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The “New Perspective on Paul” in about 1,000 Words

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) I’ve been working on for my CHR 150 students. As this is a freshman-level class, I’ve attempted to keep it as simple as possible while still giving an accurate sense of what NPP is all about.

Names to Know

  • Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963). Argued that the post-Reformation doctrine of justification was rooted more in “the introspective conscience of the West” than in what Paul actually wrote, as understood within its own context.
  • E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Asserted that Martin Luther imposed his complaints with Roman Catholicism upon Paul’s complaints with Judaism.
  • James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary (1988); The Theology of Paul the Apostle (2006). Coined the phrase “NPP” in 1982. Says Paul opposed the boundary-marking characteristics of Judaism (circumcision, kosher rules, etc.) that kept Gentiles out; his mission was to get Gentiles into the one covenant God had made with Israel.
  • N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (1997) and Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (2009). Built on Sanders and Dunn, but also finds an anti-imperialistic slant to Paul’s message. Probably the most prolific NPP writer, and the target of much of the criticism directed toward NPP.

Note: NPP is more a general trend in Pauline scholarship than a codified, monolithic theological system. NPP-scholars can argue with each other just as much as traditionalists do.

The Basics

1. A “new perspective on Judaism.” NPP begins by attempting to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the Judaism of Paul’s own day—including passages in Paul’s letters where he sounds quite positive about the Jewish law (e.g., Rom 7:12; Phil 3:5-6).

  • Protestants have tended to read Luther’s conflict with Catholicism into Paul’s conflict with the Judaizers (e.g., in Galatians). NPP insists the two are not the same.
  • Sanders: Early Judaism had just as strong an emphasis on grace as Pauline Christianity did. Observing the law merely kept Jews in the covenant God had established through his gracious election (“covenantal nomism”). Jews keep the Torah not to get into heaven, but because they’re Jewish.
  • Rather than a form of legalism hoping to earn God’s favor by good works, NPP says first-century Judaism strove to maintain the identity of the Jewish nation, especially by keeping those aspects of the Torah that set them apart: Sabbath-observance, dietary rules, and circumcision.

2. Applying this understanding of Judaism to Paul. Having reached these conclusions about early Judaism, what are the implications for one’s understanding of Paul? NPP tries to read Paul in light of his own issues and concerns, rather than those of a later era.

  • General conclusion: Paul was much more interested in the problem of the Jewish-Gentile relationship in God’s covenant than in a Luther-like struggle with his own sense of guilt before a holy God
  • What is Paul’s problem, then, with “the works of the law”? According to NPP, when Paul speaks of “the works of the law” he has in mind only the “boundary-marker” aspects. His problem isn’t legalistic self-righteousness in general, but how these aspects of the Torah served to exclude Gentiles.
  • Note that “Old Perspective” need not mean “Wrong Perspective.” Some scholars—including Wright himself—insist the two perspectives can exist side by side. (Wright explicitly upholds all of the most central doctrines of the Reformation.) It’s more an issue of what is the central focus in Paul’s thought.
Old Perspective New Perspective
Anthropocentric: how human beings become right with God Theocentric and Christocentric: God’s lordship in Christ over the entire universe
“Works of the law” = human acts of righteousness performed to earn acceptability before God “Works of the law” = elements of Jewish law that accentuate Jewish privilege and mark out Israel from other nations
“Justification” related to the doctrine of salvation: “What must I do to be saved?” Justification related to the doctrine of the church: “Who is a member of the people of God?”
“Faith” = trust in God’s mercy alone, not in human acts of righteousness “Faith” = trust in God’s mercy alone, not in boundary-marking rituals like circumcision
A “Romans Road” approach: “You can be forgiven and live forever in heaven” An “Ephesians Road” approach: “God is restoring all of creation, and you can join in”

 Strengths of the New Perspective

  1. It accentuates the universal focus of God’s dealings in Christ: both Jew and Gentile are included.
  2. It sets Paul in his proper historical context: Paul can be Paul rather than being Augustine or Luther.
  3. It cautions Christians about how we speak about Judaism in our conversations about Scripture.

Reasonable Concerns

(see Gathercole, although Wright later addresses many of these issues)

  1. First-century Judaism does, in fact, occasionally speak of heavenly rewards for law-keeping.
  2. Is Paul speaking strictly of things like circumcision when he speaks of “works of the law,” or is he thinking of keeping the law in its entirety?
  3. Criticism of “individualistic” old-perspective thinking can throw the baby out with the bath water. Individual and corporate faith are not at odds with one another.
  4. One should not confuse the content of justification with its applications. The core meaning of justification is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God.
  5. Seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can lead to a downplaying of sin.
  6. Since the emphasis in some discussions of justification is on inclusion, tolerance, and ecumenism, there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of doctrinal clarity.

Unreasonable Concerns

  1. “NPP abandons the Reformation view of Paul and justification.” The appeal to tradition is precisely the sort of objection the medieval Catholic Church raised against the Reformers! Shouldn’t Protestants of all people want to go back to the Bible and “see whether these things are so” (Acts 17:11)?
  2. “NPP doesn’t support powerful evangelistic preaching.” This objection skirts dangerously close to “the end justifies the means.” Isn’t it better to trust that the truth will lead to powerful preaching, whether it is consistent with traditional interpretations of Paul or not?

Further Reading


6 Comments

  1. Dorcas says:

    Reading this makes me want to go back to school. At least as a freshman. :-)

    Like

  2. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks, John. I had forgotten about Michael’s posts. Adding links right now…

    Like

  3. Brooke says:

    An excellent summary, well written for the audience you have in view. Just the thing I can send my students to, in order to provide a more stable backdrop for my less coherent, ad hoc allusions to the NPP in my Hebrew Bible classes. Thanks, Darrell.

    Like

  4. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks, Brooke. I hope your students will find my summary helpful.

    Like

  5. James says:

    An “Ephesians Road” approach: “God is restoring all of creation, and you can join in”

    I like that one…a lot.

    Like

Comments are closed.

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