The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

In the fall I will be teaching Pauline Literature and Theology at the undergraduate level. In order to prepare for this semester, I re-read some texts that I have found valuable in the past, but also a few new books on Paul and his theology. Pauline studies have taken on new life in the last twenty years, primarily due to the rise of New Perspective on Paul. In two recent popular level books on Paul from Zondervan, the New Perspective is not far from the surface. In Four Views on the Apostle Paul (edited by Michael Bird, 2012), Douglas Campbell represents what he calls a “post-New Perspective” on Paul, although in that particular book he is the scholar who most resonates with this view of Paul and his theology. In Four Views on The Role of Words at the Final Judgment (edited by Alan Stanley, 2013), James Dunn represents a “New Perspective” view of works, but Thomas Schreiner must deal with that view in his presentation of the traditional reformed view.

E. P. SandersIn fact, 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 have also 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 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 seven 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. As a faculty member teaching in a conservative institution I am regularly asked what I think of Wright’s books. Rarely does the person asking the question know who James Dunn is, and they never have any idea who E. P. Sanders is nor do they have any real familiarity with the main issues in this debate.

That is the purpose of revising this series on Reading Acts. 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 are doing too.

NT Wright on Time

Yes, This is Fake

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, although I might add one or two more topics before I am finished. Feel free to suggest a potential topic for the series.

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.

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

  1. How about addressing the integral relationship between justification and covenant in Paul?
    High five on your effort to bring this topic to an audience outside the intramural realm of the academy. I really do enjoy Wright’s wit and his overall polemic style. On this particular topic I find it interesting, given his vast knowledge of the reformers & covenant theologians, that he paints the ‘old perspective’ as a sort of dispensationalist scheme.

    • Funny you should say, “he paints the ‘old perspective’ as a sort of dispensationalist scheme” since I have always thought there were a number of dispensational like ideas in Wright’s books. His eschatology is not, but there are four or five points that is very similar to dispensationalism. (I have a post coming on that topic….!)

      • As a former dispensationalist (during and just after seminary, before I had any real sophistication theologically), and no admirer of the system overall, I would say that, forced as the system is, its creators didn’t grab it out of “thin air”, but from certain concepts that ARE in various scriptures.

      • Howard, you are correct that Dispensationalism is not “out of thin air,” in fact, the earliest writers that can really be called Dispensationalists prided themselves as developing theology based on what they saw as the clear teaching of scripture. I will likely have more to say on this later, but most dispensationalists I associate with are highly driven by their reading of the Pauline letters and less so by the type of goofy futuristic stuff in Left Behind.

  2. I’d find this helpful: As brief as possible a description of the NP on Paul. I’ve been reading a few Paul books specifically but more from within the fairly broad “school” represented maybe best in its earlier days by SGF Brandon (others being Carmichael, Barrie Wilson, Mack, and perhaps most recently–or nearly so–Tabor, plus many, many more I’ve not read and a few I have). I don’t know if this broad grouping–not a predominant one even in scholarly circles–is even considered NP on Paul, partly bec. I don’t know how NP is being defined, if anyone has given a generally accepted brief description at all.

    The “school” I’ll say (not knowing how accurate it is) was sponsored, tho not “founded” by Brandon I think, focused on the socio-political aspects of Jesus’ ministry and reason for crucifixion. I’m not sure HOW Brandon himself treated Paul, but others within this loose school, later, tended to emphasize (as do I, as a lay scholar of sorts) Paul’s conflict with the Jeru. leaders, and the fact that James, not Peter was its leader for about 3 decades. Paul and James had about as much, if not more disagreement as agreement. Is this a key component or perhaps THE key component of the NP on Paul?

    As to Tabor (2012 book, “Paul and Jesus”), all I’d been studying for a few years led me to find this book both impressively done and very credible. I reviewed it in some depth on my blog. Would it be considered within the NP, or does it perhaps go so far beyond “orthodoxy” (not just Old Perspective) on Paul, as well as on Jesus, that it’s not really part of the discussion? I personally would think it would be one of the top few books needing to be responded to… but sometimes the best works don’t get the privilege of such treatment. And then, I admit to not being widely read on the subject… too little time!

    • The New Perspective in a single 140 character “tweet”: Luther (and his interpreters) read Paul wrong because they do not understand Judaism on the first century.

      A bit of expansion: If you read the literature of the Second Temple Period (which Luther could not really do since most was not known to him), then Judaism is not a legalistic, works-for-salvation religion; it was a religion of grace. Luther uses Paul to castigate Roman Catholics in the 16th century, and therefore misreads Paul’s theology. Paul is more Jewish that Luther and Post-Luther scholarship is willing to admit.

      This will get expanded over the next week in the regular posts.

  3. I did chuckle about the ETS paper ending with the lengthy quote from the Westminster confession. As I delve more into Reformed theology, it strikes me as odd how many writes defer to the confessions instead of Scripture. This is often a stumbling block for me.
    Look forward to the series.

    • Glad o know you are reading along, Aaron. Did you ever go back to school?

  4. In contrast to the traditional view, the New Perspective asserts that Paul was not combating legalism but was addressing issues related to ethnocentrism and exclusivity. Paul argued that faith in Christ was what justified both Jews and Gentiles, leveling the playing field.

    A central point of contention is the meaning of “works of the law.” The New Perspective suggests that these refer to boundary markers that separated Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance. Paul’s critique was directed at the idea that these markers were necessary for inclusion in God’s covenant

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