“The new perspective on Paul is a significant shift in the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians’ good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to this “new” perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general.”
– Wikipedia, New Perspective on Paul
“The New Perspective on Paul, also called New Perspectivism (hereafter NPP) is a system of thought in New Testament scholarship that seeks to reinterpret the Apostle Paul and his letters. In brief, the NPP is a reaction to the Reformation perspective on Paul (i.e. the traditional interpretation of him).
The Reformation perspective understands Paul to be arguing against a legalistic Jewish culture that seeks to earn their salvation through works. However, supporters of the NPP argue that Paul has been misread. They contend he was actually combating Jews who were boasting because they were God’s people, the “elect” or the “chosen ones.” Their “works,” so to speak, were done to show they were God’s covenant people and not to earn their salvation. According to the NPP, the result is a Judaism that affirmed sola gratia (grace alone). Presently, effects of the NPP are primarily seen in the academic world of New Testament scholars, particularly those who focus their attention on Pauline studies and the study of first century Judaism. However, ramifications of the NPP directly affect the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith (Sola Fide).”
– Theopedia, New Perspective on Paul
“I am an advocate of one form of the New Perspective. But there are as many new perspectives as there are people writing about it. Actually, E.P. Sanders, who started it, has been one of the main stalking horses in a lot of what I’ve done. I’ve very consciously been opposing Sanders in a great many ways, so if somebody thinks, Oh, well, Sanders = New Perspective. He’s a liberal. He believes this and that. He thinks Christianity and Judaism are all going the same way. Tom Wright = New Perspective. Therefore, he thinks what Sanders thinks. Come on! Read my lips. This is very, very different and always has been.
Sanders made some points about first-century Judaism which have to be taken extremely seriously and despite a great deal of labor on certain parts have not been overthrown. They need a bit more nuancing, but the idea of Judaism as a religion of grace with works coming in as gratitude for grace rather than to earn grace (OK, there are some rabbis who come in and say some silly things here and there), but substantially that is how it works structurally.”
– N.T. Wright, Trevin Wax Interview with N.T. Wright (Full Transcript)
“Summary of Wright’s reading of Second-temple Judaism then a substantial critique. Allow me to summarize Piper’s points quickly.
1) Wright sees a structural continuity between Judaism and Christianity. The dichotomy that sees first-century Judaism as legalistic and Christianity as grace-centered is a false dichotomy. (134)
2) Works of the Law refer, not to meritorious earnings of salvation, but to boundary-markers, “badges” of ethnic identity. Paul was arguing that the ethnocentric badges of covenant membership that separated Jews and Gentiles have been replaced by one badge alone – faith in Jesus (138-141).
3) Paul argued against the agitators of Galatia because they were trying to limit the people of God to Jews only (142).”
“Piper seeks to show how Wright’s insistence that first-century Jews were only ethnocentric and not legalistic represents a false dichotomy. Ethnocentrism is rooted in lovelessness and represents a type of legalism that cannot be dismissed (148-150).
“Wright and other representatives of the new perspective on Paul offer an inadequate analysis of the roots of ethnocentrism. Can one, for example, draw a line between the evil of legalism and the evil of lovelessness?” (150)
Piper makes a great point here, and he backs it up by pointing to Paul’s opinion of his own pre-Christian days, as well as Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisees (152-155). He shows that ethnocentrism is evil.
“Exclusivism rooted in religious pride remains the same. Jesus identifies the ethnic exclusiveness of the Pharisees as deeply rooted in morally reprehensible pride – that is, self-righteousness… For Jesus, the line between ethnic pride and moral pride vanishes. Ethnocentrism and self-righteousness are morally inseparable.” (156)
Piper makes an excellent case against the New Perspective vision of first-century Judaism. He goes to great lengths to show how the mere mentions of grace and gratitude do not exclude the presence of legalism or exclusivism. (After all, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable prayed: “I thank you that I am not like this tax collector,” etc.)
Regarding first-century Judaism, I believe Piper makes the stronger case. The New Perspective is right to remind us that ancient Judaism was not a precursor to 16th century Roman Catholicism. I believe that Wright is correct in seeing “works of the Law” more as badges of membership than as ways to earn one’s way to heaven.
At the same time, I believe the substance of the Reformed understanding of legalism to be consistent with the Judaism of Paul’s day. Piper is right. “Badges” of covenant membership that are then turned into their opposite (a way to promote moral superiority and ethnic exclusivism) are rooted in gracelessness. However much ancient Jews wrote of grace, I concur with Piper that the ethnic exclusivity invalidates the boast of “grace.””
1. We need to stop seeing first-century Judaism as sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism.
Are there some parallels between the two? Certainly. But we are not doing justice to the biblical text if we read the debates of the 16th century into the first century as if there is little to no difference. We are bound to misread the Bible if we treat the New Testament as a treatise written directly for any time other than its own.
As much as we can appreciate Martin Luther’s insights into New Testament exegesis, he often wrongly read “justification by faith alone” into everything, including the Gospels. One only has to think of his woeful treatment of the Sermon on the Mount – in which everything is in black and white categories of Law and Gospel. Luther states, without much support and against Augustine, that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” cannot in any way mean our mercy merits mercy.
Calvin and the other Reformers do a better job with the Gospels than Luther. But ironically, it seems that many who claim to be Reformed (at least at the popular level) resemble Luther more than Calvin here.
As much as we appreciate the heritage and witness of Luther and the other Reformers, we must not assume their teachings are the end-all, final word on matters of Christian doctrine. We tend to idolize the Reformers as if they were apostles to the 16th-century Catholicism much like the disciples were apostles to 1st century Judaism. The Reformers, for all their goodness, got some things wrong. If anything, the New Perspective is like a gadfly, irritating us and prodding us to better exegesis and less reliance on Reformation heroes. I believe this is a good thing.
It goes without saying that the Bible has application for every generation. But it is an interpretive fallacy to read our own debates (or medieval debates) back into the biblical era.
The New Perspective is helpful in reminding us of the historical situation of the first century. While we might not agree completely with the NPP reconstruction of Judaism (I concur with John Piper that we cannot clearly separate ethnocentrism and legalism), we can be thankful for the healthy reminder that we need to read Scripture in its historical context, not merely in its history of interpretation. Both readings may be helpful at some level, but we run into danger when we read back the history of interpretation (Luther against the Catholics, for example) into the original historical context (second-temple Judaism).
Is Wright guilty of eisegesis (reading his own views into the text)? Yes. He does it often. And so do many of his Reformed critics. So do you. So do I. It’s unavoidable at some level, as best we might try to be objective.
So let’s get back to the task at hand – exegeting the text in its first-century context and doing our best to avoid the inevitable traces of eisegesis. Wright’s goal is noble, even if his output is often incorrect.
The New Perspective gives us a healthy reminder that Judaism and Catholicism were not and are not identical.
2. Ecclesiology is a first-rate issue. Justification speaks to it strongly and we need to better emphasize this dimension.
One of the greatest problems in evangelicalism today is a radical individualism that so emphasizes the relationship between the individual and God that it often leaves out the corporate ramifications of salvation.
We are saved as individuals, yes. But we are saved in order to form the community of God promised to Abraham and fulfilled by Jesus.
The New Perspective is exposing a glaring weakness of much Reformed exegesis. We have unintentionally neglected the ecclesiological aspects of justification. It is no coincidence that Ephesians 2 begins with individual salvation (by grace apart from works) and concludes with salvation’s purpose – the bringing together of Jew and Gentile. It is not a coincidence that Paul rebukes Peter in Galatians 2 for not eating at the Gentile table.
One of the problems plaguing evangelicalism today is the lack of interest in the Church. Church leaders spend enormous energy just trying to keep people engaged in church. Sometimes this takes place by using guilt. “You know… Jesus did so much for you when he died on the cross. Don’t you think you should give him two hours every Sunday morning?” Guilt has never been a good motivator.
If you’re an active evangelizer, you quickly discover that many people who never darken the door of a church will tell you, “Yes, I’m saved. Yes, I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I prayed and asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins. I know I’m going to heaven when I die.” And yet these people don’t go to church, aren’t involved in kingdom work, and live like everyone else. It’s frightening, but many well-intentioned soulwinners will say, “Praise the Lord!” and move on to the next person. After all, the ticket to heaven is the main thing.
We are seeing the results of the gospel we have preached. When we preach a gospel that sees justification by faith as a doctrine solely about salvation, we wind up with people who sincerely believe they are on the right path – even if that path has no place for the Body of Christ on earth. What’s salvation got to do with the church after all? Much, according to Paul. The New Perspective reminds us that justification by faith speaks strongly to ecclesiology. It is about the coming together of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, black and white, male and female—the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. We are saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection and we are baptized into his Body on earth.
It’s not only NPP authors who stress this. The best of the Reformed tradition also upholds this doctrine. But because we continue to preach justification by faith as if it speaks only to matters of personal salvation, we unintentionally downplay the importance of the Church. And that is why people can, without batting an eye, say they have personal salvation but no need for the church.
3. The lordship of Jesus needs to be reclaimed and preached as central to the gospel.
For too long now, evangelicals have made salvation about trusting a personal Savior, often at the expense of submitting to the world’s true Lord. Yet, everywhere we turn in the New Testament, we are confronted with the gospel announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is the Lord of the world. Whereas we evangelicals emphasize the cross and neglect the Resurrection, the New Testament authors hold them both together (and most of the time place greater emphasis on the Resurrection).
To give us some credit, most evangelical tracts do mention the confession of Jesus as Lord. We have a catchphrase that says “personal Lord and Savior.” We can be thankful for at least the mention of Jesus’ lordship in our witnessing.
But “Jesus is Lord” in Scripture refers not only to Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, but also to his identity as King of all the universe. Jesus is Lord over all.
N.T. Wright is constantly writing about how we as Christians can make the royal announcement of King Jesus to the world around us. I am thankful for this impetus. Of course, this is not merely a NPP doctrine. (You’ll find this in all the great Christian traditions.) But we can be thankful for Wright’s prodding us (“shoving” might be a better word) in the right direction.
Only a strong commitment to Jesus’ lordship will embolden evangelicals to fight for justice, equality, and cultural transformation. Only a strong commitment to Jesus’ lordship will rescue us from the myopic individualism that leaves little room for the Church in God’s plan for Christians. Only a strong commitment to Jesus’ lordship will bring down the idols that once ruled our lives and in whom we once put our trust.
For too long, we have preached a gospel that, for many, gains us a ticket to heaven while leaving our personal lives and habits on earth intact. We need a radical salvation that transforms us inside and out. We are justified by faith alone on account of Christ alone for good works prepared for us from all eternity. We are justified in order to be the kingdom people that worship Jesus Christ as king.”
– Trevin Wax, New Perspective Positives Series
“Trevin Wax: You express appreciation for many of the insights of the New Perspective on Paul, and yet you come back to what is largely a traditional Reformed framework for understanding Paul. What are some of the beneficial insights of the New Perspective that you believe we should incorporate into our understanding of Paul’s theology?
“I think the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is correct in what it affirms, but wrong in what it denies.
Where the NPP is correct is in emphasizing the social dimension of Paul’s debates and concerns. Paul’s debates about works of law and justification by faith, were not abstract debates about “what must I do to be saved?” but really came down to the matter, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to become Christians?”.
To claim that one gains a righteous status by “works of law” is both legalistic and ethnocentric. I think the NPP provides us with a bit more social realism in our handling of Paul and his letters and keeps us grounded in the socio-religious realities of the first century.
To give another example, I often ask my students, why was Jesus cursed on the cross (Gal. 3.13)? They often say things like: “so we could go to heaven”, “so we could have a relationship with God”, “so we would be saved”—all these answers tend to revolve around personal, vertical, and individual soteriology.
I then ask them, “Why did Paul think that Jesus was cursed on the cross?” The answer being in Galatians 3:14—”He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
There is no doubt that we are “redeemed” by Jesus’ death. And the fact that he is cursed “for us” is as pretty clear a statement on penal substitution as you can get.
But note the redemptive-historical horizon! Jesus was cursed so that God’s plan to bring Gentiles into the family of Abraham would come to fruition. And here, I submit, whether you jolly well like it or not, you have to admit that those NPP chaps are actually on to something.
That is not to say that one should wholly embrace the NPP. Far from it! We should read the NPP authors critically and discerningly. That is part of the problem here.
For instance, I find N.T. Wright utterly inspiring when he’s talking about Jesus and Israel and the big picture of the Bible’s storyline, but I also find him utterly frustrating when he’s going on about “works of law” as exclusively boundary markers and his understanding of the righteousness of God in 2 Corinthians 5.
Generally speaking, I think the NPP has shown us that we need to read Paul not through the lens of an ordo salutis, but through the lens of a historia salutis.”
– D.A. Carson, The New Perspective on Paul