The New Perspective on Paul

One of the things I have to do is to pass an exam on NT issues. One of the issues simmering along since shortly after I was born, and more or less erupting into plain controversy when I was doing my MDiv is what is called the New Perspective on Paul. I think what happened is that people started working on the implications being disseminated in the 70s, and then some rather prominent and otherwise reliable, or seemingly reliable, voices started saying there was perhaps something to this New Perspective. Usually the controversy comes when some extraneous issue is advanced by someone of more evangelically reliable credentials. Essentially, the advocate suggests alarming adjustments and the war is on.

It is called new because it is in contrast to what had been believed all along. The old view is in fact the Lutheran view. Why Lutheran? In Scottish Presbyterianism we read a book on covenant theology. The book consisted of a dialogue made out of quotations from various theological legends. It included a lot of Luther. Martin Luther is a theological legend, but how is it that a book on covenant theology quotes someone who didn’t really have so much covenant theology, precious? The reply I got is that every protestant falls right into line with Luther when it comes to Justification. He got it clear, he got it right, he is the source, he is hard to beat; he is just great on justification, none better. And that is why the old view is Lutheran, it depends on Luther’s understanding of Paul.

You can gather from that that the new perspective is going to do something to justification, and you will see why it comes to be such a big deal. You change justification and you change everything. We are now living in the aftermath of the debate, from what I gather. It is like Open Theism: those who are pro have settled in places that will tolerate them, those who are con make sure they and theirs keep clear, life goes on, influences waft through the various schools. You have to know where they are death on it, where they are not death on it, where they encourage it, where they are indifferent and infiltratable, etc. I think the New Perspective is perhaps at the same stage: people have figured out who is saying what, they have decided what each will tolerate and where draw the line, and now we make sure people know what the issue is about, who is on what side, what the arguments are. Stephen Westerholm wrote a major book about it, and the reigning grandfather of Westminster Theology, Richard Gaffin, has come out with a new edition of his smaller book against it. I have to read both. Westminster is death on the New Perspective, I gather.

The New Perspective on Paul says that he falsely accused Jews of believing they were saved by works. They were not saved by works, according to the New Perspective, and did not think they were, but were saved by remaining in the Mosaic covenant, by faith. The New Perspective calls what it thinks the Jews believed Covenantal Nomism. What Paul was opposed to was the nationalism and racism of the Jews who insisted all believers had to become Israelites as the Old Covenant stipulated. He said, no, Christ has changed that. He said that we have the same religion only more inclusive. You can see the appeal of such a view in our daynage. Here was Paul hitting the very beast, the sin of sins and heart of Satan: racism, intolerance, non-diversity, xenophobia.

The New Perspective has other attractions. Nobody really wants to say the OT was about another religion. Were people in the Old Covenant saved by keeping the law? If they weren’t, if they were aware of it though, then why does Paul go on about the law the way he does? How do we account for it? It has always been a tough issue to sort out, but all Protestant sorting out made sure not to tamper with justification by faith alone in doing so. The New Perspective generates a series of answers to the difficulties, and it is academically exciting because it provides new things for those who study Paul to work on, to reconcile, to establish and defend. One must not minimize the appeal of this: when you’re in the academy of today, finding something really compelling to work on is tremendous. And people have. If nothing else, it generates work, creates jobs.

The argument is that if you look at the Judaism Paul’s knew, you will not in fact find what Augustine and Luther assumed Paul found. The New Perspective accuses the old view of being captive to Augustine and Luther’s reading of Judaism through Paul’s writing; and the problem is, they got it wrong. The Jews were not proto-pelagians. Augustine and Luther read Judaism wrong because . . .  they read Paul wrong. (You can see how saying that leading theologians have got the Apostle Paul wrong would make waves.) Augustine and Luther were too individualistic: Paul was more collective, the New Perspective says. Augustine and Luther assumed Paul was talking about himself when in fact he was talking about a nation. Augustine and Luther were too introspective: they assumed Paul had the same issues with his conscience they had with theirs: but he was not so disturbed or introspective, he was, in fact, very untroubled, altogether cool rather than earnest and troubled. Assumptions like these, New Perspectivers argue, caused Augustine and Luther to distort Judaism because they misunderstood Paul to begin with. And we have all been following them happily, without consulting Palestinian Judaism from the period in question.

People have also been working to refute it. It is problematic to say that Paul got Jews wrong because he was reared and trained among them. If he did not have the approval of Palestinian Judaism when he went galloping off to Damascus, what on earth were they all thinking? If he did not understand the going rabbinic takes on the Old Testament, who did and why did they let him graduate from rabbi school? So the argument that Paul distorted Judaism is difficult to maintain; he would have read what we can read and more, and been able to talk to them about it.

The real argument to deal with, in dealing with the New Perspective, is the one that we have all been getting Paul wrong. Can it be? Since we now have new studies to reconcile, how do we do it? What we find out is that in order to say we have Paul wrong, we have to tweak our understanding of Paul: of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’, of ‘law’ and such terms in Paul. So the New Perspective has to fiddle with these terms. These are not peripheral terms for Christianity in general and the Gospel in particular. You fiddle with these terms and things stop looking the way they did. The New Perspectivers can say that what they are doing is clarifying what the terms meant, against the old misunderstanding. You can see that the outcome has to be to relativize what is now an at least 500 year old Protestant view of Justification, 1500 year old notion of Paul. Not the kind of thing one ought to accept without a fight.

One of the things Westerholm demonstrates is how the complex terms are used. Paul uses the term righteousness to indicate that which is the opposite of sin. Without sin, you are righteous, with sin, you are not. Law is that which demonstrates you are not righteous, it shows what righteousness is. It is also what Jews meant when they spoke of torah. The Jews believed it was given to regulate behavior, to indicate what you had to do in order to obtain life. You trust God, if you trust him you follow the torah, and you will live. Paul is saying that it is not faith in God coupled with obedience to the terms of the covenant which saves, but an individual’s faith in Christ alone which justifies. What in the OT is indistinguishable, faith and effort, is by him distinguished. Effort is the result of faith and justification, not that which earns justification. This is what Augustine, theologian of grace, understood, and what Luther, nominalist and voluntarist, focused clearly in the Protestant doctrine of justification.

Westerholm demonstrates what Sanders (the guy who kicked it all off) got wrong. He failed to account for the stubbornness of the Jews. They had the OT, they understood it up to a point, but they rejected Christ, and specifically, that Christ achieved what Adam lost. And that, as you might expect, was Paul’s point. They did not reject Christ because they thought he was being too inclusive and setting aside their customs merely, but because they did not believe God would impute righteousness to anybody by being united by faith to a federal head, just as sin is imputed by federal solidarity in Adam. Not only did they reject the second Adam, they failed to see that faith was the only qualification for being included in the New Covenant.

What does the New Perspective get wrong? Righteousness in Paul is about belonging, much as Judaism was but without all the trappings. Justification is corporate, rather than individual; believing is more about public joining than about being united to Christ spiritually; faith is agreeing, and law is little more than Jewish ceremony. What it does is simplify the theologically rich vocabulary that greater minds (Paul, Augustine, and Luther) achieved (as opposed to Sanders, Wright, and Dunn). Paul is made to agree with Judaism about externals at the expense of the inner spiritual richness of union with Christ by faith, imputation, and all that lies at the heart of protestant religion. If it is not at the heart of your religion, fine, but then don’t claim to be protestant. Paul -> Augustine -> Luther = protestant soteriology. Don’t tamper with it. Adjustments not appreciated or accepted. The New Perspective is a covenant of works approach to religion, which is deteriorated or deteriorating religion in which human effort contributes to an outcome, rather than being a result of an outcome. Go be Catholics, but don’t mess with Texas.

* * *

Post Scriptum: The covenant of works? Westerholm only mentions this when he deals with Wesley, mostly because of the four historical figures he deals with (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley), only Wesley lives after the doctrine is formulated. He does not in the end specify a covenant theological or dispensational point of view, which perhaps is odd or I missed it (the book is annoyingly compendious). For me, the covenant of works has been a problematic covenant until recently. I never understood it properly when I tried to account for it without coming to terms with the law. If you simply read Genesis you will never come up with a covenant of works. If you understand the law as gracious, however, if you see it as more than condemnation, you have to come to terms with how it is so. It all depends on two men, the first and the last men, Adam and Christ. Adam is the federal head under a covenant of works: do this, and live. He failed and merited condemnation for all. We are born and die under the terms of the covenant of works, condemned. But Christ takes the condemnation and dies for his people. He dies under the covenant of works though he fulfilled all the terms to live, and does so so that we can live to a new covenant, the covenant of grace. It does not say, as the covenant of works says, do this and live, but it says live, and do this. Do what? The same law, since God’s expectations of righteousness do not change, but the terms under which we live before and after the fall on this planet do. Between the fall and the cross is the Mosaic Law, participating in both covenants of works and grace, depending on your status.


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