I was reading an RBL review of Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise, by Gerhard Visscher, who argues that the New Perspective is discredited by Rom 4. The reviewer, Don Garlington, isn’t terribly impressed.
From my point of view, Rom 3:21-31 and 4:9-17 readily play into the hands of the New Perspective, though Rom 4:1-8 (the part in between) is a true obstacle to it. Visscher emphasizes the commercial metaphors of Rom 4:4-5 in defending the old perspective, and Garlington objects as follows:
“It is to be acknowledged that ‘working’ (τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ) and ‘not working’ (τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ) in 4:4–5 represent an application, to both Jew and Gentile, of the principle that Abraham was not justified ἐξ ἔργων. However, the terms do not of themselves bespeak ‘legalism’ or ‘earning salvation.’ A case in point is the parable of Matt 20:1–16, which depicts ‘workers’ who receive a ‘wage’ in the end, the eschatological kingdom. As applied to Israel, in Paul’s own words, ‘working’ is Israel’s ‘willing’ and ‘running’ to fulfill the covenant (Rom 9:16), which can easily be understood as ‘covenantal nomism’ rather than ‘legalism.’ In a nutshell, ‘working’ versus ‘not working’ hardly proves that the Judaism of Paul’s generation was ‘legalistic.'”
But this begs the question by assuming that covenantal nomism itself doesn’t have legalistic components, and Douglas Campbell has made plain that a serious reassessment of Sanders’ model is in order. Legalism refers simply to an ethical system based on desert — meaning one gets what one deserves by working for it — and I don’t see Mt 20:1-16 as refuting this. Nor the idea of “running” to fulfill the covenant, which is a euphemism. Legalism was tied to grace within the scheme of the Jewish covenant.
The problem with legalism is not what it really is, but the things usually associated with it — hypocrisy, selfishness, calculating favor, and perfectionism. As long as we keep this sort of baggage away from the term, we’re doing justice to ancient Judaism. Which means that Paul wasn’t doing it an injustice by using the commercial metaphors in Rom 4:4-5. He was being fair (if theologically objectionable) and deliberately excluding legalism in his soteriology — not crass legalism to be sure, but legalism nonetheless. There is no need to develop strained commentary to make Rom 4:1-8 match the New Perspective emphasis of Rom 3:21-31 and 4:9-17. Paul’s idea of grace was radical enough that it trumped not only ethnic privilege, but the idea that ethical behavior in general could contribute to one’s salvation.