the new perspective and Barth

Last week my Barth class read the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, p. 621-26, where Barth makes a few comments which seem relevant to the controversy surrounding the new perspective on Paul.

1. Barth agrees with the NPP that Paul used the term “works of the law” to refer to the ethnic boundary markers of “circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath, purifications, etc.”  Barth writes:  “In this context Paul obviously meant by erga the works which the Old Testament demanded of the members of God’s chosen people Israel to mark their distinction from other peoples or positively to attest the fact that they belonged to the covenant which He had made with them.”

2. But Barth argues that rather than view the works of the law as either about boundary markers or an attempt to earn salvation, Paul saw them as a both/and.  Paul’s point was that being a good Jew does not in any way merit the approval of God.  Barth declares that Paul “unconditionally rejected the idea that the doing of any of the works demanded by the Law either is or includes the justification of any sinner.  And if, as the Galatian errorists taught, the fulfillment of the works of the Law is placed side by side with faith, as something which will justify a man, if it is commanded as a necessary completion of the work of faith, if it is to be laid and enforced upon Gentile believers as necessary, then this is judged to be an apostasy from faith and its radical denial.  Faith is relentlessly opposed to the works of this Law….”

3. Barth agrees with the NPP that Luther did distort Paul’s argument by reading Romans and Galatians through the grid of his battles with Rome.  Barth concedes that the Reformation did make “a too hasty identification of the biblical situation with its own, and therefore as a result of its own impetuous understanding of the present a failure to see many of the nuances” of Paul’s argument.

4. But Barth suggests that the Reformers’ medieval context actually enabled them to see aspects of Paul’s argument that others had not.  He observed that even the great Augustine “understood justification as a process,” in part because his battles with Pelagius centered on our dependence on grace rather than our need for faith.  Consequently, Augustine “did not understand the principle underlying the Pauline distinction of faith and works.  He did not understand the passion of the antithesis, of the mutual exclusiveness with which he viewed the two.”

In contrast, “The Reformers dared to see the situation in their own time in the light of the situation of Galatians, and therefore indirectly (and often very directly) to equate the Law of Israel with the cultic and general order of the late medieval Roman Church….”  “A detour was necessary to rediscover what the Law did and did not mean for Paul.  The Reformers—and in the first instance Luther—had to be confronted by the problem of another order of life, the order of life and the redemptive system of the Roman Church, which was there and was administered and imposed on medieval man with a claim to justifying power, which introduced man to the outworking of that process.”

5. Barth ends this section by noting that the Council of Trent weighed in by opposing justification by faith alone, which “unfortunately, we have to admit that in this decree it laid down its attitude for all time.”  Barth laments that Protestant and Roman Catholic dialogue can never progress too far because the Roman Catholics are bound by the declarations of Trent.  He writes:  “It is difficult to see in the Tridentine doctrine of justification anything better than what Paul meant by another gospel.”  …“But with its doctrine of justification the Roman Church closed the door to self-reformation and deprived itself of all possibility of seizing the initiative in uniting the divided Church.”  …“the Roman Church cannot very well go back on that decree.  A Church which maintains that its official decisions are infallible can commit errors which are irreformable.  It has more than once done so.”





5 responses to “the new perspective and Barth”

  1. Good stuff… Your Barth Seminar truly gave me a love for the man and his theology…which has, of course, branded me a neo-orthodox with suspect theology in some circles, but who cares?


  2. Jonathan Shelley


    This sounds more like IV/1 and not II/1. Regardless, I’ve been puzzled by the term “New Perspective” for some time since there didn’t seem to be anything too new to their ideas, as Barth demonstrates. I guess not even the biblical exegetes who decry Barth’s hermeneutics are immune to his influence. I would say, though, that Barth gets both Augustine and Trent wrong (he really isn’t much of an historian), but the point is still well made.

  3. Brian McLaughlin

    Thanks Mike. This is helpful. I’m pretty ignorant about Barth but it is fascinating that such a prominent figure talked about this issue but I rarely hear him mentioned in the current discussion. Any reason for that?

    I’m reminded of a comment that Piper made somewhere in his many comments on this issue: even if the issues in Rom/Gal weren’t strict legalism, they certainly had to do with a self-righteousness associated with boundary-markers. It is this self-righteousness (which the Pharisees certainly seem to have in the Gospels) that Paul counters, and his counter attack sounds awfully similar to an attack on legalism. At the core self-righteousness is self-righteousness.

  4. Jonathan Shelley

    Oh, and I’m with Z on your Barth Seminar – it really pushed me to reconsider a lot of doctrines I took for granted and helped me grow significantly. Whether you agree with Barth or not, he will change your theology.

  5. mikewittmer


    Oops! You’re right about it being from IV/I. I made the correction. Good eye! Perhaps I should pay more attention to the cover of the book when I cite from it!


    Probably the main reason why no one cites Barth in the present discussion is because these 6 pages are buried in the middle of volume 4, which has two parts, and which itself is in the middle of a multi-volume systematic theology, at least half of which is fine print (as are these 6 pages). The point is that most people, including theologians, don’t have the time to read Barth.

    I agree with your Piper comment. It seems rather obvious to me that it’s both ethnic boundary markers and legalism rather than an either/or. But apparently not everyone sees it that way.

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