A Review of Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1

Contrary to the claims of some NPP proponents, who shrug this volume off without any significant interaction with its arguments (Wright, Justification, 74), the various essays provide a devastating salvo against Sanders’ schema of Covenantal Nomism. They challenge its usefulness as a category to describe 1st-century Judaism and to use as historical background for reading Paul and the New Testament.

This is not to say that Sander’s model is shown be completely false. On the contrary, many of the contributors find some agreement between this model and their texts. The problem is that there is a lot of disagreement. Many texts do not fit this model, and when texts do fit, the category of Covenantal Nomism is simply too broad to be useful, either for historical study or exegesis.

Despite claims to the contrary, Carson aptly summarizes the contributions within and comes to the same conclusion I found while reading the essays; “deploying this one neat formula across literature so diverse engenders an assumption that there is more uniformity in the literature than there is…. Covenantal Nomism as a category is not really an alternative to merit theology, and therefore it is no real response to it…. In other words, does it not appear that Covenantal Nomism has become a rubric so embracing that it includes within its capacious soul huge tracts of work-righteousness or merit theology?”(544-545)

Two highlights were Seifrid’s essay on justification language in the Hebrew Scriptures and early Judaism (415-442) and Deines’ essay on Pharisaism and Sander’s “Common Judaism” (443-504). Even here we see that the contributors don’t all agree. Yet, even with their disagreements, the conclusion of Carson is accurate. Seifrid disagrees with Bockmuehl (398-399, ft. 60, and 435-438) over the translation of a Hebrew word in 1QS 11:2-3, however Seifrid’s argument is overall more detailed and more persuasive.

The conclusions reached on righteousness language prove particularly damaging to the NPP perspective of N.T. Wright. The evidence of at least some individualism in the texts militates against Wright’s absolute corporatizing of, at the very least, early Judaism and the implications he draws from this. Seifrid’s work on righteousness language is damaging to Wright’s already weak arguments for reading the language as “covenant-faithfulness” and “covenant status.” Lastly, Carson addresses Wright’s misconstrual of the belief in a continued exile (546-547, ft. 158) and the overall thesis of the book undermines Wright’s reconstruction of a Jewish background for reading Paul.

The arguments of this volume, in all their varied conclusions, show that 1st-Century Jewish belief cannot be categorized under one shared pattern of religion, that of Covenantal Nomism. Instead, it is a conglomerate of various similar yet different practices and beliefs that display a commonalty we may identify as “variegated nomism.” These papers cannot simply be dismissed because they come from an Old Perspective provenance.


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