Jan 23, 2010

N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul

9 Min Read

One of our younger adult members/readers asked for something on a matter of current discussion in Anglican circles in Sydney and which will have its impact on everyone in due time. Here’s my effort to explain the issues in brief.

Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone. (Shorter Catechism, 33)

The Issues

The term “new perspective” was coined by J.D.G. Dunn in 1982 to describe the new approach to Paul’s theology he was advocating which was built on the work of several earlier scholars such as E.P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). It now is embraced by quite a range of scholars. One world-renowned Pauline scholar and articulate Anglican evangelical, N.T. (Tom) Wright (b. 1948), the current Canon theologian of Westminster Abbey is well known. For the purpose of this article the position Wright takes will be considered as explained in his numerous books including What St Paul Really Said (Oxford, 1997).

What Is the New Perspective?

The claim of the new perspective is that first-century Judaism was not a merit -based religion but a covenant community created by God’s grace. Far from suffering the affliction of an introspective conscience, and a struggle to keep the law by works-righteousness, mainstream Judaism understood that through God’s covenant they were already right with him. The law (nomos) was not a means of getting saved but of staying saved. Keeping God’s law was the appropriate response to God’s covenant mercy.

Paul’s problem with Judaism was not works-righteousness in the sense understood by the Protestant Reformers, but the insistence on a covenant status for Jews and Jews alone. This insistence effectively denied that Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile. It was illustrated by Jewish insistence on the symbols of ethnic privilege, which the new perspective regards as Paul’s ‘works of the law’, namely, circumcision, the sabbath and the Mosaic code. Hence Paul’s affirms the full status in the church of the Gentile believers in Galatia apart from such requirements.

Wright: What Paul Really Said

Wright’s understanding of Paul is somewhat as follows: Paul teaches the representative and substitutionary work of Christ in propitiating the wrath of God. Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history so as to fulfil all God’s covenant promises. As the Last Adam he inaugurates a new humanity. God’s justifying verdict on Jesus in his resurrection is passed upon believers now in anticipation of the final acquittal in the Day of Judgment. That final acquittal, or future justification of believers, will be in accordance with the whole life of grace led under the Spirit’s leading.

God’s grace operates by the powerful working of God’s Spirit through the preaching of the gospel, transforming hearts and minds and producing faith in Christ as the risen Lord.

The difference between a first century Jew and a first century Christian was not so much their attitude to salvation. Both held that salvation is through God’s gracious covenant, and that good works are the result of faith working through love. Both aim to serve God with a clear conscience and look for ultimate acquittal at God’s bar of justice following God’s review of the deeds of this life. The difference lies in their attitude to Jesus. The Jew rejects him as the Messiah and insists on covenant status for the Jew only, complete with its badges of circumcision, the sabbath and the food laws, ‘the works of the law’ in Paul’s phrase. The Christian believes Jesus is the Messiah who brings the promised vindication of God’s people, establishing his church among all nations, and rendering the distinctive old covenant requirements superfluous. Faith in Jesus is enough.

Justification is not the exercise of mercy, a description of how one is saved, but a declaration about someone who has already received mercy, who is already a member of the renewed- covenant community


We may find value in aspects of the new perspective, particularly in its reminder we should consider Paul’s letters in the first -century setting and not simply read them through Luther’s or Calvin’s 16th century eyes. The Jew-Gentile conflict was a very relevant issue. However, significant problems exist for the new perspective.

1. First-century Judaism

The claim about first-century Judaism is certainly not without apparent credibility in the light of the Old Testament. The Abrahamic covenant is gracious. The covenant God made with Israel was also gracious, given to a redeemed people to be kept as their appropriate response of gratitude, whatever we might say about other aspects to it. The Jews had no occasion to claim their privileged position was deserved or merited by them.

However, the question is, ‘Was this non-meritorious law keeping in the context of a gracious covenant, really the dominant form of Judaism in Paul’s day?’ Significant academic contributions from a variety of viewpoints are critical [eg D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien & Mark Seifrid (eds), Justification and Variegated Nomism, v. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism].

Indeed, we might assume that as common experience shows an inveterate tendency in religious people of whatever persuasion to look to who they are or what they do as the basis on which they expect God to deal kindly with them, that this was so in first-century Judaism too.

But don’t assume: let’s go no further than the Bible itself. First, the ordinary reader of the Bible sees that the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as ‘the messenger of the covenant’ (Mal 3 :1), its very substance (Is 42:6), which thus meant a repudiation of that covenant.

Second, he sees that the majority of Jews did have an emphasis on works-righteousness however disguised by assertions of God’s mercy. ‘We are God’s children through his gracious covenant with our father Abraham’, might be and was the claim, and in the next breath it might be negated by conduct and shown never to have been properly understood. The Old Testament prophets had a fair bit to say on this, and the New Testament likewise. The very privileges of the Jewish people became the stumbling block*. The real problem was the self -sufficiency in their hearts behind such confidence in the badges of racial descent or other distinction*. It was not enough to claim Abraham as one’s father (Lk 3 :7ff). Indeed, OT and NT alike distinguish between spiritual Israelites and physical Israelites. ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel.’

In the same way as much of Judaism, Roman Catholicism was and is a religion emphasizing salvation by grace through faith. But closer examination shows that human merit is not excluded. Traditions God never gave us to keep, and practices inconsistent with a gracious salvation, are required and regarded as instrumental causes of salvation along with faith in Christ. That’s even written into the theory since the Council of Trent (1545-63), and it is certainly intertwined in popular grass-roots Catholicism, even today.

2. Justification

There can be distortions on the subject of justification arising from imbalance in our Gospel understanding. Certainly we are not justified simply by believing in justification by faith alone, but through real faith, that is, self-abandoning trust in Jesus Christ ‘who was raised for our justification’. Luther had a negative attitude to the epistle of James because he thought it conflicted with his favorite doctrine, while there are many who down-play the law of God as a rule for believers in the interest of an approach to grace that easily drifts into a divorce between faith and conduct.

It is our own Scottish Presbyterian ‘Rabbi’ Dr John Duncan (1796-1870) who said ‘the Person of Christ is fundamental’. He adds: ‘Justification by faith is the meeting-point of many doctrines, a rallying centre of theology; but it is not the foundation doctrine’ [J.M.Brentnall (ed*.), ‘Just a Talker’- Sayings of John (‘Rabbi)’ Duncan* (Edinburgh 1997, p. 102]. To the extent that the centrality of Christ and union with him by faith is brought out, I think we have a healthy corrective to some popular presentations of the Gospel. However, is the classic definition of justification correct, or is it not? It does not exhaust everything that may be said, but I cannot see that the indictment in Romans 1-3 of all humanity, both Jew and Gentile, provides us with any: opportunity to limit ‘the works of the law’ simply to Jewish distinctives. The application must be extended to all that God requires whether we are Jews or Gentiles. God’s demand has always included spiritual and ethical righteousness. That is why all of us fail (Rom 3:19) and need the righteousness of God found in the Messiah, ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ (Jer 23:6; Rom 3:21ff.) imputed to us. Any working is regarded by Paul as antithetical to salvation through faith (Rom 4:5), while Paul discards everything he could have through law-keeping so as to have the righteousness which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9). To soft-pedal ‘transfer’ language, and thus not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the ungodly, and to speak of righteousness primarily in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness, is a serious shift that has repercussions all down the line.

The traditional Protestant law/gospel contrast is to the point, even if Paul’s immediate concern in some contexts relates to how the gospel creates the one people of God rather than to how an individual is saved. Justification is the status of everyone who trusts in Jesus. Membership in God’s family flows from justification but is not its meaning.

3. Faith and Works

In the classic view, justification is grounded on what Christ has already done, and the Day of judgment will confirm and declare it. However, Wright says, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life” (WSPRS, p. 129). On this language it is rather hard to avoid the idea of justification as involving faith and works in a way that does not match Paul’s teaching on grace and the justification of the ungodly. It seems dangerously close to teaching a dual instrumentality of faith and works as held by traditional Roman Catholicism, especially if it is said, “God gets us into his covenant but we keep ourselves there by non-meritorious works through the Spirit’s enabling.”

All true Protestants stress that faith ‘is never alone in those justified but is always accompanied by all other saving graces; it is not a dead faith but works by love’ (WCF 11:2). We are not suspicious of good works, but we put them in their proper place as fruits of the new relationship. We broke God’s law and came under its condemnation; Christ fulfilled God’s law for us and bore our condemnation. We cannot think of our acceptance with God in terms of our faithfulness to the covenant, but in terms of Christ’s obedience as our representative head.

Thus, the meritorious ground of justification, of which the resurrection of Christ is declarative, is Christ’s death, the instrumental cause of justification is faith, and good works justify evidentially, as the proof and demonstration of God’s saving act. Rewards are not due as wages earned, but through the grace of God in Christ crowning not our merits but his freely given gifts. These are important distinctions. As Edward Mote put it:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When he shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, then may I in him be found;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

The new perspective offers some good insights but seems to introduce its own distortions. Of course all our traditions must be judged by Scripture, and we are all creatures of our own age.

The new perspective seems to react to the excessive individualism among many Protestants. It has reflected with some sense of guilt, and rightly, on Christian complicity in the Holocaust, and it recognizes the importance of Christian unity, bewailing, again rightly, the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide in a spiritually needy world. Its interpretations seems more influenced by such factors at crucial points than by what Scripture actually says.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Presbyterian Banner, May 2002.

This article is part of the New Perspective on Paul collection.