A couple years ago I was asked to lead a discussion for the Talbot School of Theology faculty on “The New Perspective on Paul.” Now, you should know up-front that (for the most part) I am not very positive about the overall approach that New Perspectivists take when they interpret the letters of Paul (esp. Galatians and Romans) and when they try to set those letters in a reconstructed first century Jewish theological context. But I also do not believe that it is right or wise for people to be dogmatic about topics that they don’t know very much about. So, to help you interact responsibly with the New Perspective, I want to revisit the lecture I did for the Talbot faculty try to help you understand the New Perspective on Paul so that you can critically weigh for yourself its merits and demerits.

To get started, click on the link to listen to a ten minute video in which N.T. Wright and James Dunn (perhaps the two best-known New Perspectivists in the world today) summarize their views. While you listen, answer the questions I’ve listed below. This will allow you to hear at least a few sound bites from people who actually agree with these ideas (many of which I don’t):

Click HERE for video. [1]

Questions to answer while you watch the video:

Questions about Wright:

  • Why have we misread Paul according to Wright?
  • What is the meaning of the expression “works of the law” when Paul uses it in Galatians?

Questions about Dunn:

  • Dunn quite provocatively accuses the Lutheran position of what (in a single word)?
  • According to Dunn, what dimension has most noticeably been missing in our interpretation of books like Galatians and Romans?
  • How does Dunn apply his new reading of the texts to our lives today? (ironic smile)

Now that you’ve had a chance to actually see and hear Wright and Dunn for a few minutes on their own, let me summarize four key issues related to the New Perspective on Paul and the Law with the goal of helping you understand it better. (This is the outline I used for the talk I gave at our faculty forum.) I have added more details into the last point on justification and included some quotes from N.T. Wright under that point since that issue is the hardest to grasp.

1. The proponents of the “new perspective” [always] claim that Judaism was not a religion of merit based upon works. Jews did not believe that they were made right with God by works. They believed that their special standing with God was based upon God choosing to enter into covenant with them by his grace. [Representative scholar: E.P. Sanders]

2. The proponents of the “new perspective” [usually] claim that Paul’s expression “works of the law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10 and Rom 3:20, 28) is only a reference to ethnocentric boundary-markers—those items like circumcision, food laws, and festivals that set Jewish people off from Gentiles. Paul doesn’t have any problems with the law itself. [Representative scholar: James Dunn]

3. The proponents of the “new perspective” [sometimes] claim that since Paul was not concerned with Judaism per se, he was not writing about universal sin problems. His concern was with tensions between Jews and Gentiles. A related idea is that Paul’s Damascus Road experience should not be viewed as a conversion (Acts 9), since he understood himself to be in continuity with the faith of his fathers. Rather, Paul believed that he had received a call from God to preach to the Gentiles. [Representative scholar: K. Stendahl]

4. The proponents of the “new perspective” [sometimes] claim that justification by faith means something different from what most old perspectivists think it means, and thereby reduce its importance in the entire schema. [Representative scholar: N.T. Wright]

a. Righteousness of God as Covenantal Faithfulness: The expression “righteousness of God” in Romans (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22; 10:3[2]) is a technical term that consistently means God’s faithfulness to the covenant God made with Abraham. It is “God’s fidelity to the norms he himself has set up, in other words, the covenant.”[3]

b. Focused on the Future: Justification is fundamentally eschatological. It is “the anticipation of the eventual verdict to be delivered on the last day.”[4] “Right through Paul’s writings, but once more especially in Romans, he envisages two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated.”[5]

c. It’s Not About Getting In: “Justification is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone has had their sins forgiven and that they are a member of the covenant family, the family of Abraham. That is what the word means in Paul’s writings. It doesn’t describe how people get into God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in.”[6]

d. The Faithfulness of Christ: They are declared to be in the right because of the “faithfulness of Christ” (his translation of pistis Christou in places like Gal 2:16). The faithfulness of Christ is Christ’s death on the cross on our behalf.[7]

e. Second-Order Doctrine: “Justification by faith is a second-order doctrine.”[8]

f. Imputation: The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is minimized (at best).

“If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”[9]

“If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness’…But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. [italics his] That makes no sense at all. God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness, because of which he will (Israel hopes) vindicate her, and bestow upon her the status of ‘righteous’, as the vindicated or acquitted defendant. But God’s righteousness remains, so to speak, God’s own property. It is the reason for his acting to vindicate his people. It is not the status he bestows upon them in so doing.”[10]

“The basis for all this, in theology and eschatology, is the faithful, loving, self-giving death of the Messiah. This is the theological point of reading pistis Christou and its cognates in terms of the Messiah’s own faithfulness; and this brings us as close as Galatians will let us come to what the Reformed tradition always wanted to say through the language of “imputed righteousness.” God always intended that his purposes would be accomplished through faithful Israel. That has now happened—but in the single person of Israel’s faithful representative. But this does not mean that he has “fulfilled the law” in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a “treasury of merit” which can then be reckoned” to his people. That scheme, for all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments.”[11]

Wright’s reading of 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him”:

“Part of me recoils from having to question this traditional reading of the text. This is not just nervousness at spitting in the strong wind of a powerful and (I have to say) appealing tradition. Because I can see a great truth underneath the claim that is being made, the truth which anchors Christians in the love of God rather than anything in themselves, I am loath to say that I disagree with this reading of the text. But the double rule of good exegesis drives me on…

Thus, one last time, a statement of the death of Jesus followed by a statement of the apostolic ministry:

a. The one who knew no sin, God made sin for us;

b. So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

In other words, that in the Messiah, we might embody God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself.

Yes, I know. This is not the way the great tradition has read this verse. And not everyone will be convinced by the argument I have now used, which is that 5:21 forms the climax of a three-chapter build-up of sustained exposition of the nature of apostleship as the embodiment of the gospel, the gospel of God’s faithfulness in the Messiah, and also the climax of a thrice-repeated sequence of just such a double statement about the Messiah’s death on the one hand the apostolic ministry on the other.”[12]

Now I encourage you to carefully think through this issue for yourself. For those of you who want to read more, here are a few more introductory resources:

Positive summary: Mark M. Mattison, “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul.The Paul Page.

Negative summary and critique: J. Ligon Duncan, “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In my opinion the best book length introduction is:

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004). Note that Westerholm is mostly negative toward the New Perspective.

[2] Cf. 2 Cor 5:21; “his righteousness in Rom 3:25, 26; and “righteousness from God” in Phil 3:9.

[3] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 64.

[5] Wright, Justification, 12.

[7] Wright, Justification, 117.

[8] From “The Shape of Justification,” in Bible Review (April 2001). Accessed at www.ntwrightpage.com.

[9] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 98.

[10] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 99.

[11] Wright, Justification, 135.

[12] Wright, Justification, 158, 164. See pp. 158-164 for entire argument.