Three ways to live

Which is your way?

New Perspective on Paul

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 3:14 am on Friday, January 25, 2008

New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a recent significant shift in the interpretation of Paul’s letters. We have come across this teaching already several times as we study the book of Romans, so here I provide a short summary of this doctrine for the benefit of our bible study group.

But first a disclaimer, there are actually quite a few streams in the NPP teaching, which makes any unified summary a difficult task. While originally started with liberal theologian E.P. Sanders and later picked up by James Dunn, its recent growth in popularity is attributed to N.T. Wright, who is very popular with many evangelicals. Yet in 2003, N.T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, comments that “there are probably almost as many ‘New Perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them”.

At the foundation of NPP is the correction of the Reformed view that Judaism was based on the salvation by works. NPP scholars claim that historical documents as well as a fresh look at Paul’s letters support the view that Jews believed they were saved by grace, by simply belonging to the covenant God has established with them. They treated obedience to the law as the sign of belonging to the covenant, rather than a way to earn their acceptance by God. Hence the main problem Paul had with the Jews was not their reliance on works but rather their arrogance of being a chosen people and hence creating hurdles to spreading the gospel to Gentiles, requiring them to be circumcised and obey food laws.

An important consequence of this view is revisiting of the doctrine of justification by faith. Traditionally, the best way to explain this doctrine was to emphasize the difference between justification by works (Jews) vs. justification by faith (Christianity). But if Jews were justified by faith, the difference fades. Justification by faith in NPP takes somewhat less important role compared to the Reformed doctrine, as a simple declaration that one is right with God rather than the essence of how we are saved. This is how John Piper summarizes this view:

When the gospel is preached, it is not the doctrine of justification that is preached but the death and resurrection and lordship of Christ over the world. The Holy Spirit uses this news to awaken faith in the heart. This is God’s divine call through the gospel. By this call and faith, we are made partakers of Christ’s victory and become part of God’s family. Then the doctrine of justification comes in and declares to us what has happened to us. It thus gives assurance – but does not save, or convert, or make us part of God’s family.

Overall, the NPP seems to shift the attention away from an individual to community, away from the way we receive salvation to the source of this salvation. N.T. Wright continuously argues that many mentionings of “faith in Christ” (see Romans 3:22 and 3:26) should be translated as “faith of Christ” and hence does not teach how the salvation is received.

What’s my own take on this? First, I haven’t studied it well enough to make up my mind. When I first heard of this teaching, it was presented to me as a modern day heresy. Yet now I realized it is deeply rooted in serious scholarship and cannot be easily discarded. I am now reading Douglas Moo and John Stott commentaries on Romans in preparation for Bible studies; both of these are well established conservative theologians and they go into great length to address the issues that NPP raises. Their take is that many things that NPP teaches are either true or at least plausible. I guess only time will tell whether it survives the scrutiny and develops itself into alternative understanding of the gospel.



Comment by The Hedonese

January 28, 2008 @ 12:07 am

hey bro, i’ve written some brief introductory comments on this issue some years back here:

Hope it helps!


Comment by Vitali

January 28, 2008 @ 1:57 am

Wow, you have put some serious work in there. Thanks for sharing!

I definitely agree with you conclusions. What I found difficult to explain is “So what?” part. So what if the Jews were not as legalistic as we thought they were. So what if Paul’s emphasis is not as much on how we receive salvation but rather on how we can tell we have it. Will it change the way we live or explain the gospel? I simply do not have satsifactory answers to these questions yet.


Comment by The Hedonese

February 3, 2008 @ 12:13 am

Ya, the ‘so what?’ question interests me immensely.

Some reformed fellas like doug wilson and federal vision people have tried to draw on some of NPP stuffs and emphasize more on the covenantal community side of things. maybe a cure or reaction to the ‘just me and the bible. period’ kind of individualistic piety.

Er… or the gospel as breaking down boundary markers that separate communities based on race, some cultural badges etc…

or the gospel as a critique of roman imperialism… cashed out in today’s terms, sometimes, rightly or wrongly, it seems that some had America replacing Rome as the superpower of today hehe


Comment by eugene

February 13, 2008 @ 9:55 am

hi vitali,

Greetings from Claire and I! I hope you and Suling are well.

Check out these books that discuss the NPP:
1) Where is Boasting? by Simon Gathercole
2) Perspectives Old and New on Paul by Stephen Westerholm
3) Justification and Variegated Nomism ed. by D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien and Mark Seifrid
4) Christ, Our Righteousness by Mark Seifrid

I hope these books help!



Comment by Vitali

February 17, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

Thanks, Eugene! Out of the four, Mark Seifrid’s book is probably the one I am going to get next.

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