The New Perspective on Paul: A Final Raw Reflection (Part 5)
Karl Barth in 1956, photo courtesy of Hans Lachmann via Creative Commons

In this fifth and final post of the series, I’ll lay out my own views about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ve insinuated throughout that I’m not an advocate of the NPP, and yet I’ve tried to accurately and fairly represent it in the previous posts.

So, what do I see wrong with the New Perspective? Three things.

First, NPP proponents (broadly speaking) see Paul and first-century Judaism as having the same structure of salvation, but different identify markers. That is, it’s typical for NPP interpreters to see Paul and Judaism as having the same understanding of grace and works. Both Paul and Judaism, they say, believe that salvation is by grace and our works are nothing more than a response to grace. This is pretty much what Sanders, Dunn, and even Wright would say. Or in the words of the brilliant NT scholar, Morna Hooker:

[J]ust as Palestinian Judaism understood obedience to the Law to be the proper response of Israel to the covenant on Sinai, so Paul assumes that there is an appropriate response for Christians who have experienced God’s saving activity in Christ (Hooker, “Covenantal Nomism,” 48).

My only problem with this understanding of Paul and Judaism is this: it’s wrong. Having studied the original documents of Judaism for the last 10 years, I must say that while they were not robustly legalistic (merit mongers working their way to heaven apart from grace), they also weren’t as “Calvinistic” as Paul (please excuse the anachronism). That is, on the whole, first-century Jews weren't as hard core about God's agency in salvation as Paul. Our beloved apostle believed that “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) and nowhere in first century Judaism do we see such a radical assertion (4 Ezra come close). In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are famous for being “hyper-Calvinists” (cough, cough) and even they don’t make such radical claims. For the authors of the Scrolls, “God atoned” for and “justified the righteous, and pronounced the wicked to be wicked" (CD 4:6-7, a famous scroll from the Dead Sea). God doesn’t justify the ungodly—that would be offensive! God’s pronounces the righteous to be righteous.

But Paul saw things differently. (And so did Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, FWIW.) Paul and the prophets believed that God will justify the ungodly since we’re all ungodly. Paul believed that all people—including Jews—are sinfully beyond repair and can do no good on their own. This leaves only the wicked to be justified by God—even though most Jews in the first century considered this to be absurd.

Paul’s emphasis on divine grace and divine agency is unparalleled in first-century Judaism. (I’ve got a few caveats here, which I’ve written about in my book Paul and Judaism Revisited.)

Second, the phrase “works of the law” cannot be limited to Jewish boundary markers. I may have built a good case for this in my first two posts, but a close look at all the passages shows that “works of the law” refers to the demands of the old covenant law which Israel failed to keep. Dietary regulations may be emphasized in Galatians 2:16 and perhaps in Romans 3:28 (I still have my doubts here), but in all other instances (e.g. Rom 3:20; Gal 3:2, 5, 10), “works of the law” refers to the demands of the Mosaic law as a whole, not (exclusively) the Jewish boundary markers in particular. So when Paul says that no one is justified by works of the law in Romans 3:20, he’s simply saying what he says elsewhere: that righteousness did not and cannot come through law (Gal 2:20-21; 3:21; Rom 4:4-5; 7:6-8:11). Now, Jewish boundary markers are certainly included in these “works of the law,” so I don’t see it as an either/or situation. Those Jews who tried to limit God’s saving activity to the Jewish people were, by definition, making law obedience (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath keeping) a prerequisite to God’s saving act. And that, folks, is just another species of works righteousness.

Limiting Paul’s critique to ethnocentrism cannot account for Paul’s driving point: “We’re all jacked up and in need of unilateral grace to be saved" (Rom 4:4-5 my translation).

Third, and somewhat related, although the NPP has very helpfully brought to light the importance of the Jew/Gentile issue in Paul, this should not be pitted against a more classic reading of Romans and Galatians. In other words, we need to distinguish between the unique and surprising content of justification by faith (Rom 4:4-6)—that God declares righteous his ungodly enemies—and its universal scope (Rom 4:9-16)—that this salvation is given to Jew and Gentile on the same basis. The “Old Perspective” seemed to emphasize only the former, while the “New Perspective” the latter. Both, to my mind, are beautiful and true, and do not mutually exclude each other.

Let me end, however, by tipping my hat one more time to the New Perspective. Having read piles of stuff written by NPP advocates, I’ve been forced to go back and bury my nose in the text of God’s precious word. It’s been tedious at times, but overall I feel that I have a better grasp on what God was breathing out through the pen of Paul. And any time we are forced to revisit the text with fresh eyes and new questions—and a sensible spirit, I might add—that’s a pretty good day at the office.

So let me end by encouraging you with the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who on the eve of his exile from Nazi Germany exhorted his students with these words:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously…And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the Scripture that has been given to us.

–Karl Barth, on the event of his formal farewell to his students in Bonn, just prior to his expulsion from Germany in 1935.