Judgment and Justification
Chris Vanlandingham’s Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul is a vital contribution to the current attempts at characterizing Second Temple Judaism at the time of Paul. Vanlandingham’s primary target is E.P. Sanders who in attempting to assess Judaism during the Second Temple era coined the term “covenantal nomism” in his influential piecePaul & Palestinian Judaism. Thus, in order to illustrate the deficiency of Sanders’ portraiture of Judaism as essentially covenantal-election whereby Israel’s works are a way of maintaining or “staying in the covenant” in which final judgment will be ultimately determined by “grace” as traditionally understood, Vandlandingham assesses the primary sources to illustrate that it was just the opposite, that final judgment will be according to one’s deeds where God the impartial judge rewards or punishes accordingly. Therefore, Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” may not be an adequate description.
It is at this point that I suspected the rehashed arguments from much of the Reformed camp: that Paul thus sought to correct this “works-righteousness” mentality with his doctrine of justification by faith, but to my astonishment, Vanlandingham rather goes on to assess Paul’s descriptions of the eschatological judgment to prove that Paul is perfectly at home within his Jewish milieu. And to validate this assertion, Vanlandingham treats Paul’s depictions of the final judgment and details the notable absence of justification and the constant presence of the believer’s moral condition which continually serves as the basis of one’s eternal destiny. Therefore, when Paul denounces justification by “works of the law”, he is not dealing with final judgment where one’s works aren’t the basis for one’s verdict, but rather Israel’s “boast” in their national election or the false-favored status that the Jews believe themselves to possess; in this area, Vanlandingham is re-confirming much of what NPP has suspected.
It is after Vanlandingham’s thoroughly convincing treatment of Paul’s final judgment passages as in fact works-based that he sets out to re-examine Paul’s doctrine of justification. To this end he performs a thorough analysis of the dike- (Greek root for our English words “justification”, “righteousness”, etc.) word usage both in the Septuagint and in Second-Temple literature to demonstrate that the popular forensic nuance is rare and that it usually denotes a moral-ethical state as it seems to do in Paul as well. Thus, when God “justifies the ungodly” it is better rendered “makes righteous the ungodly” i.e. cleansed, forgiven, and not least empowered to live the moral life worthy of positive judgment by God at the end of the age (Rom 2.6-16). Therefore, for Paul, God in Christ was really making people righteous, delivering them from the power of sin and setting them free to live lives of blamelessness that would be recognized on the Day of the Lord Jesus.
I couldn’t disagree with Vanlandingham’s handling of the texts in question; my only concern is the nature of the texts that have survived from within the Second-Temple period, namely, that they are obviously sectarian and that it is the nature of sectarian groups to affirm themselves as the morally righteous while those outside the group remain wicked. One need only sift through the Dead Sea Scrolls to prove my point. Therefore, this makes it extremely difficult to qualify with any clarity how exactly the common Jew of the day may have viewed things. Of course, this doesn’t change Paul’s view which seems congruous to that of the contemporary literature, only that he disagrees about how one becomes righteous; not with the Teacher of Righteousness and the Community Rule such as at Qumran, but with the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus who truly makes Jew and Gentiles righteous by his Spirit. And I concur!
Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul is a necessary contribution to the on-going study of Paul that all sides of the debate will have to come to terms. On one hand, the Reformed orientated will have to seriously re-consider Paul’s consistent works-based portrayal of the final judgment and how this relates to his opposition to “works of the law” without doing injustice to either. While on the other, the NPP (of which I am sympathetic) guild may have to re-evaluate just how to characterize Second Temple Judaism along with some corner’s continued retention of primarily a forensic meaning for justification. Finally, the challenge to all sides to take up, with all seriousness, the responsibility of living a life worthy of eternal life as empowered by the Spirit knowing our works done in the body will serve as its unyielding basis.