A friend who, knowing that I’m still trying to get my head round ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ and is also doing the same, recently asked me how the ‘New Perspective’ had changed my own perspective on the Christian life.
I answered by saying that I’m neither ready to dismiss the NPP out of hand, nor adopt any particular version of it. So it hasn’t changed the basic shape of my Christian faith. But it has asked questions about various aspects of ‘traditional’ evangelical thinking and practices, and sent me back to the Bible ‘to see if these things are so’.
1. At one level, the NPP challenges the way we read Paul’s letters. It suggests that we have misunderstood (or only partially understood) various aspects of his teaching: ‘works of the law’, ‘justification’, ‘the righteousness of God’, ‘the faith of/in Christ’, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and even ‘the gospel’. This has ecumenical implications; it suggests that differences over justification by faith between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church of the day were somewhat misplaced, and that such age-old divisions can now be healed.
2. At another level, the NPP invites us to read the whole Bible ‘story’ rather differently. In particular, it asks us to read the New Testament very much in the context of its Jewish background. The NPP suggests that the Judaism of Christ’s day was not riddled with legalism in the way that Luther and his followers thought it was. (Luther himself became terribly anti-Semitic in his later years). This has an implication for modern-day attitudes towards Jewish people. (On the question of whether the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day was characterised by merit-based legalism, I’m very struck by passages like Luke 18, that seem to suppose precisely such a problem.)
3. Moroever, the NPP (especially Tom Wright’s version of it) insists that we take a covenantal view of God’s purposes: the Christian gospel is not some kind of ‘Plan B’ after ‘Plan A’ failed. Jesus is very much seen as the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises. I’m very happy with this, but then most evangelicals (with the exception of some Lutherans and dispensationalists) would be.
4. At yet another level, the NPP maps onto a range of shifts and tensions within modern-day Christianity. I wrote about this in the early days of my blog, so won’t repeat it here. But one of my concerns is that the NPP seems to obscure important aspects of the gospel, and so is unclear about the evangelistic task. Tom Wright is dismissive of notions that the Gospel is about ‘going to heaven when I die’, but I’m not totally convinced by what he puts in its place. He emphasises the this-worldy aspects of the gospel over the eternal aspects, and the corporate over the personal aspects (so, again, he is very critical of notions of Christian faith that can be summed up as ‘receiving Jesus into your heart’).
5. One way of summarising all this is to say that whereas traditional evangelicalism has tended to emphasise the first half of Ephesians 2 (salvation from sin), the NPP tends to concentrate of the second half of the chapter (the unity of all Christians – Jews and Gentiles alike – in Christ). Of course, both are important, and intimately related to one another.
More – much more – could be said. But that’s enough to indicate that the NPP does have practical implications, even if I’m not prepared to say, “The NPP changed my life!”
[This post was written in February 2009]