A Reformed Critique of the New Perspective

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The New Perspective on Paul, as it has been called, raises serious questions for Protestants committed to the doctrine of justification by faith. This school of thought does so in two ways. On the one hand, it questions the Apostle Paul’s relationship to-and understanding of-Judaism. On the other hand, it undermines the Reformation’s understanding of Pauline theology. To put it bluntly, this reassessment narrows the distance between Paul and the Judaism of his day while it widens the gap between Paul and the Reformation. Also, these questions themselves raise other questions, which cast doubt upon the New Perspective’s conclusions.

A standard test case for New Perspective advocates has been the Reformation’s understanding of Paul. With few exceptions, they disparage the tendency to see the reformers’ conflict with Rome as a virtual rerun of Paul’s opposition to Judaism, specifically of the argument Paul makes in Galatians. I remain unpersuaded, however, that the classical Protestant interpretation of Paul is fundamentally wrong. Granted, the first-century Mediterranean world of Paul may not have been as “introspective” as the West since Augustine; nor should we impose Luther’s conversion experience and spiritual biography on Paul, for example, in understanding the Damascus road event. Admittedly, Paul may not have passed through a crisis of conscience as Luther did. Yet neither should we exclude the possibility that, at least in some respect, psychologizing Paul on this matter, on the basis of his letters and material in Acts, seems an unwarranted and risky undertaking. But time, I believe, will make increasingly clear the essential continuity between the arguments of Paul and the reformers.

The counter-protest, massively launched by E. P. Sanders, is that Second Temple Judaism, unlike late medieval Roman Catholicism, is a religion of grace, not merit. But that summary characterization begs a host of historical and theological issues. For one, Rome conceives of salvation, from beginning to end, as by grace. It understands its sacramental system as a whole, beginning with baptism, as mediating saving grace. Its eventual distinction between condign and congruent merit (see FYI on page 28), for instance, reflects the effort to subordinate or contain the notion of merit within that of grace, to make merit attainable by grace. At the same time, ongoing study clearly shows that a meritorious mindset, though perhaps not as uniform as past scholarship has maintained, is nonetheless not foreign to the Judaism of Paul’s day (e.g., 4 Ezra; Josephus).

The Righteousness of God in Christ

But what is crucial here, of course, is not the language of grace, nor any notion of divine gratuity. The reformers, following Paul and the other biblical writers, came to recognize that saving grace is meaningful and real only as the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ. Only such righteousness as displayed in Christ (as the faithfulness of God to himself and his covenant promises embodied in Christ) is reckoned, by faith alone, as the believer’s. In addition, what is inherently true of Christ-the head of the body-is by imputation true of his members. The reformers, faithful to Paul, recognized that where righteousness is not so understood and experienced, all speaking about grace is ultimately pretense. Such effort by sinners is inherently merit-oriented effort, whether or not it is recognized as such. At the end of the day, Rome and “the present Jerusalem” (Gal. 4:25), despite all differences, are one in this regard.

One overall effect of the New Perspective tendency to reduce or moderate the distance between Paul and the Judaism of his day is that it appears to assume a basic continuity between the Old Testament and the various mainstreams within Judaism. For both James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, two leading spokespersons for the New Perspective, the Old Testament roots of Paul’s theology and its roots in Second Temple Judaism seem to be interchangeable, or at least continuous. What one would think is an obvious distinction, at least from an evangelical perspective, is repeatedly glossed over. There is little appreciation or even recognition that Old Testament revelation and Jewish religion and theology are not the same thing and are often in conflict, even in Old Testament times and especially in Paul’s day. Nor is there an appropriate awareness of the canonical distinctiveness of the Jewish scriptures in relation to subsequent sources. The piety expressed throughout the Hebrew prophets and elsewhere in the Psalms, for instance, is normative in a way that the Qumran materials [those extra-biblical writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by an apocalyptic Jewish sect at the time of Christ], are not, even when similar sentiments are expressed in the latter.

This is not to deny a factor of continuity, that there remained in Paul’s day a faithful remnant (e.g., Rom. 11:5; cf, Luke 2:25ff., 36-38), individuals found, no doubt, among the various mainstreams, even within the religious establishment (Luke 23:50-51; cf. John 3: 1ff.; 7:50-51; 9:16; 19:39). But these, as the idea of the remnant suggests, were the exception. Wright relentlessly insists that Paul “did not (as it were) abandon Judaism for something else” throughout his writing. But, while Paul certainly did not abandon the religion of the Old Testament, just for the sake of fidelity to it and to the God of Abraham, he most certainly did abandon the dominant streams in the Judaism of his day, which were relentlessly opposed first by Jesus and then by himself. Judaism and Christianity are two different religions. Not to recognize that fact will inevitably distort the interpretation of Paul as well as Jewish-Christian dialogue today.

In fact, both Dunn and Wright see their reduced distance between Paul and Judaism as affording advantages and new opportunities for such dialogue. This is explicit in Dunn; more implicit but, I judge, pervasively present in Wright. In this regard, the difference in how each construes Paul’s view of God will inevitably come into play. For Wright, Paul’s trinitarian conception is found to be quite at home within first-century Jewish monotheism. Dunn, primarily in view of that same monotheism, argues for a less than fully trinitarian conception. It is not difficult to imagine that in current dialogue, Dunn will receive the more sympathetic hearing.

As to the alleged distance between the reformers and Paul, the flaw of the reformers is seen, in large part, in their preoccupation with Pelagian-ism; the inveterate tendency especially of the Reformation tradition has been to read this preoccupation into Paul. This, thereby, attributes to him the Reformation’s own misunderstanding of Judaism as “proto-Pelagian,” “a Pelagian religion of self-help moralism” (Wright). This charge is a common refrain in Wright and also repeatedly surfaces in Dunn’s discussion of Paul’s teaching on the law and justification.

Apart from the reminder above that meritorious and, therefore, moralistic tendencies are by no means nonexistent in Second Temple Judaism, a further observation needs to be made. When I consider the conclusions that our two authors reach on Paul’s understanding of sin, I cannot help but envision the tired but knowing smile of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, observing, as he surveys the ebb and flow of Church history, that it’s not so much the ghost of Pelagius that he fears as the ghost of semi-Pelagius!

Both authors speak of sin as incurring guilt, but on what constitutes guilt Wright is at best unclear or silent. Dunn is clearly deficient. Both fail to affirm that Paul teaches the imputation of Adam’s first transgression (see Romans 5:12ff)-that guilt for sin is an essential factor in original sin (the condition of sin into which every human being is born). Dunn, in fact, rejects that Romans 5 teaches this: “Nevertheless, guilt only enters into the reckoning with the individual’s own transgression.” “Human beings are not held responsible for the state in which they are born. That is the starting point of their personal responsibility, a starting point for which they are not liable.”

The Pelagian/semi-Pelagian axiom that ability is the measure of accountability could hardly be expressed more clearly. Where, in this or similar fashion, personal responsibility is removed from the notion of original sin, then the undeniable “givenness” of sin as part of the human condition from birth, sin in its corporate dimensions, will be seen, inevitably, as an alien, enslaving power. The accent then will fall on sinners as helpless victims. Correlatively, accountability and guilt will be limited to personal, voluntary acts and so give rise to the temptation to find remedies that are essentially moralistic.

Finally, on two matters integral to Reformed theology, the New Perspective represents a consensus that appears to hold, with few exceptions, in the study of Paul today, especially within the historical-critical tradition. First, there is little sympathy for, in fact downright antipathy toward, any notion of imputation. Second, and certainly related to the first, is the matter of double predestination. Referring to Romans 9:14-23, Dunn speaks of “a fascination, part attraction at its theological rigor, part repulsion at the portrayal of a God so seemingly arbitrary,” but warns against being “sidetracked into debates about predestination” and rejects “that election in that passage (Rom. 9:1-23, or elsewhere in Paul for that matter) concerns individuals and their eternal destiny.” Though “a full-blown predestinarianism seems to be the unavoidable logic, and Paul presses a little way down that road … to push further down that road is quickly to lose Paul and the thread of his argument.” That thread concerns election, understood exclusively as corporate, with a view to God’s role for Israel among the nations. Negative statements encountered serve to highlight “the positive side of God’s purpose”; together they form “God’s eschatological chiaroscuro” [chiaro-scuro: light and dark parts in a work of art]. All told, “we may say that Paul’s theology of predestination is itself caught within the eschatological tension-the brighter side of predestination as a function of the already, the dark side of predestination as a function of the not yet of God’s ultimate purpose of mercy” (italics added).

Wright does not address the issue of predestination directly, and undoubtedly it was not within his purview to do so. Where he does touch on election, it is viewed as corporate (Israel as a nation). It does seem pertinent, however, to observe that, given his orientation at a number of points already noted, particularly that God’s wrath and justice are penultimate (and no more than metaphorical) expressions of his love, it is not clear that he would differ substantially with Dunn.

To be sure, both Wright and Dunn, in espousing the New Perspective, have much to teach serious students of Paul. But those convinced by their own study that the Reformation tradition is preponderantly faithful to the apostle, particularly to his teaching on sin and salvation, will have to conclude that the interests of that tradition are not well served by either.


This article is adapted from “Paul the Theologian,” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000) 121-41.

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