Basics of the New Perspective: Dispensationalism and the NPP

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.

9 thoughts on “Basics of the New Perspective: Dispensationalism and the NPP

  1. Philip: Myself as someone who was reading Sacy’s book: The Case For Progressive Dispensationalism, The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology back in 1993, and then too Blaising & Bock’s book: Progressive Dispensationalism, I am one who now somewhat claims or follows a sense of the PD, etc. And I am certainly Reformed on the ‘Doctrines of Grace’. (Though, I read and like Barth! 🙂 ) But, I really don’t see the analogy of Wright’s version of the NP? For me the best of the NP has always been E.P. Sanders work. (We should not forget Krister Stendahl here btw).

    • Also a book I would recommend on Paul, close to some aspects to this subject here, would be an IVP book by Mark Strom, called: Reframing Paul, Conversations in Grace & Community (IVP, 2000). Most of this is close to the authors sense of St. Paul’s Greco-Roman world, etc.

    • My survey left Stendahl out, this was not so much an oversight but the result of this being a survey. I think Stendahl and W. D. Davies started what Sanders finished. Wright and Dunn stand on that foundation, but do so in a way that in some ways goes beyond want Sanders cared to do (ie., develop a full-blown Pauline theology!)

      In 1993 (or 1994 perhaps) I was reading Saucy as well, but it was for quizzes in his class!

      • Yes, both Stendahl and Davies and even Sanders were seeking a mood or place in Paul, but I think not a “theology”. Wright is brilliant, but he is no Barth for sure! But as an Anglican, I take issue with much of his (Wright’s) theology and ecclesiology. But then I stand closer to both the Reformation, and a classic, conservative Anglicanism. However, I am somewhat friendly to the Federal Vision also. Yeah, I am somewhat eclectic… I am an Anglican! 😉 Again, I have been working on Barth and the CD. And too reading many of the Barth guys. As I am now reading Busch’s: ‘Great Passion’.

        PS.. Yes, Robert Saucy was a solid Talbot guy! I hope he is well?

  2. I wish I had more time to read straight up theology! I’m making an effort but there’s so much else to do with the church plant. I did start Ian W. Scott’s “Paul’s Way of Knowing” this weekend. Not sure if he’s NPP yet, but I suspect he might be, or at least he’s sympathetic.

    Confession: I’ve moved away from Dispensationalism…and Wright helped. Well, his “Justitfication” book and several of his other books helped. And Dallas Willard’s “The Divine Conspiracy” and a bit o’ Rob Bell are at play there too. I can see how a contemporary Progressive Dispensationlist finds resonance with the NPP. But I think your first point is the clearest and strongest example while pts 2-4 appear more incidental than betraying a relational dynamic between NPP and Disp.

    I think your statement “That the New Perspective says Jesus, Paul, Peter and James reflect Second Temple Period Judaism is nothing which should shock a dispensationalist!” is true only to a point. I think Dispensationalists (especially Classic Disp) would be quite shocked to hear that Paul reflected Second Temple Judaism. My understanding when still a disp was that Paul & his writing reflected much more strongly a Hellensitic background than a Jewish background, that he in fact dominantly left his Jewish background behind in favor of an almost entirely new paradigm (See any of their discussions on ‘musterion’ for example).

    Sometimes our desire to see connective tissue (or perhaps to be blind to it) between ideologies, theologies, etc., will be greatly affected by our prior committments and however strongly we choose to hold such committments.

    • “Paul reflected Second Temple Judaism.” – This would shock a old school Dispensationalist, but no more than anyone who thought Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity. I suppose there are not a few people who think Paul converted to Fundamentalism, bought a Scofield Reference Bible (KJV of course), and was a Republican in most respects. That sort of cultural imperialism is common in every stream of theology.

      I am not sure I can agree Paul is more Hellenistic that Jewish, Even the oft cited Mars Hill speech is basically, “your gods are not real, but the Jewish one is.” Paul does not engage culture nearly as much as some of the new “incarnational” ministry style people think he did. Actually, they are just projecting their preferred method of ministry back on Paul, the same as the KJV toting fundamentalists in the previous paragraph!

      • Make that a Jewish-Hellenist, i.e. St. Paul, and note as a Roman citizen Paul was a conservative “Republican”. 😉 The Incarnation is so central, but we Anglicans have sometimes overly pressed it certainly! 🙂

      • Indeed Paul was a Jew who was converted by the Jewish Messiah, and then pressed out into the Gentiles. But we simply cannot overlook his Jewish-Hellenism! (Acts 22:1-4, etc.)

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