The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul
by Ligon Duncan
Many intelligent Christians are puzzling today over what is being called “the new perspective on Paul.” Seminary students run across it in their New Testament course reading and perhaps class lectures. Pastors hear about it from fledgling theologues wanting to impress them with their newfound knowledge of the latest thing in Pauline studies. Laypeople find it being peddled ubiquitously on the internet, on websites, in chatrooms or in various online discussion groups, as well as in numerous books on the Christian market, even from conservative evangelical publishing houses.
Why Talk About It?
We take up this subject mindful of the wise old dictum of the Westminster divines, who advise that in “confutation of false doctrines,” the preacher “is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.”2 Our very taking up of the subject of the new perspective on Paul, then, assumes several things. (1) The new perspective on Paul is not some ancient matter, of no relevance to the current spiritual health of God’s people, being trucked out to impress them with the preacher’s skill in historical theology, New Testament exegesis and contemporary hermeneutics. (2) The new perspective on Paul is not a subject taken up unnecessarily. Indeed, to fail to take it up would leave church members, ministers and ministerial students vulnerable to an opinion that is, at the very least, undermining the definition of, and confidence in the historic Protestant understanding of, the Gospel itself. (3) The new perspective on Paul is productive of dangerous errors; errors which are increasingly common pertaining to our understanding of the nature of the Gospel, the meaning and importance of justification, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and more. And thus it needs to be understood and addressed so as to be confuted soundly. This presentation is one step in that direction.
Never Heard Of It
It may well be that you have never heard of the new perspective on Paul. If so, after you have heard this talk, you will have been introduced to something of its background, and its main ideas and assertions, as well as its problems. Perhaps this will help prepare you for encounters with the purveyors of the new perspective in the future, or to be intelligently skeptical of it when you run across it in books and commentaries. On the other hand, some readers may well have already read material, in the process of keeping up with what’s going on in Pauline studies today, or in talking with a young ministerial student in your congregation, or with whom you have regular contact. Perhaps this student has become intrigued by and enamored of this new approach to understanding what Paul is saying in his letters. Maybe the student has articulated some opinions to you that sounded a little bit different from what you had always believed, and which were divergent from what you’d learned from John Calvin, Charles Hodge, John Murray, John Stott, William S. Plumer, Leon Morris, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Don Carson, Douglas Moo, Tom Schreiner, or even C.E.B. Cranfield as to the basic issue and argument of Paul in Romans. Maybe you couldn’t quite put it all together. It didn’t add up and you didn’t know how to respond, but you knew that something wasn’t right. Well, perhaps this little presentation will help you.
How This Talk Might Help
In fact, I can conceive of three ways that this talk may be useful to pastors. I hope (1) to help confirm your understanding of the Gospel and justification, (2) to help equip you engage ministerial candidates on these matters, helpfully and intelligently, and (3) to help prepare you to minister to those in your own congregation who may be confused by this teaching.
First, if you have been reading some of the new perspective material and have had some doubts raised in your own minds about what you have been preaching and teaching about justification, I hope to confirm to you that the Reformers understood Paul correctly, and that you are, in fact, preaching Paul correctly when you speak of justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” I want to confirm to you that that’s not a contorted understanding of Paul resultant from the contextual domination of late-medieval, early-Renaissance misreadings of Paul, but an accurate reading of Paul, a reading that you can be confident of.
Second, you may well be talking with a young evangelical ministerial student of some promise who has been impacted by these new approaches to Paul. Precisely because you are spiritually concerned for the student and for those who may potentially sit under his ministry, you need to know about this issue. I want to equip you to have an intelligent conversation with that student, and even to be able to show him the problems and weaknesses and consequences of the new perspective.
Third, there may be someone in your congregation who has picked up a copy of What Saint Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright. Maybe he or she was very impressed with what Wright did in responding to the “Jesus Seminar,” impressed by what he did there in defending certain historic Christian affirmations about the person, life, ministry and teaching of Christ. Perhaps this led the person to a high regard for Wright’s abilities, and thus to an expectation of Wright’s basic orthodoxy on other matters. Consequently, that member may either be confused by or have embraced some of Wright’s ideas - ideas that might not be so helpful for their understanding of the Gospel (or for general biblical interpretation for that matter), and you may need to have a conversation to help them. I want to help you do that, accurately and pastorally.
So at least in those three areas, I hope that what we do today is helpful. Certainly, my goal is more than simply an abstract discussion of a new trend in New Testament Studies.
An Outline of Our Project
Here is what I want to accomplish in outline form. We want to ask and answer seven questions.
- What is the new perspective?
- What is the historical background of the new perspective?
- What are the concerns and agendas of the new perspective?
- Why is the new perspective so attractive to young evangelicals?
- What are the problems with the new perspective?
- What good has or can come out of the debate on the new perspective?
- What are some good resources for studying the new perspective?
To elaborate, first, I simply want to ask and answer the question, “What is the new perspective on Paul?” I will draw on both proponents and critics of the so-called new perspective in order to ensure a helpful and accurate definition.
Secondly, I want to ask and answer the question, “What is the historical background to the new perspective?” E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) was the revolutionary catalyst for the current discussion and state of opinion. His work articulated interpretive tendencies that had been quietly building over the previous thirty years. His work came down with a crash on Pauline studies to the point that you can’t talk with very many people in the New Testament field, even in the evangelical world, who haven’t been influenced to a some degree or another by the conclusions that have come out of that book — for better or for worse. So I want to ask “What is the historical background to the new perspective?” and I’ll give you a little bit of the pre- and post-Sanders’ Pauline interpretation.
Thirdly, I want to ask and answer, “What are the concerns and the agenda of the new perspective on Paul?” We will look at four major areas where advocates of the new perspective would like to see a shift in opinion. They are aiming for an historical-contextual reconstruction, an exegetical reorientation, an historical-theological reassessment of reformational interpretation of Paul, and a practical redirection.
Fourthly, I want to ask and answer, “Why is the new perspective so attractive to young evangelicals?” I’m going to be zeroing in today on N.T. Wright. He is the writer who has the clearest evangelical pedigree, has the largest evangelical audience, and who is, in fact, more evangelical than the other major authors in this particular area. So, naturally, he is having more of a hearing in our circles than other authors, and thus I want to concentrate on him. It’s hard to do justice to this subject, even limiting ourselves to Wright, in the short time we have. But we can at least be suggestive as to reasons why some young evangelicals are so attracted by this. I’m going to venture at least eleven surmises in answer to this query.
Fifth, I want to ask and answer, “What are the problems with the new perspective?” I want to outline four problem areas that I see. They relate back to the concerns and agendas of the new perspective in historical-contextual, exegetical, historical-theological and practical matters.
Sixth, I want to ask and answer, “What good has or can come out of this new perspective?” This, of course, assumes a negative assessment of the project on the whole (and, by the way, I want to reiterate that it is not my purpose here to give a complete assessment of this movement or of its assertions or of all of its helpful aspects); but this question also assumes that however negative an assessment we may have of the new perspective, there are still providential benefits from wrestling with its challenges.
Then, seventh and finally, I want to ask and answer, “What are some good resources for studying the new perspective? There I’ll give you some bibliography, so that you can study this matter for yourself. I’ll offer primary and secondary sources, internet resources and an annotated bibliography.
I. What Is The “New Perspective” On Paul?
Let’s start, then, with “What is the new perspective on Paul”? Let me say at the very outset that there is no such thing as “the new perspective on Paul” if you mean a unified, uniform, comprehensive theory or mode of interpretation about which there has come to be a broad consensus agreement. The three “leading exponents,” Sanders, Dunn and Wright all have different twists to their approaches, though they share certain basic premises. We really should call it “the new perspectives on Paul” (hereafter we will often abbreviate this as NPP).
So there are several major proponents who give varying versions of this new reading on Paul. For around twenty years now, this “new” approach to reading Paul’s polemics with Judaism has been making waves in the field of New Testament studies. The ground-breaking work of E.P. Sanders (formerly Dean Ireland’s Professor of Exegesis, Oxford, and now Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Duke University, and a Fellow of the British Academy) in the area of Palestinian Judaism (and its relation to Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings) prepared the way for this new resuscitation of some familiar approaches to interpreting Paul’s thought. British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn (of Durham University) coined the term “the new perspective on Paul” in his Manson Memorial Lecture in 1982 and elaborated some ideas popular among various students of Paul in the post-Holocaust era of New Testament studies (among them, Krister Stendahl). But it is N.T. Wright (a prolific author and effective communicator who is formerly Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, England, lately Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in London, and now Bishop of Durham), who has most prominently contributed to the propagation of this view in the evangelical arena. 3
At the heart of the NPP’s critique of both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of Paul is the charge that Reformation-era theologians read Paul via a medieval framework that obscured the categories of first-century Judaism, resulting in a complete misunderstanding of his teaching on justification. The ideas of “the righteousness of God, “imputation,” and even the definition of justification itself — all these have been invented or misunderstood by the Lutheran and Catholic traditions of interpretation.
In a nutshell, the NPP suggests that:
- the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit;
- Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about a “works-righteousness” view of salvation, over against the Christian view of salvation by grace;
- Instead, Paul’s concern was for the status of Gentiles in the church;
- So justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community and what are its boundary markers than about how a person stands before God. 4
Thus the NPP on Paul purports to help us
- better understand Paul and the early church in their original context,
- vindicate Paul and early Christianity from the charge of anti-Semitism;
- clip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul; and
- articulate an understanding of justification that has inherent social dimensions and thus secure a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism among evangelical interpreters of the Scriptures; among other things. 5
When I First Started Reading Wright
Perhaps I should pause right here and tell you a little bit about how and why I began to read on this topic, and my initial reaction to Sanders and Wright, in particular. I want to mention this, because I find, in talking with evangelical students who are enamored of Wright and the NPP, that they are often dismissive of anyone who has a criticism of Wright, and assume that the only reason that you are critical is that you haven’t read Wright, or that you haven’t read Wright right, or that you haven’t read enough of Wright, or that if you had only read more of Wright, you would believe that Wright was right, and so on.
Devotees of the NPP also assume, because it is frequently the case, that critics of Sanders, Dunn and Wright have read them in order to critique them. That is, critics of the NPP have picked up Sanders, Dunn and Wright to read, only after their suspicions have already been raised concerning their positions. Thus pro-NPP evangelicals dismiss their reading of Sanders, Dunn and Wright as myopic and hyper-critical.
I read Sanders before Wright, as part of my preparation for the prolegomena material for my doctoral dissertation on “The Covenant Idea in Ante-Nicene Theology.” Because I wanted to assure that the questions I was going to be asking of Patristic literature regarding the covenant idea, and that the categories I would be looking for, would both be non-anachronistic (that is, I didn’t want to read sixteenth-century categories onto first to third-century material), I did extensive reading in intertestamental literature and in New Testament background literature, primary and secondary. Again, I did this in order to make sure that the questions I asked and the categories I used would have made sense to contemporaries of the writers I was studying, and would have roots in the theological discourse of the day.
So, among the material I read on Judaism was E.P. Sanders. However, because I read extensively in this area, he was not my only window into or grid for the primary sources (as he is for so many of his devotees). Furthermore, when I read Sanders, it was easy to see that his own conclusions do not necessarily sustain his thesis. That is, I contend that one can grant Sanders his own main conclusions and still show that Second Temple Judaism had a problem with “legalism” — by direct appeal to his own conclusions! Consequently, I never felt the existential urge to reorder my whole reading of the New Testament and Paul in light of “the Sanders’ revolution” (as so many New Testament scholars have, who have been shaken by his thesis and conclusions).
I started reading N.T. Wright independently of this whole discussion. My PhD supervisor, Dr. David F. Wright, of New College, University of Edinburgh, early on told me that if I included portions of New Testament background in my thesis (as part of the prolegomena to my study of pre-Nicene Patristic covenant theology), that I would be expected in my Viva (the oral examination of my thesis) to be as knowledgeable on New Testament issues (including primary exegesis and secondary literature) as a New Testament PhD candidate would be in his exam. So he told me to get busy reading the secondary New Testament literature on my subject, in order to master the field, make the best possible argument and contribution, and defend that portion of my thesis. So I started reading a lot of New Testament studies background material. One of the first things I picked up was Stephen Neill’s interesting and excellent introduction to the history New Testament interpretation called The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986. Neill had actually done the original edition which covered from 1861-1961, and this fellow I’d never heard of named N.T. Wright had completed the last twenty-five-year section of that book. I found it a fascinating book, and also very helpful, and so had an immediately positive impression of the work of N.T. Wright. Even his preface to the new edition of Neill’s work revealed his winsome personality.
Subsequently, because I was working on the covenant idea in pre-Nicene theology, and especially looking at how eight theologians prior to 325 had used the covenant idea to structure their redemptive history, to respond to the Gnostics who denied the continuity of the old covenant revelation with the new covenant revelation, to respond to the Jews who denied the Christian reception of the Abrahamic promises, and looking at the whole area of covenant thought in that era, I picked up N.T. Wright’s Climax of the Covenant, which to that point was his major landmark work. Since then, he has written Jesus and the Victory of God and The New Testament and the People of God, and a number of other significant works that have gotten a lot of attention for him.
The Climax of the Covenant was the first monograph he produced speaking to the themes of Paul, covenant theology and the NPP. I agreed with him that “covenant theology is one of the main clues, usually neglected, for understanding Paul”6 but it also became apparent that his definition of covenant theology and mine were different. I had a generally positive response to the material, it was helpful to me in supporting aspects of my thesis, but I was often left scratching my head a lot of the time asking, “what is he doing here?”
My point, though, is twofold, first I had a generally positive response to Wright’s work, and second, I was reading Wright a decade before he became fashionable to read in the more “conservativish” evangelical community. It was not until the second half of the decade of the 1990s, when back in the United States, after a few years teaching Systematic Theology to seminarians, that I found students reading Wright and then coming to question historic, evangelical, and Reformed formulations on the doctrine of justification. In fact, some of the best, or at least some of the most intelligent students that I taught over that course of time, were deeply affected by Wright. This made me then go back and read more of Wright’s work, both his early articles and his later writings. Since that time, I’ve read most of what Wright has published, and I am committed to trying to read everything he produces (and he is very prolific).
Back To The New Perspective
So, to repeat, at the heart of the NPP’s critique of both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of Paul is the charge that Reformation-era theologians read Paul via a medieval framework that obscured the categories of first-century Judaism and resulted in a complete misunderstanding of his teaching on justification. The meaning of Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God,” the idea of “imputation,” and even the definition of justification itself — all these, according to the pro-NPP crowd, have been invented or misunderstood by both the Lutheran and the Catholic traditions of interpretation.
So, if you were to quote approvingly the answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s Question 33 as your view of Paul’s teaching on justification, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone,” and then ask N.T. Wright to comment, he might say something like this “Well, there are at least three problems with that particular answer. First of all, it doesn’t understand what justification is. Justification has a forensic aspect, true, but it primarily has to do with how you know you are a member of God’s people. Second, this definition imports an idea alien into the biblical text, the idea of imputation. Imputation is nowhere to be found, in either the teaching of Paul, anywhere else in the New Testament, or indeed anywhere in the first century context of the New Testament. Third, it misplaces the subject of justification by putting it in the category of soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, whereas justification really ought to be back in the ethical section of the Shorter Catechism under the rubric of ecclesiology.”7 That is how comprehensive the rejection of a traditional understanding of justification you would get.
In a nutshell, the NPP suggests that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit; that Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about works-righteousness (a works righteousness view of salvation over against the Christian view of salvation by grace); that Paul’s real concern was for the status of the Gentiles in the church; that justification is not so much about our relationship with God as it is about our relationship to our brothers and sisters in the church (and in particular, it’s about the status of the Gentiles in the church and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the church); thus, that justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community, and what are its boundary markers, than it is about how a person stands before God. 8
Again, the NPP purports to help us in four areas. First, it aims to help us better understand Paul and the early church in their original context — this is one of the things that I find is most appealing about it to young evangelical students studying in mainline circles, they feel like the NPP is really helping us place the New Testament teaching in its original context, whereas our traditional evangelical interpretation and commentaries are somewhat lacking in this area. I want to say very quickly, however, that you will find that most of those evangelical students who are pro-NPP have never learned anything about these contextual issues except from N.T. Wright and/or other purveyors of the NPP. So they have little to compare the contextual argument of the NPP against. That’s where Don Carson, by the way, is going to help us greatly in these two volumes that he’s doing on justification, Justification and Variegated Nomism, which I’ll tell you about a little bit later.
Secondly, it purports to help us vindicate Paul and early Christianity from the charge of anti-Semitism. As you know, since the Holocaust, since World War II, mainstream New Testament studies has been very, very concerned to address the issue of “New Testament anti-Semitism.”
This has been one of James Dunn’s interests. I heard an excellent lecture that he did in New College, Edinburgh about a dozen or so years ago on that very subject, with a concern to vindicate Paul from anti-Semitism. What often happens, however, in pro-NPP interpretations is that, in vindicating Paul from the charge of anti-Semitism, a lot of other things disappear from Paul’s theology.
Thirdly, the NPP purports to help us slip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul. The NPP says, effectively, if you’ll just understand what justification is and how it works, there no longer has to be a division between Protestant and Catholic on the issue of justification. Now that kind of a rapprochment would be a fairly significant thing to deliver through your new hermeneutic, if you really could, and so some people are very intrigued and attracted to the NPP for that very reason. Wright, in fact, argues that it is literally a sin that a doctrine that was meant to unite the church (justification, in connection with Jews and Gentiles) has been allowed to divide the church (justification, in connection with Protestants and Catholics).
Then, fourthly and relatedly, the NPP purports to help us articulate an understanding of justification that has an inherent social dimension and thus secures a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism amongst evangelical interpreters of Holy Scripture. For Wright, justification is about our “horizontal” relationships with one another and our inclusion in the covenant community more than it is about an individual’s “vertical” relationship with God. Hence, justification, is inherently, for the NPP, about the collective. It’s not about individuals, it’s about the community. Consequently, they argue that this understanding of justification better helps us to work for unity in the body of Christ, and to show how justification is a doctrine that ought to be drawing us together instead of dividing us and separating us.
The NPP In Their Own Words
Let me give you a taste of the NPP in the words of N.T. Wright. I’ll start with an article that he wrote in response to Australian Bishop Paul Barnett of the Sydney Diocese who wrote an article called, “Why Wright is Wrong.”9 In Wright’s response (often cited by pro-NPP neophytes in internet discussion as definitive proof of his orthodoxy), he tries to explain, elaborate and clarify his position on justification:
By “the gospel” Paul does not mean “justification by faith.” He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message-to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord-is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has ever heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith is a second-order doctrine. To believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Romans 5:1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table fellowship with all other believers without distinction (Galatians 2:11-21). But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus.
Justification is thus the declaration of God, the just Judge, that someone has had their sins forgiven and that they are a member of the covenant family, the family of Abraham. That is what the word means in Paul’s writings. It doesn’t describe how people get into God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but it is vital.
The three tenses of justification have often been confused, causing some of the great problems of understanding Paul. If we keep them both plainly distinguished and appropriately interrelated, clarity, and perhaps even agreement, might follow. If justification is about belonging to a single family, it would be good if that family-and its friends-could try to agree about what it means. 10
So there’s a taste of N.T. Wright on justification. With some of it, we can agree. With other bits of it, we disagree, strenuously. Some of its ad hominem polemics are directed at straw men (who has ever claimed, for instance, that we are justified by believing in justification by faith?). And some of it misses the point of Bishop Barnett’s criticism. But for a Protestant to present this as the outline or “shape” of his doctrine of justification is, well, utterly shocking.
In What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright’s short, popular treatment and summarization of some of his main themes in Pauline theology, he is even clearer. Here are some typical statements:
‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’ [the family of God]. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology [the doctrine of salvation] as about ecclesiology [the doctrine of the church]; not so much about salvation as about the church.” 11
“Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God. (I’m not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the notion of ‘relationship with God’, but we’ll leave that aside.) The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it [the problem] has to do, quite obviously, with the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?” 12
“What Paul means by justification in this context should therefore be clear. It is not how you become a Christian, so much as how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.” 13
Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as they together wait for the final new creation.” 14
Now that gives you a little peek at, a little window into the shift that Wright is making with regard to the doctrine of justification. It is interesting to me that Wright has two alterative responses to scholars from a Reformed and evangelical Protestant tradition of interpretation who react fairly strongly to this kind of spin on Paul.
Two Funny Reactions
On the one hand, he’ll say, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. This is not a big deal. I’m just trying to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching and to Paul. I’m not saying that everything Protestantism has said in connection with justification is wrong. If you adopt my view you can keep the best of what the traditional doctrine of justification gives you, with a whole lot more thrown in for no extra charge.”15 In other words, he sometimes tries to downplay the contrast between his reading of Paul and that of the Reformers, and complains that the traditional camp is just making a mountain out of a molehill in its reaction to his new articulation of Pauline theology.
On the other hand, you can find him speaking of the doctrine that Luther called the article of a standing or falling church, and which Calvin identified as one of the two keys of the Reformation, as “a second order issue.” To boot, he throws in that “imputation” is a pious fiction, and that justification isn’t about soteriology, it’s about the eccesiology. Indeed, he comes close to claiming to be the only person who has ever understood Paul.
But when he is in either of these modes he is defensive, a little hurt and seemingly uncomprehending at the vehemence with which some have met his proposals. He is “shocked” at the reaction of Lutheran, Reformed and conservative evangelicals who see his views as undermining the Gospel and the Reformation principles of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone.
Now, I have to say, I find this amusing in the extreme. Were I a Roman Catholic scholar, doing a little groundbreaking exegetical work on Mary, in which I question the deliverances of the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic church after Vatican I regarding her status in the workings of mediation, and assert that the idea of the co-mediation of Mary has not a shred of exegetical basis in the New Testament - I would not be surprised when the church’s hierarchy responded with deep displeasure. When the reaction came, I would not plead with tremulous voice, “I just don’t understand what the fuss is.” It seems to me that I would have to be fairly dense about what my church had believed for a long period of time to respond in such a way. So, it’s an interesting kind of response from Wright when he acts a bit amazed and offended at the vehemence of the rejoinder to his “modest proposal.”
Surely he knows better. One of his first published pieces was done for the Banner of Truth Trust. He’s an Anglican Bishop who is supposed to know just a little bit about the Thirty Nine Articles. He was Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, where they once-upon-a-time had a little gathering of theologians who produced the most important post-Reformation Confession of Faith, a monument of Protestant Orthodoxy — a document that had a little to say about justification. Surely he knows that to monkey with justification is to touch the primal nerve of Protestantism. I would understand an quasi-Athanasian response from Wright to his orthodox critics — “of course you are upset, I’ve just said you’ve been dead wrong for five hundred or fifteen hundred years, on a doctrine that you think is the difference between heaven and hell, and you are wrong, but I don’t care, because I’m right, and it’s important for the church that we get Paul right.” That response, I can understand. But the reaction of “you chaps are making a storm in a teacup” is just downright thick.
Another Taste of the NPP On Justification
Now let me ask you to take your Bibles out and look at Philippians 3:8-9, because I want to give you Wright’s translation of this passage. This will, again, give you a picture of the difference his view makes. The translation I have before me (NASB, 1995) says this:
8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,
This is one of the passages to which classical Protestant Pauline interpretation appeals as evidence for speaking of our justification as being the reception of an alien righteousness. It is not the attribution to us of our own inherent righteousness, but the declaration of God that we are being accepted in view of the alien righteousness of Christ.
Well, here’s Wright’s translation of Philippians 3:9, and notice that “righteousness” is now replaced by “covenant membership.” Note that transposition here. Wright says: “Paul is saying, in effect, ‘I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit. I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah, wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts in which I too will share the glory of Christ.’” 16
That is a very significant shift. “Righteousness” is translated as “covenant membership.” That’s what righteousness is, being declared by God to be a member of the righteous covenant community, it is not receiving or being credited with the righteousness of Christ. No, Wright would say Christ’s righteousness is non-transferable. The righteousness of God is God’s righteousness. It can’t be transferred to anyone else. He says it would be ridiculous to talk about the judge transferring his righteousness to the defendant in a courtroom. He says that never happens in a courtroom, and that’s not what the New Testament is talking about. Nobody can receive God’s righteousness. Nobody can receive Christ’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is undelegatably his own. So, according to Wright, when Paul speaks of the righteousness in the New Testament, which we are said to possess, he means “covenant membership.” That’s what righteousness means.
Well, that’s a quick shot of the impact of one aspect of the NPP on the way we formulate the doctrine of justification.
II. What is the Historical Background of the New Perspective?
Now, what is the historical background to this NPP? Well, if you will allow me to grossly oversimplify in the interests of time and the big picture, the traditional understanding of Rabbinic Judaism from the Reformation well into the early part of the 20th century had been a negative assessment of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism had been approached as a religion of merit and of works and criticized for that. The New Testament and intertestamental scholar, Weber, in the 1880s had written works on Rabbinic Judaism which were very critical. Those technical works on Rabbinic Judaism had influenced scholars like Sanday and Headlam in the ICC Series, and you can find similar kinds of assessments in Emil Schürer’s work on Judaism 17 — an appraisal that was influential on Bultmann and other early 20th century New Testament scholars.
A challenge came to this kind of interpretation of Rabbinic Judaism in the 1920s and from a couple of different sources. Both the Jewish scholar, Claude Montefiore, and George Foot Moore — who was neither an Old Testament scholar nor a specialist in Judaism, but who did work in this area — both questioned the “standard” interpretation of Rabbinic Judaism and gave a much more positive assessment of it.
The “Sanders Revolution”
E.P. Sanders in 1977, in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, picked up and went several steps further than these corrective interpretations of Rabbinic Judaism and argued that it was wrong to view Rabbinic Judaism as a religion of merit, as a “Pelagian” religion. He argued that we have foisted an alien schema on Palestinian Judaism and have misunderstood it.
Sanders did a lot of other things in this book as well, mind you; but Sanders is also critical of Paul. Sometimes he finds Paul incoherent and at some points not very understanding of Palestinian Judaism. So Sanders is hardly going to be adaptable by any conservative evangelical in a wholesale way. But his work was so prodigious in scholarship that it has had a tremendous impact. What Sanders did though was to change the basic assumptions of New Testament scholars about the theological context of early Christianity. New Testament scholars after Sanders have tended to argue for a greater theological continuity between early Christianity and contemporary Palestinian Judaism (to put it in Sanders’ terms, before Sanders, NT scholars thought of the relation of Christianity to contemporary Judaism as “peripheral agreement and basic disagreement” but after Sanders, they think in terms of “substantial agreements and a basic difference”).
Krister Stendahl - The NPP Before It Was Called the NPP
Meanwhile, back in the USA, long before Dunn ever coined the phrase “new perspective on Paul,” Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School had argued for a similar approach to interpreting Paul. In 1961 (in a paper given before, of all people, the American Psychological Association) and in 1963 and 1964 (in lectures given at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and later transcribed), Stendahl was already articulating some of the things that Dunn and Wright would later say about the thrust of Paul’s argument. Stendahl’s lectures were published in his Paul Among Jews and Gentiles in 1976, the year before Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism hit the bookstore shelves.
Let me just give you a taste of some of the “correctives” to our understanding of Paul that Stendahl offers. Stendahl argued that the more we consider the writings of Paul in context, the less satisfactory the Augustinian and Lutheran interpretation of Paul would be. In his famous lecture “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” he tried to show the shortcomings of interpreting of Paul as a person who was saw himself as alienated from God by sin, and thus in need of an alien righteousness, the alien righteousness of Christ, in order to be reconciled to God.
What Stendahl does is, he goes through a series of texts (from Acts, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, and elsewhere) and argues that the fact is that Paul doesn’t see himself as a man who needs to rely on the merits of an alien righteousness. Rather he sees himself to be a person who is standing in pretty good stead before God.
Stendahl asks, “does [Paul] ever intimate that he is aware of any sins of his own which would trouble his conscience? It is actually easier to find statements to the contrary. The tone in Acts 23:1, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day’ (cf. 24:16), prevails also throughout his letters.” Far from being “simultaneously a sinner and a saint” (simul iustus et peccator), Paul testifies of his clear conscience: “Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity” (2 Cor. 1:12a). He was aware that he had not yet “arrived” (Phil. 3:12-14), that he still struggled with the flesh, yet he was confident of the value of his performance (1 Cor. 9:27). He looked forward to a day when “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10), and he anticipated a favorable verdict (v. 11). He acknowledged that his clear conscience did not necessarily ensure this verdict (1 Cor. 4:4), but he was confident nevertheless. These are hardly the convictions of a man who intends to rest entirely on the merits of an alien righteousness imputed to his account.” 18
So, according to Stendahl, Paul doesn’t see himself as simultaneously a saint and a sinner. He sees himself as man who has lived with a clear conscience before God, not as a sinner saved by grace. He doesn’t need to have some alien righteousness interposed for him. We’ve just read this kind of thing on top of Paul. We’ve allowed Augustine and Luther, and others, to read their own conscience struggles onto Paul. And it’s all been done because they haven’t adequately understood Paul’s context.
The Dunn and Wright Modifications
Now James Dunn takes this “Stendahlesque approach” but assembles and develops this into a larger theological program. Both Sanders’ revision of our understanding of Palestinian Judaism and a far more in-depth exegetical treatment of the Pauline material than is found in Stendahl are combined in Dunn’s writings. If you’ve read along in Dunn’s commentary on Romans, perhaps while preaching through the book of Romans, you’ve no doubt scratched your head a bit. His Manson Memorial lecture will really pull this together and summarize it for you.
Then, along comes N.T. Wright, who takes Sanders in a different direction, jettisons some of his more objectionable ideas, and applies his contextual contributions in way that is a little more palatable for an evangelical (than either Sanders or Dunn). It is for that reason I think that N.T. Wright’s arguments are more dangerous to the evangelical community than Dunn or Stendahl or Sanders. He knows how to speak our language. He comes out of our community. He cares about what we think of his interpretive approach (Sanders does not!). He is able to set up some thought-antithesis that can draw us into this particular approach to Paul.
So that gives you just a little bit of historical background on the NPP, and there are clearly varying views and emphases amongst the major proponents (and we’ve only mentioned Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, but the list could be quite long). Nevertheless, there are some commonalities. Some things upon which there is general agreement amongst the pro-NPP crowd. Francis Watson, a former-NPP advocate, provides this summary. Allow me to quote at length.
The five points on which the new perspective seems to have reached a consensus are as follows:
(1) The dominant, post-Reformation tradition of Pauline interpretation is seriously at fault. Taking its starting-point in the Pauline antitheses of faith and works, grace and law, this view claims that Paul’s intention is to contrast the Christian understanding of salvation with the Jewish one. On the Christian view, salvation or justification is by grace alone, wholly an act of God, to be acknowledged as such in faith. In contrast to this, the Jewish view holds that it is human obedience to the law that can secure salvation. This opposition between salvation by God’s action or by human action is, however, not at all what Paul intended.
(2) So far as they are known to us, the diverse forms of Judaism practised in the period before 70CE do not teach that obedience to the law is the way to salvation. Foundational to what they teach is God’s gracious election of Israel. The Jew who observes the law is already within the covenant, the sphere of God’s mercy and grace. Law-observance is therefore a means not of getting in but of staying in, in the sense that God’s electing action always precedes and grounds the human response required by the law. In addition, it is only very serious breaches of the law that could lead to exclusion from the covenant. Otherwise, it is assumed that God is merciful and forgiving, that repentance is always a possibility, and indeed that provision is made for this within the law itself, in the form of sacrifices for sin. For Judaism, then, salvation is by God’s grace alone, although a degree of law-observance is also required. The divine election is absolute and unconditional.
(3) As a minority group within the dominant Hellenistic culture, the Jewish community was concerned above all to preserve its distinctive cultural identity as the elect people of God. Certain characteristic Jewish practices were identified as such by hostile Gentile critics, and came to symbolize and to embody the community’s self-differentiation from the wider Gentile world. Among these practices were male circumcision on the eighth day after birth, abstention from pork, observance of the sabbath, and rejection of the gods and images of all other peoples. The symbolic significance of these distinctive practices was confirmed and heightened by Gentile hostility to them, expressed for example in the actions of King Antioches Epiphanes and the Emperor Caligula. To be a Jew was above all to remain loyal to the distinctive identity signified by such practices. Once again, it is a matter of preserving the identity conferred by the divine election of Israel, and not of observing the law in order to earn salvation by one’s own efforts.
(4) It was just such a Judaism of divine election and mercy that Paul both affirmed and opposed. He affirmed it in the sense that he leaves God’s covenant with Israel intact, denounces incipient Gentile Christian anti-Semitism, and even believes that there will come a day when ‘all Israel will be saved’. If, in the heat of controversy, he occasionally said things that imply a negative view of Israel or the law, these do not represent the main trend of his thought. Yet he did oppose his fellow-Jews on one crucial point: the fact that their understanding of the covenant confined the possibility of salvation to the Jewish people. When Paul criticizes the view that righteousness comes ‘by works of law’, he is criticizing the claim that only members of the Jewish community are truly righteous. When he asserts that righteousness is by faith in Christ, he is asserting that in Christ salvation is open to all people alike, irrespective of their Jewish or Gentile origins. Over against a narrow and exclusive understanding of salvation, Paul asserts a broad and inclusive one. There is perhaps a question about whether he is justified to claim this. Be that as it may, for Paul the antithesis of faith and works has to do with the scope of God’s saving action. It has little or nothing to do with the old Protestant contrast of divine grace and human effort; it asserts that God’s saving action must be understood inclusively.
(5) This recent rethinking of Paul’s relationship with Judaism is a classic example of an interpretative problem that constantly recurs in ever-new forms. Despite two centuries and more of historical-critical scholarship, biblical interpreters continue to misread the biblical texts by anachronistically imposing on them their own theological presuppositions. It is of course pleasant to imagine that one’s own beliefs are mirrored back by the biblical texts. Yet, through rigorous application of the historical-critical method, it becomes clear again and again that theologically-oriented biblical interpretation results in serious misreadings of the text. The clash between the ‘Lutheran’ and the ‘new’ perspectives on Paul is a case in point. It demonstrates the need for a presuppositionless exegesis — the ‘presuppositions’ in question being, of course, theological ones.
Here, then, are the five points that make up the ‘new perspective’ - not the particular version of this held by any individual scholar, but the area of broad although not universal consensus. 19
III. What are the Concerns and Agendas of the New Perspective?
So, what are the concerns and agendas of the NPP? Let me draw your attention to four (and these are not unrelated to the summary points that we’ve just heard). There are at least four concerns and agendas of the NPP.
First, there is a contextual concern. The advocates of the NPP are concerned that Christian interpreters have been reading Paul in light of a misunderstanding of what he was responding to. We have been reading Paul thinking that Rabbinic Judaism was legalistic, but it’s not; and, therefore, we have misunderstood the problem that Paul was addressing. And because we misunderstood the problem that Paul was addressing, we have misunderstood Paul’s solution to the problem and, therefore, we have misunderstood justification to some extent. So the first agenda of the various versions of the NPP is to give a better historical contextual reading of Paul. This comes through in each of the above five points.
Secondly, there is an exegetical concern. The pro-NPP folk want to improve the church’s exegesis of Paul. They want to see a better rendering of Paul’s teaching embraced by the church. They want a more careful and nuanced exegesis of Paul to prevail. As we have seen, for instance, they would argue that Paul’s teaching on justification is not about right standing before God, but about how we are included in the community. Careful exegesis, they argue, establishes this point. Indeed, the proponents of the NPP claim that the church has largely misunderstood the meaning of the “righteous” and “justified” words groups in Paul. Wright wants to argue that we have misconstrued Paul’s usage of those words.
By the way, young evangelicals are often impressed by the tremendous array of exegetical argumentation that is being brought to bear on changing the way we understand certain passages in Paul. And if classical interpreters don’t retort immediately with an equal amount of amassed argumentation, the pro-NPP assumption is, “Well, Wright and the NPP have done more exegetical work on this than the ‘traditionalists,’ who are only concerned with preserving a superimposed hermeneutical grid on Paul, rather than letting the texts speak for themselves. Pro-NPP authors have paid far closer attention to the exegetical details, and their treatments have much more nuance.” And so the sheer volume of exegetical argument from the NPP side can be initially very attractive.
Third, there is an concern for historical-theological revision and reassessment. NPP advocates want to see a revision and/or a reassessment of the Protestant Reformers’ understanding of Paul. Basically, the NPP argues that the Reformers totally misunderstood Paul and the Law. Indeed, NPP advocates like Stendahl and Dunn will argue that the Reformers read Luther’s and Augustine’s own conversion experience back onto Paul. The Reformers wrongly view Judaism as legalistic, and view Judaism basically as a prototype of medieval Catholicism and, hence, misread the New Testament, says the NPP.
Mark Mattison puts it like this:
Traditional Protestant soteriology, focused as it is on the plight of the conscience-smitten individual before a holy God, must be carved out of the rock of human pretentiousness in order to be cogent. Thus it is no accident that the Reformers interpreted the burning issues of Paul’s day in light of their struggle against legalism. “The Reformers’ interpretation of Paul,” writes Krister Stendahl, “rests on an analogism when Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety. The Law, the Torah, with its specific requirements of circumcision and food restrictions becomes a general principle of ‘legalism’ in religious matters.” 20
So this is the kind of criticism that is brought against the Reformers by the various advocates of the NPP.
Fourthly, there is a practical horizontal or social concern promoted by the new perspective. The NPP folk think that there is an imbalanced emphasis on individual piety in the evangelical tradition which flows from or is related to the Augustinian/Lutheran/Calvinian misreading of Paul on justification. As a consequence, there has been an evangelical overemphasis on sin and its forgiveness in Protestant formulations of the Gospel. You will find this kind of criticism in both Dunn and N.T. Wright, by the way. The charges go something like this. Because you have read justification as about divine-human reconciliation, rather than human-human inclusion, evangelicals have overemphasized sin. Because evangelical view Judaism as legalistic, you have fallen prey to anti-Semitism. Because you have failed to grasp that Paul deployed justification in order to promote church unity, you have failed to be adequately ecumenical. And because evangelicals have failed to focus on the horizontal and ecclesiological/sociological dimension of justification, you have failed to promote the social gospel in the way Paul would have. In contrast, the NPP will alleviate us from this overemphasis on sin, reduce our anti-Semitism, improve our ecumenism, and increase our appreciation for the importance of the social dimensions of Paul’s teaching.
All four of these are concerns and agendas of the NPP. A quick read of Wright and Dunn’s popular writings will easily reveal these themes, criticisms and assertions.
IV. Why is the New Perspective so Attractive to Young Evangelicals?
Now, on to the meat of this talk. We are not attempting in this paper to provide a comprehensive description of the NPP. Though we have tried to give a helpful one. We are not presuming to offer a definitive exegetical rebuttal of the NPP. That will take books and articles and papers and sermons and more. But we are offering an important surmise of why the NPP is so attractive to some conservative evangelicals. Hence, we are asking, in light of its very strong rebuttal and rejection of traditional Reformed and evangelical thinking on justification, why is the NPP so attractive? Well, I think that there are a lot of reasons. Let me offer eleven very quickly. I will run through these and if you want to me to elaborate on them later, that’s fine. Before we begin, let me say that I am concentrating on Wright in these eleven points because it is my opinion that the NPP would be an almost nonissue in evangelicalism were it not for his advocacy of it.
First, N.T. Wright’s role in responding to the “Jesus Seminar” has given him standing in the evangelical community as a defender of Jesus and Scripture, and opened a door for his theological influence elsewhere. This has given him the ability to create some popular traction for the NPP amongst evangelical laity. He is seen as a defender of traditional Christology (though John Stott has raised some important concerns about Wright’s methodology and conclusions about the historical Jesus — Wright, for instance, is uncertain about Jesus’ Messianic self-consciousness, an automatic disqualifier in terms of genuine evangelical credentials). Nevertheless, his response to the “Jesus Seminar” has earned him credentials with many in the evangelical community. InterVarsity Press, America is enamored of Wright. So, the bottom-line is, there are evangelicals who have a base-line trust in the work that Wright is doing. They see him as “siding with the angels” on certain issues and so have given him a hearing in other areas too. Now, by the way, I do not want, in my criticism of Wright’s teaching on justification, to suggest that we have nothing to learn from N.T. Wright. He is very helpful in numerous areas, and I am suggesting to you that that very fact is getting him an audience in areas where he is not so helpful, such as his reformulation of justification.
Secondly, N.T. Wright has considerable wit, popularizing ability and writing skills. He is delightful to read. Even when you are irritated with him, he is easy and fun to read. He is obviously an able scholar. He is brilliant, winsome and prolific. So, in combination with his writing skills and popularizing skills, that makes him a very attractive figure. If you swim in the pond of academia, you will meet plenty of front-line research scholars who are dead brilliant, can write like crazy, can discover and formulate all sorts of helpful stuff, but who are lacking in basic people skills. They may be good researchers and academic-level writers, but they will bore you to tears in a lecture, have no idea how to schmooze and smalltalk, and will never be able to popularize there own original research. Wright, however, is the total package. He reads, thinks, absorbs, systematizes, formulates, simplifies, writes, markets, advocates his material with evangelistic zeal and personal appeal. Do not underestimate him.
Thirdly, the new perspective’s emphasis on the social dimension of New Testament Christianity is very attractive to the young evangelicals. Particularly, American evangelicals are attracted to this aspect of Wright’s presentation. American evangelicals have always been more individualistic than our British Christian friends. British evangelicals (from the days of the Whiggish Covenanters to the Clapham sect to John Stott) have always had a better balance between the individual and social dimensions of Christianity than we have. We are more individualistic, more suspicious of pressing the social dimensions of New Testament ethics, for fear of falling into the social Gospel or confusing “the two Kingdoms.” Frankly, a lot of my students feel very guilty about that. They feel very guilty about the individualism that their tradition has perpetuated. And along comes a “new, biblical solution” to that individualism: the NPP! Unfortunately, the solution being offered by the NPP is less than healthy and biblical. But evangelicals fall for it nevertheless.
Indeed, two camps fall prey to it. First, there are evangelicals whose social consciences are captive to dominant secular moral concerns like racism, poverty, universal health care, social welfare, income redistribution and the like. They are attracted to how the NPP brings to bear the doctrine of justification as a resource to them in addressing those concerns. Little do they realize that by transposing justification from the soteriological to the ecclesiological, they actually lose all of its true social consequences. Second, there are evangelicals who are social conservatives but who are bent on Christianity expressing itself societally. Among these are theonomists, reconstructionists, “ex-theonomists and reconstructionists” and other miscreants. It is amazing how quick they are to discard reformational soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom. There is, by the way, a logical and theological connection between their desire to promote an eccentric continuitarian approach to hermeneutics (basically, they have a “flat” view of Old Covenant and New in the progress of redemption) and their attraction to certain aspects of the NPP (with its more rationalistic approach to New Testament exegesis that expects to find, via a “history of religions approach to the NT,” that there are few ideas in the NT without inter-testamental prescursors).
But I digress. One last observation before we move on. I think that one of the answers to the NPP is robust, biblical (and by that I mean to emphasize a high view of Scripture, a higher view than held by the advocates of the NPP) teaching about community and about the social implications of the Gospel, rather than to try and find a social dimension in justification. Because if you find it there, your are going to end up losing everything and gaining not much.
Fourthly, the new perspective has a seeming exegetical superiority and historical-contextual superiority to traditional exegesis. If you read some of the best of our conservative evangelical Reformed commentaries on Romans, and you read them next to Wright and Dunn and others, who are asking more detailed questions and are engaging historical contextual issues at a level which “our” commentaries are not, it can seem as if Wright and Dunn and others are being more careful in their reading of the text than even some of the giants what we would read and appreciate. I find this to be something very compelling to some of the better New Testament students that we have in our seminaries. They feel that Wright is really taking the text more seriously than “our” men are.
One good example of a particular exegetical “problem” which has given the NPP an opportunity to score points with evangelicals was recently mentioned to me by Derek Thomas (Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at Reformed Seminary and Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson). He comments: “I have long suspected that a realized eschatological interpretation of Romans 9-11 has found in the NPP something that appeals.” In other words, whereas Romans 9-11 have often been viewed as a parenthesis or appendix in traditional Protestant exegesis of Romans (with its focus on justification or union with Christ), the NPP provides an hermeneutic that naturally explains these chapters as the capstone of Paul’s fundamental concern (which is present Jewish-Gentile status and relationship in the community of faith).
Now, let me say briefly, first, that traditional Reformed theology and exegesis are able to give just as persuasive an account of the place of Romans 9-11 in Paul’s argument as the NPP, and second, that Moo and Schreiner and Hill and Cara and others are fully conversant with these issues, and throughly equipped to rejoin the NPP at the highest level. 21
Furthermore, Don Carson’s historical-contextual work on this subject, I think, is going to help shore us up. You may have already noticed, you who are into reading about this subject, that Don has been involved with Peter O’Brien and Mark Seifrid in the production of a two-volume set called Justification and Variegated Nomism, (vol. 1, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001). Now, that is not a book that you want to read when you are sleepy. But, if you don’t have time to read this whole volume, and still want to get the fruit of what they have done - read Carson’s summary article at the end. What they have done in this book is, not to engage Dunn and Wright, but to engage the front-line scholars who are really doing the groundbreaking work in Rabbinic Judaism. They have surveyed the key research and analyzed the conclusions being drawn from it. Again, if all you have time for is to read Don Carson’s summary article at the end of the first volume, you will be really up-to-speed on what is going on in the whole area of the study of Second Temple Judaism. He gives a helpful assessment.
One thing you will find out is that none of N.T. Wright’s ideas about Rabbinic Judaism are original to him. They have all been scavenged from somewhere else and are by no means accepted as the final word in the mainstream arena of Rabbinic studies.
I say all this to make one point. Upon closer examination of the primary material of Second Temple Judaism and the major academic assessments of it in our time, the traditional Protestant exegesis of Paul actually holds up better, contextually speaking (that is, in relation to the historical-contextual setting of his debate with Judaism) than the NPP.
Fifth, the NPP is attractive to young evangelicals because of their general historical-theological ignorance, as well as that of so many pro-NPP New Testament specialists. If you don’t know what the Reformers said, then you are vulnerable to having someone else tell you what they said, and tell you wrong, and you’ll have no way of telling the difference. For instance, Dunn, when he engages in his article critiquing Luther, shows no first-hand knowledge of Luther’s writings or serious engagement with Luther’s exegesis. Carl Trueman, who used to be at Aberdeen and who is now at Westminster Seminary, has done a good job of demonstrating the want and inaccuracy of pro-NPP historical assessments of Luther and the Reformers. In an essay originally delivered in 2000 to the Tyndale Fellowship at Cambridge, called “A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian, ” Trueman shows the deficiency of the NPP’s account of the Reformers’ teaching on Paul, the law and justification.22 Yet many students take Dunn’s assessment of the Reformers as dogma.
Trueman scores another point when he says, basically, “Well, I’m no New Testament scholar. Who am I to tell Wright and Dunn what Paul said about this. But I do know just a little bit about Luther and Calvin. And if their reading of Paul isn’t any better than their reading of Luther and Calvin, I’ve got some questions about their reading of Paul. Because their assessment of Luther’s and Calvin’s exegesis is so simplistic, inaccurate and dismissive, I’ve become more suspicious about their reading of Paul.”
Sixth, the new perspective offers a diminished view of sin and the issue of sin in the New Testament. I think that that kind of mood in the NPP needs to be looked at very closely. Now, N.T. Wright himself (and you have heard it in one of the quotes that I gave earlier) will go out of his way to say we shouldn’t set covenant membership over against forgiveness of sins. But the minute you say that justification is not about your relationship with God, it is about relationships in the covenant community, you have already diminished sin. Unavoidably and necessarily, you have diminished the issue of sin, and justification as the means of relief of the condemnation of sins. I think that is an issue we need to consider. Frankly, there are many people out there who are looking for relief from introspection and guilt in some other way than the way that is being offered in the traditional, biblical, evangelical teaching on the Gospel and justification (my hunch is that this was the case with Stendahl). I think that is one thing that makes the NPP attractive. It provides instant relief from introspection in an entirely intellectual manner. Call it a rationalist’s once-for-all-time auricular confession, with accompanying perpetual plenary indulgence!
Seventh, the new perspective seems to offer a solution to the Protestant-Catholic conflict. If you argue that justification is all about our unity, and then you say “isn’t it a shame that we have allowed this doctrine that was meant to provide the basis of our unity to become the basis of our division,” well, there is something profoundly compelling about that for those who are concerned to promote evangelical and Catholic dialogue.
Now there are multiple problems with this assertion, but the fundamental problem is with the NPP definition of the Gospel. But here is how this “solution” works, according to the NPP, the Gospel is not the message of justification (God declares sinners to be righteous, by faith), but rather the Gospel is “Jesus is Lord and Messiah.” The Gospel is Romans 1:1-4 not Romans 1:17 or 3:21-28. Now, once we understand that, say the purveyors of the NPP, Protestants and Catholics can come to agreement on justification. Justification is God’s declaration that you are a member of the covenant community, by faith. Well, Protestants and Catholics both believe that. So, why have we been arguing for these 500 years? We can all get back together again. It’s time to kiss the ring and reunite.
So that’s how the NPP is going to solve the impasse in Protestant-Catholic discussions. The fact of the matter is, however, that there would have members at the Council of Trent who would have been delighted to accept NPP definitions of justification. Justification never was that important in pre-Tridentine Roman Catholic teaching. It was what Reformers did that sort of raised the bar in terms of Catholic formulation on justification. Eck and Cajetan would have been delighted to hear these kinds of formulations from Luther and Melancthon, which are claimed by the NPP to be a via media. So, though the NPP suggests its view of justification as a middle way, what it actually does is give away justification at every point to the Roman Catholic teaching.
By the way, notice that the NPP definition of the Gospel makes the Gospel about the person of Christ rather than the work of Christ, and doesn’t and can’t do justice to 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 or Romans 1:16-18, and the whole context of Romans 1-3. I’ll elaborate on this a little later.
Eighth, the new perspective is attractive to some young evangelicals is because it saves Paul (and them) from E.P. Sanders. We should underestimate the power of the “Sanders crisis” for our New Testament scholars, even in the conservative evangelical world. Some young evangelical scholars read E.P. Sanders and are so shaken by his claims, and their implications for New Testament theology, that they are ready to canonize anybody who can come along and rescue them to any degree from E.P. Sanders’ thesis. That is what Wright does. He comes along and says “now look, Sanders has some good insights, but he’s not gotten it quite right (especially with this whole ‘solution to plight’ business). We can learn some things from him. We needn’t take the whole ball of wax, but neither should we throw Sanders and the baby out with the bath water. So, here is workable way you can incorporate Sanders, be accepted in a mainstream setting and still be an evangelical.” I find, over and over again, talking with young scholars, that this is a very important reason they embrace Wright.24 He gives them a respectable, coherent and quasi-evangelical, rejoinder to Sanders and alternative view of Paul’s relation to Judaism. Wright saves them from Sanders, and saves Paul from Sanders, and gives them a respectable way of existing in the mainstream NT community, while embracing some of the insights of Sanders, but not his whole approach.
Ninth, I find that Wright’s overly realized eschatology is attractive to students today. Preterism is all the rage in some conservative Reformed circles these days. The “already and not yet” is out, and the “been there, done that” is in. NT eschatology, for the preterist, is retrospective and realized. Well, along comes Wright, with his very this worldly eschatology, and provides a high-powered academic justification for the low-rent forms of preterism circulating in some places today. And they love it. So I have found some students who have gotten into Wright via his eschatological approach to New Testament theology.
Tenth, another reason the new perspective is impressive to some evangelicals is that all that they know about Second Temple Judaism, they have learned from E.P. Sanders or N.T. Wright. They didn’t know anything about Second Temple Judaism before they picked up Sanders and Wright, and so their interpretive grid is entirely formed by a combination of their own inchoate views and a Sanders or Wright rendering. Because what they know about the Judaism of the NT age they know from Wright or Sanders, they have no way to cross-reference it.
Many of the people that went to the Hugh Miller Exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2001 knew nothing (or hardly anything) about him before they went to the exhibit. Consequently, the National Museum, however fair-minded the exhibitor wanted to be, could assert all sorts of ridiculous things about Hugh Miller because so few out there today know anything about him (though he was a brilliant nineteenth-century scientist, collector of oral folk history, prolific author, committed evangelical Christian, lay leader in the church, and editor of the Free Church Witness). It’s the same with PBS specials on various subjects about which the general public has not a clue. “Well, scholarly opinion has determined that Jesus never claimed divinity,” some pundit assures, from his desk in an Ivy League school or Ox-bridge. Well, the man on the street hasn’t a clue about where to begin to go to challenge that supposed scholarly consensus. It’s the same thing with Second Temple Judaism. How many pastors, seminary students, or even postgraduate students in New Testament have spent considerable time in the primary sources of Second Temple Judaism? How many of them have read enough to know whether to be impressed or not by Wright and Dunn.
Consequently, having read Sanders they have a hard time appreciating the contributions of pre-Sanders and non-Sanders scholars of Judaism. Still, they are ready to demand a wholesale reinterpretation of the NT on the basis of a historical-contextual theory based upon conclusions drawn from primary sources about which they don’t know enough to cross-examine.
Eleventh, Wright has provided a coherent (if reductionistic) New Testament theology for evangelicals trying to work in a mainstream academic setting. Many mainstream NT scholars reject the very idea of a coherent NT theology. Wright, however, has been laboring valiantly, intelligently and prolifically to invent and articulate one. One that even resonates, at points, with the evangelical tradition. This is very impressive to a NT scholar who is scared of being viewed as a “fundamentalist” by his/her colleagues, but who wants to stay an evangelical and still be respectable in the “guild” one day. Wright’s system puts him on the extreme right wing, in some ways, of the academe. Hence, evangelicals are attracted to him as “one of us” who has “made it” in the academic world.
Well, there are eleven things that attract evangelicals to the NPP. It’s a surmise, but a start.
V. What are the Problems With the New Perspective?
Let me rush on, and suggest the problems in the NPP are precisely in the four areas of the concerns and agendas of the NPP. Let’s just walk right back through them again.
The Historical-Contentual Errors of the NPP
First, there is a historical-contextual problem in the new perspective’s interpretation of Second Temple Judaism. They have gotten it wrong. They have painted too rosy a picture of Rabbinic Judaism. Paul Zahl (Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama), who studied under Peter Stuhlmacher on the continent (no mean student of Paul, himself), has written, in a fairly recent Themelios, a little article on “The Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul.” 25 It is very insightful. He says this:
E.P. Sanders mistakes the ‘semi-Pelagianism’ of Second Temple Judaism for ‘Pelagianism’ and thus misunderstands Luther’s critique of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Luther’s grasp of Paul. Sanders is in reaction to something that doesn’t exist. He has therefore founded a movement with an illusory raison d’etre!
In other words: Sanders thinks that Luther’s struggle with Roman Catholicism was a struggle against Pelagianism, therefore Luther projected the ‘straw man’ of Pelagianism onto Judaism. This is untrue. Luther’s objection to the scholastic theology of the Roman Catholic Church was never to its Pelagianism. The Church was never Pelagian. It neither believed that salvation was according to works of the Law nor that the human being had to ‘work’ in order to gain the gracious favour of God. Medieval Catholicism was semi-Pelagian. This is to say, the Church taught that man and God were co-operators in salvation, that grace could complement and supplement human nature, and that ‘I can get by with a little help from my friends’ (The Beatles, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘). Luther and the Church of Rome agreed that salvation was by faith. The difference was that Luther said it was by faith alone. We are not participants with God, we are not co-creators with him, we are not in any kind of relationship that involves mutuality or co-dependence [when it comes to justification and saving grace]. Salvation is a one-way street! The sola in sola fide is the thing.
But when you read most accounts of Judaism, both ‘then’ (i.e., in Jesus’ and Paul’s time) and now, you see very quickly that Judaism operates in what Christian theologians recognize as semi-Pelagian categories. Judaism, then and now, understands the will human beings to be free, more or less. With support of the community, considerable leeway from the standpoint of the gracious God, and the extensive possibilities for repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, the human being can fly right. Judaism receives the Christian idea of original sin as overly pessimistic. Judaism shares with Christianity the hope of God’s grace to sinners, as Sanders rightly pointed out. However, the New Testament understands the human condition as less tractable, less subject to effort and amelioration than Judaism generally does. Luther understood from Paul that Judaism did not go far enough in its analysis of the human problem. Luther’s inherited religion had been semi-Pelagian, as Judaism was and still is.
Sanders and his partners in the New Perspective have missed completely the distinction between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Therefore they understand neither Luther nor Paul, nor are they aware of the vital difference in anthropology that distinguishes rabbinic Judaism from Pauline Christianity. 26
Now, I think it is a very insightful comment. I have already contended that you can read Sander’s estimation of Palestinian Judaism, grant him all his main conclusions of “finding,” and still show that Palestinian Judaism is teaching a semi-Pelagian view of salvation. Human-merit theology is just as much a problem in the theology of semi-Pelagianism as it is in Pelagianism, but it is far more subtle. Basically, Sanders and Wright and other proponents of the NPP say that “unless you can show me the crassest, most blatant examples of merit theology, then the Rabbinic Judaism of the day is alleviated of the charge of merit theology.” But semi-Pelagianism, and we know this pastorally, is subtle and as elusive as an eel. The person who is trying to combine grace and works in salvation is the hardest to get to and the one most easily self-deceived.
So there is a historical-contextual problem (that leads to a huge pastoral-theological problem). They have gotten Rabbinic Judaism wrong. Grant Sanders all his conclusions of “finding” and we can still prove from those very conclusions that Rabbinic Judaism was wrong.
The Exegetical Errors of the NPP
Second, there is an exegetical problem with the NPP. They have, demonstrably, gotten Paul wrong. I note here at least four problems with NPP exegesis of Paul. First, they constantly invoke the discredited “eastern thought vs. western thought,” “forensic vs. relational,” and “Greek vs. Hebrew” dichotomies. Operating from false antitheses, they exclude important aspects of biblical thought from their product. They need to go back and read James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language one more time. Second, they are myopic in their focus on Pauline soteriology and ecclesiology, and thus skew the results of their exegesis by failing to coordinate Pauline anthropology and hamartiology with it. Third, in the important area of the definition of justification, they’ve gotten it wrong. Chuck Hill, who teaches New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida has written a really good article on “N.T. Wright and Justification” which Richard Pratt has published in his on-line magazine, “The Third Millennium” or IIIM Magazine. Chuck offers this very insightful comment. Hill concedes and appreciates Wright’s having drawn our attention to the eschatological dimension of the New Testament teaching on justification, but then says:
Wright is right about justification being an eschatological definition, but wrong about the content of that definition.
How does one go about determining the meaning of a word when it is called into question? This happens with other controversies as well. When faced with definitional problems, how should we attempt to resolve them?
One sort of mechanical but still indispensable way is to look at lexicons. Lexicons are compiled by people who have tried to encompass all the uses, or categories of uses, of words from the sources. Lexicographers are human and fallible; they sometimes have biases and blind spots. And lexicons don”t give you the particular contexts. But they are invaluable nonetheless as integrated attempts at exhaustive evaluations of the meanings of words. Challenge: find a lexicon which defines the Greek word dikaiosune (“righteousness”) as “membership within a group” or dikaioo (“justify”) as “to make or declare the member of a group.” [It’s not even down under definition number 14d!]
Another way is to look at previous and contemporary works, etc., to try to establish current usage. The claim to have discovered and restored this broad Jewish context is central to Wright’s attempt to redefine justification. He essentially argues that in the Judaism which nurtured Paul and which Paul addressed throughout his ministry, justification is all about covenant membership in God’s Israel. Here I think he is radically wrong. He has certainly not established this in his book. The covenant relationship may be the context in which Jews discussed justification, but it was the context for their discussion of everything!
When first-century Jews talked about justification by God, as far as I can see (so far), it had to do with the last judgment, or with something in the present which would anticipate or approximate the last judgment, and it was about one’s standing before God in terms of sin. Judgment, even by Jews, was viewed as a universal thing and thus as a universal human concern. Jews would have all sorts of advantages on that day because they were Jews and members of the covenant. But the real issue was: How are you going to escape the wrath of God?
But the clearest road to the meaning of a word in a given author is the context which that author gives you, assuming that he gives you a context. In determining how the context points to a word’s meaning, we need to ask some important questions: What is the author’s train of thought and how does this concept fit within it? What words, phrases, or concepts does he equate with the word? With what does he contrast it? What kinds of other words does he use when he uses this word? This kind of information gives us the necessary boundaries for defining the word. When we do this for Paul’s use of justification, I do not see how we can follow Wright. 27
This common-sensical observation, from a first-rate New Testament scholar, who is also a classical and Patristic scholar, is crushing. I think that Chuck is onto something very helpful there.
The fourth and final exegetical error I want to point out is the way the NPP allows a provisional theory regarding the interpretation of the Judaism prior to and contemporary with early Christianity utterly to dominate its exegesis. The text takes a backseat to context, however tenuous the assertions of context are. At the very most, contextual studies can say to us “don’t forget to say this,” “don’t overlook that,” “he may have been getting at this,” “this probably should be read in the light of this contemporary issue,” and the like (this is the case, for instance, with the contribution of Gnostic studies to New Testament interpretation). But new resources for the study of and formulations of the theology of the Judaism that was contemporary to New Testament Christianity will never produce “corrective material” that completely reverses the Church’s apprehension of a clear teaching of the New Testament pertaining to salvation - at least not if one has a Protestant view of special revelation. Thus, when the Westminster Divines said: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7) they were merely applying the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, one necessary aspect of the idea of supernatural, plenarily inspired, verbal, divine revelation. 28
The Historical Theological Deficiencies of the NPP
The third general problem area of the NPP has to do with its knowledge of and assertions about historical theology. In other words, there is a historical theological problem with the NPP. The NPP has gotten the Reformers wrong. They have done a disservice to Luther’s and Calvin’s exegesis. This has been pointed out not only by Carl Trueman, but by Lee Gatiss, Kim Riddlebarger and many others who have done good historical work on this issue.
We have already commented upon Carl Trueman’s criticism of Dunn’s formulation and dismissal of Luther’s exegesis of Paul. Now in complaining about the NPP’s condescending attitude towards reformational exegesis we do not mean to imply that there is nothing that can be improved on in Luther’s and Calvin’s exegesis. We Reformed, for instance, generally find Calvin’s exegesis superior to Luther’s exegesis. There is greater restraint, care and nuance in it. And Calvin’s exegesis itself, can find help from later Reformed interpreters and from new insights that we have gleaned in these later years. We don’t approach their exegesis as infallible and beyond reform and refinement. Indeed, the main reason we value it is that it helps us understand what the Scripture’s say. To apply a helpful dictum of Hughes Old to another use: “In the last analysis we are not as much concerned with what tradition tells us about [doctrine] as we are concerned with what tradition tells us about what the Scripture has to say about [doctrine].” Reformational exegesis helps us to read Scripture rightly. And basically, in spite of all new insights and advances, the reformational exegesis of Paul on justification still stands on its own merits. I love the quotation from Stephen Westerholm (no flaming evangelical, mind you), who in responding to Dunn and Wright and Stendahl and others, says this:
Students who want to know how a Rabbinic Jew perceived humanity’s place in God’s world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul, but feel that they have nothing to learn from Martin Luther, should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters. 29
This is a nice corrective to the dismissal of the Reformers’ exegesis that is so prevalent today amongst the pro-NPP crowd. That’s the historical theological problem of the NPP. They have gotten the Reformers wrong.
The Practical Pastoral and Theological Errors of the NPP
Fourth and finally, the NPP is promotive of theological errors with significant negative practical and pastoral consequences. NPP New Testament theology tends to be reductionist or minimalist in nature, and undercuts the certainty of believers regarding the substance of the Gospel message. Allow me to suggest two examples here. First, take the common NPP teaching on the nature and content of the Gospel. Wright’s definition of the Gospel makes the Gospel wholly about the person of Christ and not about his work (“the Gospel is ‘Jesus is Lord and Messiah’ not ‘Jesus died for your sins’”). Now that kind of movement towards an incarnational approach to redemption, we have seen before in some modern quarters (Barth, Torrance, etc.). I suspect that Wright himself is somewhat influenced by those theological traditions in this area. Notice this definition of the Gospel moves back from the work of Christ to the person of Christ. Though Wright doesn’t deny the importance of the work of Christ, he rarely, if ever, attempts to articulate clearly just what that work is and how it functions. In other words, the doctrine of the atonement is underdeveloped and underemphasized in Wright’s version of Pauline and New Testament theology. But when one’s mantra is that the Gospel is not “Jesus died for your sins” but “Jesus is Lord,” it is incumbent upon one to articulate how that is an identifiably evangelical view of the Gospel, if one wants evangelical credentials.
Second, notice how the NPP diminishes the New Testament emphasis on the importance of the problem of sin and its forgiveness in relation to the Gospel. In the NPP, “righteousness” is primarily about God’s faithfulness (on the divine side), and our membership status in the covenant community (on the human side), not God dealing with us in strict justice through the atoning work of Christ (on the divine side, see Romans 1:16-18, 3:21-28) and our being acquitted of our sins by God and justified by God through the alien righteousness of Christ (on the human side). So, the minute you accept that the Gospel is not about justification, as Wright does, and that righteousness is about “covenant membership,” as Wright does, then at the very least you have a huge hole in the historic Protestant consensus on and articulation of the Gospel in relation to human sin and divine justice, in at least three areas. These areas are: (1) the nature of the human predicament, (2) the nature of Paul’s pastoral context and counsel, and (3) the nature of the Christian message of salvation. Hence, if the problem of sin is going to be dealt with in Wright’s system without devaluation of the seriousness of the problem, then he has a massive reconstruction project on his hands. His writing to this point does not assure us that he can avoid diminution of this reformational theme.
VI. What Good Has or Can Come Out of the Debate on the New Perspective?
What good has or can come out of the NPP debate? Well, a lot. Positively, the NPP has probably increased our knowledge of the theological context of the early Christian world simply by putting that issue on the front burner. Negatively, we’ve discovered how little evangelicals know or care about the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith, in some measure because of the NPP. It has functioned as a “theological ice storm” to show us where the dead limbs were on evangelicalism’s tree. That’s important pastorally. We needed to know how bad a shape we were in. Now we know and can work to do something about it. But primarily, let me suggest three things here.
First, the NPP (via its own inability to appreciate that legalism needn’t be of the most obviously Pelagian variety to be legalism indeed) has reminded us not to think of all soteric legalism as overt and crass. It usually isn’t. Legalism is usually a very insidious thing that has to be smoked out with care. The NPP, by its own failure to distinguish semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism, and by its readiness to baptize semi-Pelagianism as orthodox, has reminded us to be careful and precise as we address legalism in our own preaching of the doctrine of justification from the text of the New Testament.
Second, the NPP (through its relentless assault on a Bultmannian/Lutheran/existentialist interpretation of Paul) has sent out a warning against the overly psychologized, subjectivized view of justification that is out there on the evangelical market today. I am talking about views of justification which see it as fundamentally subjective, rather than objective. The NPP has brutally and effectively parodied these kinds of presentations of justification (though it has often mistaken them for the historic Protestant teaching). Many evangelicals tout justification as the solution to self-image problems, self-esteem deficits, and emotional neediness, rather than as the solution of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious sinners. Consequently, they fail to emphasize adequately the objective thing that it is - an objective, extrinsic act of God (with enormous subjective consequences, to be sure), an act that is not subjective, in se, at all or in any way. None of justification’s subjective benefits flow until its objective reality is grasped. And that grasped objective reality enables a right understanding and experience of the subjective blessings that accrue to the justified (assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, growth in grace, and final perseverance). The NPP has sent us a warning about an unbiblically subjective view of justification both by its critique of pop-evangelical views of justification, and through the promotion of its own view of justification, which is, ironically, fundamentally an objective declaration of the subjective (though in the case of the NPP the subjective reality being declared is primarily social, rather than individual).
Thirdly, the NPP (because of its reductionist definition of the content of the Gospel) is going to force us to think rigorously about the meaning of the Gospel. How do we responsibly and exegetically articulate the precise nature and content of “the Gospel,” justification and imputation? This is one of the concerns of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, to address the issue of the Gospel, and help scholars, pastors, and other faithful Christians derive from the New Testament, exegetically, theologically, precisely, comprehensively, and clearly, just what the Gospel is. I regularly find that students who have read the NPP, whether they are favorable or unfavorable towards it after reading it, are confused about just what the Gospel is and how to articulate it from the New Testament. This confusion is precisely because of the confusion of the NPP on this question, and its contradiction of classical Christian formulations, and not because of some mental deficiency in the students.
VII. What Are Some Good Resources for Studying the New Perspective?
Now, where should one begin in a study of the NPP? So where does a busy pastor or church officer, who wants to know what’s going on but who doesn’t want to read thirteen books on something that’s not going to turn into a sermon or a Sunday School lesson, go? Let me suggest the following materials available via the internet at “The Paul Page” www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/ (a very pro-new perspective site) or at the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals www.alliancenet.org (and look under articles for Kim Riddlebarger’s useful critique of the new perspective) or visit the “Third Millenium Ministries” website (operated by Richard Pratt) and read Chuck Hill’s and Reggie Kidd’s criticisms and descriptions of the new perspective www.thirdmill.org. The articles listed below can all be found via one of these three sites.
Justified Hesitation? J.D.G. Dunn vs. the Protestant Doctrine of Justification by Lee Gatiss. A very helpful article from the editor of The Theologian. Gatiss exposes significant gaps in James D.G. Dunn’s knowledge of historical theology, flaws in his argument and exegesis, and even his unfamiliarity with the writings and views of Martin Luther on justification and Israel.
A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul by Mark M. Mattison. Mattison is an unabashed fan of the new perspective. He offers a helpful, if giddy, introduction to its history, agenda and themes.
Reformed Confessionalism and the “New Perspective” on Paul by Kim Riddlebarger. This essay, by a friend of Michael Horton, is posted on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals website. It comes at the new perspective from the standpoint of Reformed orthodoxy. Very good.
Confronting Legalism or Exclusivism? Reconsidering Key Pauline Passages by Mark M. Mattison. An attempt to demonstrate exegetically how the new perspective better handles key Pauline texts than does the “traditional” interpretation.
A. Getting Into the New Perspective From the Inside and Out (Books)
For some of you, a passing, brief, second-hand account of the new perspective may not suffice. You may want to read a presentation of the new perspective from its most articulate advocate and then read an intelligent response from a scholar of equal standing. If so, then you’ll want to read the following books.
What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1997, is a short, popular summary of the new perspective (and more) by the chief advocate of this new approach, N.T. Wright
Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective by Peter Stuhlmacher and Donald Hagner (IVP), 2001, is hot off the press. These lectures (given at Beeson Divinity School last year, and appended with an article by Hagner) give a strong, if incomplete, critique of the new perspective by two recognized New Testament scholars
B. Getting Serious About the New Perspective (more Books)
For some of you (a very few, I suspect) even the foregoing will not do. You will want to know the origins of this approach. You will want to read and digest the arguments firsthand that culminated in the state of the argument today, as well as some intelligent, book-length rejoinders. If so, you’ll need to read at least the following, maybe even in the following order.
Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, by Krister Stendahl, contains what may be the single most important essay anticipating the new perspective. Stendahl had been formulating these views for more than fifteen years, and they didn’t “take off” until after the publication of Sanders’ work, but they are influential.
Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1977), by E.P. Sanders, is the book that caught everyone’s attention and started the “herd’s” shift to the new perspective.
Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990, by James Dunn contains important essays composed in the 1980s, including his historic 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture at the University of Manchester “The New Perspective on Paul.”
The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1993, by James Dunn and Alan Suggate is a brief, popular book that suggests some social ramifications of the new perspective on justification. It will give you a feel for some of the “agendas” of the movement.
The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Fortress), 1994, by N. T. Wright, contains Dr. Wright’s first major monograph-entry into this debate. This is a series of essays reflective of his broader views on Paul and his context.
Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (IVP), 1994, by Frank Thielman. Now the responses begin to come. Dr. Thielman (a former assistant to N.T. Wright, professor at Beeson Divinity School, and now PCA minister) both critiques and appreciates Sanders insights on Paul and the Law. A good initial reply to some of the more serious problems in the Sanders thesis, but not the last word by any means.
The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker), 1993, by Tom Schreiner, a reformed Baptist (who teaches at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky), gives an up-to-date presentation of an conservative, evangelical, account of Paul’s teaching on the law (but not from the standpoint of the Westminster Confession and the third use) and responds to the new perspective from what they would derogatorily call “a Lutheran standpoint.”
Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Wipf & Stock), 1998, by Stephen Westerholm. Westerholm is a mainstream scholar who acknowledges some of the Sanders-inspired “correctives” of the traditional Protestant account of Judaism, yet who also ably defends the classic Protestant position. N.T. Wright himself says that Westerholm gives “careful, measured, and reasonable argument for a non-Sanders position on Paul and the law.”
C. Just Can’t Get Enough? (More Articles Advancing/Critiquing the New Perspective)
You’ll find plenty of follow-up bibliography in the above-listed books, but you may still want to look at some of these articles (all are available and linked through the above-listed websites, see pages 1-2, under I.). Brief articles can sometimes help clear one’s cloudy-headiness when having just digested 900 pages of new perspective material and you can’t remember which way is north.
Articles Advancing or Describing the New Perspective
Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe by Michael Cranford. This article from New Testament Studies approaches Romans 4 from the new perspective.
Coming Home to St. Paul? Reading Romans a Hundred Years after Charles Gore. A fairly recent lecture by N.T. Wright. Typical Wright: witty, engaging, compelling (hold onto your heart when you read him).
E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul is an outline from a lecture on background to the current debate on the new perspective that was given at Tyndale House in Cambridge, U.K. It comes up on a “Google” search of the internet and is linked from “the Paul Page” as well.
The New Approach to St. Paul and to the Letter to the Romans. A summary from the web page of the Lowestoft and East Suffolk Circuit of the Methodist Church in Great Britain. Good brief summary in bullet-point style.
The Western Captivity of the Apostle Paul by Jack Poirier. An short description of the main beefs of the new perspective with the “traditional” approach. Gives the typical new perspective schtick on why we have to abandon the “Westernized” version of Paul.
Articles Challenging the New Perspective
New Views regarding Legalism and Exclusivism in Judaism: Is there a need to reinterpret Paul? by Gerhard H. Visscher. This article from Koinonia is superb and helpfully criticizes the work of Sanders and Dunn, as well as deducing the huge pastoral problems caused by the new perspective.
The Doctrine of Justification by Faith by Robert Forsyth. A very brief address by a conservative, reformed, Anglican bishop (who is a friend of N.T. Wright’s) criticizing Wright’s view of justification and spelling out the classical view.
The Eschatological Aspect of Justification by James T. Dennison, Jr (formerly of WTS-California), is a short lecture on Romans 4:25, published in Kerux, criticizing Sanders, Dunn, and various other miscreants.
Tom Wright and the New Perspective. Australian bishop and New Testament scholar Paul Barnett provides a crushing and informed criticism of Wright’s views on justification (originally called “Why Wright is Wrong”). N.T. Wright responds with a waffling column, available in the Biblical Archaeology Society e-zine, called The Shape of Justification.
- This is a lightly edited and expanded transcript of a presentation that was first given at the Presbyterian Church in America Convocation on Reformation and Revival, held at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, USA in October of 2001, and then subsequently expanded and given at the Twin Lakes Fellowship Fraternal in Florence, Mississippi in April of 2002, again at the Glasgow Ministerial Fraternal (at the invitation of Sinclair B. Ferguson) held at St George’s Tron Church Hall in Glasgow, Scotland in May of 2002, and again on September 4, 2003 at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
- The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God - this document was crafted by the Westminster Assembly of Divines and approved by the General Assembly in February of 1645. It is available in many editions of the works of the Westminster Assembly, one particularly helpful version of which is The Subordinate Standards and Authoritative Documents of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Free Church of Scotland, 1973), 147.
- In making this assertion, I do not mean to intimate that, for instance, James Dunn has no influence on or credentials with evangelicalism. He certainly does. Here, however, I do mean to claim that Wright has greater influence on evangelicalism than any other single proponent of the NPP.
- This is true of the Dunn and Wright version of the NPP, but probably not of Sanders’ position.
- Again, the third and fourth points here reflect the Dunn-Wright strand of the NPP.
- N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1991), xi.
- This is my attempt to provide an answer to a specific question from Wright’s perspective that Wright himself has not answered succinctly. My condensation of his view is based on his explicit assertions about the nature of justification. For instance, here is an email exchange between Wright and a Westminster Seminary student (who is sympathetic to his position), I will withhold names to protect the not-so-innocent: It is in the form a two question/answer dialogue with Wright. The student is asking and Wright is answering: “Q. Your exposition of justification per Paul and the Covenant makes much sense, given your understanding of justification in the theology of Paul, what room is there for the historic definitions of justification as set forth in the Westminster Confession and catechisms? A. I don’t have the Westminster Confession and Catechisms to hand (despite sitting here in Westminster) but I think I know what you mean. The historic definitions of justification assumed that the word `justification’ (shortened hereafter to jn) means `the event or process whereby someone becomes a Christian’. In other words, it appears as a synonym for `conversion’ or near equivalent. I don’t believe that that is actually how Paul uses it. When Paul talks about jn he is referring to God’s declaration that someone is within the forgiven covenant family — a declaration that will be made on the last day according to the whole life lived (Rom 2.1-16), which future declaration is anticipated in the present on the basis of faith alone (3.21-31). But when the question is raised, how does someone get in to this family, — the question the Westm. Conf. and Catech. was asking, as with much reformation thought — the answer must of course be that it’s God’s action through Christ and the Spirit, to which the human being concerned simply responds in faith. Indeed, according to Paul (Eph 2.8-10) the faith itself is `the gift of God’ — a mind-boggling idea but he is quite consistent. So the emphasis on grace and faith is exactly right, granted the question they were intending to ask. Much more to say about this but no space here — sorry!
Q. Thank you. What I have in mind in particular is the reformed definition of jn as “An act of God’s free grace whereby a sinner is pardoned of all his sin and accepted as righteous in God’s sight only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to him and received by faith alone.” As I read you there is room for this precise definition under the bigger heading of Paul’s position that jn involves one’s being received into the covenant family, the family of Abraham. As you say, a commentary upon where one is and not how one gets there. I look for this clarification as I try to understand why in the world so many Reformed men are so overwrought about what you are saying, or what they think you are saying (or not saying). It appears that they think you are abandoning, denying or wrongly modifying the historic formulations. For the life of me I cannot see the warrant for their concerns. Should I? :) A. Still a huge question, let me try again. I too am somewhat puzzled by the storm in reformed circles … I haven’t published a major book in this area, after all. Nor do I agree with Ed Sanders all down the line; the `New Perspective’ on Paul is a very mixed bag of people, and I’m quite different from some of them! The imputed righteousness thing is a problem because, though I know exactly what job that is doing within Reformed thought, I simply don’t find it in Paul. 2 Corinthians 5.21 simply doesn’t mean that (see the relevant section of my book What St Paul Really Said). Nor does 1 Cor 1.30f. The trouble is that I take every syllable of what Paul said very, very seriously, whereas the Reformed confessions were making their best shot while not always being on top of the exegesis … a huge claim I know, but I am prepared (though not here, obviously) to back it up. I claim the high ground: my aim is to be faithful to what St Paul actually said, as opposed to what any and every tradition, whether catholic, protestant, reformed, charismatic or whatever, tells me he said. I continue to find Paul totally stimulating, exciting and fascinating, which is more than I can say for any creed or confessional formula.” Wright’s utter theological confusion here is apparent to anyone conversant with the historical-theological-exegetical context of Reformed teaching on justification. Furthermore, he seems oblivious to the fundamental incompatibility of his views with that of historic Protestantism and/or to the consequences thereof.
- Let me reiterate, this synopsis is more reflective of the Dunn-Wright strand of the NPP than of Sanders. Dunn and Wright, for instance, emphasize the whole matter of Gentile “status,” whereas Sanders disagrees with Dunn on this point.
- The article was posted at http://www.anglicanmediasydney.asn.au/pwb/ntwright_persepctive.htm.
- N.T. Wright “The Shape of Justification” in the April 2001 Bible Review of the Biblical Archaeological Review website. See also chapter 7 of What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 119. [Words in brackets mine, added for clarification whilst reading the quote aloud]
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 120. [Words in brackets mine, added for clarification whilst reading the quote aloud]
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 122.
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 122.
- This is my formulation of Wright’s reaction, not a quotation. But there is ample written and spoken material from Wright’s body of work to support this paraphrase.
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 124.
- Emil Schürer’s A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, trans. John Macpherson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890) is still in print today, both in its original (via Hendrickson publishers) and revamped versions. Geza Vermes et al. have revised Schürer in 3 vols. (1973-1987). His views, then, have an abiding influence in today’s NT scholarship. Jeremias’ Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus is another example of a non-Sanders approach to Rabbinic Judaism that still has some currency.
- Quoted from Mark Mattison’s “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul” available at http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/Summary.html .
- Francis Watson, who wrote a pro-NPP book in 1986 called Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge University Press) delivered this paper called “Not the New Perspective” at the British New Testament Conference, Manchester, in September 2001. It can be read at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/divinity/articles/watsonart.htm .
- This quote is from Mattison’s “A Summary of the New Perspective” and can be found at http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage/Summary.html
- Charles E. Hill, whom we’ve already quoted, is a NT professor at Reformed Seminary in Orlando, Florida, with an international reputation in classical and Patristic literature. Bob Cara is NT professor (and Academic Dean) at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte. Both are formidable NT scholars with a comprehensive grasp of the exegetical questions relating to the NPP.
- Available online at http://www.crcchico.com/covenant/trueman.html .
- It should be noted that Wright often “saves us from Sanders” by claiming that Sanders “didn’t go far enough” with his views. Wright views his approach to the NPP as more consistent than Sanders. The resulting synthesis has the added virtue of being more palatable to the uninitiated.
- Wright acknowledges this point from his side in his article “The Shape of Justification” (which we have already quoted): “I have spent most of my professional career in debate with scholars a million miles outside the evangelical tradition - people like Sanders, Vermes, Crossan, Borg, and semi-scholars like A.N. Wilson. I hope my fellow evangelicals realise what is involved in this, and how many people have expressed their gratitude to me for showing them a way to retain and celebrate Christian orthodoxy with intellectual integrity.”
- The whole article is well worth reading and digesting. “Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul” Themelios 27:1 (Autumn 2001), 5-11. The article is based on Zahl’s John Wenham Lecture at the Tyndale Fellowship Associates Conference in 2001.
- “Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul” Themelios 27:1 (Autumn 2001), 7-8. [Words in brackets mine, added for clarification whilst reading the quote aloud]
- Charles E. Hill, IIIM Magazine Online 3:22 (May 28 to June 2, 2001), page 2-3 in print-out form. Available at http://www.thirdmill.org/files/english/html/nt/NT.h.Hill.Wright.html .
- Worship: That is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 170-171.
- Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and his Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.
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