A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? A Response to Carl Trueman

by James D.G. Dunn

The following response to Carl Trueman is part of a larger project, currently underway, to respond to critics of the new perspective on Paul. Having finished his recent work on Jesus, Dunn is turning his attention again to the new perspective which he first helped to articulate over twenty years ago.

I must confess to complete astonishment at the tone and content of Carl Trueman’s lecture, ‘A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian’ (Tyndale Fellowship, Cambridge, 2000). He bases his attack on my own essay, ‘The Justice of God: A Renewed Perspective on Justification by Faith’, Journal of Theological Studies 43 (1992) 1-22, though at no point does he attempt to summarise the article, and at no point does he quote from it. Since one of his major criticisms of that article is that I do not quote from Martin Luther directly, it is surprising that Dr Trueman should leave himself so exposed to such an obvious tu quoque.

I freely admit that I am no expert on Luther and that my direct familiarity with his writings is limited
— his commentaries on Romans and Galatians, John Dillenberger’s Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings (Anchor Books; New York: Doubleday, 1961), and a little volume on his Table Talkedited by Henry Morley. Otherwise my knowledge consists of quotations and references in biographies, histories and theological studies referring to Luther in greater or less detail. In ‘The Justice of God’ essay I draw only on Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951), which greatly influenced me in my student days, and M. Saperstein, Moments of Crisis in Jewish-Christian Relations (London: SCM, 1989), who quotes directly from Luther’s Works. So had I been intent on critiquing Luther directly I would certainly be open to criticism. In fact, however, I criticise Luther directly at only one point — in regard to his notorious tract On the Jews and their Lies. And Dr Trueman’s critique of my essay does not extend to that section of my essay. Presumably he too did not wish to defend the great reformer at that point.

This is where my puzzlement at Dr Trueman’s attack begins. He accuses me, as a proponent of ‘the so-called New Perspective on Paul’, of fundamentally repudiating the Protestant and entire Western tradition on justification, of in effect calling for ‘a fundamental redefinition of what Protestantism is’, of rejecting Lutheran teaching on justification, and of claiming ‘that the whole of Christian tradition is basically wrongheaded over salvation, [and] that the Reformers were more guilty than most in the perversion of the gospel’. I simply have to say that I recognize none of this. I am totally astonished by such statements and wonder whether Dr Trueman has been reading what I wrote. It is all the more puzzling since I took pains to emphasise at the beginning of the ‘Justice of God’ essay1 that the central affirmation of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is and remains absolutely fundamental for Christian faith — a point reasserted once again in the conclusion.2 That Dr Trueman could so blithely ignore these explicit affirmations is a painful example of blinkered reading.

As these same sections, and indeed the whole essay clearly attests, my concern was (and still is) that the doctrine of justification as rediscovered by Luther and as traditionally expounded within Protestantism has neglected important aspects particularly of Paul’s original formulation in the context of his mission. It is true that in this connection I speak of ‘a significant misunderstanding of Paul’ in relation to justification by faith (referring to these neglected aspects). But I immediately repeat that the charge is not directed against what has always been recognized as ‘the Protestant doctrine of justification’ (p. 2). On the contrary, it is directed particularly against the corollary that Paul affirmed his doctrine against a degenerate Jewish legalism (pp. 5-8). It observes that Paul’s teaching on justification is an expression of his mission to the Gentiles, that it embodies a protest against national or ethnic presumption and disdain for the (other) nations (pp. 8-12); the gospel is ‘for all who believe, Jew first but also Gentile’ (Rom. 1.16). It argues that an integral aspect of ‘works of the law’ was the concern to maintain Israel’s distinctiveness and separateness from the (other) nations (pp. 13-15), and that this aspect has been but should not be ignored in our attempts to explicate Paul’s key formulation, ‘a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Rom. 3.28).

Can I say this again in case anyone is in doubt on the point. I affirm as a central point of Christian faith that God’s acceptance of any and every person is by his grace alone and through faith alone; I would have hoped that my chapter on ‘Justification by Faith’ (particularly #14.7) in my Theology of Paul the Apostle would have made that clear enough. I have no problem in affirming that the doctrine of justification is articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae; I am astonished by and repudiate entirely the charge that ‘the new perspective on Paul’ as formulated by me constitutes an attack on and denial of that Protestant fundamental. Anyone who reads that from my writing is reading in what he wants to see, not reading out what is there. The point I am trying to make is simply that there is/are (an)other dimension(s) of the biblical doctrine of God’s justice and of Paul’s teaching on justification which have been overlooked and neglected, and that it is important to recover these aspects and to think them through afresh in the changing circumstances of today’s world. In a word, I seek not to diminish let alone repudiate the doctrine of justification (me genoito), but to bring more fully to light its still greater riches.

As to the charge that I ‘turned my guns against the great German Reformers’, I have to protest once again that Dr Trueman’s self-styled ‘casual observations’ have been much too casual. A more careful reading of my essay would reveal that my critique is directed chiefly against the way in which Luther’s conversion has been interpreted as shedding light on Paul’s. It is that tradition which I comment on, not Luther’s own words on the matter. Dr Trueman criticizes me for attributing to Luther himself the view that the ‘I’ passage in Romans 7 refers to Paul’s pre-Christian state. I never say that. And if Dr Trueman had checked my earlier essay on ‘Rom. 7.14-25 in the Theology of Paul’, Theologische Zeitschrift 31 (1975) 257-73, delivered at Tyndale House 26 years before his own, he would have seen that I am very much aware that I follow in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin in interpreting Rom. 7.14-25 as a description of Paul’s continuing experience as a believer.3In the ‘Justice of God’ essay I take up the criticism of Werner Kümmel, directed against what became the standard Protestant interpretation of Romans 7 as a piece of pre-Christian autobiography, and particularly Krister Stendahl’s criticism of the way he perceived Luther’s conversion to have been interpreted within his own Lutheran tradition. The exegetical criticism which I offer is directed not at Luther himself, but against those who regarded Luther’s conversion as paradigmatic and as a key to understanding Paul’s conversion. To repeat: even a not very careful reading of my ‘Justice of God’ essay should have made that plain. Dr Trueman apparently wants to set me up as a straw man, as one to whom he can impute the most egregious motivation (Dunn’s ‘determination to vitiate the whole Protestant tradition’), and whose position can the more easily be blown to pieces by Dr Trueman’s mortars. The imputation is offensive to the one attacked and the mode of attack unworthy of the attacker. Those who live in glass houses should hesitate before they throw charges of ‘eisegetical projectionism’ at others.

Dr Trueman’s second major criticism is that in my ‘Justice of God’ essay I charged Luther with ‘thinking of justification in distinctly individualistic terms’. Once again the spectacles of prejudice or prejudgment seem to have clouded the fact that I clearly refer to the way Luther’s conversion was understood — I do not say by Luther himself. My main target, in fact, is Bultmann’s highly influential existentialist reading of Paul. Dr Trueman makes much of the lack of precision in my use of the term ‘individualism’, and that may be fair comment. But once again the context in which I use the term should have made it clear that it is there simply as a contrast to the corporate or national or ethnic character of a doctrine which was expounded by Paul in order to insist that the saving righteousness of (Israel’s) God was for Gentile as well as Jew. Here again is a feature of Dr Trueman’s lecture which astonishes me: that he has so completely ignored what was quite clearly one of the major thrusts of my ‘Justice of God’ essay, and what has been the main factor to motivate the new perspective on Paul. I refer again to the disparagement of Second Temple Judaism as cold and arid legalism which has been such a painful feature of Christian scholarship up until the latter decades of the 20th century. In contrast, it is the recognition that there was much more of divine grace behind and in the Judaism of Paul’s time which motivated the new perspective’s call for a fresh assessment of how Paul responded to his fellow Jewish believers’ de facto insistence that works of the law were also essential for justification.

That call to take with renewed seriousness the full ramifications of Paul’s slogan, ‘to Jew first but also Gentile’, should never have been heard as antithetical to or as a repudiation of the classic Christian doctrine of justification. Why it has been so heard is for Dr Trueman and others who have so charged it to explain, an explanation which I would welcome. If this invitation is met by a setting of the spectacles of polemical pre-judgment the more firmly on the nose, that will only serve the cause of prejudice and untruth. But if it encourages a truly honest and open exchange, a clearing away of the thickets of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and a mutual growing in appreciation of the riches of the biblical teaching on the theme, then the cause of truth and of the gospel can only benefit.

February 2004


1‘The insight into divine human relationships thus crystallized by Luther’s conversion experience is fundamental and far-reaching: that God’s grace is always prior, the only ground on which we can stand before him; that for any human creatures to think to make a claim upon God by virtue of what they possess or control is a presumption of absolute folly; that religion can all too quickly be perverted into a system which sustains a self-deluding pride in piety. “Justification by faith” thus understood and propounded has been a sharp-edged sword cutting through all self-deception and misapplied principle, a powerful shibboleth to distinguish right-thinking theology and the spirituality which God acknowledges from every counterfeit’ (‘Justice of God’ 1-2).

2‘… we are now in a position … to restate a more rounded and richer and more biblical doctrine of justification. In doing so there is no call to set aside the often penetrating insights of Reformation and Protestant restatements of the doctrine. But we do need to complement them with a firm reassertion of the corporate and social implications of the full doctrine … ‘ (21).

3‘Continuing to commend some support, but very definitely a minority view in modern exegesis, is the classic interpretation of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, of Luther and Calvin, that in Rom. 7 Paul describes his continuing experience as a believer. … This third, the minority interpretation, commends itself most strongly to me.’ (‘Rom. 7.14-25 in the Theology of Paul’ 258). Dr Trueman’s condescending observation that my Theology of Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) includes ‘a footnote which implicitly conceded that his earlier statements concerning Luther on Romans 7 were incorrect’ ignores the fact that my (Lutheran) interpretation of Romans 7 has been substantially the same since 1974 (the ‘Rom. 7.14-15’ lecture), through my (perhaps better known) Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM, 1975) 444 n.57 (in which, incidentally, I quote from Luther on 7.25 [314]), my commentary on Romans (Dallas: Word, 1988 — though not citing Luther directly) and my Theology of Paul 476 n.68.

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