James Dunn differs from Sanders in that he claims to be a devout Christian. He is important to the movement because he is the first writer to produce commentaries of Paul’s epistles through this framework. He also formulated the term “the new perspective on Paul.” He essentially agrees with Sanders’ view of second temple Judaism by seeing it as a religion of grace rather than a Pelagian type of legalism. He accepts Stendhal’s criticism which sees the Protestant doctrine of justification as having forced Luther’s own controversy back into the text of Paul. However, agreeing with earlier writers on certain points, he still sees Sanders’ Paul as inadequate. “I am not convinced that we have yet given the proper reading of Paul from the new perspective of first-century Palestinian Judaism opened up so helpfully by Sanders himself.” (The New Perspective on Paul pg.95)
From here, Dunn formulates his own opinions about what Paul is saying in Romans and Galatians. Dunn centers his argument around Galatians 2:16 which is the earliest explicit reference to the doctrine of justification. In this passage, Paul is primarily dealing with the issue of Jew and Gentile fellowship. Justification was apparently seen as something that belonged to Jews but not gentiles since Paul calls them, rhetorically, “sinners.” Paul argues against this notion, showing justification to be valid for both Jews and Gentiles since it is by faith. Dunn does not accept the historical understanding of justification as a term which describes the beginning of a man’s relation toward God. “Justification is rather God’s acknowledgement that one is in the covenant-whether that is an initial acknowledgment, or a repeated action of God (God’s saving acts), or his final vindication of his people.”(pg.97) Dunn sees Paul as working within a Jewish framework. Those whom Paul is countering in Galatia see their Christianity as an extension of Judaism. As such, justification by faith is a Jewish teaching which his readers already understood. Both Judaism and Christianity saw their salvation as based upon God’s gracious initiative.
Dunn, accepting Sanders critique that Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism writes that “works of the law” in Paul refer to “works related to the covenant [and] works done in obedience to the covenant.”(pg. 98) Thus, when Paul speaks of works of the law he does not refer to good works in general, or even good works as conforming to the Decalogue. These works are primarily those which separate Jews from gentiles which would include the Sabbath, food laws, and other boundary markers that differentiated Jew from gentile. The phrase “works of the law” itself is nationalistic in focus, “the law and the Jewish people are coterminous; the law identifies the Jew as Jew and constitutes the boundary which separates him from the gentiles.”(pg. 118)
Paul does not invalidate the Covenantal Nomistic soteriology of the Judaism of his day. However, he redefines this in light of the resurrected messiah. The question Paul needed to deal with was, “How do we Jewish believers relate our Covenantal Nomism, our works of the law, our obligations under the covenant to our new faith in Jesus as the Christ?”(pg.103) The elect were, in the national covenant, those who had the marks of circumcision, food laws, Sabbath, etc. After Christ has come, Paul sees the elect redefined as those who have faith. The mark or “badge” of those in the covenant was now faith in Christ only.
Like the other writers embracing this new understanding of Paul, Dunn argues that the law/gospel or faith/works contrast as traditionally understood within Protestantism is wrong. “Paul is not arguing here for a concept of faith which is totally passive because it fears to become a ‘work.’” (pg.105) Dunn also argues that there is not a necessary dichotomy between ritual and faith. He is not arguing against ritual as such, but that which excludes gentiles from the covenant. “What he is concerned to exclude here is the racial, not the ritual expression of faith; it is nationalism he denies not activism.”(pg.105) What Paul sees as new about the covenant is not that now an alternative to legalistic works has appeared making salvation a matter of passive faith, but that gentiles are now included within God’s people.