Basics of the New Perspective: Dispensationalism and the NPP

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There are a number of other topics which could be included in a discussion of the New Perspective.  The “faithfulness of Christ” or “Christ’s faithfulness” debate is very important although the details are a bit arcane.  Wright’s view of the Exile is important, but not something that is at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul.  Let me close off this series with a few observations why I think that dispensationalism and the New Perspective can be closely allied.  By dispensationalism, I do not mean the quirky stuff (people predicting the end of the world, etc.) The dispensationalism I have in mind here is represented by writers like Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, Robert Saucy or Dale DeWitt.  There are quite a few ideas in the New Perspective which resonate with dispensationalism.  I do not mean to say that the NPP is dispensational, only that the two are often “on the same page.”  A few examples will suffice.

First, dispensationalism has always had a strong view of progressive revelation which lends itself to a narrative of salvation history.  Scripture is the unfolding story of redemption.  God is working through a series of “steps” or stages to redeem creation from the effects of sin.  Wright has particularly emphasized “story” as a way of understanding Jesus and Paul, often using the analogy of a five act play.  His oft-cited world view questions are important, Paul is answering the question “what time is it?”  Dispensationalism highlights the fact that Paul is describing the current age as distinct from the last.

Second, dispensationalism has never been particularly anti-Semitic and has always done a good job emphasizing the Jewishness of the writers of the New Testament. This is may be a result of dispensationalism’s late development as a system of thought, but it is also true many of the earliest “dispensational” thinkers were interested in Jewish evangelism.  That the New Perspective says Jesus, Paul, Peter and James reflect Second Temple Period Judaism is nothing which should shock a dispensationalist!  I think that there is a great deal more to be learned by studying Paul and Jesus in the light of our growing understanding of the Second Temple Period.

Third, dispensationalism has always emphasized Paul as the central figure for the present age.  He is the “founder of the church” and his letters are usually emphasized over other writers in the New Testament.  Paul claims his revelation is unique, and dispensationalists frequently develop this claim to mean that Paul is the only one to whom God revealed his plan for the current age (Eph 3:1-6, for example). The New Perspective also emphasizes the radicalness of Paul’s message in the context of Second Temple Period Judaism.  For all of his connections to Judaism, Paul says things that would be considered radical within any form of “biblical” Judaism of the first century.

Fourth, with respect to the Justification debate, dispensationalists are a bit confused.  Dispensationalism developed out of the reformed tradition, continuing the reformation in terms of ecclesiology and eschatology.  Dispensationalism is in fact a development of covenant theology whether either side wants to admit it or not.  As such there is a interest in the soteriology of the Reformers, but the anti-denominationalism of dispensationalists prevents them from fully embracing confessions and the like.  As a result, there are dispensationalists who represent all the various “flavors” of the reformation, Calvinist or Arminian.  Soteriology is not the primary motivation for most dispensationalists, so this debate might very well pass them by.

I do think that the New Perspective is correct in their description of justification as one of the many metaphors of salvation and that the reformation stream theologies have elevated it to such an extent that the word “justification” now means “total salvation.”  For me, the fact that Paul uses “in Christ” to describe our salvation far more often makes it a more viable overarching metaphor for salvation.  It also seems to me that the division between justification and sanctification in Systematic theology misses the point that Paul uses the same language for both the beginning of our salvation and our on-going experience of salvation.

Obviously someone like N. T. Wright is not a dispensationalist in any sense of the word, but it is remarkable how many of his basic ideas resonate with dispensationalist foundations.  I think this is why Wright goes out of his way to separate himself from dispensationalism, although he has in mind the goofy popular forms. The New Perspective certainly does not go so far as to separate the church from Israel in the way that dispensationalists do, nor is there any sort similarity in eschatology.  There is much to be learned from reading the New Perspective on Paul.