches" to accommodate the growing congregations. This can be seen from the excavation of a house-turned-church building at Dura-Europos and in the earliest literary description of a house being consecrated as a "church" (Recognitions, X.71). Considering the not-so-unique character and development of the form of the house church, we would do better to search somewhere besides apostolic precedent.

The second problem with NTRN's approach is that it runs the risk of seeking the form without the substance, of placing the emphasis on the wrong point. A church can meet in the home and not exercise the mutual ministry of the entire body, and a church can meet in a community facility and encourage mutual ministry well. What is it, then, that makes a house church, and why should the house church experience be sought?

The Descriptive Task

If the house church is an expression of a relationship-based Christianity, if it empowers each member to minister, if it reflects the power and the fruit of the Spirit, then perhaps the "house" aspect of house church is more of a descriptor than a definition, more a symptom than a cause. This is another way of saying that "function defines form." House churches meet in homes because that reflects their character as spiritual families.

Of course there is a symbiotic relationship between the form and the function. The one reflects the other. As early Christian congregations grew and monarchial bishops began to emerge, the church began to develop into more of an organization than an organism (the spiritual body of Christ). When it was no longer feasible to fellowship around the dinner table, the eucharist was separated from the Lord's Supper and the latter was discarded. The mass continued but the table-fellowship waned and the church grew more impersonal. The priesthood of all believers fell by the wayside as paid professionals emerged. (See The Rise of the Clergy.) And the institutional form, once established, perpetuated the institution's unhealthy functions. The contemporary form of most institutionalized churches reflects this reality, whereas the contemporary form of most house churches reflects a different one. House churches, comprised as they are of small groups of committed Christians, tend to be more real, more sensitive, better prepared to minister to members' needs and empower the members themselves to ministry.

The open house church, we believe, best facilitates the type of body life described by Paul. This is the basis of our hermeneutic. We believe it is important to come at it from this direction, not only because apostolic direction is lacking in this area, but also because it discourages dogmatism. Some house church proponents are tempted to accuse institutional churches of idolatry because they meet in temples made of stone. Yet God did not shut us out when we were part of the institutional church, did He? Much inspired ministry happens in the institutional church and in every denominational movement. Far be it from us to shut up God in our little ecclesiological box and pontificate about where He may minister and where He may not!

Furthermore, most professional pastors and priests in the churches are really sincere about their ministries. They are good men and women who want to serve the body of Christ. True, some of them are spiritual tyrants; some of them are seeking leadership in the church because they want power. But most are not that way. If anything, our concern should be to demonstrate to those pastors that the house church is a powerful way to unleash the ministry potential of the congregation and relieve the heavy burden of "the clergy." (And we are not just talking about auxiliary "cell groups.") The "burnout" rate of professional clergy is phenomenal in every Christian tradition. And no wonder! When the body is inhibited from exercising its own priesthood - when one person is given the task of leading, preaching, teaching, evangelizing, counseling, and organizing - when one person is expected to do all the ministry in the church - then there is a terrible imbalance of responsibility.

The remaining articles on The Open House Church are designed to address different facets of this house church experience.


1Steve Atkerson, Toward a House Church Theology (Atlanta, Georgia: New Testament Restoration Foundation), 1996, p. 65.


3Eric Svensden, Determining What is Normative (Part 1).

4Vincent Branick, The House Church in the Writings of Paul (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier), 1989, pp. 46-49.

5Ibid., pp. 52-55.

Jesus and the Trinity

by Mark M. Mattison


The figure of Jesus Christ is the most powerful in all of human history. He stands at the center, literally, dividing all of history into two epochs: "Before Christ" and "The Year of Our Lord." Images of Christ have inspired, provoked, comforted, and sustained faithful people for nearly two millennia.

Who is this person named Jesus? A cynic? A sage? A rebel? A healer? A prophet? He is all these things, to be sure. But Christians affirm more of him than this. Jesus is the Son of God who saves us from our sins.

Apart from this basic affirmation, however, there remains considerable diversity in the Church about the exact relationship of Jesus to the heavenly Father. Dialogue about these differing views is complicated by the assertion of many people that theirs is the only valid Christian view. Hence it is sometimes difficult to find an objective description of each position.

The purpose of this article and its sequel is to explain objectively what the different views are and why. The first article lays the historical and theological foundations of the debate, and the second describes the practical and Scriptural grounds. Identifying the historical basis for each position (Part 1) helps us to understand the theological landscape today, and looking at each position's "proof texts" and "difficult texts" (Part 2) helps us to appreciate one another and where we are coming from. So let us begin our study at the beginning with Jesus himself.

Jesus the Christ

Throughout much of his ministry Jesus' true identity, and the meaning of that identity, were pretty much obscured. Jesus referred to himself most often with the cryptic term "Son of man" (cf. John 12:34), a term probably taken from Daniel chapter 7 (cp. Dan. 7:13 with Mark 14:62). The apocalyptic figure "like a son of man" in Daniel's prophecy receives a kingdom, but only after much tribulation (7:21,22; 25-27). The "son of man" is vindicated and glorified through suffering. Similarly, Jesus, the Son of Man, had to suffer and die (Mark 8:31) before returning in glory with the angels (v. 38). Jesus also saw his own ministry in terms of Isaiah's suffering servant, who dies for many (Mark 10:43-45).

More than a prophet or a teacher or an exorcist, Jesus was the chosen Messiah of God, the Christ (John 1:41). Yet the idea of "Messiahship" had strong political overtones, as Acts 17:7 illustrates. Knowing that his mission could be jeopardized and that he could be killed "before his hour," Jesus generally avoided the provocative term "Christ" (cf. Mark 8:29,30). Nevertheless he was acutely aware of his unique relationship to God, whom he addressed intimately as Abba, "Father."

The men and women who gathered around Jesus were profoundly changed by the experience. They found forgiveness, love, meaning, and salvation. When Jesus rose from the dead, they also found the power of the Holy Spirit, given freely by the risen Lord Christ (Acts 2:32,33). This is the uniquely Christian experience shared by all who have chosen to identify themselves with Jesus Christ and to follow him in discipleship. New Testament Christians nurture a deep and abiding sense of solidarity with the risen Jesus, about whose earthly ministry we read in the Gospels.

More than just a man, this Jesus who invites our worship inspires and challenges us. Here is a man who lived a sinless life, intertwined with the very character of God. Naturally his followers have tried to come to grips in many ways with his unique nature. Many different models have been proposed through the years to explain the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Angel Christology

The power of the New Testament's christology lies in the fact that this Jesus who was uniquely "from God" was at the same time fully human, one of us. However, apart from affirming Jesus' divine origins yet unqualified humanity, the New Testament Scriptures tell us little more, leaving room for considerable reflection. Jesus is Christ, Lord, Son of God. What do those things mean for us?

One early response was that Jesus may have been an angel from heaven. After all, the Son of Man is a celestial figure who comes on the clouds of heaven surrounded by angels. The Greek text of Isaiah 9:6 describes the Messiah as "the angel of great counsel." Perhaps Jesus was himself a powerful angel, or even an archangel. Traces of this christology can be found in a first- or second-century Christian book named The Shepherd of Hermas. One passage, Sim. 8.3., virtually identifies Jesus with Michael the archangel.

However, this view did not leave a lasting impression on the church. Later theologians, like Justin (Trypho 59) and Tertullian (De carne Christi 14), were willing to use the term "angel" to describe Jesus in a descriptive way as one sent from God, but not as a way to describe his nature. For most Christians, this is not a sufficiently exalted way to think of Christ. Others do find it satisfying. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, note the close association between Jesus' return and the voice of the archangel in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. On this basis they too identify Jesus with Michael. (For an additional note on Jehovah's Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)

Spirit-flesh Christology

Another way to explain the divinity and humanity of Christ rests on the distinction between "flesh" and "spirit." For example, the earliest surviving Christian sermon, an early second-century book known as 2 Clement, tells us that "we ought so to think of Jesus Christ, as of God, as of the Judge of quick and dead....If Christ the Lord who saved us, being first spirit, then became flesh, and so called us, in like manner also shall we in this flesh receive our reward" (1.1; 9.5).

Similarly, The Shepherd of Hermas describes "the Holy Spirit that spake with you in the form of the Church...for that Spirit is the Son of God" (Sim. 9.1). This view is spelled out in more detail earlier in the book. As will be seen below, parts of this description seem to combine ideas that later would be identified as "binitarian" and "adoptionist."

The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature, God made to dwell in flesh, which He chose. This flesh, accordingly, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was nobly subject to that Spirit, walking religiously and chastely, in no respect defiling the Spirit; and accordingly, after living excellently and purely, and after labouring and co-operating with the Spirit, and having in everything acted vigorously and courageously along with the Holy Spirit, He assumed it as a partner with it. For this conduct of the flesh pleased Him, because it was not defiled on the earth while having the Holy Spirit. He took, therefore, as fellow-councillors His Son and the glorious angels, in order that this flesh, which had been subject to the body without a fault, might have some place of tabernacle, and that it might not appear that the reward [of its servitude had been lost], for the flesh that has been found without spot or defilement, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, [will receive a reward] (Sim. 6.5).

The view that Jesus first existed as a spirit or the Holy Spirit, then "became flesh," was one way to think of his divine origin and his human existence. However, this way of thinking was not very technical and did not satisfy many Christians, who continued to ask questions about how Jesus could be both human and divine.

Word-flesh Christology

By the middle of the second century A.D., Christianity was under attack from all fronts. Christian doctrines had to be restated in Greek language that the educated philosopher or pagan could understand. Christian doctrines were thus, for the first time, systematically treated in a sophisticated way. The writers who accomplished this are called the Apologists.

The Apologists sought to explain the relationship between God and Christ by appealing to the imagery of the Word or Rational Principle, particularly as understood by the Stoic philosophers. With the Stoics, the Apologists distinguished between the immanent Word (logos endiathetos) and the expressed Word (logos prophorikos). With this distinction in mind, they could neatly differentiate between two stages in the existence of the Word: first as residing within God (immanent) and then as a distinct person who had been begotten (not created) by God (expressed). Theophilus of Antioch writes, for example, that "God, then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat him, emitting him along with His own wisdom before all things" (Autol. 2.10) and also of "the Word that always exists, residing within the heart of God. For before anything came into being He had him as a counsellor, being His own mind and thought. But when God wished to make all that He determined on, He begat His Word, uttered, the first-born of all creation, not Himself being emptied of the Word, but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with His Reason (Autol. 2.22. Cf. Also Athenagoras, Supplic. 10).

These concepts afforded the Apologists a more precise way of conceiving Christ's divinity. At this point the unformulated "spirit-flesh Christology" of an earlier stage began to give way to a more developed "Word-flesh" Christology. Justin Martyr seems to have believed that the Word took the place of the rational soul in the man Jesus (2 Apol. 10).

Justin was certainly the most prominent and influential Apologist and played a significant role in the articulation of Christological doctrine.

He too began with the popular Stoic doctrine of the "germinal word." He believed that the Word or Reason is what gave men knowledge of God. Even before the coming of Christ, men had seeds of that Reason within them; therefore, fragments of the truth could be reached by even pagans. The philosopher Socrates, Justin claimed, was a Christian (I Apology 46). He even went so far as to say that the Greek philosophers copied ideas from the books of Moses.

The Word of God was more fully revealed, however, in the person of Jesus. The mediatorial role of the Word was absolutely necessary in Justin's philosophical theology as he believed, like the Middle Platonists of his day, that God was completely transcendent, beyond comprehension.

Justin advanced three arguments for the divine Word as a being distinct from the Father. First, while the Old Testament constantly described God as appearing to men such as Abraham, it was incredible that the "Master and Father of all things should have abandoned all supercelestial affairs and made Himself visible in a minute corner of the world"; therefore, "below the Creator of all things, there is Another Who is, and is called, God and Lord" (Trypho, 60.2, 56.4). Second, texts such as Genesis 1:26 ("Let us make man in our own image") imply that God talked with a fellow being (62:2). Third, Justin compared the Word to the Wisdom figure, an agent of creation who was distinct from God (so it was understood). His description of the Word is well put in the Dialogue with Trypho:

God begat before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos [Word].... For He can be called by all these names, since He ministers to the Father's will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out; and just as we see happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled (ch. 61).

The Apologist Melito significantly contributed to later Christological thought by conceiving the divine and human natures of Christ as operating independently of each other. Writing of Christ's two natures, he was the first to use the philosophical term ousia, "nature" (Frag. 7). This term became more critical later on.

Modalistic Monarchianism

Throughout this period Christian writers were so occupied with thinking about the Son that they did not give much thought to the exact role of the Spirit, or to the interrelationships between the Father, Son, and Spirit. To be sure, references to the three were common (cf. Matt. 28:10; Did. 7; 1 Clem. 46.6; 58.2; Ignatius, Eph. 9.1; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 13,65). Theophilus first used the word "trinity" (or possibly "triad") when he wrote "of the trinity [triados], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom" (Autol. 2.15). However, the first Apologist to wrestle with the idea of a Trinity (not just a triad) was the uninfluential Athenagoras (Supplic. 10).

Many Christians during this time, however, were growing concerned about preserving traditional monotheism, the absolute oneness of God. In the second and third centuries, these Christians were known as Monarchians because they wanted to defend the divine "monarchy" of the one God. Today they are frequently called "modalistic Monarchians" as distinct from "dynamic Monarchians" (cf. below). The modalistic Monarchians denied any division within God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but different "modes" of the one God's operation.

Put differently, God is seen as filling certain roles, just as a man may be an employee, a husband, and a father, all at the same time. God is then one person, indivisible, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Another term for this is "Sabellianism," named after the third-century teacher Sabellius. It is also known as "Patripassianism," a term which implies that the Father suffered on the cross.

Modern-day modalists are found most frequently in Pentecostal groups, like the United Pentecostal Church International and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. They rely heavily on Isaiah 9:6, which calls the Messiah not only "Mighty God" but also "Everlasting Father," and on John 10:30, in which Jesus said "I and the Father are one."

Economic Trinitarianism

The second- and third-century African theologian Tertullian took exception to this widespread doctrine. Like his predecessors, the Apologists, he drew arguments and language from the Bible, Judaism, Stoicism, and other sources, but he introduced anew source for discussing Christology: Latin legal terminology. Tertullian argued that though God is one substance [unitas substantiae], He exists in three distinct persons [personae]. He was also the first author to use the Latin term trinitas (trinity).

Tertullian's book Against Praxeas contains his arguments against the modalistic Monarchians. He wrote, for example, that:

The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned,) who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own dispensation. The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity (Adv. Pra x. 3).

Tertullian was also the first Christian to deal specifically with the relation of the two natures in Christ. How, he asked, could the divine Word "become" flesh (Adv. Prax. 27)? Not, he asserted, by transforming himself into flesh, because then he would no longer be divine. Rather, he put on flesh; thus, the divine "substance" and the human "substance" both constitute the one "person" of Christ.

Like the Apologists, Tertullian posited a two-stage existence in the Word: First as immanent within the Father, then as expressed at the Son's generation:

There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus in Hebrew: "In the beginning God made for Himself a Son." As there is no ground for this, I am led to other arguments derived from God's own dispensation, in which He existed before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the Son. For before all things God was alone - being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him but Himself. Yet even not then was H e alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him; and so all things were from Himself. This Reason is His own Thought (or Consciousness) which the Greeks call logos, by which term we also designate Word or Discourse and therefore it is now usual with our people, owing to the mere simple interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the beginning with God; although it would be more suita ble to regard Reason as the more ancient; because God had not Word from the beginning, but He had Reason even before the beginning; because also Word itself consists of Reason, which it thus proves to have been the prior existence as being its own substan ce.... He became also the Son of God, and was begotten when He proceeded forth from Him (from chs. 5,7).

For Tertullian, the Word became the Son of God when it was begotten of the Father prior to creation. The Son, though God by nature, thus occupies a subordinate role within the divine economy. Similarly, the Holy Spirit occupies a status of third rank:

Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without being on that account separated. Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties. In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy, whilst at the same time guards the state of the Economy (ch. 9).

As can be seen in this description of the divine economy, the Son and the Spirit are not divine in a static way but in a dynamic way; they proceed from the one substance as they have separate tasks to fulfill. They are three in order and distinction, but one in substance.

The Father is not the same as the Son, since they differ one from another in the mode of their being. For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: "My Father is greater than I" [John 14:28]. In the Psalm His inferiority is described as being "a little lower than the angels" [Psa. 8:5]. Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another;...the Son is also distinct from the Father; so that He showed a third degree in the Paraclete, as we believe the second degree is in the Son, by reason of the order observed in the Economy (ch. 9).

Considering this language it is easy to see why this is frequently called "the economic Trinity." Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome, other second- and third-century theologians, also thought about the Trinity in this way.

This changed significantly with the third-century Origen. Although Origen's Trinity was also hierarchical, the Son and the Spirit being subordinate to the Father, Origen conceived of the Trinity as God's eternal mode of being, not as an economy. In sharp contrast to the Apologists and Tertullian, Origen refused to postulate two stages in the existence of the Word. Rather, he held that the Word is eternally being generated by the Father (De princ. 1.2.2).

The idea of subordination within the Trinity has cropped up occasionally in the history of the Church. It surfaced again, for example, among early Arminians in Europe. However, most Christians are not satisfied with assigning the Son and the Spirit subordinate positions, and many evangelical scholars today prefer to talk about economic modes within the Trinity as only one aspect of the Trinity. The Son is described, for example, as voluntarily subordinating himself to the Father in the incarnation.

The economic Trinity of Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus may not have been considered fully adequate by the Trinitarian standards of the fourth century and later, but it was successful in creating an alternative to the popular modalistic Monarchianism. However, modalism was not the only Monarchian position in the early Church.

Dynamic Monarchianism

If the modalistic Monarchians sought to defend the absolute unity of God by denying any distinctions between the three Persons, the dynamic Monarchians sought to do it by heading in the opposite direction. Whereas the modalists described the threePersons as merely different "modes" of the one God, the dynamic Monarchians described the Father as wholly separate. Dynamic Monarchianism is also known as "adoptionism," a term which properly designates the eighth-century Spanish doctrine that Christ's human nature was "adopted" by the divine Word. The term is frequently used in a more broad sense, however, to describe any view of Christ which traces his Sonship to his resurrection, transfiguration, baptism, or birth.

Dynamic Monarchianism is generally traced to a man named Theodotus who taught in Rome late in the second century. The best known dynamic Monarchian is Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch from 260 to 272. For Paul, the Word was not a Person but an attribute of God which indwelt the man Jesus. As the synod of Antioch in 268 put it, Paul was "unwilling to acknowledge that the Son of God has come down from heaven" (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 7.30.11).

Photinus, the bishop of Sirmium in the mid-fourth century, also taught that the Word was not a Person. As Chrysostom put it, Photinus believed "that the Word is an energy, and that it was this energy that dwelt in Him who was of the seed of David, and not a personal substance" (Homily VI). According to Sozomen, Photinus "acknowledged that there was one God Almighty, by whose own word all things were created, but would not admit that the generation and existence of the Son was before all ages; on the contrary, he alleged that Christ derived His existence from Mary" (Eccl. Hist. 4.6).

To support the doctrine that Christ did not preexist his birth, the Photinians cited 1 Corinthians 15:45 to the effect that Christ was preceded by Adam. Scriptural texts which may seem to teach Christ's heavenly origin, the Photinians explained, in reality refer to the heavenly origin of Christ's teaching and power. They also cited Isaiah 44:6 in defense of their strict monotheism: "This is what the LORD says - Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD almighty: I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God" (NIV).

This type of Monarchianism was reflected among the Spanish Bonosians through the seventh century and reappeared in sixteenth-century Poland among the Socinians. This view of Christ, along with the next view (Arianism), is known historically as the Unitarian view as opposed to the Trinitarian view. Modern-day dynamic Monarchians, who sometimes identify themselves as "Biblical Unitarians" (in contrast to liberal Unitarian Universalists), include some Adventist churches like the Church of God General Conference (Morrow, GA), as well as the Christadelphians, the Way International, and various ministries that have grown out of the Way, like Christian Educational Services in Indianapolis, Indiana.


Named for Arius of Alexandria, the Arians taught that the Word was not eternal. Arius did not believe that the Son is God, but an intermediate divine being, both in creation and redemption.

The debate broke out between Arius and his bishop Alexander early in the fourth century and became the subject of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325, where Arius and his views were condemned. Athanasius, a deacon to Alexander, continued to oppose Arius and his views throughout the fourth century. Some of Arius' teachings have been preserved in Athanasius' polemical works. In the following passage, Athanasius cites several statements from Arius' Thalia:

'God was not always a Father;' but 'once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father.' 'The Son was not always;' for, whereas all things were made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works were made, so the Word of God Himself was 'made out of nothing,' and 'once He was not,' and 'He was not before His origination,' but He as others 'had an origin of creation.' 'For God,' he says, 'was alone, and the Word as yet was not, nor the Wisdom. Then, wishing to form us , thereupon He made a certain one, and named Him Word and Wisdom and Son, that He might form us by means of Him'....Moreover he has dared to say, that 'the Word is not the very God;' 'though He is called God, yet He is not very God,' but 'by participation of grace, He, as others, is God only in name.' And, whereas all beings are foreign and different from God in essence, so too is 'the Word alien and unlike in all things to the Father's essence and propriety,' but belongs to things originated and created, and is one of these (C. Ar. I.2.5,6).

For Arius, as for the Middle Platonists and the Apologists before him, the mediatorial activity of the subordinate Word helped to explain how a transcendent God could relate to the material creation. Arius' innovation was to argue that the Word was created ex nihilo, "out of nothing." And though he rejected Origen's view of the eternal generation of the Son, Arius used other parts of Origen's theology, particularly his subordinationism, in articulating his own position. For the Arians, the experiences attributed to Jesus in the Gospels - hunger, emotion, death - could not have been predicated of the Word had he been fully divine.

Arianism has been one of the most common forms of non-Trinitarianism in Church history. Its spread can be traced through Europe and into the Reformation period. It has claimed many distinguished adherents, including John Locke, John Milton, and many Unitarians. Several Adventist groups today, including Jehovah's Witnesses, hold to an Arian view of Christ. (For an additional note on Jehovah's Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)

Athanasian Trinitarianism

The controversy over Arius' views prompted Emperor Constantine to arrange the first Ecumenical Council early in the fourth century. So in 325, over 300 bishops gathered at Nicaea to address the Arian issue and agree upon a creed.

As we have seen, Arius maintained that the Son was of a different (heteros) substance from the Father, but Athanasius maintained that the Son was of the same substance (homoousia). A compromise suggested by Eusebius of Caesarea, that the Son be considered "of similar substance" (homoiosia), was in the end rejected. The council's final creed (which differs from the revised creed of 381) reads as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance (ousias) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousian) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion - all that say so, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

It was on this foundation that Athanasius argued against every form of subordinationism. Later the Cappadocian Fathers extended the homoousia concept to the Holy Spirit, completing the doctrine. From this point on, the dominant viewpoint in the Church by far has been Athanasian Trinitarianism: One God existing in three distinct Persons, co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial.

As spelled out in Athanasius' book The Incarnation of the Word of God, the primary concern of Trinitarian doctrine is soteriological in nature: In order for humankind to be saved, God Himself had to become man and die on the cross. Only then, Athanasius taught, could the gap between God and humankind be bridged. For Trinitarians, the Son is the Word of God who was God (John 1:1) yet became flesh (1:14).


During the first four centuries of the Church's history, Christians speculated, reasoned, argued, fought, and agonized over the doctrine of Christ. Although the Ecumenical Creeds formally recognized Athanasian Trinitarianism, each of the Christological options described above have persisted in the Church. And Christians today study and debate the doctrine of Christ just as zealously as our early counterparts.

Angel Christology, modalistic Monarchianism, economic Trinitarianism, dynamic Monarchianism, Arianism, and Athanasian Trinitarianism all attempt to grapple with the issue of what Jesus Christ means to us. Each position has merit, though some admittedly are more meaningful than others. The important thing to realize is that none of these theologies in and of themselves constitute the totality of Christian faith, as some argue. Rather, they are each attempts to understand Jesus better. As such, each position contains some nugget of truth. The Jesus who said "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6, NIV), who is "the First and the Last" (Rev. 1:17), who sustains "all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:3), cannot ultimately be reduced to a formula or a creed. He is more real than a theology. Whoever wishes to know Jesus must finally meet him at the foot of the cross, where Jesus can be recognized as the righteous Son of God who gives his life for many (Mark 15:39; 10:45). This is all that God requires we understand (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2; 15:1-3). Beyond that, there is room for doctrinal diversity in our interpretations.

But if each of the views described above is acceptable, how are we to understand Paul's warnings about another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4)? The article Heresy and Unity deals with this critical question.

One may also ask how Christians with different theologies can claim equal trust in the same Scriptures, or how we can fellowship and work together when so many Christians have divided and fought over these very issues through the centuries. The answer to this question will be illustrated in the next article, Jesus and the Trinity (2). Also, the article, The Basis for Christian Fellowship addresses these questions.

Appendix: Cults?

It is difficult to discuss the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses without also asking whether their organization, the Watchtower, is a religious cult as most Christians maintain. Many evangelical Protestants, like the late Walter Martin, define a "cult" as any group that holds to a different theology. Frequently a version of the Trinity is the watershed issue. This definition, however, is subjective and prone to abuse. It is easy to define ourselves as being "correct" and everyone who disagrees as being "wrong."

I propose a much healthier approach. Rather than focus on creeds and labels, we would do far better to consider more practical spiritual matters. Is any given church legalistic, authoritarian, divisive? That's the issue. Such churches and groups are capable of inflicting deep psychological damage. In the case of the Watchtower, my problem is not so much with their theology as with their authoritarianism. Any member who begins to develop an opinion contrary to the organization is excluded and ignored. Good Christian Jehovah's Witnesses are denied their relationships with family and friends. If a Jehovah's Witness' life is invested in the organization - if everything and everyone she knows and holds dear is bound up with the group - then exclusion can be a very terrible experience indeed. This bondage is a far cry from the liberating truth represented by Jesus, who loves us unconditionally whether we get our theology right or not.

Partial Bibliography

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, reprint 1978.

Grillmeier, A. Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451). 2nd ed. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978.

Lampe, G.W.H. "Christian Theology in the Patristic Period." A History of Christian Doctrine. Ed. By H. Cunliffe-Jones. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

Citation of 2 Clement from J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 1891, reprint 1984. All other citations are from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), and Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.).

N.T. Wright’s Treatment of the Theology of Justification

by Todd McClure

N.T. Wright is one of the prominent voices of what has been labeled the “New Perspective on Paul,” a currently debated subject in the Church today. The crux of the “New Perspective” is a redefining of Paul’s writings on justification/righteousness.

I want to start out by summarizing Wright’s view of Paul’s doctrine of justification which is broken into three main categories, and then unpack them by going into the background of Paul’s worldview and the context that brings to the language he uses in his letters, then we will look at a couple of the main references used in support of this view.

Wright’s Summarization of Paul’s Doctrine of Justification

Covenant. Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong.
Law court. Justification functions like the verdict in the law court: by acquitting someone, it confers on that person the status ‘righteous.’ This is the forensic dimension of the future covenantal vindication.
Eschatology. This declaration, this verdict, is ultimately to be made at the end of history. Through Jesus, however, God has done in the middle of history what He had been expected to do – and, indeed, will still do – at the end; so that the declaration, the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation. The events of the last days were anticipated when Jesus died on the cross, as the representative Messiah of Israel, and rose again. The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.
Therefore – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven.1

The Jewish Context of Justification

For some time, specifically since the Reformation period, many parallels have been made between Paul’s argument against the ‘justification by works’ of Judaism and the reformers’ argument against the ‘justification by works’ of the Catholic Church. Wright argues that if by justification you mean salvation, you are making an argument that Paul did not make. Saul of Tarsus as a Pharisee and theologian was a revolutionary and understood the Torah as a story in search of an ending; and he saw his own task as bringing that ending about.

The story ran like this. Israel had been called by God to be His covenant people; they would be His means for providing light into a darkened world, undoing the sin of Adam and its effects. But Israel had become sinful and therefore had been sent into exile away from the Promised Land. Although Israel had returned geographically from her exile, the real exile condition was not yet finished for the promises had not yet been fulfilled. The Temple had not yet been rebuilt, the Messiah had not yet come, the pagans had not yet been reduced to submission and Israel was still deeply compromised and sinful. “There are three cardinal points of Jewish theology in this period: monotheism, election and eschatology. There is one God, the one true God of all the world; Israel is the people of this one true God; and there is one future for all the world, a future not very far away now, in which the true God will reveal himself, defeat evil, and rescue his people.”2

The keeping of the Torah was the means by which Saul and his contemporaries could hasten the time of the fulfillment of the prophecies. If fulfillment came and Israel was not following Torah, they would be condemned along with the pagans. In other words, the following of the law was not a means of earning salvation; it was a participation in covenant fulfillment. The purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was not ultimately to choose a people for Himself, but to undo the sin of Adam and through Israel address and save the entire world. Wright now asks, “What would ‘justification’ mean in this context?” Many agree that it is a ‘forensic’ or ‘judicial’ term; Wright calls it a ‘law-court’ term and places it in its Jewish context as the “greatest lawsuit of all”.

In the Jewish context, this courtroom scene is to take place on the great day when YHWH will judge all the nations and rescue His people Israel. “‘Justification’ thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant (Israel is God’s people) on the one hand and the law court on the other (God’s final judgment will be like a great law-court scene with Israel winning the case).”3 Wright’s third category of Paul’s doctrine, eschatology, also has roots in the context of 2nd Temple Judaism. Eschatology is the technical term used to denote in Judaism the expectation of a climatic conclusion to the story of which they were living. This is not ‘end-of-the-world’ language; it is the belief that the climatic moment in history was coming when everything would be sorted out and made right. So, by putting justification and eschatology together, “the Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last.”4 A major aspect of the Jewish eschatological hope is the resurrection of the saints, so when Saul of Tarsus met the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth on the road to Damascus his eschatological hopes and his current reality came face to face. “God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought He was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans.”5

It is very important to have this Jewish context of ‘justification’ and also to continue on with the realization that Paul did not move on to another, new and improved religion. He remained loyal to the God of Abraham; he did not abandon Judaism for something else, he had found the fulfillment of their hopes in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

What is the Gospel?

Ask someone in the church today what the gospel is, and you are likely to get an answer straight off an evangelistic tract that would be handed out on a street corner; a step-by-step recipe of what one must do to gain salvation. Realize that you are a sinner, recognize that you cannot reach God by your own power, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus as your savior by praying this and that prayer. Wright does not want to argue against this use of the word ‘gospel,’ he just wants us to realize that Paul’s use of the word euangelion (‘gospel’ or ‘good news’) did not have this meaning. Some argue whether Paul’s meaning comes from the Hebrew context or the Hellenistic context, but the meanings are not so much different that a distinction really needs to be argued about. The Greek meaning refers to the announcement of a great victory, or a royal birth, or a ruler taking the throne. The Hebrew understanding comes from a series of passages in the book of Isaiah such as:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7)!6

The gospel for Paul is the proclamation of Jesus, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his kingship and his lordship; these in direct opposition to the authority of the pagan rulers of Rome. Paul sees his new vocation as a herald of the king to the pagan world!

The Righteousness of God

The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, seven of which are in the letter to the Romans. Wright feels that the meaning of this phrase has been greatly obscured in various translations. Wright states that it is pretty obvious to readers of the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures that ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one meaning: God’s own faithfulness to His promises, to the covenant (Isaiah 40-55; Daniel 9).7 “God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate to his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. And at the heart of that picture in Isaiah there stands, of course, the strange figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished.”8

Earlier the forensic, law-court language of ‘justification’ was discussed and it applies to ‘righteousness’ as well, for the terms are somewhat interchangeable. They come from the same Greek root diakou.

In the Jewish law court there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. All cases take the form of one party versus the other party, with the judge deciding the issue.

‘Righteousness’ in this context means something different when applied to the judge from what it means when applied to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Applied to the judge, it means that the judge must try the case according to the law; that he must be impartial; that he must punish sin as it deserves; and that he must support and uphold those who are defenseless and who have no one but him to plead their cause. For the judge to be ‘righteous,’ to have and practice ‘righteousness’ in this forensic setting, is therefore a complex matter to do with the way he handles the case.

For the plaintiff and the defendant, however, to be ‘righteous’ has none of these connotations. They, after all, are not trying the case. For the plaintiff or the defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.9

God, the judge, is ‘righteous’ by judging faithfully and justly, and the defendant is given the status of ‘righteous’ by the judge’s decision. They are not the same ‘righteousness,’ so though righteousness is given it is not imputed.

Justification/Righteousness in Paul’s Letters

Having established the context and language that Paul would be using in his writings, now we can take a look at a few of the pivotal passages in which the righteousness/justification of God is written about by Paul. Because of the parameters of this article, we can by no means go into every reference in Paul’s letters, so we will only look at two of the more pivotal sections.

Philippians 3:2-11

“…and count them rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 8b-9).

The context of the letter is Paul addressing a congregation in the pagan Roman colony of Philippi. Paul is encouraging his readers to follow him in finding joy in Jesus Christ, to follow his example; for as he was prepared to abandon all his privileges to gain Christ, they should be prepared to do the same. Wright restates the passage this way: “He is saying, in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ.”10

Romans 3:21-26

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 21-24).

The church in Rome was both Jewish and Gentile, and in the section leading up to this passage Paul has made it plain that not only is the Gentile world out of touch with its creator and therefore under God’s judgment, but also the Jews, and despite having been given the covenant through which God had intended to redeem the world, they remained in exile, living in sin. So Israel had joined the Gentile world in the defendant’s chair in the law-court of God. Through the faithfulness of Jesus, God is Himself righteous, for He has fulfilled His covenant; He has dealt with sin and vindicated the helpless: “He is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’”

My Critique of the ‘New Perspective’

For quite awhile now, especially as I have wrestled with the passages in Romans concerning election and predestination, I have struggled with the way those passages didn’t fit into the context of the letter. The passages were about the unity of the body, so why was Paul giving the breakdown of how salvation works for individuals when he was writing to an audience of believers? So, I must admit that as I have read Wright’s and others’ material on Pauline theology I see this interpretation as fitting contextually where the traditional interpretations haven’t.

As I have read others’ critiques of the “New Perspective,’ I haven’t been impressed because most of them have obviously approached the subject with the predisposed idea of defending their previous beliefs or the Reformed tradition in which they grew up in or under which they studied. As I read these critiques, they make statements that are misinformed, criticizing incorrectly what Wright has written, arguing against a piece of the theology and not looking at the whole.

Thomas Schreiner narrows Wright’s view down to defining God’s righteousness as purely ‘his faithfulness to his covenant,’ and proceeds to argue from the Isaiah passages that God’s righteousness must involve God’s salvation on behalf of His people.11 Wright has clearly stated that salvation is what the covenant was about from the start.

I wish that I had time to dig into the background material that Wright has published establishing the Jewish context in the 2nd Temple period. Though it sounds solid, right now I just have to take his word for it. I have not come close to reading everything that Wright has published on this subject, but I am interested in how his interpretation of the meaning of justification/righteousness in the Pauline letters affects his theology of election which Paul references in the same letters, therefore having the same context of kingdom membership. The context of these letters in dealing with justification is not individualistic, though they come down to the individual, for individuals, not ethnic groups, place their faith in Jesus.

If the doctrine of election and predestination is to be seen in the context of covenant, then this leads to a nationalistic view of predestination rather than an individualistic view. Galatians 3:8 (“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham”), along with Romans chapter nine, do lead us in the direction that Paul is using the election of God as part of his argument for the righteousness of God in His faithfulness to His covenant to redeem all of creation to Himself through His Son. If the context of covenant moves one’s theology in this direction, I could see this being an argument for Barth’s Christocentric and Unlimited Atonement; that Christ died for all people and the effects of Christ’s death is universal to all people.

I think it is important in the current debate concerning the ‘New Perspective’ that we not throw the baby out with the bathwater while trying to protect certain elements of our theology; the position needs to be looked at as a whole body of work and not an attack on the Reformed tradition.


1 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 131

2 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 31

3 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 33

4 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 34

5 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 36

6 Holy Bible, New American Standard Version

7 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

8 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

9 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 97-98

10 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 124

11 Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory In Christ, p.198


Barnett, Paul, Bishop of North Sydney. “Tom Wright and The New Perspective,” Anglican, December 2000

Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 1998

Hamilton, Edward L. “The Righteousness” of Romans and Galatians, and the Gospel of Christ,” The Paul Page, October 2002

Hamilton, Edward L. “What Is the New Perspective on Paul?” The Paul Page, March 2002

Lusk, Rich. “The PCA and the New Perspective on Paul,” Theologia, 2003

Mattison, Mark M. “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul,” The Paul Page, January 2004

McNeill, John T. ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Battles, Lewis, trans. Westminster John Knox Press, London MCMLX

Piper, John. The Justification of God, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1993

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Intervarsity Press, Downer Grove, Illinois 2001

Seifrid, Mark A. Christ, our Righteousness, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois 2000

Tanner, Kathryn. “Justification and Justice in a Theology of Grace,” Theology Today, Vol. 55, No. 4 January 1999

Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1991

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and The People of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992

Wright, N.T. “The Shape of Justification,” The Paul Page, April 2001

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 1997

Confronting Legalism or Exclusivism?

Reconsidering Key Pauline Passages

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

According to the new perspective on Paul, the early Judaizing controversy which framed Paul's arguments regarding justification was not a controversy about whether individuals are capable of "earning" salvation before a righteous God. Rather, it was a controversy about whether Gentiles should be accepted into the new covenant people of God as Gentiles. The controversy involved practices like table-fellowship rather than moralism. Paul's opponents were not legalists striving to merit the favor of God but rival teachers creating division along ethnic lines.

If this line of argument is correct, it follows that the doctrine of justification is not simply an individual, existential matter, but a very concrete social matter as well. It means that the primary concern addressed in epistles like Galatians and Romans is not about divine sovereignty and human inability, but about social barriers in the church. This case, however, needs to be argued carefully in order to gain a serious hearing. It is the purpose of this article to look more closely at key Pauline texts with this issue in mind.1

Preliminary Considerations: Judaism and the Law

Such a reconsideration would be difficult without the groundbreaking work of E.P. Sanders, who in his widely influential 1977 book2 argued persuasively that the Lutheran-Weberian interpretation of Judaism as a religion of legalism was a gross distortion. Many scholars have tried to accommodate some of the corrective work of Sanders yet preserve the traditional Protestant emphasis on individual justification as well. Among them is Frank Thielman, who in his book Paul & The Law3 posits general agreement between Paul and first-century Judaism on the principle that justification is not by the works of the law. The difference, according to Thielman, is eschatological. Drawing largely on Josephus and the apocrypha, Thielman argues that most Jews agreed they had broken the law and were under a curse (foreign domination). They looked to a time when God would change their hearts so that they could obey the law. According to Paul, that time had already come with the death of Christ.4

For Thielman, it appears that this curse functions in part as the historical Jewish counterpart to the Protestant doctrine of total depravity. However, Jewish writers could certainly believe in widespread national disobedience without implying that every individual person in Israel was wicked and disobedient. Commenting on Ps. Sol. 17:19,205 and the use of Psalm 14 (cf. 14:3, "there is no one who does good, no, not one") in Romans 3, Stanley K. Stowers writes:

The psalmist's statements are just as bold and exceptionless as Paul's, but interpreters have learned to provide historical contexts for such statements in 1 Enoch, the Qumran writings, and the Psalms of Solomon, while in Paul interpreters read them as the most literal universal philosophical propositions about human nature. The writer of the Psalms of Solomon did not think that every single inhabitant of Jerusalem or the land of Israel was totally evil but only that the representatives of the nation had been co-opted and that unfaithfulness had reached unheralded proportions.6

In fact Psalm 14 itself distinguishes between the wicked (v. 4) and the righteous (v. 5), a common and very real distinction in the Old Testament and Jewish literature. Turning to Stowers again:

Paul has an unambiguous belief in the last judgment of every individual, including faithful believers in Christ. He also believes in degrees of sin, reward, and punishment. These beliefs about individual judgment and degrees of reward have a close relation to the distinction between the lawless (ho anomos) person and the righteous person (ho dikaios). Speaking of the concept of the wicked in the Synoptic gospels, E. P. Sanders writes, "It refers to those who sinned willfully and heinously and who did not repent." These conceptions of the wicked and the righteous have been erased by interpretations which have Paul claiming that it is necessary to keep the law perfectly in order to be considered righteous. Paul neither argues nor suggests that doctrine. All of this flies in the face of the dominant Western understanding of Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone.7

This critical point deserves to be elaborated. Paul's argument against the Judaizers could hardly have been that the law cannot be obeyed, therefore righteousness comes through faith.8 According to Paul's own testimony, he had kept the law blamelessly as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:6). Similarly, Luke writes that Zechariah and Elizabeth "were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (1:6). This is fully in accord with the teaching of the law itself. Moses assured the Israelites: "Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach" (Deut. 30:11, NIV). Far from being crushed by the impossible demands of an unfulfillable law, the righteous person's "delight is in the law of the LORD" (Psa. 1:2).

This does not mean that the blameless person literally never sins. The perfectionistic standard that is read back into the law simply does not fit the context. The pious author of Psalm 119 may have confessed sin (119:176), but from the remainder of the psalm it is clear that the overall pattern of the author's life was one of faithfulness and blameless law-keeping and that the psalmist was a righteous person.

There is another fatal flaw in the tradition of the all-or-nothing perfectionistic law: The sacrificial system of Israel. George Howard writes:

Paul, who by his own admission knew the law well (Gal. 1:14), knew that the cultic aspect of the law implied the imperfection of man. The Levitical system of sacrifices provided a means whereby man, when he sinned, could obtain forgiveness. In fact observance of the law to a large degree involved the offering of sacrifices for the atonement of sins. To keep the law was, among other things, to find cultic forgiveness for breaking the law. For Paul to have argued that the law demanded absolute obedience and that one legal infraction brought with it unpardonable doom, would have been for him to deny what all the world knew, namely, that the Jerusalem temple stood as a monument to the belief that Yahweh was a forgiving God who pardoned his people when they sinned.9

Similarly, James D.G. Dunn writes:

Nor did God require a sinless perfection from his people or require that his forgiveness had to be earned. The whole sacrificial system, including the sin-offering and the Day of Atonement, was provided by God as a means of conveying forgiveness to the penitent.10

Far from being a religion of legalistic perfectionism, then, first-century Judaism was a religion of election and grace.

Paul and the Law

To see how this perspective plays out in relation to specific Pauline texts, it will be helpful first to consider the different ways in which Paul writes about the law. Sometimes his statements are negative, sometimes positive. Making sense out of these references and preserving a consistent Pauline view of the law has been the sticking point for interpreters. For example, Paul writes that it is "doers of the law who will be justified" (Rom. 2:13). But he also writes that "'no human being will be justified' deeds prescribed by the law" (Rom. 3:20). Now which is it? If obeying the law is the same thing as practicing the "works" or "deeds of the law," then Paul is contradicting himself. Hence the importance of scrutinizing Paul's vocabulary and seeking to appreciate the nuances of his thought.

First, Paul seems to write about the law in terms of ethnic distinction. Since the law was given to Israel, it follows that Gentiles are those who "do not possess the law" (Rom. 2:14) and live "apart from the law" (Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 9:21). In each of these verses one's status with regard to the law is not relevant; in other words, one is not disadvantaged before God if he or she is not a Jew.

Second, Paul writes very negatively about one's condition "under the law" (Rom. 2:12; 3:19; 6:14; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:23; 4:4; 5:21; 5:18). In this state one is relying on "the works of the law," another critical term that is used exclusively in a negative way (Rom. 3:21,27,28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2,5,10; cp. Rom. 9:32; Gal. 3:12). Similarly, the phrases "through the law" (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 2:21) and "from the law" (Gal. 3:12) are negative. And we hardly need to add "the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2), "the law weakened by the flesh" (Rom. 8:3).

Third, however, is the very positive category occupied by the "doers of the law" (Rom. 2:13), those who "do what the law requires" (Rom. 2:14), who "obey" or "practice the law" (Rom. 2:25), "keep the requirements of the law" (Rom. 2:26; contrast Gal. 6:13), "keep the law" (Rom. 2:27), "establish" or "uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31), who "fulfill," have "fulfilled," or are "fulfilling the law" (Rom. 13:8,10; Gal. 5:14; 6:2). This is the "law of faith" (Rom. 3:27), the "law of the spirit of life" (Rom. 8:2), "Christ's law" (1 Cor. 9:21).

So, then, in Paul's own language, there are those who keep the law and there are those who don't. Ironically, those "under the law" performing "the works of the law" are the ones who don't keep the law (Rom. 2:23,27; Gal. 3:10; 6:13)!

Can we be more specific? Can we move beyond the mere vocabulary words, fleshing out the distinctions between these contrasting ways of approaching the law?11 I believe that we can, and that our effort hinges on a proper understanding of the specific phrase "the works of the law." This phrase is important not only because it is one of Paul's key phrases but also because of its central position in the very passages in which Paul articulates the doctrine of justification by faith. It is to these passages that we now turn.

Galatians 1-3

Like the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, Paul's doctrine of justification by faith did not evolve in a systematic theological vacuum but in a very real historical setting in response to a very real crisis within the church. This setting is clearly articulated in Paul's first letter enunciating his understanding of justification, his letter to the Galatians. The fact that Paul would interrupt his opening greeting with a defense of his apostleship (Gal. 1:1) is telling. The gospel which he had preached among the Galatian churches was being undermined by "another gospel" (1:6-9). The brief autobiographical account which follows includes a rather difficult articulation of Paul's relationship with the Jerusalem church and its leading apostles.

Paul's narrative of the conflicts and treaty leading up to the crisis in Antioch revolves around circumcision (2:1-10) and food laws (2:12a). Insistence on observing these distinctively Jewish practices was contrary to "the truth of the gospel" (2:14a). Already we can see something of the dynamic of Paul's gospel and what it was that threatened it. It was not the relationship between the divine sovereignty and the human will which formed the core of the gospel, but the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Paul's defense of the gospel directed toward Peter and "the circumcision faction" was not, "If you, a sinner, cannot earn your salvation before God, how can you compel others to earn their salvation?" His defense was rather, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew [cp. v. 12a], how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews [lit., "Judaize"]?"

Paul's use of the term "Gentile sinners" in verse 15 buttresses our observation. In the various factions of second-Temple Judaism, to be a "sinner" was to be excluded from the covenant people; hence by definition Gentiles were "sinners" (cp. Matt. 5:47//Luke 6:33; Matt. 18:17; etc.), i.e., not covenant people. They were outside of the law which marked the boundary between the "haves" and the "have nots."

In this light it is also telling that the gospel which had been divinely revealed to Paul on the Damascus road was at the same time a commissioning to go to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16; cp. Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17). From beginning to end, Paul's proclamation hinged on the destruction of the barrier between Jew and Gentile which restricted Gentile access to God and God's kingdom. Hence compelling Gentiles to "Judaize" was tantamount to erecting the sociological barrier once again, undermining the gospel.

It is this context in which Paul uses the key term "the works of the law" for the very first time. Though naturally the term in theory would include all efforts to comply with the law, it is evident that in practice it boiled down to a few test-cases of covenant loyalty, i.e., circumcision (2:1-10) and food laws (2:11-14), "badges," Dunn would say, of covenantal nomism. The Judaizing position criticized in 2:16, then, is that covenantal nomism plus faith in (or "the faith of") Christ equals justification. Paul contends on the contrary that these two principles are mutually exclusive and that the latter rules out the former. It is in this way that the integrity of the gospel is preserved. To erect the barrier once again (v. 18) is to nullify the grace of God (v. 21).

This theme extends into chapter 3, where the New International Version of the Bible badly obscures Paul's meaning. "I would like to learn just one thing from you," Paul asks in the NIV: "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?...Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard" (vv. 2,3,5)? The contrast in the NIV is between observing the law/exerting human effort on the one hand and simply believing on the other. This introduces terrible confusion into the letter. In 5:7, Paul writes: "You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?" If Paul had meant to disparage human effort, he chose the least appropriate metaphor to do it; running a footrace invokes an image of strenuous effort.

The contrast in Galatians 3:1-5 is not between exerting human effort and simply believing, but between covenantal nomism ("the works of the law") and the appropriation of the gospel. The Galatians had not received the Spirit (i.e., entered the Christian community) "by doing the works of the law" (3:2b). Yet having started "with the Spirit," some were "ending with the flesh" (not "trying to attain [their] goal by human effort"). The reference is likely to circumcision. The alternative is not "simply believing": "There is no doubt as to the meaning of Gl. 3:2: eV ergwn nomou to pneuma elabete h eV akohV pistewV (cf. v. 5). The true reading is not pistiV akohV but akoh pistewV, and in correspondence with erga nomou this does not mean 'believing hearing' but the 'preaching of faith'; i.e., proclamation which has faith as its content and goal."12

When Paul brings Abraham into the discussion (vv. 6-9) he is not merely invoking an illustration. "It is to be doubted," Howard writes, "that Paul uses Abraham only as an example. His emphasis on the sons of Abraham (vss. 7,29) and the blessing of Abraham (v. 14) suggests that Abraham, rather than being merely an example of justification by faith, is part of a salvific faith-process which works for the salvation of Gentiles....The idea is that the Gentiles are blessed not simply like Abraham but because of Abraham."13 The contrast here is not between "faith" and "works" but between promise and law, as the emphasis on the inclusion of the Gentiles makes clear (vv. 7-9; cf. vv. 14-22,29).

In 3:10-14 Paul explains the nature of the barrier between Jew and Gentile and how that barrier was removed by Christ. The citation of Deuteronomy 27:26 in verse 10 is usually interpreted to mean that no one can obey the law. The stage is then set for the traditional Reformed soteriology to fall into place. No one can obey the law (read "earn salvation"); everyone therefore falls under God's curse; Jesus takes that curse upon himself in his penal substitutionary atonement (3:13). But as we have seen, the law was not a means to earn salvation and the law could be obeyed. Furthermore, Paul instructs the Galatians to obey the law (5:14; 6:2). It is highly doubtful then that he is saying that the law cannot be obeyed.

If we are right about the meaning of the key phrase "the works of the law," then its presence in 3:10 affords us a more consistent understanding of the passage. "All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse" because (unlike those who have discounted sociological barriers like circumcision, 5:6, and fulfill the law in love, 5:14; 6:2) they are not obeying the law. How can it be that relying on "the works of the law" like circumcision is contrary to the law? After all, the law prescribes circumcision and instructs the Israelites to observe such works (cf. the citation of Lev. 18:5 in 3:12). The answer is that the law must give way to the promise based on faith, as the citation of Habakkuk 2:4 in 3:11 demonstrates. That is how the Gentiles may enter the covenant as Gentiles.

The tearing down of this barrier between Jew and Gentile happened on the cross. That is the point of verse 13, which affirms that Christ "redeemed us from the curse of the law." The "us" includes not only Jews but Gentiles, who because of the law were outsiders. Howard writes:

Paul's whole discussion of the law in this section of Galatians aims at showing that the law suppressed the Gentiles and kept them from entering the kingdom of God in an uncircumcised and non-law-abiding state. Consequently, when Paul says that 'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,' and immediately adds 'in order that the blessing of Abraham might come unto the Gentiles' (vss. 13-14), his thought is that Christ, for the sake of universal unity, redeemed all men, including Gentiles, from the discriminating suppression of the law. When uncircumcised Gentiles were admitted into the kingdom of God on equal terms with the Jews, universal unity was achieved and the tyranny of the law came to an end.14

In the remainder of the chapter Paul continues to emphasize the contrast between law and promise to the effect that "in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (v. 26). "There is no longer Jew or Greek" (v. 28) since all in Christ "are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (v. 29). The stage is now set for Paul to warn the Galatians not to revert to the old status (4:1-5:12) but instead to fulfill the obligations laid upon them by the freedom of the Spirit (5:13-6:10). In his concluding remarks he returns once again to the issue of circumcision (cf. vv. 13,15), demonstrating that from beginning to end the issue at hand is the question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, not the existential question of "faith or works." This question apparently never entered Paul's mind.

Romans 1-3

Paul's articulation of his gospel in his letter to the Romans is entirely consistent with what we have seen so far. Paul presents the gospel as "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (1:16, emphasis mine). This is followed by another citation of Habakkuk 2:4. Paul's primary concern here is no different than the concern we saw in Galatians 3; the issue at hand is still the Jew/Gentile question.

In 1:18-32 Paul describes the degeneration of the Gentiles with typically Jewish polemics against idolatry (1:20-23) and sexual immorality (1:24-27). We must be careful, however, not to invoke the doctrine of total depravity too quickly. That Paul's condemnation of Gentile immorality in 1:18-32 does not imply the moral degeneracy of every individual Gentile is apparent from his very positive assessment of obedient Gentiles when he promises impartial divine judgment in chapter 2. Paul did not intend to say that every Gentile is an adulterer and a sexual offender. This fact is obscured by traditional interpretations. Stowers writes: "Commentators are so clear about their destination at 3:9 ("all are sinners in need of Christ") that they tend to fly over chapter 2 quickly and at a high altitude, seeing only the message of 3:9 being worked out."15 A closer, more critical exegesis of 2:6-16 and 2:25-29, Stowers writes, reveals the serious difficulties of traditional interpretations.

Some scholars, like Sanders, have seen the difficulties. But by failing to revamp sufficiently the traditional Protestant reading, Sanders attributes the inconsistencies to Paul himself. "Paul's case for universal sinfulness," he writes, "as it is stated in Rom. 1:18-2:29, is not convincing; it is internally inconsistent and it rests on gross exaggeration."16 But can we fairly blame Paul for the incongruities of the received interpretation?

That Paul regarded all people in need of Christ is obvious. Paul was also very aware of the fact that everyone sins. It must be asked, however, whether those facts are the point of Romans 1-3 and whether the traditional reading of Paul's argument can hold water. It seems to me that a renewed emphasis on the historical Jew/Gentile issue in the context of the first-century church makes far better sense of the passage. Stowers' observations in this regard are invaluable. He writes, for instance:

The first two chapters of Romans speak of Jews and gentiles as peoples and not in abstract-individual-universal terms. Salvation does not concern a universal question about human nature. These chapters do not treat the philosophical question of the human condition or the root sin. Instead of an individual-universal perspective of the human essence, Paul's perspective is collective and historical....Rom. 1:18-2:16 is not about sin in general or the human condition but about the gentile situation in light of God's impartial judging of both Jews and non-Jews.17

Far from establishing a universal doctrine of total depravity, the text before us actually assumes a very positive view of human nature per se. God's impartial judging means that "those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality" will be granted eternal life (2:7) and that "the doers of the law...will be justified" (2:13), even if they are Gentiles "who do not possess the law" (2:14). These verses, together with 2:25-29, are fatal to the traditional reading. These law-keeping Gentiles cannot be swept away as merely theoretical. If they were, then Paul's polemic would be undermined.

What is Paul's argument, then, and what is his point? To answer this question we should consider the true identity of Paul's hypothetical dialogue partner who is explicitly named in 2:17: "But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God...." At first blush it may be tempting to regard this dialogue partner as the archetypical Jew, but this identification should not be made so quickly. This particular Jew, after all, is a hypocrite who does not obey the law (2:21-23; cp. Gal. 6:13). Furthermore, this hypothetical Jew is believed to be "instructed in the law" (v. 18) and "a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children" (vv. 19,20a). Yet "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles" because of this teacher (v. 24). This person undoubtably represents Paul's rival missionaries to the Gentiles, the Judaizers.

Nor should we regard pride in personal achievement to be the Judaizer's principal sin. The Judaizer's downfall is not boasting, but boasting in the law (2:23). The boasting itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Paul writes that "we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God" (5:2). The contrast, again, is not between proud Jew and humble Christian, but between the Christian whose pride is the law and the Christian whose pride is Christ apart from the law. That the issue at hand was not human self-sufficiency versus sovereign grace but the status of the Gentile as the ethnic-religious other is clear from the fact that Paul immediately brings the discussion back to the subject of circumcision (2:25-29).

It is in this context also that we must read 3:9-20. As "both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (3:9, NASV), seeking refuge in the ethnic-oriented "works of the law" (3:20) will be of no avail. Again this does not negate 2:6-16,25-29 or imply the total depravity of the human race. As we have seen earlier, "doing good" does not imply achieving moral perfection or never sinning at all. When Romans 2:15 depicts the consciences of righteous Gentiles bearing witness to their behavior, their conflicting thoughts accuse them of some things but excuse them from others. The highly figurative apocalyptic language of the string of proof-texts in 3:10b-18 does not negate this fact either; not every human person, for instance, is literally a murderer (cp. 3:15).

When Paul writes in 3:19 that "whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law," he is bringing out the aspect of the law as accuser and revealer of sin, a theme he will elaborate later. Of course we can hardly emphasize enough that this is only one of the functions of the law, certainly not the sole function. But the argument suffices to yank the rug out from under the Judaizers' reliance on the works of the law.

Paul next turns to the real solution, the righteousness disclosed apart from the law in Christ, "for there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:22b,23). Years of exposure to these words in Sunday School and evangelistic sermons have conditioned us to think of them strictly in relation to individuals (no one person is any better than another), but that is not Paul's point. The assumed words here are "Jew and Gentile." "There is no distinction [between Jew and Gentile] since all have sinned...." Again Paul is thinking in terms of ethnic peoples. All of this is driven home by 3:27,28, which affirms that it is the law of faith, not the law of works, by which a person is justified. The reason Paul gives for this fact is not that no one is capable of living up to God's expectations but that God is God of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews (v. 29).18 Hence God "will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith" (v. 30). In so doing the law is not overthrown but upheld (v. 31). This is perhaps most strongly what suggests that "the law" and "the works of the law" are two different things in Paul's mind. The law is upheld when the works of the law are removed as a barrier to covenant membership in the people of God. As N.T. Wright puts it, commenting on Romans 3:27:

This 'boasting' which is excluded is not the boasting of the successful moralist; it is the racial boast of the Jew, as in 2:17-24. If this is not so, 3:29 ('Or is God the God of Jews only?) is a non sequitur. Paul has no thought in this passage of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case his contemporaries were not guilty. He is here, as in Galatians and Philippians, declaring that there is no road into covenant membership on the grounds of Jewish racial privilege.19

Ephesians 2:8,9; 2 Timothy 1:9

Significantly, wherever justification is expounded in the Pauline corpus the Judaizing issue lies close at hand. This fact obtains even in the disputed Pauline epistles. Ephesians 2:8,9 is unquestionably one of the most popular proof-texts to demonstrate that legalism was a concern in the early church. Whereas it is true that the text emphasizes the divine source of salvation ("not of yourselves," NASV), it should be asked whether verse 9 ("not the result of works, so that no one may boast" in said works) is really about meritorious deeds -- the individual quest to pull oneself up by one's own moral bootstraps -- or whether the Judaizing issue isn't still in view.

In light of what we have seen so far, it is highly likely that this text is indeed framed in the context of the Judaizing controversy. The "works" by which the people of God are not saved in verse 9 is shorthand for "the works of the law." As such these works are not the "good works" to which God's people have been called in verse 10. That the Jew/Gentile issue is still in view is clear from what follows in 2:11-3:13. "So then," states verse 11, explicitly connecting the thought with verses 8-10, "remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called 'the uncircumcision' by those who are called 'the circumcision'...." The problem of "works" is not the problem of human achievement or divine sovereignty but the problem of discrimination. Gentiles have now been included in God's people because Christ:

Has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances [i.e., the law of works], that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (vv. 14-16).

The principle of atonement and justification here is identical to that of Galatians 3:10-14. It is dominated throughout not by the question of human achievement but by the Jew/Gentile issue. The "works" of verse 9 are not "good works" but the "commandments and ordinances" of verse 15. The abolition of this barrier of works lies at the heart of the doctrine of justification by faith and (as in Galatians 1) is closely bound up with Paul's conversion and commissioning as an apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Eph. 3:1-13). Even 2 Timothy 1:9, which declares that people are saved "not according to our works," is followed by an assertion of Paul's commissioning as an apostle (v. 11), and false teachers "desiring to be teachers of the law" (1 Tim. 1:7; cp. Rom. 2:17-20) are not far on the horizon (and may we not compare 1 Tim. 1:8-11 to Rom. 2:25-3:20?). From Galatians to the Pastoral Epistles, one end of the Pauline spectrum to the other, the doctrine of justification is tightly bound up with and clearly defined by the fact of Gentile inclusion into God's covenant people.


As the preceding observations have demonstrated, Paul's overriding concern in the debate over justification was not the anachronistic (Protestant) concern of moralism but the status of the Gentile as the ethnic-religious other within the early Christian communities. This conclusion is driven in part by the recognition that Paul's polemic against the Judaizers was part of an inter-Christian debate, not a polemic against Judaism as a religion of legalism. Significantly, however, a careful consideration of these key Pauline texts in light of this new perspective can be as theologically compelling as it is historically enlightening. In a fragmenting age of rugged individualism and ethnocentric nationalism, a renewed emphasis on the relational dimension of justification promises both to energize the Christian gospel and to buttress ecumenical dialogue. Careful exegesis, far from undermining the principal thrust of the new perspective, highlights its strengths.


1 The broad outline of my reading of Galatians 1-3 below is based on the work of James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990, particularly pp. 183-241, and the broad outline of my reading of Romans 1-3 is based on the work of Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles (New Haven & London: Yale University Press), 1994, passim. Though my interpretation is based on the works of other new perspective scholars, however, it should be noted that what follows is not a straight presentation of any one.

2 Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortres Press).

3 Frank Thielman, Paul & The Law (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 1994.

4 Ibid., pp. 48-68. It may be pointed out that this is not so very different from the thesis of one of the foremost advocates of the new perspective, N.T. Wright, who argues that "the Jewish doctrines of salvation and justification are reflected across early Christianity," adding: "The major underlying difference between the Christian and the Jewish views at this point was that the early Christians believed that the verdict had already been announced in the death and resurrection of Jesus" (The New Testament and the People of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press], 1992, p. 458, emphasis his). Wright argues extensively that first-century Jews believed that the exile had not yet ended (Ibid., particularly pp. 268ff), but Wright, unlike Thielman, argues that salvation was believed to have primary reference to the condition of the nation, not the condition of the individual (cf. Ibid., pp. 273, 300,337,338).

5 "For there was no one among them who practiced righteousness or justice: From their leader to the commonest of the people, (they were) in every kind of sin: The king was a criminal and the judge disobedient; (and) the people sinners." James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.), 1985, Vol. 2, p. 666.

6 Stowers, Romans, p. 186.

7 Ibid., p. 140.

8 Cp. E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1983, pp. 22,23.

9 Paul: Crisis in Galatia (Cambridge University Press), 1979, second edition 1990, p. 53. In a footnote Howard anticipates the objection that James 2:10 teaches that the law is unfulfillable: "James 2:10 spurs the people on to greater vigilance in keeping the law by arguing that one is guilty of the whole law if he stumbles in one point. But James does not say, nor does he imply, that one sin is the end of the line with no possible means of forgiveness" (p. 93).

10 James D.G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1993, p. 15.

11 It may be argued that the difference is eschatological: The Spirit enables Christians to fulfill the law. True as that may be to one strand of Paul's thinking, it does not explain all of the references cited above.

12 G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), vol. 1, p.221.

13 Paul, pp. 54,55.

14 Ibid., p. 61.

15 Romans, p. 126.

16 Sanders, Paul, p. 125. Sanders' opinion is that Paul took 1:18-2:29 from Diaspora Judaism and worked it into his letter because some aspects of it support 3:9.

17 Stowers, Romans, pp. 107,108.

18 Paul invokes the doctrine of monotheism to argue for his doctrine of justification in Galatians also (3:19,20).

19 What St. Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1997, p. 129.

This article was written by Mark M. Mattison