The New Perspective on Paul: A Raw Reflection (Part 2)

One of the best pieces of intellectual advice I received (from a student, actually) was that “we should seek to understand before we critique.” Another person, this time a colleague, used to say that “you need to get to a place where you are an inch away from believing something before you can truly understand it,” and he was talking about Islam. Pretty risky stuff, but I think they’re both right. A solid, honest, informed—indeed, Christian—way of evaluating a new interpretation or doctrine is to understand it before you critique it. And that’s what we’re trying to do in these posts: understand what the New Perspective is all about, and then—and only then—evaluate it. (I’ll continue to use the phrase the New Perspective for convenience, with the understanding that there are many different perspectives within the New Perspective.) In the following, we’ll continue looking at the main passages that birthed the movement, which was named, nursed and cared for by New Testament scholar James Dunn (Creepy metaphor, but I had to carry it through).

In the last post, we saw that Romans 3:28-30 gives traction to Dunn’s claim that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was trumpeted not in response to Jewish legalism, but in response to Jewish ethnicexclusivism. “Works of law” refers to Jewish boundary markers per se, which exclude Gentiles as Gentiles from entering the covenant. Paul argues against ethnic exclusivism by saying that justification is by faith and not by one’s ethnic heritage. That is, justification in God's covenant does not require that you stiff-arm other ethnic groups by forcing them to keep the “works of the law” (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath, and bacon-free breakfast).

We’ll look at two other passages that Dunn uses to support his point. Again, this should go without saying, but unfortunately it needs to be said. Our goal is not to prove Dunn wrong just yet, but to understand his biblical argument and see if theBible supports his point. The Bible is central, and it's our ultimate authority, not our theological tradition—the way I’ve always been taught.

Let's first look at Romans 4:9-12:

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

This is a big chunk to quote, but read it carefully. Plain and simple, the main point that Paul makes here is that Abraham received righteousness (i.e., he was justified) before he became a Jew (i.e., was circumcised) so that he could be a genuine father to both Jews and Gentiles. The idea that Paul was combating Abraham’s legalistic tendencies is non-existent. Or at least, that’s not Paul’s point here in his argument. As with Romans 3:28-30, the main reason Paul argues for justification by faith is that it includes both Jew and Gentile on the same ground: faith.

One more text is important: Galatians 2:11-16. Let me begin with the last verse:

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

We usually read this passage as confronting works-righteousness—we are justified by faith and not by our own merits. While this is true—and every New Perspective interpreter would affirm this, by the way—it isn’t, according to Dunn, the main point of Galatians 2:16. The context is about Paul confronting Peter for withdrawing from Gentile fellowship, because some Jewish Christians came up to Antioch and ratted him out for eating pork. “For before certain men came from James,” Paul says, Peter “was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” So Paul opens up the can on Peter and says: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul’s statement here—which is explicitly about Jew/Gentile relations and not about works righteousness—feeds into his statement in 2:16 about justification by faith.

We can quibble over nuances here, but if you can suspend for a moment all the scathing accusations you’ve heard about the New Perspective on Paul, I think we can all agree that Dunn is at least making a good case from the Bible. And to prevent my house from being surrounded by pitch forks this afternoon, let me just say again that I disagree with severalfundamental aspects of the New Perspective. But as far as we can tell, Dunn is trying to understand the actual argument Paul is making and he’s not trying to overturn the Reformation or bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants (just some of the many accusations lobbed at Dunn over the years).

While you’re chewing on Romans 4 and Galatians 2 let me leave you with a couple quotes from Dunn. As stated above, some people assume that he is promoting a works-based version of Christianity, or that he denies justification by faith, or that he is a Catholic dressed in Protestant clothes. As always, it’s best to read someone on their own terms and not trust the critics, so here’s what Dunn himself has said:

I took pains to emphasize…that the central affirmation of the doctrine of Justification by grace through faith is and remains absolutely fundamental for Christian faith” (Dunn, New Perspective, 19)

I affirm as a central point of Christian faith that God’s acceptance of any and every person is by his grace alone and through faith alone” (Dunn, New Perspective, 21).

The gospel is that God sets to rights man’s relationship with himself by an act of sheer generosity which depends on no payment man can make, which is without reference to whether any individual in particular is inside the law/covenant or outside, and which applies to all human beings without exception. It is this humbling recognition—that he has no grounds for appeal either in covenant status or in particular “works of the law,” that he has to depend entirely from start to finish on God’s gracious power, that he can receive acquittal only as a gift which lies at the heart of faith for Paul (Dunn, Romans, 1.179).

Now, Dunn could be a liar or a lunatic, but even though he dresses kind of funny I really think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really isn’t trying to overturn the gospel of grace. Perhaps there is some misunderstanding among his critics. And in the next post, we’ll see where this misunderstanding lies.