Something that is helpful in the discussion concerning the New Perspective on Paul is some definitions and distinctions concerning Jewish legalism. You get the impression reading N.T. Wright and other NP advocates that Paul, because of his place in the theological milieu of Second Temple Judaism, would not be battling Jewish proto-Pelagianism for the Jews viewed the giving of Torah as a gift of grace. They kept the Law not as a means of salvation but a means of staying in the covenant of grace. N.T. Wright and others seem to be right to point out that Judaism had a concept of grace built in their theological system. But, that does not mean that the presence of such grace created a gracious people who obeyed the Law out of grace. Furthermore, Pelagianism (doing things to merit favor or acceptance with God) is a form of legalism but so is semi-Pelagianism (doing things as a response to grace or through grace to merit favor or acceptance with God). In his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. John Piper includes some very helpful quotes from personal and written correspondence between some thoughtful readers of the New Perspective. I thought they were so good that I wanted to include them here on the blog. Enjoy.
New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner makes the helpful distinction between formal statements implying grace over against the way people may truly live: “Legalism may also exist in practice, even if grace is trumpeted in theory. Religionists may easily proclaim the primacy of grace and actually live as if the determining factor was human effort. The history of the Christian church amply demonstrates that a theology of grace does not preclude legalism in practice. It would be surprising if Judaism did not suffer from the same problem. Legalism threatens even those who hold to a theology of grace since pride and self-boasting are deeply rooted in human nature. . . .” “Theology . . . is not measured only by formal statements but also by what it stresses. Any theology that claims to stress God’s grace but rarely mentions it and that elaborates human responsibility in detail inevitably becomes legalistic in practice, if not theory.”
Matt Permon, the Former Director of Strategy for Desiring God Ministries, writes: “When I read E. P. Sanders, what stood out to me was that legalism was in almost every quote that he gave from Judaism in his attempt to prove that it was not legalistic. It became clear to me that Sanders doesn’t seem to know what legalism is. In fact, it appears that this is the case with most of the New Perspective. They appear to be thinking only in terms of hard legalism, which is the notion that either your works bribe God or that they are self-produced by our own effort. But, as you flesh it out, hard legalism does not exhaust the definition of legalism. There is also soft legalism, which is the belief that your God-empowered obedience justifies you before God, or that you ‘become saved’ by faith but ‘remain saved’ by God-produced works (which includes the idea that final justification is based on obedience). In fact, Sanders acknowledged that the first-century Jews believed that they got into the covenant by grace but ‘stayed in’ by works. But he failed to realize that this is legalism. The New Perspective—and those taking their initial cues from it—typically conflate legalism and Pelagianism, seeming to think that because they (or the first-century Jews) are not Pelagians, they therefore cannot be legalists. It needs to be made crystal-clear that these are distinct issues. You can utterly reject Pelagianism and yet be a legalist. You can be a Calvinist legalist, an Augustinian legalist, a believing-in-grace-empowered-works legalist. . . . This is perhaps the central issue of the debate and is probably a big part of the reason that they are going wrong. The essence of legalism is the belief that our right standing with God is based on, comes by means of, or is sustained by our works—regardless of whether those works are self-produced (hard legalism) or whether they are completely produced by God’s grace in us (soft legalism). . . . Related to this, some have seemed to think that the Reformation was primarily about Pelagianism, as though Luther’s and Calvin’s issue with Rome was over self-produced works. But the Reformation was first about legalism, whether the works we do justify us, regardless of whether they are grace-empowered or not. The distinction between Pelagianism and legalism is so crucial. . . . Even though they overlap, Pelagianism and legalism are distinct issues.”
Stephen Westerholm, in partial dependence on Heikki Räisänen, draws our attention to a crucial distinction that we saw once already (footnote 14 above), namely, the difference between hard and soft legalism:
[Räisänen] notes that, while legalism involves the view that ‘salvation consists of the observance of precepts,’ boasting and self-righteousness may, but do not always, accompany this notion. When they do not, we may speak of a ‘soft’ or ‘torah-centric’ form of legalism; when they do, we have a ‘hard’ or ‘anthropocentric’ legalism. To this we may add that ‘soft’ legalists, who try to obey God’s law because they believe God has commanded them to do so, may not believe that they are thereby ‘earning’ their salvation, still less that they are ‘establishing a claim’ on God based on their own ‘merit.’ Surely love for God, or even fear of his judgment, are adequate motives for obedience to his commands. No such explanation as hypocrisy, self-seeking, merit-mongering, and outright rebellion against God need be invoked to explain why religious people would attempt to do what they believe God has commanded them. To think otherwise is to insist, for example, that Deut. 30:16 commands it.
Unfortunately, in most definitions of legalism by New Testament scholars, the possibility of ‘soft’ legalism is not even considered. The ‘legalist,’ for Cranfield, is the one who tries to use the law ‘as a means to the establishment of a claim upon God, and so to the defense of his self-centeredness and the assertion of a measure of independence over against God. He imagines that he can put God under an obligation to himself, that he will be able so adequately to fulfill the law’s demands that he will earn for himself a righteous status before God.’ For Moule, legalism is ‘the intention to claim God’s favour by establishing one’s own rightness.’ For Hübner, those who see righteousness as based on works define their existence in terms of their own activities, leave God out of consideration, and, in effect, ‘see themselves as their own creator.’ For [Daniel] Fuller, legalism ‘presumes that the Lord, who is not ‘served by human hands, as though he needed anything’ (Acts 17:25), can nevertheless be bribed and obligated to bestow blessing by the way men distinguish themselves.’
Such definitions would be innocent enough if they were accompanied by an awareness that ‘legalists’ of this kind represent only some of those who interpreted Deut. 30:16 as saying that obedience to God’s law was the way to life. But all too frequently there is no such awareness. The alternative to faith is not (as it is in Paul) simply ‘works,’ whether they are ‘good or bad’—a statement which embraces both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ legalism—but rather the sinful, self-seeking, merit-claiming works of the (necessarily ‘hard’) legalist. Whereas Paul can contrast faith in Christ with ‘the works of the law,’ and mean by the latter no more than the deeds commanded by the law, the very notion of ‘works’ is so inextricably linked in the minds of some scholars with self-righteousness and pride that (as we have seen) the ‘works of the law’ can only be conceived as sinful. It is not surprising that for such scholars, the ‘law’ whose works are viewed as sinful cannot be seen as divine, but inevitably becomes the legalistically distorted form of God’s law which prevailed (we are confidently told) among the Jews of Paul’s day. But—it must be emphasized—in Paul’s argument it is human deeds of any kind which cannot justify, not simply deeds done ‘in a spirit of legalism.’ Paul’s very point is lost to view when his statements excluding the law and its works from justification are applied only to the law’s perversion. (Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988], 132–134)