Justification Reconsidered: An Interview with Stephen Westerholm

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We recently spoke with the author, Dr. Stephen Westerholm, about his book.

Can you give a brief overview of your projects in regards to justification in Paul?

Dr. Stephen Westerholm, McMaster University

In the early days of the discussion around Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, I wrote Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters. There I summarized and interacted with the work of a number of scholars who had anticipated significant points in Sanders’ book as well as his own contribution.

My Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics was initially intended as a revised version of the earlier book, though it ended up being more than double its length. Extended treatment was given to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, as well as to a number of scholars who had contributed to the debate after the writing of Israel’s Law; and my own position—that, in its essence, the traditional understanding of “justification” is true to Paul, though post-Sanders Pauline scholarship has rightly drawn attention to the situation in which Paul first formulated the “doctrine” and to its social implications—is developed at much greater length.

In Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, I attempted to state the case in a more accessible way—and with some updating. Those have been my main projects, though I have written a number of articles as well on various aspects of the debate.

One of your goals for writing was to make your work more accessible. However, for those less familiar with the New Perspective on Paul, why is this topic so important? How does the NPP directly affect the church member?

The social implications of what Paul wrote about justification have been duly emphasized by scholars of the New Perspective; but, to my mind, they tend to misconstrue (in various ways) what Paul means by “justification” itself. Since the topic is central in several of Paul’s letters, its correct understanding is important for a grasp of Paul’s gospel. Since, historically, different views of what Paul wrote about justification have divided churches, we cannot understand current divisions in Christendom without grappling with the issue.

On an individual level, the “peace with God” that Paul speaks of as a consequence of being “justified” (Romans 5:1) is, for many, a crucial part of their Christian experience as well as of their Christian faith. The question whether traditional understandings of justification are based on modern Western distortions of Paul’s message is thus hardly of trivial—or merely academic—significance.

Additionally, you write, “Those who do what they ought to do are righteous” in the “ordinary” and Pauline “sense of the word.” Do you have difficulty explaining the concept of what we “ought to do” to a postmodern society?

I attempted, very briefly, to evoke a sense for the notion in the final chapter of Justification Reconsidered. I attempted to do the same thing at greater length in chapter 3 of Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans. The rhetoric of our day may prefer to speak of personal values rather than moral obligations. Not far beneath the surface, however, a sense for the latter remains very much in place: witness the editorial pages of our newspapers, which give daily expression to moral indignation. With the opening section of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I believe that “right and wrong” continue to serve “as a clue to the meaning of the universe.”

In your conclusion, you mention “social implications.” Can you elaborate on what some of these might be?

In telling the Galatian (non-Jewish) believers that they ought not to be circumcised, Paul insisted that circumcision was part of a divine economy where obedience to the demands of God’s law served as the path to life in God’s favor, but where all who fail to yield such obedience are condemned. Placing all human beings in the latter category, Paul claims that the same path to life in God’s favor—through faith in Jesus Christ—has now been made available to all.

Hence, “Christian scholars today should feel free to find, in what Paul says about justification, a reason for denying that race, class, or gender can provide a basis for claiming, or for denying others a claim to, a right standing before God: Paul’s point, after all, is that human beings of all stripes are culpable before God, and God declares righteous any who believe” (Justification Reconsidered, 73–74).

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Justification Reconsidered is available for free, this month only! You can also get an alternative view with The Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell for only 99 cents.

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