Posted by: Joel | September 1, 2008

Covenantal Nomism

A little piece by Michael Horton has left me excited to learn more of N. T. Wright’s perspective on the law and the people of God. I have heard it said numerous times,and now by Horton, that N. T. Wright and others believe that we ‘get in by grace and stay in by obedience.’ Horton’s main argument is that even if we concede Sanders’ arguments in favour of the covenantal nomism of early Judaism, that doesn’t change our understanding of Paul’s polemic in his letter to the Galatians (3.1-4): “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” Paul, in Horton’s view, would still strongly critique the perspective of ‘getting in by grace, staying in by obedience.’

Something tells me that this is not a correct summary of Wright’s position (although he is talking more broadly of ‘the new perspective’), and also that it would be interesting to see how Horton would teach that Paul’s statement in Galatians cohere with his comments in Romans about being repaid according to works (2.6-10), and with statements in Hebrews about falling away through disobedience and unbelief. I have never wrestled deeply with these issues theologically, although I’ve struggled with them personally. Very interesting…and very important!!!



  1. Joel, don’t think I’ve ever Wright say anthing like this: we ‘get in by grace and stay in by obedience.’

    Besides that has absolutely nothing to do with Paul’s argument in Galatians. The Phrase ‘works of the law’ as used by Paul has to do with things that marked the Jews out as a particular ethnic group (i.e. circumcision, food laws, sabbath observance). Wright does argue for a position of Covenantal Nomism in the first century. One was born into the covenant and these ethnic identity boundaries…these ‘works of the law’ marked on out as being a part of the covenant people.

    But modern day Christianity begins with adherence to the faulty presumption that Judaism was a religion of works-righteousness. It wasn’t. They knew about the grace of God and didn’t think that they somehow ‘earned’ their ‘salvation’.

    The key phrase in his argument is the phrase ‘works of the law’. Again, this phrase refers to ethnic identity markers. Paul’s argument was about race, not grace. Peace to you brother.

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