The New Perspective on Paul: A Raw Reflection (Part 1)

John Piper and N. T. Wright have been two of the most influential voices in my life, and I love the confused reaction I get when I tell people this. After all, don’t these two writers come from different planets? Isn’t one an agent of God while other an agent of Satan? Or perhaps you’ve wondered what John Piper has been all fired out about in a couple of his recent books: Counted Righteous in Christ and The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. The last one, of course, is a direct response to Wright and the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” So what’s all the hubbub?

It all began back in 1977, when a biblical scholar named Ed Sanders published his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In it, Sanders studied a bunch of different Jewish documents, written around the time of Jesus, to see if they promoted a legalistic theology. For most of church history, it’s been assumed that Judaism was a religion of works, where Jews stock-piled good deeds, hoping that one day the good would outweigh the bad. This has been taken for granted among virtually every Christian for hundreds of years, so Sanders went to the proverbial horse’s mouth to find out whether first-century Jews promoted a legalistic religion in their own writings. The answer he came up with in so many words was “no, they did not.” Judaism very much believed in the grace of God for salvation; obedience was simply a response to grace, not a means of earning God’s grace—the same as Christianity.

The question that follows, then, is what was Paul arguing against when he preached justification by faith? If it wasn’t Jewish legalism, when what was it?

Sanders didn’t do a great job of answering this question, but other scholars stepped in and teased out an answer. The one who snatched the baton from Sanders and ran with the most vigor was a British scholar named James Dunn. Dunn gave a lecture in 1982 titled “The New Perspective on Paul.” This lecture, published a year later, gave traction to Sanders’ study and, probably unexpected at the time, branded this new way of understanding Paul and Judaism.

Dunn agreed with Sanders that Judaism was not legalistic, but took things a step further by using this new view of Judaism to better understand Paul. So, for instance, Dunn argued that Paul’s phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) does not refer to legalism, or works-righteousness, but ethnic exclusivity. In other words—and this is really the heart of the debate—when Paul says that we are “justified by faith” and not “by works of the law” (Gal 2:16), he wasn’t arguing against works-righteousness but against the Jewish contempt toward Gentiles. These “works of the law,” says Dunn, refer to those laws that traditionally distinguished Jews from Gentiles—circumcising your sons, not eating pork, observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says that we are not justified by “works of the law,” he’s basically saying that we are not justified based on our ethnic heritage—which is what John the Baptist and Jesus said in so many words.

So how do Dunn and others argue this from Scripture? The clearest inroad to their argument comes in Romans 3:28. Here, Paul gives one of his clearest statements about justification by faith.

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).

Now, ask yourself, is Paul arguing against works-righteousness, or against excluding Gentiles from the covenant? If works-righteousness, then Paul will probably follow this statement up with something about trying to work your way to heaven. But if excluding Gentiles, then he’ll probably follow it up with something about Jew/Gentile relations. So which is it? Well, here’s what Paul says:

“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom 3:29-30).

If you’re following my point, then you’re catching the gist of the New Perspective. If you’re not seeing the difference, then it may be good to read Romans 3:28-30 again. In any case, it seems that Dunn has a point. Paul clearly follows up his statement about justification by faith with a rhetorical question about God being both for Jews and Gentiles and this is the beauty of justification—it is by faith and not by one’s Jewish identity, or “works of the law.”

All of this may be old news to some of you. For others, it’s the first time encountering this discussion. So let me stop here and let you digest it a bit. I’ll pick it up again tomorrow with more thoughts, but let me end by giving a few pastoral challenges.

First, just because something is called “the New…” doesn’t mean it’s bad. So don’t make the mistakes of already thinking the New Perspective is evil and heretical if you haven’t taken the time to understand it. Quite a few pastors got their underwear in a bunch when Martin Luther spouted off his “New” doctrine a few centuries ago, but we’re all grateful he did. “New” isn’t bad. Unbiblical is bad. So you need to sort out whether the New Perspective is

N. T. Wright

biblical or not. I’ve already given you one biblical point in favor of it—Romans 3:28-30. If you want to read on, check out Rom 4:9-16 and Eph 2:11-18. Those are two important passages where salvation by grace is set in the context of ethnic inclusivity.

Second, there is no such thing as the New Perspective. (I’ve been using this phrase throughout simply because it’s well-known.) I cannot emphasize this enough. Like the term Baptist or Presbyterian, there is no such thing as a monolithic movement called “The New Perspective.” There’s no denomination, no membership fee, no badges, uniform, or annual conference to attend. There are so many perspectives within the broad umbrella of “the New Perspective” that it’s utterly unhelpful to even use the phrase the New Perspective unless you realize that there is much diversity within this school of thought. (And I don’t even think N. T. Wright should be considered an advocate for the New Perspective; we’ll see why later.) So asking the question: “Are you New Perspective” is unhelpful, imprecise, and reveals a good deal of ignorance. It’s like asking someone if they’re Baptist. What does this mean? For some, being Baptist means you’re Arminian, or against women in ministry, or believe in congregational rule, or that you are theologically conservative, or that you don’t dunk babies, or that you’re theologically liberal, or pro elder-rule, or for women in ministry, or that you’re Calvinistic. (The chiasm was intentional, by the way; I was feeling creative.) Many within the broad umbrella of “the” Baptist denomination disagree vehemently on a wide range of issues, and the same is true of the so-called New Perspective. And, if I can be so frank, most people who try to categorize other people using that phrase are on a witch hunt and want a black and white “yes” or “no.” So be careful! The villagers are agitated, the pitch-forks are sharpened, and they be comin’ home baggin’ them a witch, so you’d better answer right! But seriously, the very demand for a “yes, I am New Perspective” or “no, I am not” is unhelpful and, at times, dangerous. No one who actually understands the issues would ask that question.

Third, the whole New Perspective thing has gotten way out of hand. I did my entire Ph.D. on the issue and I would easily say that 90% of the critiques are fueled by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge—none of which made the list of Christian virtues. Rarely is the Bible even opened when a witch is put on the stand. (It’s ironic and sad that charges of being “unbiblical” are made with a closed Bible.) I’ve seen relationships destroyed, ministers fired (or hired), churches split, and unchristian dialogue flood the Internet based on this issue—and it’s rarely governed by the text of Scripture. Perhaps this whole issue hits home a bit because my name has been tossed around here and there as being a big New Perspective proponent. And I am totally ok with this except for one major problem: in everything that I’ve published on the subject, I’ve argued against the New Perspective.

How does that happen? Well: Fear, anger, and lack of knowledge. So any time my name may be lumped into the whole discussion, just know that this is clear evidence that much gossip and ignorance has shaped a critique that’s been made under the banner of being biblical.

In the following posts, I’ll discuss other features of the New Perspective, how N.T. Wright fits into the whole thing, and why I disagree with it. So stay tuned!