The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

It is hard to imagine a work on Paul’s theology which does not address the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).  Since Ed Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1979, a landslide of books have been published developing and modifying his ideas.  The 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Society was almost entirely devoted to a discussion of the New Perspective, especially as expressed in the writings of N. T. Wright.  I heard papers decrying the New Perspective as an attack on the assured results of the Reformation (one paper concluded with a lengthy quite of the Westminster Confession, as if that somehow proved the point being argued!) I heard papers from Wright Fan-Boys taking his ideas as if he has somehow become the Pope of Evangelicalism.

Usually these sorts of scholarly arguments are confined to the Academy.  Several factors have dragged the New Perspective out of the University or Seminary classroom and into the popular media.  First, the growing popularity of N. T. Wright over the last ten years has brought these ideas to the public’s attention.  Wright has attempted to communicate at the popular level both in print and in his many speaking engagements every year.  Second, since Wright is perceived as a representative of the New Perspective, he has come under fire from advocates of the traditional view of Paul’s theology.  This too has taken place in more popular media than most academic debates.  John Piper wrote a very popular book which sought to correct Wright, although he more or less defends the traditional view of justification by faith.  Wright responded with a book intended for laymen, Justification. Third, in the last five years the phenomenon of the Blog has propelled otherwise arcane theological debates into the public eye.  Bloggers do not have the same level of accountability as a major publisher and are far more likely to describe Wright as an arch-heretic bent on destroying God-Ordained Reformation churches.  This sort of thing is picked up by pastors and teachers in local churches and trickles down to congregations.

The New Perspective is not a dangerous idea which will destroy the heart of Christianity, although it will force a reconsideration of some of the assumptions of the Protestant Reformation.  This is not to say it will turn Protestants into Catholics.  As Wright frequently says, all he is trying to do is to continue the reformation by being faithful to Scripture and accurately describing Paul’s theology. Of course, that is what advocates of the traditional formulation is doing too.

I find the reactions to Sanders, Dunn and Wright somewhat bewildering, mostly because I do not work within a context of a Protestant Reformed denomination.  I have always resonated with a more Calvinist view of salvation, but I am not bound by a commitment to a confession nor do I have a strong affinity for Luther and the reformation, although that is probably because my tradition moved beyond the reformation in Eschatology and Ecclesiology.  I agree with Wright that there is nothing wrong with “reforming the Reformation,” Calvin and Luther would want the discussion of Pauline theology to continue and make use of all of the evidence available today.

Because this is an important issue, I am going to devote five or six postings to the New Perspective in anticipation of my Pauline Theology and Literature class I will be teaching this fall.  Here is my plan for this series, I might add one or two more topics before I am finished.  Feel free to suggest a potential topic for the series.

  • What was the Old Perspective?
  • The Beginnings of the New Perspective:  Lake, Davies and Sanders
  • Wright and Dunn: A Newer Perspective?
  • Response to the New Perspective
  • Dispensational Theology and the New Perspective on Paul

I will admit that this is a brief overview.  Each of the topics ought to be a chapter of a book (they probably will be, eventually!)  I am confessing up front that this series is woefully inadequate for a full understanding of the topics.  For this reason I will provide a list of other resources for each post “for further study.”  My goal is to provide a brief orientation to the New Perspective on Paul so that a student may read other works on the New Perspective with some context.

4 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

  1. Having just finished the two books you mentioned by Wright and Piper, and being a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist/Presbyterian, I think I can speak to this issue. Their is a branch of the Reformed camp which emerged after the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the last century which is committed to Biblical Truth as defined by the Confessions and sees anything outside that as heresy. There are plenty who don’t blog who see it that way. Hopefully we have enough seminaries and scholar on our side now that we can grow up and interact with other traditions without so much fear.

  2. I think that you are correct, the Confessions become the standard by which theology is tested, and I understand that to a certain extent. It seems to me that, at least on the popular level, there is no recognition that those Confessions are quite old and do not deal with everything in equal detail (eschatology in the Westminster Confession, for example). In addition, these confessions were written in an era when scholarship did not have access to the wealth of contextual material we have today (Dead Sea Scrolls at the very least). I realize that use of these external sources is one of Piper’s issues with Wright, but if the contextual reading of scripture is abandoned for a confessional reading, I think the church loses a great deal of truth.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. As a beginning seminary student, I am still at the point of needing to become more knowledgeable of my own tradition. But it does sadden me that “Westminster-types” can’t see Wright and others as different traditions to be appreciated, not competitors for the mantle of The-One-Awesome-and-Only-True Hermeneutic. I can think mine the best while learning from others. My crowd tends to be a little too Modern (in the Cartesian sense).

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