Here we go again: the New Perspective on Paul.
In the words of one writer, ‘the potential significance of the [New Perspective] school for the whole Christian faith can hardly be exaggerated.’ (Seyoon Kim)
Michael B. Thompson, Vice-Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has a useful short introduction (published by Grove Books). What follows based on that.
The Old Perspective and its Problems
The NPP is an attempt to understand Paul in his own context, free from the categories and pre-occupations of the sixteenth century.
The Reformers, it is claimed (and Martin Luther in particular), read Paul through the ‘lens’ of their own spiritual struggles with sin and their confrontation with medieval Catholicism. Their understanding was that
“Judaism was (and is) a religion of merit”
But most Jews would not recognise this description. They would start with grace and loving kindness of God. The law is a gift from God, Psalm 19:7ff; 119. God has chosen them freely, apart from anything they have done, Deut 7:7f. Their religion teaches them to respond with thankfulness to what God has done for them.
“Paul was dissatisfied with efforts to ‘earn’ salvation, and anxious to relieve his burden of guilt”
But there is little evidence that Paul before his conversion was racked with guilt, and seeking relief from this. Romans 7 notwithstanding, he saw himself as blameless before the law, Phil 3:6; Acts 23:1. When he does mention his ownsin in his earlier life, this is not connected with law-breaking generally, but with his persecution of the church, 1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tim 1:13-15. Like all good Jews, he had the temple sacrifices, the Scriptures, and repentance by means of which he could find forgiveness with God. Although, like other zealous Jews, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, this was not because he was not looking for a solution to the problem of personal sin.
“Paul’s understanding of religion fundamentally changed when he was converted”
It is supposed that he discovered – and experienced – justification by faith, and this became the heart of his theology. Without a doubt, Paul’s estimation of Jesus changed when he became a Christian. But if justification was so new and so central to him, why is it absent in his preaching in Acts, apart from 13:39? And why does it play no major role in most of his epistles? In fact, a major argument in Romans and Galatians is the justification is not new, but but was true for Abraham, Rom 4; Gal 3:6-9.
4. “Paul’s focus in his writings is on how individuals can find acceptance with God”
However, a close reading of his epistles shows an emphasis on relationships within the body of Christ (especially those betwen Jews and Gentiles), rather than on the individual’s relationship with God. For example, in Col 1:27 (‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’) the ‘you’ is plural. ‘When we fail to see Paul’s corporate emphasis, we run the risk of turning a faith that teaches our mutual interdependence into a religion of privatised piety, as though God were concerned only to save individuals instead of building his church and transforming the world.’
5. “In Paul’s thought faith and works (believing and doing) stand in stark contrast as two different principles”
But such a stark distinction violates the New Testament’s emphasis on the importance of what we do. Final judgement is repeatedly taught to be according to works. ‘That does not mean that salvation is earned by what we do; it is simply to affirm that the biblical truth that the fruit we bear reflects who we really are and what we really believe.’
6. “Similarly, law and grace (the Old Testament and the New Testament) stand in opposition to one another”
But to set law and grace in opposition to one another is to repeat the ancient heresy of Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament, and created for Paul’s writings a ‘canon within a canon’, failing to recognise the positive place that he he gives to the law, Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:16.
This does not summarise Luther’s theology: he would not have recognised some of what has just been said. But it is to say that many Christians have slipped into this kind of thinking because of categories inherited from the Reformation, and have read the New Testament in the light of this. But by clarifying what Paul meant, we can reclaim more of our spiritual heritage in Judaism, understand Scripture better, and integrate more completely what we believe and how we behave.
Continuing this series based on Michael Thompson’s booklet, published by Grove Books.
Three Advocates of the New Perspective
1. E.P. Sanders
In his 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders argued, on the basis of a survey of relevant Jewish literature, that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of works-based righteousness. The law was not a means of gaining acceptance with God, but law-keeping was rather a thankful response to God’s mercies. Thus, the law functions not in terms of ‘getting in’ to the covenant, but of ‘staying in’. Sanders calls this ‘covenantal nomism’. God would indeed reward those who lived by the law, but salvation itself was a matter of divine grace.
For Sanders, when Paul became a Christian he did not move from ‘plight’ (I am a guilty sinner) to ‘solution’ (Jesus is my Saviour) but rather the opposite – from solution to plight (Christ is the solution; therefore there must have been a problem!). For Paul the problem was not that Judaism lacked grace, but that it lacked Jesus.
Sanders has been criticised for selective use of sources, and for failing to understand Paul’s logic. Some argue that merit-based theology can be found in the Jewish literature of Paul’s day. And, in case, it is quite possible that Jews of Paul’s day misunderstood the note of grace in the Old Testament, and took it to teach a religion of merit.
Nevertheless, Sanders has at least debunked a caricature of Judaism that led some 20th-century German scholars to regard it as an inferior, legalistic religion, an attitude that fuelled anti-semitism.
Nevertheless, we are left with a number of references in which Paul contrasts law and grace, works and faith, and we need to know what to do with these, Gal 2:16; 3:2,5,10; Rom 3:20, 27; 4:2,4,6; 9:11;,32; 11:6.
2. J.D.G. Dunn
Whereas Sanders is somewhat of a sceptic with regard to the Christian faith, Dunn writes as a committed believer. Although critical of some aspects of Sanders’ work James Dunn has adopted other elements and built on them. With Krister Stendahl, Dunn sees Paul’s Damascus Road experience less a conversion (resulting in a change in the basic structure of his religion), more a vocation (to preach Christ as Messiah). It was also a change from Jewish exclusivism (that insisted on keeping the law) to Gentile inclusivism (that did not insist on law-keeping.
Dunn’s view is that the ‘works of the law’ that Paul opposed in his letter to the Galatians primarily referred to ‘boundary markers’ of Jewishness such as circumcision, Gal 2:3,7-9,12; 5:2,3,6,11; 6:12,13,15., keeping the religious calendar, Gal 4:10, and observing the food laws, Gal 2:12-14. Thus, in Dunn’s view, Paul was not referring to moral behaviour generally, but to certain religious practices.
Today, we take it for granted that Christians can eat bacon and work on Saturdays. But for many early Christians, who had no Bible apart from the Old Testament, it would have seemed quite clear: if Gentiles want to follow the Messiah, let them become Jews.
One problem with Dunn’s thesis is that not all texts that refer to ‘works’ can be limited to ‘boundary markers’ or ‘badges’ of Jewishness. See Rom 2:17ff; 3:9-20; 11:6; Tit 3:5. Indeed, Dunn now concedes that the word can have a wider meaning. Moreover, Paul does seem to speak of the ‘boasting’ of moral accomplishment (rather than of religious practices) in Rom 4:2; 1 Cor 1:29; 4:7; Eph 2:9. Other passages, such as, Rom 4:4-5; Eph 2:8-10 and Phil 3:9 also seem to fit the ‘Old Perspective’ better than the ‘New’.
3. N.T. (Tom) Wright
Like Dunn, Wright is a committed Christian (indeed, he regards himself as an evangelical). Wright accepts the fundamental theses of Sanders and Dunn as outlined above, even though he is critical of some aspects of the work of both scholars. He agrees that Paul’s pre-occupation in his letters in not how individuals get saved, but what defines the people of God.
Wright has focussed attention of the meaning of ‘justification’ for Paul. He thinks our understanding has been clouded and narrowed by controversies between Pelagius and Augustine, and between Erasmus and Luther over human effort and grace. Reformed theology regards justification as about how one is accepted before God: acquitted and given a new status of righteousness. Wright argues that justification is not only judicial, but also covenantal (reflecting God’s covenant faithfulness in his determination to put the world to rights), and eschatological (having as much to do with future deliverance as past acquittal). Justification is not about how a person becomes a member of the people of God; it is about how one knows that s/he is a member of that community.
Unlke Sanders, Wright sees Paul as moving from plight to solution. However, the ‘plight’ is the covenant people’s perceived state of exile. Even though the Jews had returned to the promised land, because of the Roman occupation they saw themselves as still being in exile, awaiting God’s deliverance. Christ brought that deliverance, reflecting God’s covenant faithfulness and dealing with the sin that caused the exile in the first place.
Wright’s position has attracted considerable support. However, many are unconvinced that the exile motif is as important and pervasive in the New Testament as he thinks. Also, many evangelicals are concerned about his re-shaping of the doctrine of justification, regarding this as inconsistent with the relevant texts (see esp. 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21).
The heart of the issue raised by the New Perspective, says Michael Thompson in his Grove booklet on the subject, is the question of how much continuity there is between Paul’s Jewish heritage and his Christian faith. One way of focussing this might be to ask, If Paul had a son, would he have circumcised him?
As a Jew, Paul valued the law for several reasons:-
- it revealed the character of God
- it preserved the history of the Jewish people
- it provided a constitution for their nation
- it established orderly worship
- it provided wise instruction on how to live rightly before God
Sanders is right (says Thompson) when he says that Jews did not generally regard the law as a hurdle to be jumped in order to gain acceptance with God, but rather as a gift to those who had already been accepted by God.
Paul the Pharisee would have accepted Stephen’s diagnosis in Acts 7 of Israel as a disobedient people. Here was a plight that needed a solution. Paul would have longed for the day when God fully established his covenant, and this would included the continuation of the law as a way of life.
It was in his zeal to keep God’s law that Paul has persecuted the Christians. It is likely that Greek-speaking leaders such as Stephen were teaching that Gentile believers were not obliged to keep all aspects of the law. Further, Paul would not have been able to accept that Jesus was the Messiah; after all, Jesus in his death experienced the very curse that was pronounced by the law.
When Paul was confronted by the risen Christ on the Damascus road, he was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul therefore had to re-evaluate his attitude towards the law. His very zeal for the Jewish law had blinded him to the gift of God in Christ for all people.
Whereas the pre-Christian Paul saw himself as upright in respect of the law, the converted Paul came to a new understanding of the human condition, as measured by God’s redemptive work in Christ. Moreover, as a Christian he would have been exposed to Jesus’ teaching about what it means to fulfil the law, Matt 5.17-48; Luke 11.37-54; 1 Cor 9.21; Gal 6.2.
Paul encountered widespread opposition to the gospel amongst Jewish people. It is this Judaism of which he speaks in Rom 10:3 and elsewhere.
When Paul speaks negatively about the law, it is either in relation to the Jews’ widespread rejection of Jesus as Messiah, or in relation to assertions that Gentiles must adopt Jewish customs in order to becomes members of the people of God. Both groups were in effect rejecting the sufficiency of Christ and his salvation.
For Paul, the law
- cannot bring a person into a right relationship with God, Gal 2:16
- reveals and therefore multiplies sin, Rom 7.7; 5.20; 7.5; Gal 3.19
- is used by sin to condemn and imprison people, Gal 3.10f, 22; Rom 7.8–11
- is powerless to change the human condition, Rom 3.28; 8.3
- was intended to be temporary, a guide to the people of God until Christ came, Gal 3.23–25
- separated Jews from Gentiles
What the law could not do, Christ has accomplished. Christ came to create a single people who would be the heirs of the Abrahamic promise, Gal 4.3–5; 5.1. To insist that Gentiles had to live under the yoke of the law was to turn the clock back, Gal 4.1–5.1.
Paul does not reject the law altogether. He honours it, even though it does not belong to faith in Christ, Gal 4.1-5.1; Gal 5.14; Rom 13.8; Gal 6.2; 1 Cor 10.11; Rom 15.4; 2 Tim 3.16.
In Galatians, he does not oppose faith (as a principle) against works (in the sense of doing things). The opposition is between faith in Christ and the works of the law.
Equally, Paul does not oppose faith against love. What James celebrates as ‘works’ Paul celebrates as the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. The works of the law are not to be taken as works of kindness and compassion. Paul’s problem is with those works of the law that mark out Jewish identity. To insist on these is to re-erect a barrier between Jews and Gentiles, a barrier that Christ explicitly has destroyed.
Even Romans 4, which contrasts Abraham’s faith and works does not necessarily assume a merit-based approach on the part of the Jews. And Eph 2:8-9, which contrasts faith with works-based boasting may be referring to a Jewish boasting in the racial distinctives of the covenant – especially in the light of what he says about the breaking down of the diving wall in Eph 2:14-16.
[Summarising the distinctive contributions of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, Grogan says that ‘Sanders in his pioneer work argued that First-century Judaism must be understood to be a religion of grace, not of salvation by merit as Augustine and Luther had thought. Dunn argued that Paul’s concern was to show that the Jews and the Judaizers were wrong to boast in circumcision and other “covenant markers” and to maintain that Gentiles must accept these to be recognised as members of God’s people, while Wright maintained that in Christ’s death and resurrection God’s covenant promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, Israel’s exile has been ended and Jew and Gentile can now be united in Christ. The overall effect of all this is to view Paul’s theology of justification as largely, although not of course exclusively, an ecclesiological doctrine.’ (The Faith Once Entrusted to the Saints, p140f)]
Some have seen the New Perspective as a significant threat to evangelical truths.
Michael Thompson identifies the following:-
It is seen as a threat to the doctrine of justification by faith
But (suggests Thompson) New Perspective proponents actually enrich the doctrine of justification by emphasising not only its judicial or forensic aspects but also its covenantal and eschatological aspects.
It is seen as opening the door to semi-Pelagianism
This the teaching that God’s grace and human effort co-operate in salvation (“God helps those who help themselves”). But evangelical critics of the New Perspective are themselves at risk of emphasising the sufficiency of God’s work in Christ in such a way as to deny that we have any role to play in the outworking of our salvation. In our desire to avoid the notion of ‘merit’, we can end up denying the plain teaching of Scripture about the necessity of good works. The language of ‘participationist’ theology becomes suspect, and the teaching of Jesus (“love your neighbour as yourself”) and James (“faith without works is dead”) downplayed. Here, as elsewhere, it is a case of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. God saves us by his sovereign grace, and true faith makes a real difference in a person’s life. The perils of separating these things, which God has joined together, are seen in the teaching of Zane Hodges and others, who argue that it is possible to receive Jesus as Saviour without submitting to him as Lord. Nor should our fear of ‘merit’ theology deter us from seeking to imitate Christ.
It is seen as weakening the call the evangelise Jewish people
After all, as New Perspective people argue, Judaism always was a religion of grace, rather than of merit. Indeed, some argue for a two-covenant theology – one for Jews, and the other for the rest of us. But, notwithstanding the Jewish origins of the Christian faith, this cannot be sustained from the teaching of the New Testament.
Concerns have also raised in some quarters that the New Perspective does not take sufficiently seriously the human condition, that it does not adequately deal with the issue of justification in relation to the final judgment, and that it does not sufficiently take account of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
Continuing to summarise Michael Thompson’s helpful booklet on this subject, we come now to consider some of the benefits offered by the New Perspective.
Back to the Bible
Discussions around the New Perspective have sent us back to Scripture, to see if what we thought was being taught there is so, or whether our understanding has been influenced too much by the categories and concerns of Luther and others.
Our Jewish roots
The New Perspective has also drawn attention to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. This affects both our reading of the Bible and also how we relate to Jewish people today.
Building on the previous two points, the New Perspective helps us to understand particular teachings within Paul’s letters. For example, it suggests that the ‘boasting’ referred to in Rom 2.17, 23; 3.27-29 and 11.18 is not so much in individual merit, but in nationalistic pride, as though one had to believe in Christ and adopt Jewish practices in order become a member of God’s people.
Justification and works
The New Perspective also claims to accord a clearer place to the teaching of James’ epistle, (with which Luther had difficulty) and to those aspects of Paul’s teaching that appear to speak of a justification according to works (Rom 2:7,10).
Then again, when the doctrine of justification is given its proper (less central) place in Paul’s teaching, those aspects of his teaching that do not mention it (e.g. Luke’s reports in Acts) become less suspect.
While the New Perspective does not deny a place for personal faith, it reminds us that biblical faith is essentially corporate:-
Texts that have often been read in the past as though originally meant to answer a person’s pursuit for security now are seen to address the problem of the maintenance of barriers separating one group of people from another.
Love for our neighbours
Again, the New Perspective reminds us of the importance of love for our neighbours, warning us against antinomianism.
A personal response
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 in Luke 11 and Luke 18, for example, 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!”