A statue of the Apostle Paul at the Vatican.

Another one of the subjects to be discussed at my oral defense is the so-called New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP). Of course, it is better understood as “perspectives” since there is not one, singular new approach. This is quite a massive topic to have to discuss. I am doing my best to familiarize with many of the various ideas and personalities, but it seems like a never ending task!

About two years ago M.M. Mattison wrote a helpful introductory article on the NPP titled, “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul” which list four major contributors and their key ideas. There is Krister Stendahl‘s observation that Paul had a “robust conscience” so that unlike Luther he was not a man haunted by moral failings. This idea arose as scholars began to revisit what Second Temple Judaism reveals about itself, especially in works like the Dead Sea Scroll collection. It did not seem that Jews in this period did good deeds to “earn” God’s favor, but as a response to their election as the people of God. In other words, the Jews were already the people of God. One could exit the covenant by doing deeds that disassociated with the people of God thereby enacting one’s departure from the covenant, but one does not earn their way into the covenant. For Stendahl the idea that Paul was a proto-Luther was absurd. He may have forsaken his Jewish identity markers in favor of being identified with Christ, but he did not show himself to be a man buried in doubts and regrets.

E.P. Sanders is the second person mentioned. Of course, he did one of the most thorough studies of Second Temple Judaism and he concluded that the concept of “covenantal nomism” made better since of how the Jews related to the Law. As I explained above it wasn’t “legalism” as much as it was response to election. One could disassociate themselves from Israel by breaking the law, but this wasn’t as much about “morality” as it was “identity”, though the lines are sometimes blurry here.

James D.G. Dunn moved things along by observing (contra Sanders) that Paul had not misunderstood his fellow Jews framing them as legalist, but rather when he accused them of being tied to close to “work of the Law” it had nothing to do with morality. In other words, Paul was not an anti-nomian. It did have to do with those particular demarcators of Jewish identity: circumcision, Sabbath, holy days and festivals, dietary laws, and the like.

N.T. Wright is the final major personality. He challenged the idea that the “righteousness of God” had to do with some moral quality of God that he “imparts” or gives to sinner to make them holy. Rather, he saw the righteousness of God as being something like the vindication of God. He uses the phrase “covenantal faithfulness” quite often. So, for example, in Romans 9-11 the major concerns is how can God be considered just if he is rejecting ethnic Israel to whom he has made so many promises simply because they didn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah. Well, for Paul God is justified or vindicated in his end of the covenant in that he has maintained a remnant saving them as he has always saved the people of God, by faith. I recommend watching the below video to get an idea of what Dunn and Wright argue.

Another debate that matters to those who discuss the NPP is whether or not Paul’s phrase  πίστεως Χριστοῦ should be understood as referring to “faith in Christ”, an objective genitive, or “faith(fulness) of Christ”, a subjective genitive. What we have here is a difference in placement: Does salvation come by our faith in Christ or by Christ’s faithfulness? Of course we can argue “both” from other passages of Scripture, but that is the unique contribution of this phrase to the debate.

Another useful article of this topic is Preston Sprinkle’s very recent “What is the New Perspective on Paul?”

Of course, “The Paul Page” from where the first article came has many resources as well.

What do you think are the most important things to know about the NPP? Would you add any other major contributors? Would you add any other important subjects? 

If I were to summarize the overall contribution of the NPP(s) it would be that we have been forced to reevaluate how we read Paul in relation to the Judaism of his day. This has impacted how we understand Pauline soteriology which is where most of the battled have arisen (e.g. the impact this has had on the doctrine of justification by faith, especially as it relates to how people like John Piper understand it). What do you think is the most important contribution of the NPP(s)? 

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