Before we embarked on a preaching series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans in our church, I was asked to provide a summary of some of the main interpretative issues. Most (but not all) of these are related to the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’.
|1. Reformation spectacles (Rom 1:17)||Have we distorted the message of Paul by reading it through ‘reformation spectacles’?||Protestant/Catholic relations|
|2. 1st-century Judaism (Rom 2:17ff; see also Lk 11:37ff)||Was the Judaism of Paul’s (and Jesus’) day essentially a religion of merit, or of grace? If the latter, is Paul’s main problem therefore with Jewish nationalism, rather than legalism?||Christian/Jewish relations|
|3. Paul’s experience (Rom 1:1; see also Acts 9:15f)||Are we to understand Paul’s Damascus Road experience as conversion or vocation?||Sin and guilt; conversion|
|4. The centre of Romans||Is the main focus of Romans how sinners are made right with God, or how God accepts people (Jews and Gentiles) on equal terms?||Evangelism; unity|
|5. Resurrection (Rom 1:4; 6:1-14)||Does Paul stress Christ’s resurrection as the guarantee of our own future resurrection, or as the means by which we may live a renewed life here and now?||Social/political activism|
|6. Lord (Rom 1:4)||Is the confession of Christ as ‘Lord’ not only an affirmation of his divinity, but also of his superiority over the other ‘lords’ of the day (especially Caesar)?||Christian counter-culture; social/political activism|
|7. ‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5)||Does this mean ‘the obedience that consists of faith’ or ‘the obedience that arises from faith’?||Faith and works|
|8. The righteousness of God (Rom 1:16f; 3:21)||Does this mean ‘God’s justice’ or ‘God’s covenant faithfulness?’||Justice; the Bible’s story-line|
|9. Judgement according to works (Rom 2:6)||Is future judgement to be in accordance with the entire life lived? What place then do ‘works’ have in the final judgment? And are we in danger of either under-estimating or over-estimating the importance of ‘works’?||Faith and works; final judgement; assurance|
|10. ‘The works of the law’ (Rom 3:20,28)||Does this refer more broadly to any efforts to commend oneself to God on the basis of keeping the law, or more narrowly to those ‘badges’ that identified a person as a Jew (Sabbath observance, food laws, circumcision and so on)?||Legalism; ‘badges’ of identity|
|11. Faith/faithfulness (Rom 3:3,25)||When does pistis mean ‘trust’, and when does it mean ‘faithfulness’ (fidelity)?||Faith|
|12. Faith in Christ (Rom 3:22)||Does Paul mean ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faithfulness of Christ’?||Faith; subjective/objective spirituality|
|13. Atonement (Rom 3:21-26)||Is the cross-work of Jesus to be thought of principally as substitution for the penalty of sin, or as a victory over the powers of evil (or neither, or both)?||Atonement|
|14. Imputation (Rom 3:21; 4:5, 11; 9:30; also 2 Cor 5:21)||Is a doctrine of ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ taught by Paul, or is it a piece of theological fiction that dates back only as far as the Reformation?||Assurance|
|15. Justification (Rom 5:1)||Does justification happen the moment that a person believes in Christ, or is it a declaration that will be made at the last day (albeit brought forward into the present)? And is it primarily about how one is saved, or how one can know that s/he is a member of the believing community?||Salvation; assurance|
|16. Gospel (Rom 1:2-5,16; 16:25-27)||Does ‘the gospel’ describe the process by which a person receives salvation, or is it the announcement that Jesus, crucified and risen, is Messiah and Lord?||Evangelism|
|17. The ‘I’ of Rom 7*||Is this the Christian Paul, the pre-Christian Paul, or Israel, or everyman, or what?||Sin and guilt|
|18. Paul’s argument (Rom 7:24)||Noting that Paul seems to have regarded himself as faultless in his earlier life (Phil 3:6), and yet as a ‘wretched’ sinner as a Christian (Rom 7:24), should we conclude that his argument is from solution (the universal saviourhood of Christ) to plight (universal sin and guilt), rather than plight to solution?||Sin and guilt|
|19. The climax of Romans||Is chapter 8 the climax of Romans, with 9-16 as a sort of appendix? Or are chapters 9-11 (or even 9-16) the climax?||Salvation; unity|
|20. Israel’s story (Rom 9:4ff; 10:15f; 11:1ff,29)||Does the gospel bring Israel’s story to a dead-end, or does it rather bring it to fulfilment (as the completion, perhaps, of her ‘return from exile’)?||The Bible’s story-line; Christian/Jewish relations|
|21. ‘And so all Israel will be saved’ (Rom 11:26)*||Does this phrase refer to ethnic Israel (the Jewish people) or to ‘the new Israel’ (Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ)?||Hope; Christian/Jewish relations|
|22. Covenant (Rom 11:27)||Should we view Romans as a repository of timeless truths, or should we rather read it in the context of the ‘big picture’ – the covenant-focussed storyline – of the Bible?||Doctrine; the Bible’s story-line|
Is there a way to see the wood for the trees?
Ephesians 2 might help. In that chapter, Paul deals first with the doctrine of salvation (traditionally foregrounded by evangelicals, but backgrounded by some ‘New Perspective’ people); and then with the implications of this for the unity of God’s people (foregrounded by the ‘New Perspective’, but often neglected by evangelicals). Maybe that gets us off to a good start.
Romans commentaries that take the ‘New Perspective’ into account include: Stott (The Bible Speaks Today); Moo (New International); Kruse (Pillar); Dunn (Word); Edwards (UBCS).
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (esp. the article on Romans, by Dunn).
N.T. (Tom) Wright: What Saint Paul Really Said; Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision; Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
John Piper, The Future of Justification.
Thompson, Michael, The New Perspective on Paul. Grove Booklets
ntwright.com has many relevant articles and other resources.
thepaulpage.com has articles and other resources (both positive and critical) relating to the ‘New Perspective’.