The New Perspective on Paul: Yes, No, and Maybe

Dear Andrew,

What is your view of the New Perspective on Paul and its origins? How would you define it essence? I don’t mean just N. T. Wright, but the whole thing.

My verdict on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a big question to which I can give only a small answer.

There’s no doubt that Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have punctured the long-standing Protestant tradition that Second-Temple Judaism (2TJ, the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s time) was rife with meritorious works-righteousness and that Paul’s opposition to the Judaizers was parallel to Luther’s with late medieval Roman Catholicism. Still, the soteric assumptions of at least some of 2TJ that Paul was targeting in Romans and Galatians included a salvation that could not plausibly be described as entirely gracious. The historically astute opponents of the NPP have documented the mixed character of 2TJ, at least to my satisfaction.

The traditional view of justification by faith alone is anchored in sound biblical exegesis and theological reasoning. Christ’s redemptive righteousness is imputed to those who believe in him. However, this imputation, like every other aspect of individual soteriology, is appropriated by incorporation into Jesus Christ. The issue is imputation by incorporation. Alastair McGrath is, I think, correct that for Calvin, the center of individual soteriology is union with the crucified and risen Christ. In him, we have all other benefits. Outside him, we have nothing. Union with Christ underlies everything else.

On the other hand, the superexalted place that the original Reformers gave to justification is not biblically warranted. The Bible does not depict justification as the article of the standing and falling church (Luther, or the Lutherans), or the principal hinge of religion (Calvin). I feel sorry for anybody who tries to defend those estimates exegetically. The Reformers were driven to inflate justification since it was the pressing soteric issue of their day. But they should not have inflated justification as it is depicted in the Bible.

I remain entirely unconvinced by the NPP that the central meaning of Jesus Christ in his incarnate ministry was as the new Israel. On this point, Richard Gaffin has persuaded me that Romans 5:12-21 is founding everything else in the epistle: the first Adam versus the Second Adam. Jew-Gentile relations are a subset of a larger, and more fundamental, issue. And I abhor the idea that Genesis 1-11 is the “prologue” to the rest of the Bible. I would say almost the opposite: Genesis 3:1–Revelation 22:21 is a huge series of footnotes to Genesis 1-2. The Bible is all about creation-fall-redemption, not about relations between Jews and Gentiles, important though they are.

My assessment of the NPP is that it has identified several flaws in the traditional Reformation paradigm but it’s not been as successful in making a positive case for a restructured New Testament theology/Christology/soteriology.

Salvation is entirely by grace through faith alone in the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal life is not a reward for race, performance, or good works. Union with the visible church is not union with the living Lord. There are both internal and external aspects of the covenant, and there always were. We relate to the church by means of Jesus Christ; we do not relate to Jesus Christ by means of the church.

Good works are the inevitable and inescapable result of union with Jesus Christ, appropriated by faith (alone). Therefore, there will be no final justification or eternal life apart from good works. They are not an effectual condition, but they are a consequent condition. We are not saved by good works, or because of good works, or on account of good works, but we are also not saved without good works. This, by the way, it’s just good, all-fashioned, standard Reformation teaching.

Contrary, therefore, to Sanders’ “covenant nomism,” the old covenant Jews did not enter the covenant by grace but remain in it by law-keeping. They entered by grace and remained in it by a grace that imparted a living, vital faith that resulted in law-keeping obedience, precisely the case with new covenant believers, both Jew and Gentile. There is not and never has been a “covenant of works” by which one merits eternal life and a contrasting covenant of grace that excludes good works as a consequent condition of eternal life. The Bible isn’t Pelagian before the Fall and antinomian after the Fall. Eternal life as a gift received by faith alone, a faith that is never without good works, has always and everywhere been operative.

Soteriology isn’t a stand-alone proposition or a theme that floats in the eternal divine decrees untethered from God’s dealing with his people in history. He always and everywhere deals with them in covenant: if they trust him, he will unite them to his Son and therefore justify (and forgive and regenerate and adopt and sanctify and glorify) them. If they persist in God-granted repentance, faith and obedience, he will justify them on the final day — not because of their obedience, but because their faith necessarily results in obedience. The Swiss Reformer and Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger beautifully articulates this viewpoint in his slender classic A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. His robust, overarching view on the covenant was quite at odds with Luther’s sterile and truncated justification-top-heavy soteriology.

The redeemed will boast throughout eternity of and in the slain and risen Lamb, the eternal Son of God, whom God used to accomplish our redemption on the Cross, at the empty tomb, and from his heavenly rule. From first to last salvation is, to use Spurgeon’s words, all of grace.

But faith without works is still dead.

For Further Reading:

Bird, Michael E. The Saving Righteousness of God. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006.

Bullinger, Heinrich. A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. In Fountainhead of Federalism, Baker, Wayne and McCoy, Charles S. and, eds. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.

Dunn, James D. G. The New Perspective on Paul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 2008.

Gaffin, Richard B., Jr. By Faith, Not by Sight. Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2006.

McGrath, Alister. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification From 1500 to the Present Day. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Sanders, E. P. Paul. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Shepherd, Norman. The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illumines Salvation and Evangelism. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2000.

Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 78–96.

Westerholm, Stephen. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

Edited and expanded


2 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: Yes, No, and Maybe

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Andrew.

    On first-century Judaism’s approach to justification:

    “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ ” (Luke 10:29)

    “And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’ ” (Luke 16:15)

    “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt . . . . ‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” ‘ ” (Luke 18:9, 11)

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:25-27)

    “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” (Romans 10:2-3)

    So, yeah: first-century Jews attempted to justify themselves rather than trusting in Yahweh. Of course, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t represent themselves that way in their own writings. Thus the NPPers who argue that 2TJ didn’t subscribe to works-righteousness are likely basing their view on 2TJ’s own literature – and thus ignoring what should be patently obvious: the Jewish establishment of the time was rife with hypocrisy. It’s exactly analogous to modern Christians who /officially/ subscribe to a Biblical creed or statement-of-faith, but in /actual living/ seek works-righteousness.

    The New Testament emphasizes what such Jews /actually did/ – not, for the most part, their official doctrine.

    As to the importance of justification in Christian dogma, you claim that “[t]he Bible does not depict justification as the article of the standing and falling church[.]” Hmm . . . so was Paul fooling us when he wrote Galatians? He likely had 99% of his doctrine in common with the infamous Judaizers – but he condemned them solely on their perversion of justification. He said they’d embraced a false “gospel.”

    Moreover, /nothing/ in the Christ-life is available to us if we’re not first accepted by God – which acceptance /means/ justification; His declaration that we are righteous /in Christ/ (which you rightly emphasized). In other words, you can’t build the house of Christianity without the foundation of justification. It’s absolutely pivotal and inviolate. So, yeah: jettison justification, or try to blend it with works-righteousness, and you’re left a false “gospel.”

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