What is grace, and why should we know about it?
Grace is the universal quality of God’s redemptive acts throughout history, the sense in which whatever mercy or love God chooses to extend to us is a consequence of His own divine initiative, and not “owed” to us on account of our own merits. That definition of grace is universally acknowledged by virtually all Christians in every tradition, and is not under the purview of such theological reconsiderations as are recommended by the new perspective on Paul.
What is under the microscope is the question of what is meant by phrases like “justification by faith” and “the righteousness of God.” The new perspective would advise us that both Protestants and Catholics have spent most of the last five centuries misusing these terms, in the sense that their significance within the debate has been largely tainted by a context alien to the one in which Paul was natively functioning.
When Paul (in Romans, the Corinthian epistles, and Galatians) introduced this language, he never intended it to serve as a template for the ordo salutis. He was always (and exclusively) functioning on the “exclusivism grid” (i.e., responding to a challenge from Judaizers about how the boundaries of a covenantal community are to be defined), rather than the “soteriological grid” (i.e., trying to tell us “how to be saved”). Both Protestants and Catholics tend to use “justification” and “salvation” as if they were interchangeable, or at minimum as if the former were the first stage of the latter. But that simply isn’t what Paul wants to discuss, and forcing him to speak on this topic using the justification/righteousness texts will invariably result in a distortion of his contextual meaning.
Justification (as understood in the new perspective) is fundamentally a corporate and eschatological concept that makes sense only within the covenantal framework of Israel’s identity. The Jews were not hoping, generically, that the Messiah would come in glorious judgment to tell them that they were basically good, decent people who deserved a slot in some state of beatific post mortem bliss. They were expecting, concretely, that their faithfulness to the covenants established between God and the patriarchs would result in their public vindication before the nations that had been oppressing them. Justification would be accomplished for all Israel collectively, at the eschaton, as a culmination/climax of that covenantal history, proving that Israel’s faithfulness had not been in vain.
Now, Paul does fully intend to reinterpret certain elements of the way in which that precise sort of justification is to be recognized in any individual — how we will know who has membership within the covenant community — but he has no intention of altering the definition itself. Justification will still be corporate, it will still be tied to the identity of Israel (i.e., the matter of determining who are the true children of Abraham), and it will still remain a distinct concept from one’s personal salvific status before God (whatever that kind of language could have meant to a second-temple Jew). The only alteration is that it will no longer be recognized on the basis of certain external observances of the Torah, nor even the Abrahamic mark of circumcision. It will be recognized entirely on the basis of faith.
Those who had faith (like the Roman centurion, or the Syro-Phoenecian woman, or the Samaritan woman at the well) are members of the covenantal community, regardless of their ethnicity or praxis. Those who lacked faith (like the hypocritical scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law) were definitely outside that covenantal community, regardless of the meticulousness of their implementation of cultic ordinances. Nor could those who had faith, but were outside the Jewish cultural circle, be obligated to embrace those rites before they could be admitted to the community. They were already in it, and anyone who denied them membership was operating from a flawed understanding of how justification ought to work.
Does this mean that there is an opposition between faith and rite? As Paul might say, me genoito,may it never be! Rite remains a vital expression of the community’s active spiritual life and communion, and Paul was more than willing to continue to execute the requirements of the Torah with every bit as much zeal as before. But he would firmly forbid any suggestion that the fully realized grace of the new oikonomia of Christ was contingent on universalizing those ritual elements. Gentiles remain ethnoculturally Gentiles, Jews remain ethnoculturally Jews, and the latter cannot force the former to comply with their praxis. God will, in the end, declare all those in Christ to be members of the covenant community on the basis of their faith, and nothing else. And so nothing other than faith could be required as a badge of identification within that community. The circumcised and the uncircumcised alike were truly the heirs of Abraham.
Note that none of this has any direct bearing on how to resolve the longstanding debate between Catholics and Protestants about the sequence and composition of the ordo salutis, and how it involves “works.” All the new perspective does is remove a huge reference set of proof texts from this arena by pointing out that they belong in a different one, allowing the debate to be resumed using passages that really are intended to address the issue of “how one becomes a Christian,” mostly in the gospels and Acts, where there is a much less technical usage of “justification” (when it rather rarely occurs, such as in James). Whereas Catholics, on balance, may be quite enthusiastic about the prospects of returning to the debate under those conditions, Reformational Prostestants will be far more daunted. Indeed, the fact that the most stringent opposition to the new perspective is from the Reformed camp suggests that this recalculation of the odds in the soteriological battlefield is understood as recalculating the odds rather heavily in favor of Rome. As a Protestant, I think this may be a premature conclusion, but as a somewhat Arminian Protestant, I probably have less to lose in the battle anyway.
On the other hand, the new perspective offers some challenges to the Catholic camp as well. Protestants definitely have some measure of faith — no one seriously disputes that these days — and that faith does establish them as children of Abraham. I think that Sanders, Dunn and Wright would disagree strongly with Rome’s policy of a closed communion table and a “canonical” standardization of the boundaries of the Church, and argue that this is precisely the sort of behavior that Paul was harshly criticizing. Of course, they are Protestants, so one might expect as much!
Synopsis of the new perspective as it bears on the Catholic-Protestant debate: If justification is defined in the way that Paul would have wanted, then the Protestant motto “sola fide” is entirely correct. We are assured of our future vindication as members of the covenant community on the basis of faith, not on the practice of some specific ritual form. If justification is defined in the (inaccurate) way that most Catholics and Prostestants use it today, on the other hand, then the Catholics may very well be entirely correct. The ordo salutis perhaps does extend beyond a single intial event, and post-baptismal stages may very well involve an important role for works which cannot be disentangled from true faith. Catholics, if they so desire, can go on insisting all true faith must yield corroborating deeds, and Protestants, if they so desire, can go on objecting. That debate is simply orthogonal to the one about exclusivism that the epistles beloved by Luther were written to address.
Or even more briefly: Justification is by faith alone. But salvation (possibly, or even probably) isn’t. Justification is not salvation itself, but rather an (ecclesiologically relevant) metadoctrine about one (important) dimension of Jewish eschatology. Reformational Protestants definitely have the right language — for the wrong reasons and with the wrong interpretation. Catholics might have the right substance — but have been fighting an ill-conceived battle for centuries, in which they have misunderstood a collection of specialized texts nearly as much as Protestants have. That could be a basis for humility and irenicism on both sides.