Book Review: Scot McKnight and B. J. Oropeza, eds. Perspectives on Paul: Five Views

McKnight, Scot and B. J. Oropeza, eds. Perspectives on Paul: Five Views. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2020. 285 pp. pb. $29.99.   Link to Baker Academic

Some might question whether there is a need for yet another “five views” on Paul. This book is similar to Four Views on Paul edited by Michael Bird, Zondervan 2012), which also included a Reformed (Thomas Schreiner), a Catholic Perspective (Luke Timothy Johnson) a Post-New Perspective (Douglas Campbell) and a “Paul within Judaism” chapter (Mark Nanos). Focusing just on justification, Beilby and Eddy edited a five views book featuring a Roman Catholic view (Collins and Rafferty), two reformed views (traditional by Michael Horton and progressive reformed by Michael Bird), a New Perspective view by James Dunn and a “deification view” from Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (IVP Academic 2011). There are others, including the recent Voices and Views on Paul, edited by Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers (IVP Academic 2020).

Perspectives on PaulAs with most “five perspectives” books, Perspectives on Paul is set up like a conference seminar. Each essay is followed by a response from each of the other perspectives. In this book, the original presenter is given a few pages to reply to these responses. The book begins with an overview of the last forty years of Pauline scholarship. All recent books on Paul use E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism as a convenient watershed since it launched the New Perspective on Paul. For the last several decades, Pauline scholarship has been dominated by those who react against some theological implications or those who seek to push beyond Sanders’s view of Paul and his relationship with Second Temple Judaism.

The introduction to Perspectives on Paul therefore begins with an overview of Sanders’s main arguments followed by a summary of two major proponents of what has become known as the New Perspective on Paul, James Dunn and N. T. Wright. There are six benefits related to studying Paul through the lens of the New Perspective (11): First, the New Perspective provides a better understanding of Paul’s letters. Second, it avoids individualistic readings and western perceptions of Paul’s letters. Third, the New Perspective reduces anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism by studying the literature of Second Temple Judaism closely in order to avoid mischaracterizations of what Jews believed in the first century. Fourth, the New Perspective provides for more continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament than typical of older studies, which saw a decisive break between Paul and Judaism. Fifth, this continuity between the Testaments allows for more continuity between Jesus and Paul. Sixth, the New Perspective also opens up the possibility of continuity between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the doctrine of justification.

This last benefit is often perceived as the greatest flaw for the New Perspective by some Protestants. James Dunn and N. T. Wright are overthrowing the assured results of the Reformation. This perceived attack on the Reformation sometimes results in fiery rhetoric that lacks engagement with the Pauline letters. In November 2010, I attended the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, which focused on Wright’s view of justification. (Here are my comments on the three plenary addresses by Thomas Schreiner, Frank Theilman and N. T. Wright). One of the parallel sessions claimed to be an answer to the New Perspective, yet the paper did not engage with the New Perspective directly and concluded what was wrong with the New Perspective is it challenges Reformation theology. In fact, the paper concluded with a lengthy citation of the Westminster Confession (as a mic-drop).

The second part of the introduction therefore surveys the reactions both for and against the New Perspective. The editors provide copious footnotes to the avalanche of anti-New Perspective literature. Among the post-New Perspective studies briefly surveyed in this section is the Paul within Judaism” view represented by Magnus Zetterholm in chapter 4, Francis Watson’s Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge, 1986) and revised by adding the subtitle Beyond the New Perspective (Eerdmans 2011), Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans 2009) as a representative of the apocalyptic view on Paul, and John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2017), also featured chapter five of this volume.

Brant Pitre outlines the Roman Catholic Perspective on Paul. Pitre shows that Sanders’s interpretation of Paul is very close to Catholic soteriology and Sander’s exegesis of Paul unintentionally arrived at the same conclusions as patristic, medieval Catholic interpreters and the Council of Trent (27). He therefore examined several issues in Sanders, in patristic writers, and Trent. In fact, he points out that the Council of Trent’s decree and justification “Paul over fifty times and the Bible over one hundred times. He does not therefore understand statements from N. T. Wright like “the Council of Trent responded by insisting on tradition” (54). Pitre does not see a contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of “initial justification by grace through faith and final justification according to works enough by faith alone” (52)  In Zetterholm’s response, he observes that it is “quite ironic; Paul, the great hero of Protestantism, turns out to have been the first real Catholic (68).

A. Andrew Das gives the Traditional Protestant Perspective on Paul, although Das prefers to call his view a “newer perspective” (85). Das recognizes agrees with Sanders that not all Second Temple Jews affirmed a legalistic approach to salvation. But unlike Sanders, he thinks some Jews were legalistic and Paul responds to that claim. He therefore spends much of this chapter examining Galatians 3 and Romans 4 in order to argue Abraham was a model of obedience for Second Temple period Judaism. Paul demands perfect obedience to the law, but this is “not necessarily a commentary on Second Temple Judaism, but a consequence of his Christological emphases” (94). For Das, following the law is a mere human endeavor which stands in contrast to the gift of justification.

James D. G. Dunn is the obvious choice to present the New Perspective on Paul. Many of Dunn’s ideas are so well known by this point he can summarize briefly his views on Galatians 2:16 and the Antioch Incident. However, he makes the bold suggestion that Luke complicated the history of early Christianity by qualifying Paul’s claim to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Luke shifts the initial preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles to Peter (Acts 10) and omits the details of the Antioch Incident. By glossing over the sharp conflict described in Galatians 2, “Luke the apologist has taken over from Luke the historian” (142). Paul’s gospel of salvation through faith alone “was lost to sight in Luke’s history and in subsequent history that he had in effect encouraged” (145). This view of whether Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was lost is controversial. Pitre claims justification by faith is in the patristic writers (151). Das focuses a broad range of Jewish and Gentile interaction around meals, which “would be perceived by some Jews as a reeking of idolatry if not also law violations” (158). Barclay does not address Luke’s reception of Paul since it is not central to the New Perspective, suggesting that Dunn’s comments on Acts “reflect a strong, subterranean influence of F. C. Bauer” (164). Dunn confesses he has over-written in the topic and should have held the discussion of Luke’s reception of Paul for another time (168).

Magnus Zetterholm lays out the “Paul within Judaism Perspective.” For Zetterholm, the Pauline scholars must determine “what Paul is communicating in the socio-religious-political situation in which he lived, no matter the consequences for normative theology” (66, emphasis his). Torah observance was only a problem for Paul regarding Gentiles. Although he expects non-Jews in Christ to conform to certain moral standards (such as refraining from idolatry), he never expected the Gentiles to keep Torah. Jews who are in Christ should continue to keep the law. Zetterholm observes that Paul is called to be the apostle to the nations, The theological problem Paul faced was not related to how Israel is going to be saved. Of course, Paul touches on Israel’s salvation, but he has far more to say about how the pagans are going to be saved. For Paul, Israel’s salvation was never in doubt (189). Gentiles will be included in the final salvation without giving up their ethnic identity: they do not convert and “become Jews” (whatever that might mean in the context of Second Temple Judaism).   

The “Gift Perspective on Paul” appears in a book on Pauline viewpoints. John M. G. Barclay briefly summarizes his Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) and explains how his view extends the insights of the New Perspective. Although it might seem strange to include a recent book on Paul as “perspective,” Brant Pitre suggests Barclay’s book will prove as consequential as Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (237). As Barclay states, the “Gift Perspective on Paul” perspective is not as much a well-defined school of interpretation, but rather a loose constellation of viewpoints centering on the definition of grace as an incongruous gift illustrated by the wide diversity of use within second temple Judaism. Paul stands within the spectrum and applies the idea of grace to his Gentile mission. It is not whether there would be a mission to the Gentiles, but how the Gentiles would be included. Of importance is for Barclay is Romans 9–11, which “displays a complex dialectic between the Christ event and the scriptural story of Israel” (231).

Conclusion. To a certain extent, the title of this book is misleading. The five perspectives are all more or less in conversation with E. P. Sanders. As the editors make clear in the introduction, even the traditional view has taken new a new shape because of Sanders. Das says he is in “largely in agreement with Sanders” and Barclay’s recent nuanced view of grace (84) despite representing the Traditional Protestant view. Are there other more aggressively traditional Pauline scholars who might have provided more contrast with Sanders? Thomas Schreiner comes to mind, although he contributed to the Four Views on Paul (Zondervan 2012).

One important view missing in this book is the Apocalyptic Paul. Of course editorial choices must be made and keeping these multi-perspective books to four or five is likely the preference of the publishers. In my review of Voices and Views on Paul, I complained there was too much New Perspective and the Paul within Judaism view was missing. Perhaps this book could have been improved by expanding the introduction to include Dunn’s views, allowing for a chapter on Apocalyptic perspective. However, this would deprive the reader from enjoying one of the last essays Dunn wrote. In fact, the book is worth reading, if only for Dunn’s contributions.

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