The New Perspective on Paul is a theological movement that achieved widespread popularity in the first decade of the twenty-first century. While the viewpoints among New Perspective proponents are not monolithic, all generally insist that the teaching of second temple Judaism should be the guiding standard for understanding the background of Pauline theology. New Perspective adherents also generally believe that historic Protestantism has fundamentally misread the Apostle Paul by reading Reformation-era debates back into his works. Consequently, theologians of the New Perspective have recast the Reformed understanding of justification and the gospel. Some New Perspective scholars have offered readings of Paul that are not substantially different from interpretations of Paul proposed by Roman Catholic theologians during the Reformation. Many New Perspective thinkers have asserted that “the gospel” is not the message about how an individual is saved; rather, it is has to do with how one identifies the members of the new covenant community. These theologians radically redefined the Protestant and Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. Many Reformed theologians offered strong and nuanced critiques of the New Perspective throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
The phrase “New Perspective” was coined by James D.G. Dunn in 1982 to encapsulate a growing movement of biblical studies scholars who were recasting the way that Protestants have historically understood the Apostle Paul’s teaching about justification. Among the most significant figures who paved the way for the movement were George Moore, George Howard, and Krister Stendahl. James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, and N.T. Wright later developed, synthesized, and popularized many ideas of those earlier thinkers. Perhaps the most influential figure of the New Perspective on Paul in Reformed evangelical Christianity has been Wright, former bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright has likened himself to a new Martin Luther because of his new way of thinking about justification.
Proponents of the New Perspective of Paul have maintained that the Reformers misunderstood Paul’s arguments regarding justification because they had a faulty grasp of the religious dynamics of second temple Judaism. They assert that historic Protestantism has tended to read a self-righteous moralism into first-century Jewish thinking that was not actually present. Proponents of the New Perspective have insisted that the rabbinical literature of the second temple period reveals that the Jewish leaders of Paul’s day had an essentially gracious understanding of God’s covenant. This, in turn, has led adherents of the New Perspective to redefine Pauline theological constructs such as “works of the law,” “faith/faithfulness,” and “the righteousness of God.” Adherents of the New Perspective have especially focused attention on Paul’s arguments about justification in Romans and Galatians.
Some of the arguments of New Perspective adherents are markedly similar to those advanced by sixteenth-century Roman Catholic theologians in response to the Reformers’ teaching about justification by faith alone. The Reformers taught that Paul’s arguments about justification by faith alone were built on his contrast between “works of the law” and “faith in Christ.” The Reformers found in Romans and Galatians a similarity between the many self-righteous Jews in Paul’s day and the self-righteous Roman Catholic religious leaders in their own day. In response, Rome suggested that the Reformers had misread Paul and that “works of the law” were merely Jewish ceremonial markers rather than attempts to keep the law for justification. In this way, Roman Catholic theologians tried to counter the Reformers’ argument for justification by faith alone in favor of their belief in justification by faith plus works. John Calvin explained how Roman Catholic theologians insisted that “works of the law” in Paul’s letters were merely ceremonial laws (i.e., Jewish markers) when he wrote: “In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow.”
By redefining Paul’s references to “works of the law,” New Perspective thinkers have diminished the strength of Paul’s contrast between justification by “works of the law” and justification “by faith in Christ” in texts such as Galatians 2:15–16. Instead of contrasting personal efforts to keep the law for righteousness and receiving imputed righteousness by faith alone in Christ, New Perspective adherents argue that, based on their understanding of common first-century Jewish theological beliefs, Paul is not making this contrast at all. Sanders, Dunn, and Wright conclude that Paul is speaking about how one becomes a member of the covenant community; it is not by Jewish ceremonies but by the faithfulness of Christ. Thus, the New Perspective understands justification in a fundamentally different way from that of historic Reformed theology. Rather than seeing justification as concerning how one is accepted before God as righteous in His sight, the New Perspective insists that justification is about how one identifies as a member of the covenant community. By way of brief response, we can note that while identifying members of the covenant community is an important theme, it is not central to Paul’s theology. Paul’s argument about justification—namely, how one obtains a righteous status before God—is central. To say that this is not Paul’s primary concern is to fundamentally misread significant portions of Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, Galatians, and Philippians.
Proponents of the New Perspective have redefined many of Paul’s other related theological constructs regarding justification. The most pronounced of these is Wright’s emphasis on eschatological justification on the basis of good works. In fact, the widespread reception of the New Perspective in the early 2000s is due largely to the prolific and popular writing of Wright. Wright’s 1997 book What Saint Paul Really Said intensified the theological controversy over the New Perspective. In this work, Wright explicitly denies the legal (law court) aspect of the doctrine of justification and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. He writes: “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. . . . To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works.”
By rejecting the biblical teaching about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, however, Wright undermines one of the foremost doctrinal concerns of the Protestant Reformation and, as noted, one of Paul’s chief emphases. The doctrine of justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer is succinctly summarized in Westminster Larger Catechism 70: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”
The Protestant Reformation recovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone as essential to the gospel, but leading proponents of the New Perspective essentially reject this understanding. Instead, New Perspective theologians have suggested that “justification” is not “the gospel.” In What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright makes the following assertion: “I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’ It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.”
In his Tabletalk article “What Does Justification Have to Do with the Gospel?” Sinclair Ferguson helpfully critiqued this statement. He writes:
There is a false dichotomy suggested in the notion that the gospel is not justification by faith but the latter is “implied” by the gospel. But this “either-or” way of thinking expresses the logical fallacy tertium non datur (if not A, then necessarily B). Thus, the gospel is Christ OR it is justification by faith.
This is falsely to abstract justification from Christ, the benefit (the implication of what Jesus did) from the Benefactor (the person of Jesus who has accomplished His work). But as Paul notes, Christ Himself is made righteousness for us (1 Cor. 1:30). Justification cannot be abstracted from Christ as if it were a “thing” apart from or added to Him. Christ Himself is our justification. We cannot have justification without Christ! Nor can we have Christ without justification! Insofar as this is true, we cannot say that Christ, not justification by faith, is the gospel.
Throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century, many Protestant theologians published strong refutations of the New Perspective. The most significant publications include the two volumes titled Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism edited by D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul by Robert J. Cara, Perspectives Old and New on Paul by Stephen Westerholm, and Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response by Guy Prentiss Waters.
Those who deny imputation as the grounds of our justification declare it to be a legal fiction, a miscarriage of justice, or even a manifestation of cosmic child abuse. Yet at the same time, it is the biblical explanation for the ground of our redemption. No biblical text more clearly teaches this concept of transfer or imputation than that of Isaiah 53, which the New Testament church singled out as a crucial prophetic explanation of the drama of redemption. The New Testament declares Christ to be our righteousness, and it is precisely our confidence in the righteousness of Christ as the grounds for our justification that is the focus of the doctrine of justification by faith.
The claim of the new perspective is that first-century Judaism was not a merit-based religion but a covenant community created by God’s grace. Far from suffering the affliction of an introspective conscience, and a struggle to keep the law by works-righteousness, mainstream Judaism understood that through God’s covenant they were already right with him. The law ( nomos ) was not a means of getting saved but of staying saved. Keeping God’s law was the appropriate response to God’s covenant mercy.
[Accordingly] Paul’s problem with Judaism was not works-righteousness in the sense understood by the Protestant Reformers, but the insistence on a covenant status for Jews and Jews alone.