In previous posts, we discussed the view of Jewish legalism, its rise in early Christianity, and its expansion through NT scholarship at large in the twentieth century. In 1977, that tide would begin to shift, in the light of E P Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Therein, Sanders would argue (citing many a Judaic scholar in agreement with him--in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of NT scholars against) that "Palestinian Judaism" was, in fact, not a legalistic religion, that one wasn't justified by works, and that it should instead be defined by what he termed "covenantal nomism."
The other day I read a paper in the JETS (1) that analogued covenantal nomism with a classroom. In this class, a grade of 95% or better was required to stay in, but if you received that grade, you were passed not because of your score, but simply by virtue of being in the class. Readers familiar with covenantal nomism are now scratching their heads (much as I still am), I'm sure. As far as analogies go, it's terrible. Not only is it not covenantal nomism, it is a description of the very merit theology covenantal nomism is written against. But while this analogy is terrible, it does lead me to think of a better one. Like all analogies, it's not perfect, but it does provide an idea of the general model.
Imagine signing up for a class. You pay your tuition, and begin attending. In this class, if you preform well, you get to go on a field trip. If you preform badly, you get detention, write lines, or receive extra homework. But as long as you receive these punishments, acknowledge your need to improve, and endeavour to do so, there will be no additional recourse for your poor preformance. In addition to this, as long as you stay in class and give effort and intent to succeed in it, you cannot fail. Regardless of what your grades are, you pass in the end.
That, my reader, is covenantal nomism.
The covenant is, in essence, election in exchange for obedience. But one may fail to be obedient, that is unfortunate but understood. Because of that, there are means of atonement--sacrifice, the day of atonement, suffering, even death--which make up for those shortcomings. God will reward good behavior, and punish sin, because he is just. He's merciful, but that doesn't mean he's a patsy. One takes on circumcision as their "tuition" so to speak.
The Law analogues the subject matter of the class. Since you have all but a guaranteed pass, the appropriate and grateful response is to endeavour to learn the subject matter. You may not always do it perfectly, your marks may in fact suck. Your poor preformance will not go unnoticed, but it won't affect whether or not you pass in the end. What matters is that you try to learn it. It is the effort and intent, not the end results, that matter in the final judgment.
But this exchange--the election for obedience--is not a trade, per se. It's a relationship based on an existing understanding of God. The Law is given not as a chore to be completed in order that one may earn rewards based on it. On the contrary, the Law is given to Israel in order to mark her out, to give her a tangible way to show her trust in God's promise. But, in covenantal nomism, one does not earn salvation by preforming works of the Law.
This description is brief, and leaves many things out, but that will be discussed further in later pieces (I haven't decided yet whether I'll follow Sanders lead in breaking it up by type of literature, or more broadly by topic, we'll see how it goes). But I hope it at least captures its essence: Justification--passing the class--is not earned, it is promised.
As Sanders put it, describing Rabbinic religion:
One should conclude that debates on details reflect agreement on central issues. . .From debates about why God chose Israel we infer the centrality of the conviction that he chose Israel. The debates about how to obey reveal the concern to obey. Further, the concern to obey, when studied, turns out to show a reliance on God's fiddelity to the covenant which contains the laws, not an anxious concern to learn how, by obedience, to win God's favour. Perhaps most telling are the debates about which means of atonement atone for which sins. . .since atonement for individual sins restores the penitent sinner to the right relationship with God, he originally had a right relationship with God, a relationship established by God's mercy and maintained by the individual's obedience and repentence and by God's forgiveness. . .the Rabbis believed in the enduring validity of the covenantal promise. . .The pattern is based on election and atonement, it being understood that God gave commandments in connection with the election and that obedience to them, or atonement and repentence for transgression, was expected as the condition for remaining in the covenant community. The best title for this sort of religion is 'covenantal nomism.'(2)
(1) I can't for the life of me remember who by, or in which volume, this article was--all I can remember, other than the analogy I'm about to describe, is that it referenced Schreiner's JETS 27 paper on Galatians 3:10 as "devastating" to Sanders' suggestion that it does not address impossibility of doing the whole Law. I'll try and track it down, any help would be appreciated.
(2) PPJ, 235-6, all emphasis original.