The New Perspective on Paul: 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.

dispensationaismBy 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 BockCraig BlaisingRobert 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.

7 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: Dispensationalism and the NPP

  1. Thanks for doing this all-too-brief series – it’s a very helpful overview. Some discussion of imputed righteousness would be helpful, given the disagreement between Piper and Wright and the national ETS meeting a couple of years ago. When we did Historic Christian Theologians in August, some students were outright shocked at the NPP disagreement with Luther on ‘moral righteousness’ and the ‘merits’ of Christ’s sinless life vis-a-vis a 1st century Jewish notion of justification.

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  2. Responding to point #3: I think those who “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)” are onto a valid and important point… Well, I’d modify it to say “… [CLAIMING to be] the only one to whom God revealed…”

    I do think that the way most of Evangelical (and related “orthodox”) theology translates to the avg. lay person, Paul’s views predominate… or maybe the OP version of Paul’s views… in the primary points on salvation, Christian growth and eschatology (in relation to the “rapture” particularly). What it amounts to, I’ve long felt, is putting the entire weight of views on salvation, etc. on trusting that Paul’s claimed authority is indeed authority direct from God. (I.e., that not only is his “revelation” truly from God, but that he also recorded it at least relatively clearly and dependably from what God was trying to communicate to him.)

    I don’t see Acts at all accomplishing what it intended to in connecting his independent sense of divine authority with the more broadly accepted “divine” authority of the Jerusalem leaders. And Acts is THEIR only fairly direct representation, in the view of many including me, given that none of the Apostles (including John) probably authored an extant book; nor directed Mark, Matt., Luke or whoever wrote “John”, in writing one. The Epis. of James, very Jewish, could perhaps be by the Jeru. Leader, but that doesn’t help the orthodox case, really, that I can see.

    Since I can’t see Acts as the Apostles’ truly direct voice, either, then Paul does become the earliest and strongest voice for Christian revelation, and (if I’m not forgetting something) the only claimant of key teachings being directly revealed to him. Everything else was near the end of or after the game-changing Roman war (possible exception, again, James, as well as Revelation, Hebrews).

    So this (above) is clearly NOT all the orthodox position on the Apostles and revelation… but even IN that system, Paul’s authority seems to still rest on his claims alone… I can’t think where else Evangelicals are willing to see authority as valid without connection to the authority of others already viewed as authoritative. Maybe the Pentateuch?

    Anyway, the authority of Paul, basically standing by himself, is core… and I’m not sure most Christians realize this and how much it is “by faith” that one has to trust Paul. Am I getting any key facts wrong? (Really, I know I may be looking past some things, though I’ve thought through this deeply for a long time.)

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    • At its core, the message of the gospel, I am convinced, is to answer the question “why do I/you/anyone believe?, e.g. believe as in John 3|16”.

      The confirmation/assurance of ones salvation lies, I say the Bible says, not in having faith, but in why one has faith (any size – smaller than a mustard seed or as great as Eph. 1:19-20). The message of the gospel is the answer to the question in Isaac Watt’s hymns “why was I I guest?” as he posed in “How Sweet & Awful Is This Place”

      We are not saved by faith, but have faith because we we a saved (by man’s faith is man’s pt. of view, until that faith is understood to be the work of God in rebirth – as explained to believers in Eph. 2:1-5 etc.), then we (should) understand we believe because that (supernatural) faith is given by God in his act of causing believers who were once spiritually dead to be regenerated/made-alive/quickened/born-again a.la.John 3:3 unto the faith of John 3:16.

      We should say we “discover we are are saved”. That is taught not only by Paul but is the core message of the Bible,

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  3. Here is a great (well, for a Catholic great) line from NTW’s book Justification:
    “The danger with a doctrine which says, ‘You can’t do anything and you mustn’t try’ is that it ends up with the servant who, knowing his master to be strict, hid his money in the ground.” Justification at page 193 (discussion of the ‘place of the Spirit and the place of future judgment’ p. 192).

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