In the last thirty years, scholarship on Paul (especially Protestant scholarship) has been in a state of turmoil unprecedented since the Reformation. The culprit: the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP), a paradigm for understanding the writings of the apostle that dares to examine some of the reformers' most cherished doctrines in a new light. Its supporters claim not to be introducing a new teaching, but correcting a long period of historical blindness that has kept their predecessors from understanding Paul rightly. Just what is the NPP? Referring to the movement with a unitary name is misleading, since there is no such single, monolithic theological entity. Nonetheless, its major proponents share some key similarities in their theology.
The NPP understands itself as a corrective to Christian theologians' long history of misunderstanding the Judaism of Paul's time, from the early church to the twentieth century and beyond. In modern theology, second-temple Judaism is commonly viewed as coldly legalistic and self-righteous, hoping to earn salvation from God by self-driven moral performance. Based on this understanding of what Paul was reacting against in his letters, the salvific "faith" that he champions was defined in opposition to the "works" of the Jews, who became symbols of the basic, universal sin of works-righteousness; the essence of the gospel was to be found, it was thought, in Paul's teaching of justification by faith alone, rather than by works. Eventually this consensus began to change via dialogue between Jewish and Christian scholars, the discovery of second-temple Jewish documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the study of the Septuagint, the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek which served as Paul's "Bible", and the ways it shaped his understanding of key terms like "righteousness" in relation to their meanings in classical Greek. Jews who had long been calling out Christian scholars for misrepresenting their religion began to be joined by Christians like G.F. Moore, R.T. Herford, and James Parkes.
The turning point came with the publication of E.P. Sanders' book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which drew on recent historical research on second-temple Judaism to paint a picture that was drastically different than the "traditional" Christian one. This reinterpretation centered on his concept of "covenantal nomism", which proposed a new understanding of the place of the law in Jewish faith and practice. The law, Sanders said, was never a list of instructions to perfectly follow in order to earn God's favor and salvation; this was simply a caricature. Rather, it was to be understood within God's prior covenantal election of Israel. The law was not the way to enter the covenant, but the way to live within it, and it included means of atonement to maintain the covenantal relationship despite transgressions. Sanders' vision of Judaism placed the electing, saving grace of God before human obedience, just as Christian theology does. His conclusions about Judaism are foundational for the theology of the NPP, though its supporters do not agree with all of his conclusions, especially his view of Paul as arbitrarily jumping from Judaism to Christianity, rejecting the law simply because it is not Christ.
The NPP proper seeks a coherent understanding of Paul's theology that avoids the mistakes of earlier scholars, based on Sanders' insights, especially his view of Judaism characterized by covenantal nomism. In light of their historical context, several of Paul's concepts that are key to the theology of what is now known as the "old perspective on Paul” are reinterpreted. Nomos, or "law", is no longer abstracted to refer to a universal moral imperative on humanity in contrast to the principle of “faith”; it is simply taken to refer to the Torah, the Mosaic law, and the Jewish way of life following from it. Erga nomou, "works of law", are no longer human-driven efforts to "earn" righteousness or salvation, but, in light of the phrase's usage in 4QMMT (a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls written by a second-temple Essene sect), are understood as particular commands of the law acting as "boundary markers" that clearly delineate the difference between Jew and non-Jew, or more generally the law's function of establishing this boundary. Dikaiosynē, the Greek word that is translated to both "righteousness" and "justice" (as well as "justification" in Gal 2:21), is no longer taken to be an abstract moral quality as in classical Greek usage, but is understood more relationally in light of its usage in the Septuagint as referring to God's covenant faithfulness or to our inclusion in the covenant. "Justification", formerly taken to be virtually synonymous with "salvation" or "the gospel", is now understood to refer more to something that happens after salvation, namely a divine declaration that one is justified, vindicated, "in the right", a member of the covenant.
One of the best-known proponents of the NPP is British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who has written extensively on Paul's life, writings, and theology. He believes that the traditional Protestant reading of Paul is heavily colored by Martin Luther's theology and his struggle against Catholic teaching, and seeks to situate the apostle and his letters back in their first-century Jewish historical and salvation-historical context. Jews in Paul's time "were not sitting around discussing how to get to heaven, and swapping views on the finer points of synergism and sanctification. ... They were hoping and longing for Israel's God to act, to do what he had promised, to turn history the right way up once again. "Salvation", for them, was distinctly corporate (not individual) and this-worldly. Though they had returned to the promised land from exile, the exile still continued in a metaphorical sense, as life was still far from the way it should be. God's "righteousness", far from an abstract moral quality, was his covenant faithfulness, his commitment to end this exile and fulfill his redemptive promises to Israel.
But not just to Israel. God's initial covenant with the childless Abraham entailed the creation of a family more numerous than the stars—but this family was not just identified with Israel. Rather, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:3 ESV) "Paul's view of God's purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight." The Abrahamic covenant was the answer to the problem made evident in the previous eleven chapters of Genesis, namely sin, death, and the fall of God's creation into corruption. For this reason, Wright frequently describes the covenant, considered by the Jews to be the founding moment of Israel, as God's "single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world". But as it turned out, Israel was just as sinful as its neighbors. (Rom 3:9-20) Thus there was a new, twofold problem: Israel, too, was in need to rescue, and its sin prevented the promises made to Abraham from having their intended effect of blessing for the nations. This, according to Wright, is the context of Paul's teaching about justification and the gospel. How was God going to be faithful to his promises for the world, through Israel, in light of human unfaithfulness?
Answer: through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus obeyed the law perfectly yet took the curse for disobedience (as in Deu 28) on himself (Gal 3:13-14); by rising from the dead, he made "a way through the curse and out the other side, into the time of renewal when the Gentiles would at last come into Abraham's family, while Jews could have the possibility of covenant renewal, of receiving the promised spirit through faith." The point of all of this is not simply to establish a soteriological system of "justification by faith", but to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant by creating the global family of faith that God promised him and to restore the creation to the way it should be. (Gal 3:7-9)
For Wright, justification is not the imputation of Christ's obedience "to our account"; still less is it synonymous with "salvation" or the gospel. Rather, in the context in which it is first mentioned in Paul's letters (Gal 2) as well as in contemporary Jewish writings, it is a status of vindication, a divine declaration that a person is part of God's covenant family and will be saved at the last judgment. Paul's point is not to establish a dichotomy between the opposing principles of "faith" and "works", but to insist that it is by faith in Christ, not works of the Torah (becoming Jewish, joining the nation of Israel) that God's people are now marked out. The present verdict of justification is by faith alone, but it anticipates the final verdict of justification described in Romans 2, which will be by works. This is possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, transforming us and manifesting our justification; as Paul goes on to explain especially in Romans 6-8. Wright seeks to restore "the Jewish, Messianic, covenantal, Abrahamic, history-of-Israel overtones", which he feels are screened out by the traditional Protestant understanding of Paul but become visible with a study of Paul in his Jewish context.
The NPP is often met with criticism from conservative Protestant theologians. Foremost among Wright's critics is John Piper, who wrote a book to critique Wright's claims on Paul and justification. He alleges that the NPP, especially as represented by Wright, dangerously distorts the gospel taught by the Reformation tradition. One frequently criticized tenet of the NPP is its claim that justification per se is not part of the gospel. Piper argues that the gospel is only good news if it includes justification; without it, in light of our sin, the announcement of Jesus' vindication and lordship is terrifying. "[Paul's] announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news in Paul's preaching precisely because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification." He appeals to Romans 5:1 to show that justification is part of how someone becomes a Christian, since it involves a crucial change in the relationship of the sinner to God without which there can be no salvation. Without justification, the gospel gives guilty rebels against God no reason to hope for a good outcome for themselves. Sinclair Ferguson also claims that Wright has exaggerated the gospel individualism and subjectivism to which he sees the NPP as an antidote.
Piper also questions what he sees as Wright's redefinition of "righteousness" as impartiality and covenant faithfulness (on the part of God) or a status of vindication and covenant membership (on our part). Rather, Piper argues, as he has elsewhere, that righteousness is the same for God and man: "For both the defendant and the judge, righteousness is 'an unwavering allegiance to treasure and uphold the glory of God.' This is what makes God and humans 'righteous.'" Because of this and contrary to Wright, the imputation of Christ's righteousness (his unfailing obedience to God's righteous demand "that we unwaveringly love and uphold the glory of God") does make sense and is a real and vital part of justification. Justification is not simply a status given to us by a courtroom declaration, but the counting of a real, alien moral righteousness as ours; "in Christ we are counted as having done all the righteousness that God requires". J. Ligon Duncan points out that in its discussion of justification, the NPP tends to neglect atonement theology, actually investigating the work of Christ and how it functions in favor of focusing on the person of Christ as Lord and Messiah.
Piper and others also dispute the NPP's reassessment of first-century Judaism as a "religion of grace". Piper believes that Paul's descriptions of his pre-conversion life depict him not as a humble supplicant of God's grace, but an arrogant blasphemer; as well, Jesus' teachings on the Pharisees show that they pursued Torah not out of gratitude to God but a craving for human glory. Ultimately, ethnic pride and legalism have the same sinful root: self-righteousness. J. Ligon Duncan also believes the NPP's case is inconclusive because it only denies that first-century Judaism was essentially Pelagian. But Luther only ascribed semi-Pelagianism to the Catholic church and Judaism, and this description still appears accurate. He also criticizes the NPP for allowing a provisional theory on first-century Judaism to dominate its exegesis and diminish what the text is actually saying in favor of overwhelming context.
Finally, Piper emphasizes that both now and in the end, faith rather than works is the instrument of justification. He believes Wright's case for final justification on the basis of works from Romans 2:13 is inconclusive in its immediate context. With extensive support from historic Protestant confessions, he reiterates the Reformation truth that a transformed life of obedience is necessary for the Christian, but it is only evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose righteousness is the sole basis of our justification, both now and for eternity. J. Ligon Duncan alleges that the NPP "diminishes the New Testament emphasis on the importance of the problem of sin and its forgiveness in relation to the Gospel" and focuses on Paul's soteriology and ecclesiology without considering his anthropology and hamartiology. As a result of all of these factors, proponents of the old perspective believe that the NPP amounts to a corruption of the true gospel.
Several loci of disagreement between perspectives are evident. Most basically, they contrast on what second-temple Judaism was like, especially in relation to the Mosaic law: prototypically legalistic, or a "religion of grace" characterized by covenantal nomism. "Works of the law" are viewed as either meritorious actions intended to earn righteousness before God, or "boundary markers" or "badges" to mark one off as a member of the covenant. God's "righteousness" is his moral perfection and more specifically "[his] unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory", or his covenant faithfulness and impartiality as a judge. "Justification" is either the imputation of Christ's righteousness and the forgiveness of sins, or God's public declaration that someone is "in the right", a member of the covenant; the perspectives also differ on the relative importance of justification in the gospel. The NPP views the human condition more corporately as alienation from God's covenant of redemption which is intended to save from sin and death, in contrast to the more individualistic traditional stress on escaping God's wrath for sins and having a righteousness to stand on at the final judgment. Procedurally, the perspectives differ on the relative priority of the well-tested Reformation tradition and new historical-contextual research as guides for exegesis.
I find the New Perspective more, but not totally convincing. It answers several theological problems I have had with believing the old perspective. It rightly calls out the flaws of the Lutheran view of the "law" (which is also present, to a lesser degree, in Reformed theology) as a harsh judge or taskmaster that exists to show us our sin and drive us to God's grace. While this may be true on an individual level, it doesn't work when applied to the historical narrative of the Bible, which is the focus of the NPP. If sin is virtually equivalent to self-justification, why did God give the Israelites a law that plays right into it and then leave them to struggle with it for thousands of years before sending the Messiah it was supposed to "point" to all along? What of all the Jews who lived and died before this time, who knew the law only in its negative function of inciting and condemning their sin? And if this function of the law continues in the church age (as Luther’s universalizing treatment of the law implies), why do we not repent of breaking the Sabbath or eating pork? This telling makes the law, as described by Paul, seem like something God saves us from, or at least a deliberately ineffective measure for dealing with sin. As well, the law itself commands its hearers to seek life and righteousness by obedience to it (Lev 18:5, Deu 6:25) which is seen as possible at the present time (Deu 30:11-14); the old perspective does not take these verses seriously, or even contrasts them with justification by faith! Crucially, the old perspective does not (in my experience) attempt to explain how the Judaism Paul denigrated is different than the Judaism established by God in the Old Testament, which is essential to avoid a neo-Marcionite reading of Scripture.
I also believe the NPP offers a somewhat better account of justification. The "traditional" view is based on an Anselmian, inward-oriented, demanding view of God's righteousness/justice that needs to be "satisfied" by the punishment of sin, whether in us or in Christ. The critical point of justification is a change in the divine disposition towards us, from "against us" to "for us". I do not believe that this is an accurate understanding of God's justice. Though I don't exactly agree with Wright's understanding of "righteousness", I agree with him that the imputation of Christ's righteousness does not make sense; the logic of imputation is foreign to the Bible as well as common sense. Piper's criticism that the New Perspective understanding of "justification" makes it into little more than a status rings hollow; what is imputed righteousness if not a legal status with no corresponding moral reality? Isn’t that exactly the point of justification by faith alone? The old perspective bases its view of justification on a merit-based concept of salvation, which, with the Orthodox Church, I believe is not a part of biblical soteriology.
Finally, along with Wright I find it ironic that in his rebuttal Piper repeatedly appeals to Reformation tradition as normative. This is seen as he assumes that the old perspective is the default or "obvious" interpretation of Scripture; Ferguson calls it the "old wine" in reference to Luke 5:39 (seemingly unaware that the "new wine" stands for the gospel in this parable). Aside from the fact that little effort is made to trace this tradition back any earlier than the sixteenth century (and thus demonstrate that it is not itself a corruption of an older tradition), it is hard to reconcile Reformed theologians' appeals to it with their claimed ancestors' opposition to established tradition and willingness to pursue fresh readings of Scripture. What do you do when a theology that emerged in defiance of tradition becomes the new tradition?
Perhaps because of these appeals to tradition, the old perspective tends to neglect to engage the NPP on its own turf: new historical research into second-temple Judaism and Paul's Jewish context. Piper's engagement with it is mostly limited to a chapter warning that studying first-century ideas may not be illuminating (which Wright satisfactorily rebuts). I also agree with Wright that the New Perspective is more Trinitarian, creational, and Israel-focused than the old, themes which are far too important to neglect when reading Paul. I consider his theology of synergism to be an important part of soteriology rather than a "bogey-word" to be avoided.
Yet the New Perspective is not perfect. Many of its faults may simply be consequences of its break with Protestant tradition on such central doctrines and the need to distinguish itself from the "default" interpretation of Paul, which is not entirely without value. While I am sympathetic to N.T. Wright's points about the Jewish context and connotations of Paul's usage of terms like dikaios(yne) and erga nomou, I have trouble following the gospel narrative he builds out of them; it feels unintuitive, like an external interpretive grid laid over the text which confuses more than it enlightens. Some of this is from how he tends to look for one clear-cut context in which to define words, and then feels free to use this meaning everywhere (e.g. defining "justified" in light of what we can know of the "Antioch incident" in Galatians 2, and then reading it through this lens throughout Paul's writing). How does James use dikaioō in his epistle? In Wright's telling, the word seems to be defined almost entirely by context, with little innate meaning.
As well, due to its methodological emphasis on studying Paul in his social, cultural, and historical context, proponents of the NPP tend to interpret his letters in a very human way, more so than their opponents. Wright complains that the old perspective does not keep the Holy Spirit in sight in its understanding of final justification, but he interacts little with how the same Spirit may be speaking through Paul to grant his words new dimensions of meaning for the church he helped found, beyond his original context. The old perspective does this better. Both perspectives also still tend to look largely to Paul (rather than the other epistles or, even the gospels) to understand what "the gospel" basically is, though Wright somewhat sees past this.
Another result of the project of distinguishing itself from the old view is that the NPP tends to draw strong theological dichotomies for detractors like Piper to jump on: ethnocentrism vs. moralism, or justification vs. reconciliation with God. Both perspectives seem to support the familiar dichotomy between justification and sanctification, creating a sharp disconnect (or strictly one-way relationship) between justification and any moral righteousness on our part.
The NPP works better as a part of a larger whole than as a complete account of the gospel; for example, Duncan is correct in pointing out that it says little about the atonement in itself. Wright and others, with their rigorous study of Paul's context, have produced a set of hermeneutical tools for glimpsing new dimensions of Paul's theology—but it would be foolish to use these new ideas exclusively (Wright would probably agree with this). James Dunn considers the NPP to be complementary with the historic Protestant doctrine of justification. I would go a different route and combine it with an Orthodox understanding of soteriology, Christology, eschatology, and anthropology. Justification includes both reconciliation and vindication, with a definite beginning that is also maintained as the Christian continues to live and grow through right relationship (union) with God and the destruction of sin by the atonement of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Contrary to the old perspective, I believe the whole of Scripture testifies that God is always, unconditionally “for” us; the question is whether we resist his grace or allow it to be effectual in us. There is no need for justification to convince him to bestow grace on us or make up for a deficiency in merit on our part. This approach overcomes the shortcomings of both perspectives, complementing traditional Christian soteriology with the fresh insights of the NPP and offering a more satisfying answer to the issues at hand.
- Tom Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 12.
- Michael Wise, “Some Comments on Origins of the New Perspective: Part 1,” course notes.
- George Foot Moore, "Christian Writers on Judaism," Harvard Theological Review 14 (1921), 252–253.
- Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 30,37,51.
- Wise, "Some Comments on Origins of the New Perspective" (both parts), course notes.
- James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 199.
- E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 422.
- Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, 49; Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38A, Romans 1–8, (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1988), lxvi.
- Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 1–6.
- Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 8–15.
- Wright, Justification, 111–113.
- Wright, Justification, 53–58.
- Wright, Justification, 37.
- Wright, Justification, 41.
- Wright, Justification, 52.
- Wright, Justification, 73.
- Wright, Justification, 103.
- Wright, Justification, 175.
- Wright, Justification, 104.
- Wright, Justification, 96.
- Wright, Justification, 163–168.
- Wright, Justification, 62.
- John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 16–17,25,37–38,61,181–183
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 89.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 90.
- Sinclair Ferguson, "What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?", Ligonier Ministries, 1 February 2010, < http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-does-justification-have-do-gospel/> (31 January 2015).
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 71.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 164.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 171.
- J. Ligon Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul," Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 2009, < ttp://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086_CHID560462_CIID1660662,00.html> (31 January 2015).
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 152,154.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 159.
- Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul."
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 108.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 110.
- Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul."
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 66.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 184.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 78.
- Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), 197.
- Ferguson, "What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?".
- Wright, Justification, 31–34.
- Wright, Justification, 212,222.
- Wright, Justification, 163–168.
- Wright, Justification, 163–164.
- Wright, Justification, 60.
- Piper, The Future of Justification, 160.
- Wright, Justification, 199.
- Wright, Justification, 180, 187.
- Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 194.