Home > Brian's Blogs, New Perspective on Paul > James Dunn’s New Perspective on Romans (or, Splitting the Difference between Wright and Piper)

James Dunn’s New Perspective on Romans (or, Splitting the Difference between Wright and Piper)

Recently I have spent a lot of time on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), particularly in the debate between N. T. Wright and John Piper. But last week I began reading another major proponent of the NPP, James Dunn. Where does James Dunn fit into this battle? Here are some interesting insights from his commentary on Romans.

The Righteousness of God

This is a heavily debated phrase in the NPP battle. Does it refer to God’s covenant faithfulness (N. T. Wright) or God’s righteousness given/imputed to people (John Piper)? James Dunn sees an exegetical fit for both possibilities: “God is ‘righteous’ when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies…the logic of covenant grace is followed through with the result that righteousness and salvation become virtually synonymous: the righteousness of God as God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant (Ps. 31:1; 35:24; 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15; 98:2; 143:11; Isa. 45:8, 21; 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1-2; 63:1, 7).” Dunn believes that the righteousness of God is not either God’s character or God’s actions, it is both.

But what about imputation? Even N. T. Wright claims this phrase may include God’s actions, but he denies it includes imputation. Dunn disagrees. “Since the basic idea is of a relationship in which God acts even for the defective partner, an action whereby God sustains the weaker partner of his covenant relationship within the relationship, the answer again is both (faithfulness and imputation).” Dunn is particularly convinced of the parallel relationship between “power of God” and “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16-17.

It is clear in this instance that James Dunn (an NPP proponent) stresses covenant faithfulness (similar to N. T. Wright) but believes an aspect of this covenant faithfulness does/imparts something to the other member of the covenant (similar to John Piper).

Imputation of God’s Character

This is perhaps the most debated point between N. T. Wright and John Piper. Wright acknowledges an imputation based upon the Christian’s union with Christ, but has a difficult time acknowledging that God actually imputes his own character. John Piper, and traditional Reformed theology, could not disagree more. Dunn, however, remains Reformed: “What marks Paul’s use of the concept off from that given to him in his Jewish heritage, however, is precisely his conviction that the convenantal framework of God’s righteousness has to be understood afresh in terms of faith…It is the fact that man’s righteousness is always to be understood as faith which explains why man’s righteousness is nothing other than God’s righteousness.”


Another point of contention between N. T. Wright and John Piper is the nature of justification. Wright views justification as the identification marker of the Christian with a future aspect. Piper views justification as the manner in which a person becomes a Christian with a present aspect. Dunn attempts to blend the two: “The ‘righteousness of God’ is nowhere conceived of as a single, once-for-all action of God, but as his accepting, sustaining, and finally vindicating grace.” In other words, there is no dichotomy between “getting in” and “staying in.”

Justification by Works

Romans 2:13 is another point of contention. Wright emphasizes the future judgment based upon our Spirit-empowered works; whereas Piper vehemently denies any judgment based on our works, but acquittal based upon the imputed works of Jesus Christ. Again, Dunn seems to split the difference: “Like his fellow Jews and the whole prophetic tradition, Paul is ready to insist that a doing of the law is necessary for final acquittal before God; but that doing is neither synonymously with nor dependent upon maintaining a loyal membership of the covenant people.”

Works of the Law

This is a key phrase in the NPP. Traditional Reformed exegesis treats “works of the law” as “obedience to the law.” In this case, Paul is arguing against those who attempt to earn salvation by obeying the law. But NPP exegesis treats “works of the law” as “identity markers.” In this case, Paul is arguing against those who insist upon certain markers for God’s covenant people. In other words, the NPP is not about “getting saved” but about knowing “who is saved.”

Dunn is firmly NPP on this point: “The first Roman listeners would most probably and rightly understand ‘works of the law’ as referring to those actions which were performed at the behest of the law, in service of the Torah; that is, those actions which marked out those involved as the people of the law, those acts prescribed by the law by which a member of the covenant people identified himself as a Jew and maintained his status within the covenant.”

Rather than “works of the law,” Paul teaches that people are justified by faith: “That is to say, ‘apart from the law’ means apart from the law understood as a badge of Jewishness, understood as the chief identifying characteristic of covenant membership by those ‘within the law.’…The new situation now made clear since the act of Jesus Christ and by the act of Jesus Christ is that God’s saving outreach is not determined by an individual’s being a Jew; it is not dependent upon his being within the religious space bounded by the law.”

So What?

Who cares about all these distinctions? I do. And obviously John Piper does as well since he has written a major book on this topic. But what is fascinating about James Dunn is that he proves a point I made earlier in comparing John Piper to N. T. Wright: it is possible to have NPP exegesis while remaining Reformed in theology. The NPP is correct in stating that Paul is not battling legalists in Galatians and Romans because first-century Judaism was not legalistic. However, despite this modified exegesis, the Reformed theology of salvation is correct because God’s covenant faithfulness does impute something to the individual which results in salvation.

James Dunn has written other major works on Pauline theology and the New Perspective. I’m not sure if he has changed his views in these newer works, but his commentary on Romans provides a nice middle road between N. T. Wright and John Piper.

  1. jvan
    December 13, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Of course those in the middle of the road usually end up as road kill.

  2. November 10, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    i think the NPP does a service to theology in teaching that the works of the law are the Jewish markers and not to be mistaken with the law per se / i disagree with the reformed theology that the faith is sustained throughout. There are many warnings to not depart from the faith and no interpretation is needed for that simple message. Our fight is to the end if we so chose.

  3. November 21, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Have Piper and Wright ever “had it out” in a debate? That would be an apocalyptic event I’d row across the Atlantic to see!

  4. November 21, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Since the basic idea is of a relationship in which God acts even for the defective partner

    In other words: “If you start with the assumption of imputation…you get imputation.” Now there’s a surprise.

    I wonder if Abraham would have considered his trusting God (faith) moving to what is now Israel (faithfulness) and concluded: my trust and obedience to God’s command was God’s action and righteousness working in me? Only if he was a Calvinist…

  5. July 7, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    For what it is worth, I am still thinking about this post. I wonder what Wittmer would think of it? Thanks to Wittmer, I am now wading through Westerholm’s book, Perspectives Old and New. Westerholm seems to reach a similar conclusion.

    As I see things, the critics have rightly defined the occasion that elicited the formulation of Paul’s doctrine and have reminded us of its first-century social and strategic significance; the “Lutherans,” for their part, rightly captured Paul’s rationale and basic point. For those (like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) bent on applying Paul’s words to contemporary situations, it is the point rather than the historical occasion of the formulation that is crucial. Students of early Christianity must attempt to do justice to both (page 445).”

    Brian – – would you agree that a potential road ditch for the Lutheran emphasis is an unhealthy individualism that diminishes the centrality of the church?

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