Review of ‘Paul, A New Covenant Jew’ by Pitre, Barber, & Kincaid

A review of Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, and John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, Grnd Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019, 310 pages, pbk.

Over the past several years I have been reading many books on Paul and Pauline Theology in preparation for writing the NT companion volume of my Biblical Theology. This book is written by three Roman Catholic scholars who are widely read in the discipline. The reason I was attracted to this book is twofold: First, because one of the authors, Brant Pitre, wrote an excellent conservative apologetic work called The Case for Jesus, which I reviewed here, and strongly recommend. I knew that Pitre was an engaging and informative scholar. The second reason I took up the present book was it’s title. As anyone familiar with my work over the years will know, I have decided opinions about the Church’s relationship to the New covenant in Christ. There seems to me to be a “blindness in part” over many Dispensationalists concerning the New covenant. Perhaps reading a book like this might broaden their horizons?

This book comes highly recommended by many NT specialists (including Craig Keener, who is no slouch). Although it includes many interactions with Roman Catholic scholarship, predominently it cites leading Protestant thinkers. Since it does this it is a very good introduction of recent scholarship on Paul, if nothing else.

But there is something else. Paul, A New Covenant Jew is a bold and thought-provoking exploration of Paul’s theology in converation with many of the leading Pauline thinkers of today, including N. T. Wright, James Dunn, Douglas Campbell, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman. Before my reader groans or shrugs his shoulders at those names I want to remind you that it is important to know what these men teach, and that some of the things they write are of real value. (If a Dispensationalist is tempted to leave at this point may I detain him long enough to say that if he is wanting a solid Dispensational study of Paul’s theology he is going to come up short!).

This work on Paul begins with a lively introduction which sets the stage well. They inform the reader that their study relies mainly on the seven universally accepted letters of the apostle, not because they hold that view, but for methodological purposes (6). This choice, while unfortunate, does not hamper them too much as refernce to the other six letters only expands upon the work found here. They begin by asking what kind of Jew Paul was. After summarizing several competing positions they offer their own:

“To be specific: the concept of the ‘new covenant,’ taken directly from the Jewish scriptures (Jer. 31:31-34), has within itself the power to account for elements of both continuity (“covenant”) and discontinuity (“new”) with Judiasm in Paul’s theology.” – 39 emphasis theirs.

I quite agree. I came to the same conclusion in my study of the covenants in the OT. Put simply, the New covenant in Jesus Christ is the super-covenant of the Bible because by it and through it the other unilateral covenants of God will be (literally) fulfilled. On pages 39 to 46 the authors provide an extensive analysis of 2 Corinthinans 3, where, among other things, Paul directly refers to himself and his helpers as “ministers of the New covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). They rightly state that this definition of their ministry is crucial for a proper comprehension of Paul’s theology. They note, along with others like Hays and Gorman, that Paul clearly alludes to Jeremiah 31, which is the only place in the OT where the name “new covenant” is used (40), and also leans heavily on Ezekiel 36:26-27 (42). And this in an epistle directed to Gentiles. They also argue that Romans 11:25f. also alludes to Jeremiah 31 (56-57). The author’s eschatology makes them interpret the “olive tree” of Romans 11 as Israel, to whom the Gentiles are added through the New covenant (59, 62). I agree that the New covenant is uppermost in Paul’s mind in these verses, but I disagree with their understanding of the olive tree, which corresponds much better with the New covenant itself.

From pages 48 to 54 there is a dicussion of Paul’s teaching on the Law. Here the authors outline the New Perspective, wherein the phrase “works of the law” signifies those peculiarly Jewish observances like circumcision which they prized. I am far from convinced that the New Perspective scholars are right. In my opinion they have too static a view of the term “law” and the implications of their position carry them too far from imputation and forensic justification. Pitre and co conclude that although there is something to the New Perspective it wrongly limits “the works of the law” to Jews, and therefore misreads the phrase.

Chapter 2 is a lengthy discussion of “Paul and Apocalyptic.” The authors believe that there is an apocalyptic side to Paul’s theology, but as with so many discussions of this topic, quite what the word means remains vague enough to make it apply to most situations. They place a lot of emphasis on 2 Cor. 5:17 nd the passing away of “the present cosmos” in Christ (72-73), but I am unpersuaded by their treatment. The chapter as a whole is the least impressive in the book. I do think there is something to their “two-world’s cosmology” (using the two Jerusalem’s in Gal. 4), but I don’t see this as apocalyptic (86-89).

The third chapter is a generally excellent study of Paul’s Christology. They correctly place emphasis on Jesus’s messianic credentials, including the importance of understanding “Christos” as a title or honorific not a surname (96-99), and the way the name “Son of God” has strong messianic connotations (101-109). They also highlight the importance of the Shema to Paul’s understanding of Christ (115-121, cf. 194).

Chapter Four discusses “The Cross and Atonement.” They begin by saying that “covenantal logic is crucial for understanding the apostle’s discussion of the cross (130). My understanding of what this means differs from the authors who highlight covenant infidelity as the problem (131). In my view the Gentiles were not under covenant until they were brought near in Christ (Eph. 2:11-13). This is another reason why the New covenant is necessary for the Church. True, the Abrahamic covenant provided for the nations to be blessed, but it never furnished the means of that blessing. Thus, Paul works within a New covenant understanding of salvation.

While talking about the notion of “gift” attention is given to John Barclay’s work (e.g., Paul and the Gift) in which a certain reciprocity is present in the ancient conception of gift-giving (134-136). I do not like the direction these Roman Catholic scholars go with this, but I do believe Barclay has underscored an important dynamic between justification and sanctification which helps us comprehend Paul’s imperatives. There follows an enlightening treatment of Phillipians 2:5-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 (137-140) which stresses Christ’s crosswork as an illustratuion of His divine self-giving nature. The cross was a sacrifice, which means it had covenant implications (140-144, 159). This shows that Dispensationalists who will not relate the Church to the New covenant are left without a covenantal association for the sacrificial work of the cross as applied to Gentiles.

It is in their chapter on justification (ch.6) that many none Catholic readers will find strong disagreements with the authors. They make a case for moral transformation being part and parcel of our justification. This is not the place for examining the case for heart transformation as being provided through justification. I believe they confuse justification and sanctification even though I allow that what Protestants call positional sanctification is very closely related to our justified status. Here I think it is imperative to define progressive sanctification and contrast it with positional sanctification. In brief, a sinner is justified by faith in Christ and is acquitted and declared righteous by God. However, upon that declaration the sinner is given the Spirit and becomes a “new creature” in Christ. This occurs at the moment of justification, so that the two are inseparable. There cannot be one without the other. It is essential, however, that any “infused righteousness” (the RC term) be understood as Christ is us and not us made better. It is a real righteousness, but it is derived from Christ through the Spirit.

Does this result in the idea that our righteousness is merely extrinsic righteousness (179ff.)? and does this sit well with the promise of a new heart through the New covenant? The authors say “yes”; I would say “no” as long as one allows that we are to “work out” our salvation (Phil. 1:16) in the sense that we must avail ourselves of the Spirit’s help to live righteously. Sometimes the book seems to put sanctification before justification (206-207).

Further on in the chapter they examine the debated translation of pistis Christou ,coming down on both sides of the divide; they believe Paul had both the subjective genitive (faithfulness of Christ) and the objective genitive (faith in Christ) in mind (186-188). For this reviewer the issue is more smoke than fire. The deliberate juridical framing of justification in Paul (e.g., Rom. 3:20ff) make the objective view far more favorable.

The last main chapter deals with “The Lord’s Supper and the New Creation.” Clearly, there is going to be a clash on what the eucharist is and does, but their linking it with the eschaton is highly suggestive. A short summary of the main conclusions of the three authors finishes off the book.

For my money this was an excellent read. While it’s clever argumentation and skillful writing style will dazzle the unwary, I still think that this book is a very fine addition to Pauline scholarship. For such as myself, concerned greatly with the covenants, I learned much and had many conclusions corroborated.


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