Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenant Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology – A Review

Cara, Robert J. Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology. REDS. Ross-shire: Mentor, 2017.

This polemical book is the most recent volume from Christian Focus’ Mentor imprint (target audience is “Bible College and seminary students, pastors, and other serious readers”), and it is the second work in their Reformed Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies series (R.E.D.S.). The series editor are J.V. Fesko & Matthew Barrett. Note: J.V. Fesko’s Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, published in 2016, was the first volume in the R.E.D.S. series.

From the “Preface” of Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul (17).

In a real sense, I have been thinking about E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul since January 1990. Through the years I have lectured many times, wrote book reviews, etc. on this topic. I am pleased now to have my mature thoughts about a portion of that topic–works righteousness in Second Temple Judaism–come together in this book.

From Chapter 5: “Summary” (197).

I remember the first time I saw Sanders’ book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I was a Ph.D. student in January 1990. The book was being carried by another Ph.D. student. I had heard of the book, but I knew little about it. At that point, the student had only gotten through a few chapters of Sanders’ book and was giving me his understanding of Sanders. While the other student was in the midst of explaining to me Sanders’ covenantal-nomism thesis, it dawned on both of us that if what Sanders says is true, then major aspects of the traditional Protestant view of justification might be wrong. This made a significant impact on me–as can be seen by my remembrance of this conversation. Of course, Sanders and others had already made that connection, I was just not up-to-speed on it. My concern then and now has not changed. In a real sense, this book is the culmination of that initial conversation.

From the “Appendix” (207).

While in my Ph.D. program I had several courses related to Second Temple Judaism. Although I had gone to an excellent seminary for my M.Div. degree, I was unprepared for my first course. My Hebrew and Aramaic language skills were fine, but my general knowledge was, shall we say, lacking. Who was Tobit again? Was Tobit a ‘he’ or a ‘she’? There are how many Maccabees books! How many extant theological documents do we have from the Pharisees?–Oh, none. This first-course shock sent me on a long joyous journey that continues today of reading Second Temple Jewish and Rabbinic Literature.

Cracking the Foundation of the NPP, apparently, is the author’s mature thoughts after a 27 year long journey of reading Second Temple Jewish and Rabbinic Literature. And the chief aim of this book is to refute E.P. Sanders’ thesis that the general soteriology of Second Temple Judaism was not works righteousness, but rather a religion of grace. Sanders’ calls this soteriology of grace from Second Temple Judaism ‘covenantal nomism.’

Sanders’ thesis has become the historical backdrop and foundation for the contemporary movement in NT scholarship called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NPP). The NPP is not monolithic, but what all NPP scholarship has in common is varying levels of dependence upon Sanders’ scholarship. Thus, NPP re-interprets the writings of St. Paul, particularly the doctrine of justification, over and against the traditional Protestant interpretation.

Robert J. Cara believes that if Sanders’ thesis is demonstrated to be false that the NPP will crumble. If the NPP does not have a foundation with structural integrity, then the NPP superstructure must collapse.

Here is Robert J. Clara’s stated formal thesis (28).

[T]his book will focus on presenting and critiquing the foundational arguments related to Second Temple Judaism and Sanders’ covenantal nomism. . . . the central burden of this book is to show that works righteousness views did exist in the first-century A.D. To be clear: My view is not that every document or Jewish group was works righteousness oriented. I am simply trying to prove that some were. Once given this, then there is no need to deny that Paul’s opponents had these views since this seems to be a straightforward way to take Paul’s statements. In sum, if works righteousness views did exist in the first century A.D., then the core belief of NPP crumbles and the logic for re-interpretation of Paul disappears.

The Second Temple existed from 520 B.C. to its destruction in 70 A.D. The term ‘Second Temple Judaism’ typically refers to the various forms of Jewish piety and practices from that era, including the varied and corresponding Jewish literature. Sanders believes that covenant nomism was a characteristic of the various forms of Judaism from that era. Robert J. Cara does not believe that Sanders’ thesis holds up to the evidence in the Second Temple Judaism Literature. Therefore, Cara carries out a historical and literary analysis of the primary sources (Chapter 3), in order to demonstrate that works righteousness in various forms is evident in the literature of Second Temple Judaism.

Cara states that “this is a polemical book” but his goal is to “[argue] in a truth-in-love manner (Eph. 4:15)” (17). I believe he has succeeded in doing so. This book is not a Sanders’ thesis/NPP rebuttal via Reformed slogans. Robert J. Cara has written a book in an accessible manner with the utmost clarity: Clara outlines the book and provides a quick overview and history of Sanders’ and NPP scholarship (Chapter 1); Cara defines his terms, e.g., works righteousness, and explains the framework of Reformed Covenant Theology (Chapter 2); Cara spends about a quarter of the book doing literary analysis of Jewish literature in order to demonstrate works righteousness soteriology therein (Chapter 3); Cara then spends the next quarter of the book doing quite a bit of exegetical heavy lifting in Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7, and 2 Timothy 1:8-10 (Chapter 4); and, lastly, Cara summarizes Chapters 1-4, concluding with his additional thoughts (Chapter 5).

Yes, I see the denial of any works righteousness in Second Temple Judaism as historically wrong, and worse, the implications of this skew or deny important issues for the modern Church.

Cara mentions four issues, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are.

Almost a third of the book is comprised of an Appendix–“Overview of Judaism’s Literary Sources.” If your general knowledge of Second Temple Judaism is lacking, then the price of the book is well worth this Appendix alone.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, this appendix is designed to aid those not well aquainted [sic] with non-canonical ancient Jewish literature and current scholarship’s general views of it. One reason to improve our grasp of first-century A.D. Judaism is to better understand and interact with the NPP arguments. The NPP authors are making honest arguments. A truth-in-love (Eph. 4:15) response requires that at least some of the rebuttals to the NPP address the Judaistic-background portion of their arguments. This is especially useful because the NPP perceives that the Judaistic-background portion of their argument is very important (207-208).

Whether the reader is pro-NPP, anti-NPP, or indifferent-to-NPP, this is an important book to be reckoned with because the NPP is no longer a minority or idiosyncratic view, in fact, it is actually the opposite–there is widespread acceptance and support for the NPP. Therefore, Cara wants evangelicals to be aware of both NPP arguments and the relationship between E.P. Sanders’ scholarship and NPP NT scholarship.

Currently, at the evangelical pastor/church level, pastors, no matter their stand on NPP, will be reading commentaries that interact with NPP; hence, they need to understand the general arguments. Also, pastors still need to be able to interact with other pastors and parishoners [sic] who ask questions about NPP. . . . A major reason I wrote this book is to clarify NPP issues for evangelicals especially as they relate to Sanders’ covenantal nomism. Of course, I hope that all readers conclude that Sanders and the resulting NPP view of justification is misguided (34).


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