3 Distinctions That Will Help You Understand the New Perspective on Paul

In this post, we untangle complex theological issues surrounding the New Perspective on Paul. To tackle this and other challenging biblical topics, check out the courses included in Mobile Ed’s Tough Topics sale.

Since the 1970s, a tide of scholarship called the New Perspective on Paul has—depending upon whom you ask—either swept away hundreds of years of misconception . . . or threatens to sweep away the hard-won truths of the Reformation.

So which is it? Or, even more fundamentally, what is it? The New Perspective is notoriously challenging to summarize, but one thing is certain: everyone who takes biblical studies seriously should at least have a basic grasp of what’s new about the New Perspective.

In his Mobile Ed course on the New Perspective on Paul, Stephen Chester provides a thorough introduction to this important school of thought. Significantly, he doesn’t offer a one-sided, uncritical take on the New Perspective. Rather, he provides students with the tools they need to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue.

What exactly is “new” about the New Perspective on Paul? Here are three answers to that question, all drawn from Chester’s Mobile Ed course.

A new view of Judaism

NPP scholars are responding to a trajectory of thought that stems from the Reformation, and especially Martin Luther. In his Mobile Ed course, Chester explains:

The major point in [Martin Luther’s] interpretation of Paul concerns Paul’s phrase ‘not by works of the law.’ In this view, when Paul says that justification is not by ‘works of the law,’ he is attacking works righteousness; he is attacking the view that he perceives in Judaism that you earn right standing before God by obeying the ot law with all its detail, [thus] establishing your own righteousness. And Paul is rejecting all of that in favor of the grace that’s given to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But NPP scholars have questioned the premise that the Judaism of Paul’s day (also known as Second Temple Judaism) was a hotbed of works-righteousness. Did the Jews really believe they could earn a holy standing before God based on their good works? In 1963, Krister Stendahl opened up the discussion with an article published in the Harvard Theological Review. He suggested, in part, that our understanding of Second Temple Judaism had been shaped by the concerns of Luther and Calvin, leading us to misunderstand Paul.

But it wasn’t until 1977, when Ed Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, that the issue received a book-length treatment. Chester summarizes the impact of Sanders’ book:

Sanders [attempted to] demonstrate that Christian scholars of Second Temple Judaism had often falsely portrayed it as a religion of works righteousness. Sanders felt that all of that was wrong—that actually Second Temple Judaism did not teach that people had to earn their own salvation. Second Temple Judaism was not a religion structured by hundreds of petty regulations that people had to put into practice on a day-by-day basis in a legalistic way.

Instead, Sanders emphasized Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace. . . . You see, Sanders wanted to recognize that [according to first-century Judaism], getting into the people of God depends upon God’s election, depends upon God’s grace. Israel did not become the people of God because they chose God, Israel became the people of God because God graciously chose them. The relationship, the covenant, is established through divine initiative. Getting in depends upon God’s election.

To truly appreciate the implications of this suggestion, just think of how Luther’s contrast between grace and works righteousness is ingrained in the evangelical psyche. Even our gospel presentations are suffused with this contrast; we’ve amassed an arsenal of illustrations demonstrating the impossibility of earning a right standing with God. Chester summarizes the profound, practical implications of rethinking our view of Second Temple Judaism:

[The NPP has] not just been a scholarly discussion, it’s also been a discussion about Christian ministry and the presentation of the gospel, because the New Perspective on Paul raises some key questions: If the Reformers were wrong about Paul, have we been presenting the gospel incorrectly when we’ve preached and taught it on the basis of trajectories of interpretations that stemmed from them? Or alternatively, if the Reformers were actually right, and it’s scholars in the New Perspective who are wrong about Paul, are these contemporary scholars actually in some way corrupting the gospel and leading us to preach and teach incorrectly?

And so we have a key question: Does the New Perspective on Paul lead to fresh and faithful expressions of the gospel or does it lead to false and faithless expressions of something that is less than the gospel?

A new view of the Law

Scholars of the New Perspective also present an alternative understanding of the Jewish Law. They argue that the Reformers saw Paul’s relationship with Judaism through the lens of their own struggles against Catholicism. As Chester summarizes Sanders’ view, traditional interpreters “have described Judaism as if it were Roman Catholicism and Christianity as if it were Protestantism!” But, these scholars assert, the Reformers got this wrong. Here’s Chester:

Sanders’ point . . . is that this significance of law in Second Temple Judaism is understood as a response to what God has first done. Getting in depends upon God’s election, but . . . staying in . . . requires obedience in response to God’s law. So law is taken extremely seriously but it’s always a response to divine grace. And it’s always divine grace in Second Temple Judaism that is primary as far as Sanders is concerned.

In other words . . . there is a balance here—gift and demand, grace and response. The two work together in Second Temple Judaism. And so it’s quite wrong to speak as if this was a religion of works righteousness, where people thought that they were earning their salvation.

Chester explains that even if that assessment is accurate, there’s a problem: when you read Paul, there is an undeniable contrast present that Sanders never fully addresses. “Justification is by faith and not by works of the law,” Paul says. As Chester notes:

Paul’s gospel is embodying something positive—justification by faith, but it also stands against something, against the view that justification is by works of the law.” And so what Sanders didn’t explain particularly clearly was this: If Paul was not objecting to attempts to earn salvation, what does he mean when he says that “justification is not by works of the law”?

James D.G. Dunn emerged with an answer to this question. Paul is contrasting “justification by faith” with justification through a uniquely Jewish identity:

James D.G. Dunn argued that the ‘works of the law’ are . . . in particular those aspects of the Jewish law that serve to mark the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles: . . . circumcision, the observance of the food laws, and the observance of Sabbath. . . . Paul is objecting to the insistence that it’s necessary to become Jewish in order to be righteous before God. When he writes these key texts, what he is objecting to is the attempt to impose Jewish law observance and the Jewish way of life on his Gentile converts. Paul is saying that these key markers of Jewish identity and key markers of the boundary between them and the Gentiles mustn’t be imposed on Gentile followers of Jesus as a precondition for those Gentiles to receive God’s grace in Christ.

A new view of justification

Without a doubt, the most controversial aspect of the New Perspective on Paul is the suggestion that, since the Reformation, the church has by-and-large misunderstood the nature of justification. Although NPP scholars don’t all agree on what exactly justification is, they agree in general on what justification is not.

In the traditional telling of the gospel, sinners stand before God, the righteous judge. As sinners, they are worthy of condemnation. But when God the judge looks upon those with faith in Christ, he doesn’t see their sin; Christians are “cloaked in Christ’s righteousness.” God declares the believer innocent—justifies them—because Christ’s righteousness has been transferred, or imputed, to them. But in What Saint Paul Really Said, NPP scholar N.T Wright famously criticized imputation, quipping:

It makes no sense 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 gas that can be passed across the courtroom.

In fact, NPP scholars argue that you can search through Paul’s writings all day and never find an instance where Paul explicitly states that Christ’s righteousness is transferred to the believer.

N.T. Wright has made waves with his understanding of justification; John Piper famously rebutted Wright in The Future of Justification. Chester summarizes Wright’s view in contrast with the traditional view for which Piper argues:

In those traditional accounts where the believer stands cloaked in Christ’s righteousness, what the declaration of justification is doing is dealing primarily with the issue of sin, dealing with somebody’s forgiveness. Wright wants to say something a little different. He wants to say that the verdict of the law court involved in justification is actually, in the first instance, a declaration of status. And the status that’s being declared here is the status of the individual being a member of God’s covenant people. Somebody who is justified is somebody who through Christ is a member of the people of God.

Now it’s important to say immediately that this does also, in Wright’s view, deal very crucially with sin, because it’s God’s people who will have their sins no longer counted against them because of the work that Christ has done in His death and resurrection on behalf of all of those who were in him by faith. So the verdict of justification is accomplished and announced through the death and resurrection of the faithful messiah, Jesus. But there is at least a kind of difference of emphasis here.

Wright also emphasizes that there is both a present and future aspect of justification. God issues his verdict concerning the believer in the present on the basis of faith and faith alone. But he also will declare that verdict in the future, when God raises believers from the dead. As Wright explains in his book Justification, “The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it, the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.”

Here’s Chester summarizing Wright’s point in the above passage:

In other words, what justification does is . . . bring forward God’s final verdict; the believer is justified in the present on the basis of Christ’s saving work, is declared to be part of God’s people, and then as part of God’s people, through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the believer will live a life more and more in accordance with the justification that’s being given, so that through the power of the Spirit, the future verdict comes to match the verdict in the present; the verdict that somebody is justified, that somebody is a member of God’s people and that, therefore, their sins are forgiven.

Serious students of the Bible will have to decide the merits of the New Perspective on Paul for themselves. However, even if you reject the arguments of NPP scholars, by grappling with their assertions you clarify one of the most important issues both in theology and the Christian life: how a sinner becomes righteous in the eyes of God.

Continue exploring the New Perspective on Paul with Stephen Chester’s Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective, included in the brand new Tough Topics Bundle (5 courses). Get all five courses for 70% during the Mobile Ed Tough Topics sale.

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Written by
Taylor Jones
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Written by Taylor Jones