Even those minimally informed about the goings-on of New Testament studies in academia will have heard of “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The NPP is perhaps one of the most controversial topics in contemporary Pauline studies. This should not be surprising given its claim that much of the theology that came from the Reformation, and has since dominated Protestantism, was either misguided or simply in error. Volume upon volume has been written from the many sides tangled up in this issue. I say many sides because it is not clear that there is a single perspective among those of the NPP camp. Indeed, many have written on the NPP, but the three names most commonly associated with it are: E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright. Of these three I am most familiar with Wright’s work. I recommend Simon Gathercole’s recent article in Christianity Today (Aug. 2007) as a helpful survey and assessment of the issues in the debate.
The NPP really got kicked off in 1977 with Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. According to Gathercole, “[Sanders] argued that both pre-Christian Judaism and its successor, rabbinic Judaism, had just as strong an emphasis on grace as Pauline Christianity did” (24). For Sanders, the fact that Israel was God’s elect people indicated that Judaism was, and always had been, a religion of grace. An Israelite never kept the Mosaic law because it was a way of gaining merit before God in order to enter into relationship with him. Israel was already in a relationship with God because he chose them to be. Thus, for Sanders, the “works of the law” were ways of staying in the covenant rather than ways of getting in the covenant. The implication of this thesis is that reformers like Luther and Calvin had erroneously read their controversy with Roman Catholicism back onto the Judaism of Paul’s day by making it out to be a religion of works righteousness. Sanders’ work was a major contribution to historical Jewish studies. However, in the world of biblical studies, it was found wanting. One outcome of Sanders’ work is certain; Protestant readings of Paul had to be reevaluated.
This is where Dunn, who coined the phrase “New Perspective on Paul” and Wright come in. These two have attempted to give theological revision to Sanders’ thesis that 1st century Judaism was not a religion of works righteousness. Wright has argued that “works of the law” were neither about getting in nor staying in the covenant. Rather, “works of the law” were about how you knew who was in the covenant. Sabbath observance, food laws, and circumcision were strict ethnic boundary markers, or badges, that delineated the elect people of God, namely Israel. For Wright then, justification by faith, as an answer to works of the law becomes an issue of how you know who is in the new covenant of God in Christ as opposed to how you get into the covenant. In technical terms, justification by faith is more about ecclesiology (theology of the church) than soteriology (theology of salvation). This claim has sent traditional Protestants into a frenzy holding strongly that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is about how God deals with sin and saves sinners. I wonder, though, if this is not a false dichotomy. Is justification not about both who is in the church and about salvation as well? Certainly it is the case that those who are in the church are the ones caught up in God’s purposes for salvation. And those who are being saved are in the church. I think Wright tries to hold these two together, but it is not quite clear. If I ever get the chance to ask him, I will.
There is much more that could be said about the NPP, and it has been said in other places. No doubt this will remain a topic of debate for many years. That said, I’ve found Wright’s thinking on justification to be helpful. As I noted above, there are some questions I would ask given the opportunity, but I’ve found very little to which I would object in his What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans 1997). It is an accessible and helpful introduction to Wright’s version of the NPP. His criticisms of traditional Protestant thinking on justification strike me as valid and worth considering. At the moment I lean towards Wright’s take on the NPP. However,for me, the jury is still out. I’m not sure I understand the complexities and the implications of the issue. As always, there is much more reading to be done.
Grace and peace,