Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Righteousness of One by Jordan Cooper - Book Review

Available at Amazon
From the back cover:
Since the publication of E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, Paul's soteriology has received extensive evaluation in light of second temple Judaism.  These works have focused on exegesis of the Pauline text and evaluating Sanders' proposal of covenantal nomism within the second temple Jewish literature.  There has been an unfortunate gap in this discussion: historical theology.  This work addresses the historical claims made by proponents of the New Perspective on Paul regarding Luther's theology and the early church.  In The Righteousness of One, Jordan Cooper demonstrates that the portrait of Luther given by many of the New Perspective writers is a caricature, read through the lens of both Protestant scholasticism and twentieth-century existentialist theology.  Luther's views are more nuanced and balanced than many Pauline interpreters are willing to admit.  In light of this reevaluation of Luther's own theology, early Patristic writings are evaluated in terms of similarity and disparity between Patristic Pauline interpretation and Lutheran Pauline interpretation, and thus it becomes apparent that there is continuity between the patristic tradition and Luther's reading of the Pauline text.  Rather than being driven purely by medieval debates about merit, Luther's reading of Paul is both exegetically sensitive and consistent with the broader catholic tradition.
My understanding of the New Perspective of Paul (NPP) cannot be considered anywhere near comprehensive.  What I have gleaned from that hermeneutic is derived mainly from critiques of Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright, plus my own reading of Dunn's commentary on Romans and Wright's The New Testament and the People of God.  The latter especially has an engaging writing style that allows him to handily communicate and apply NPP to the New Testament.

The outstanding question to be asked for any developing theory must be: Is it true?  Rather than using the time-tested method of comparing what is proposed with that which was handed down from previous generations to establish veracity, proponents of NPP have dismantled what had been commonly taught and built a completely new supporting framework in order to promulgate their teaching.  They assert that Martin Luther, being a victim of medieval theology and philosophy, misunderstood the apostle Paul concerning justification, so that those who followed built on a faulty platform.  Jordan Cooper undertakes the thesis that Luther was not mistaken about justification and righteousness, but actually followed in the steps of the Early Church Fathers.

Cooper builds his case by first articulating what Luther taught and believed about soteriology, especially as it is developed in his commentary on Galatians.  This helps to establish what came from the reformer rather than how he is portrayed amongst the NPP authors.  True, Luther did develop his thinking over time, yet we are able to get a firm grasp on his position.

Next, the author draws from four early sources—Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Diognetus, and Justin Martyr—which addressed the basis of salvation.  He wisely notes that these do not have a fully-developed soteriology, yet they are useful because of common elements across the works, demonstrating a developing teaching consistency in the Christian world.  These works are shown to contain the rudimentary elements upon which the Reformers built, with the conclusion that Luther was faithful in building on what the early church had believed and taught.

Cooper does a solid job of building his case for consistency from Paul to Luther using the post-apostolic fathers.  Being a revision of his master's thesis, I understand why he used only a limited number.  Perhaps there might be an enlarged edition of this work, drawing from more sources in the patristic era in order to further bolster the argument.  Still, I recommend the work for those wanting some background while dealing with the New Perspective.

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