Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The New Perspective on Paul--I'm Convinced

2008 shall henceforth be known as the year that I converted to the New Perspective on Paul. I don't know to whom it will be known as that, but it's true nonetheless.

Most of the New Testament theology books that I read in 2007 and 2008 dealt with the issue, including:

  • The New Perspective on Paul by James Dunn
  • The Theology of Paul the Apostle by James Dunn
  • The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (NIGTC) by James Dunn
  • The Epistle to the Galatians (Black's) by James Dunn
  • The Climax of the Covenant by N.T. Wright
  • Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale) by N.T. Wright
  • Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective by Francis Watson
  • Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel by Seyoon Kim
I would like to do a series of posts about the New Perspective--what it is, why I am convinced it is right, and what weaknesses I see in it. It's going to be a lot of work, but I hope to do it nonetheless.

In short, the New Perspective is a reinterpretation of Paul's view of the law, the Gentiles, and the Jewish people. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the law dominated theological discussions of Paul for 400 years, until E.P. Sanders challenged it with Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People in 1983.

Sanders argued that Second Temple Judaism should not be characterized as "legalistic," but by a term he coined, "covenental nomism." According to Sanders, the ancient Jews were not trying to "earn their salvation by good works" in the same way that 16th century Roman Catholics were. Instead, Judaism was a religion of grace. God elected Israel purely by grace, and faithful Jews responded to this election by obeying the Mosaic Law. Obeying the law was a crucial part of the covenant, but obedience in no way "earned" anyone salvation. (This is similar to the Reformed view of the role of the law in Christianity. "Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone.") Perfect obedience was never expected, and the sacrificial system was put in place to atone for sin.

In his letters, Paul strongly condemns the religious system of his Jewish contemporaries in favor of a system he calls "justification by faith." In the Lutheran system, justification by faith has been contrasted with "doing good works to earn your salvation" so that the traditional antithesis in Paul is "believing" versus "doing."

The Lutheran understanding of Paul has problems, though. Paul isn't against good works at all. He encourages them. Further, if the Judaism Paul opposed didn't believe in "salvation by good works," what was Paul's problem with it? What did he mean when he said, "By works of the law no man will be justified"? If the contrast wasn't "believing" versus "doing," what was it? If Judaism was a "religion of grace," how was Christianity different than it? These are the questions that the New Perspective seeks to answer.

Not every New Testament scholar accepts the New Perspective. Many do, the most significant being Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. There is disagreement even among adherents to the New Perspective about Paul's attitude toward the law and Judaism.

Like I said, I will gather my thoughts about what I think are the most poignant ideas of the New Perspective, and I will post more in the future.


James said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'll be interested to hear more about what you think.

Matt said...

Thanks, James. Good to hear from you!

I have been working through the issue. The biggest challenge for me is presenting Martin Luther's view without misrepresenting him. Historical theology is not my strength, so I want to be careful to be fair to Luther. The only one of his books I've read is The Bondage of the Will, so I am having to a bit of background reading to be able to quote him fairly.

I'll have some thoughts in due time.

John said...

Well what do you expect when most of your books you read support the new perspective? If you read books against it would it have convinced you? What do you think?

Matt said...


Although to be fair, Seyoon Kim's book was written largely in response to James Dunn. I found that Kim had some solid criticisms of Dunn's theses, especially in Dunn's emphasis on "universality" versus "particularity" over against the effects of the cross. Further, Watson doesn't consider himself new perspective. His book moved "beyond" the new perspective.

That being said, I have not read Justification and Variegated Nomism edited by Carson, O'Brien, and Seifrid, a major critique of the new perspective (mostly because it costs $150).

I will lay it out and I'd be interested in your comments!