What is the New Perspective on Paul?
In Christianity, "The New Perspective on Paul" is an non-traditional way of interpreting the New Testament teaching of the Apostle Paul on justification, which lifts it out of the paradigm of the so-called "Old Perspective" - as understood and taught by orthodox Protestant theology - and relocates it into another religious framework.
Leaders of The New Perspective include N.T. Wright (1948-present; former bishop of Durham) and James D.G. Dunn (1939-present; former professor of theology at the University of Durham). Their New Testament scholarship builds upon the research of E.P. Sanders (1935-present; professor of religion at Duke University).
While this school of thought is often called The New Perspective (singular), it's more precise to speak of The New Perspectives (plural), because there isn't uniformity among those who challenge The Old Perspective. New Perspective scholars disagree with each other just as often as they do with Old Perspective scholars. Also noteworthy is that The New Perspective doesn't explicitly question all core tenets of orthodox Protestant Christianity, such as the doctrines of the person of Jesus Christ. Its proposed corrections are limited to the meaning of Paul's teaching concerning justification; which does, though, have implications for other categories of theology.
Outspoken critics of The New Perspective include D.A. Carson (1946-present, scholar and research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), John Piper (1946-present, theologian and pastor), and Ligon Duncan (1960-present, Presbyterian scholar and pastor).
The history of New Perspective on Paul
While there have been scholars prior to the twentieth century that questioned Protestant, or "Old Perspective", interpretations of Pauline teachings, two twentieth-century books served as a catalyst for "The New Perspective."
Krister Stendahl Krister Stendahl's 1960 essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (first published in Swedish), was translated into English in 1963 and appeared in the book, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. In the essay, Stendahl challenged the Protestant Reformation's understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, positing that the Pauline doctrine of salvation included a works component. Following Stendahl, New Perspective scholars don't believe that Paul argues against works in general as a component of salvation, but only certain works (see "The Issues" below).
E.P. Sanders Then Sanders' 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (see chart below for link), led certain scholars to amend their understanding of Pauline thought in ways previously unconsidered. In the book, Sanders argues that first-century Judaism was not a works-based salvation like Protestant theologians so often teach. Rather, first-century Judaism had a Pauline understanding of grace (a fact misunderstood by Reformation theologians) that conjoined with works. It was Dunn who coined the phrase "The New Perspective on Paul" in a 1982 lecture he delivered on the subject.
The issues in The New Perspective on Paul
There are multiple points of contention between the perspectives, which include, but are not limited to, the following:
Imputation or Inclusion Summary of the disagreement: Certain New Perspective scholars contend that the Pauline term "justification" is the result of a sinner being made right with God and entails their inclusion into God's covenant community. The Old Perspective contends "justification" refers to the process by which a sinner is made right with God, which includes the transfer, or "imputation", of Christ's righteousness to the sinner.
The New Perspective: N.T. Wright posits that the Pauline term "justification" isn't the means by which a person is made right with God, but a sign that they already are. "Justification," he writes, "is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other." Wright elaborates,
'Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.
:Justification", Wright argues, is the declaration of being in right relationship with God.
The Old Perspective: Old Perspective theologians believe the Pauline word "justification" refers to the means by which sinners are made right with God, as opposed to being merely being an announcement of a person's inclusion into the people of God. N.T. Wright rejects the idea that God justifies the sinner through transferring, or "imputing," Christ's righteousness to them, but that the sinner is just declared righteous as a covenant member.
One critic of The New Perspective, Douglas Moo, contrasts Paul and Wright with the following table:
At its core, the doctrine of justification says that sinners can be miraculously reckoned righteous before God. This happens for all who believe and has nothing to do with observance of the law, which for sinners is impossible. With this foundation in place, we can move on to see how Paul uses the doctrine of justification by faith. The new perspective rightly observes that Paul uses justification to argue that Gentile Christians need not take on the yoke of the law (Galatians) and that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should live together in harmony (Romans 14-15). While we must not neglect these demands, we should not allow the tail to wag the dog.
Many Old Perspective scholars use a summary description articulated by Moo (1950-present, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) in his criticism of N.T. Wright's arguments, as a way to summarize the methodological differences between the perspectives:
"[N.T.] Wright backgrounds what the New Testament foregrounds, and foregrounds what the New Testament backgrounds."
In other words, The Old Perspective accuses The New Perspective of promoting what Paul makes secondary (i.e. ethnic inclusion) and demoting what he makes primary (i.e. sinners being reckoned as righteous).
Grace Alone or Grace and Works
Summary of the disagreement: The controversy over this matter centers upon the Pauline phrases "works" and "works of the law." Certain New Perspective scholars, like Sanders and Dunn, reject the notion that Paul's railing against "works" in his letters was in relation to earning God's favor, as The Old Perspective contends. Rather, "works" refers to what Dunn calls "badges" or "boundary markers" of the covenant community, like circumcision. In other words, Paul didn't teach that works weren't a part of salvation, only that certain works weren't.
The New Perspective: Leading New Perspective scholars, such as Sanders and N.T. Wright, contend that first-century Judaism was actually a religion of grace in Paul's day, not a religion of works like is traditionally understood in Protestant circles. Therefore, New Perspective scholars aren't only proposing a new way to understand Paul, but a new way to understand first-century Judaism as well.
Sanders argues that Paul's emphasis on grace was in alignment with first-century Judaism's teaching on the subject, not in contrast to it. Wright agrees with Sanders and says readers misjudge first-century Judaism if they believe it was a works-based religion, void of the component of grace.
New Perspective scholars further postulate that after his conversion, Paul wasn't fighting legalism as the German Reformer Martin Luther taught, but that he was attempting to gather both Jew and Gentile inside the Abrahamic Covenant (see Genesis 12:1-3). When Paul criticized the Jews for following the "works" of the law, New Perspective scholars contend that he was arguing against ethnic "boundary markers," like circumcision, which separated them from Gentiles, thereby working against the ethnically inclusive nature of the new covenant in Christ.
Paul, then, was not arguing against works in general as a component to salvation; he was emphasizing doing away with the specific works that disunited Jews and Gentiles.
Sanders coined the phrase "covenant nomism" (nomism is Greek for "law") to describe how first-century Jews approached the Law. Covenant nomism is that which Paul sought to correct, according to The New Perspective because "there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Colossians 3:11). If first-century Judaism's emphasis on obedience wasn't in relation to works-based righteousness, then works-based righteousness wasn't what Paul was arguing against in his epistles.
Therefore, The New Perspective calls into question hallmark doctrines of the Protestant Reformation such as grace alone and faith alone, which are, in essence, responses to works-based religious systems.
The Old Perspective: Old Perspective scholars contend that Paul teaches salvation requires divine intervention (i.e. grace), a fact which first-century Judaism largely neglected. An example that Old Perspective scholars cite of Judaism's collective approach to salvation through works is from the epistle of 2 Baruch (circa late first-century to early second-century):
"Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works."
While the New Perspective holds to the forgiveness of sin through the blood of Christ, complimented by certain works, the Old Perspective rejects the idea that human effort of any kind is necessary for forgiveness.
It should also be noted that The Old Perspective doesn't deny the importance of good works, but it argues that they are an effect of salvation, not the means of it.
The Results of the Discussion
While discussions on The Old and New Perspective are primarily taking place in academic circles, they have reached local churches. One Protestant denomination told their pastors that if they supported The New Perspective, they had to immediately report to the leadership, since the doctrine isn't in harmony with their beliefs.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church have largely been supportive of The New Perspective because it aligns closely with their understanding of Paul. Taylor Marshall, a former Protestant, turned Catholic, writes,
N.T. Wright is a good enough biblical theologian to realize that Paul didn’t teach personal salvation by way of an imputation of an alien righteousness. That’s why the Anglican bishop has received so much attention – he’s a Protestant writing like a Catholic.
Some earnest Protestants are now scratching their heads and saying to themselves: “You know, everything we’ve always assumed that Paul taught isn’t actually articulated by Paul. Maybe it’s time to rethink the entire systematic theology that we (Protestants) erected in the 16th-17th century.”
If you buy into Wright’s covenantal realism, then you’ve already taken three steps toward the Catholic Church. Keep following the trail an[d] you’ll be Catholic. Salvation is sacramental, transformational, communal, and eschatological. Sound good? You’ve just assented to the Catholic Council of Trent.
It’s almost as if Wright dug deeply into Paul’s writings until finally he came to a door. When he opened the door, to everyone’s surprise, he found that he was on the other side of Wittenburg’s door.
Some advocates of The Old Perspective have stated that The New Perspective is causing some Christians to leave their Protestant churches to be Roman Catholic. At the 2010 annual meeting of Evangelical Theological Society, the topic of which was justification and The New Perspective, Wright disputed those reports.
More on the Apostle Paul
Books on the New Perspective
E.P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress, 1977.
N.T. Wright. What Paul Really Said. Eerdman's, 2002.
Simon Gathercole."What Did Paul Really Mean?" Christianity Today. August, 2007.