The New Perspective on Paul – Part 1

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(February 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 2)

The lovers of God’s truth can be excused if they seem to be a little “under the weather” lately, for everywhere we turn there are attacks on cardinal doctrines of the faith which most of us have considered secure and untouchable for years. Nathan Busenitz says it well,

It seems like just about every major doctrine of historic Christianity is currently under attack. Theology proper faces the Open-Theism debate; bibliology is still reeling from higher criticism; and pneumatology is split over the Charismatic question. For Christology the issue is the lordship of Christ; for anthropology it’s Christian psychology; and for ecclesiology it’s the Church-growth movement.[1]

Not even the gospel is safe from attacks by those who claim to be part of the church. As a matter of fact, the foremost battle being waged at this moment is over soteriological issues. Emergent church leaders are in the forefront of this battle as they slice, dice, rearrange, deny and undercut the gospel message as found in Scripture.[2] Emergent church leaders fight this battle largely on the popular front, but underpinning their views is the theological framework of what has been termed “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).

The NPP, like most novel and complicated doctrinal positions, is not monolithic. Views among leading components vary but there are some definite core beliefs that we will explore.

Origins

The backdrop for the NPP appears to be various searches for the “historic Jesus” stemming from Albert Schweitzer in the early twentieth century. Schweitzer was a liberal missionary/theologian who concluded that Jesus had tried but failed in His quest to rescue humanity. He further denied the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. In contrast to the Reformers, Schweitzer believed that the center of Pauline theology was not justification by faith but Christ-mysticism, or what he calls “being in Christ.” One got into Christ through baptism, Schweitzer maintained. He was one of the first to advocate that Paul’s theology was derived from his Jewish roots and not from the Hellenistic culture. Thus, to Schweitzer’s way of thinking, Paul’s theology and the rabbinical teachings of the first century were very much in harmony.

Rudolf Bultmann, in the mid-1950s, introduced the second leg in this search, arising from skepticism and leading to such modern challenges as the Jesus Seminar. Still, Bultmann reversed course from Schweitzer on justification (it was central to Pauline theology), Judaism (Judaism was a works-based religion) and influence (Paul was decidedly Hellenistic).

A third round in the search for this historic Jesus centered on attempting to understand the Bible through the studies of Second-Temple Judaism (extrabiblical understanding of Judaism from approximately 200 B.C. to A. D. 200) and the rabbinical writings of that period. Challenging Bultmann were theologians such as William Davis, Ernst Kasemann and Krister Stendahl who saw little disagreement between Paul and Judaism. Their contention was that Western thinking had created these differences and, contrary to Bultmann and the Reformers, the Judaizers of New Testament times taught a grace-based faith much like the Christianity Paul taught. Therefore when Paul came to Christ he experienced not a spiritual conversion but a vocational call. His call was to take the message his Jewish brothers already had to the Gentiles, with the addition of the Lordship of Jesus. Paul was a Jewish rabbi who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. This is the seed-bed of the NPP.

What happened next, with the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, has been called “the Sanders revolution.” N. T. Wright states Sanders position as such:

Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness… [Rather] the Jew keeps the Law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace – not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in…. Judaism… was and is a perfectly valid and proper form of religion. Paul’s only critique of Judaism, according to Sanders, was that it was “not Christianity.”[3]

There are other developers and promoters of the NPP including James Dunn of the University of Durham, but it is important to note that all of the aforementioned scholars would be considered liberal in their theology and understanding of Scripture. Enter now N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and leading New Testament scholar (author of 43 books) who claims to be an evangelical and is accepted by many as such. It is Wright who has become the conduit through which the NPP teachings have entered the evangelical church. For this reason, as we examine the NPP, it is the writings of Wright with which we will interact, principally his book What Saint Paul Really Said.

What is being taught by Wright and his followers? Phil Johnson gives an excellent summary:

In a nutshell, they are suggesting that the apostle Paul has been seriously misunderstood, at least since the time of Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, but even more since the time of Luther and the Protestant Reformation. They claim first-century Judaism has also been misinterpreted and misconstrued by New Testament scholars for hundreds and hundreds of years, and therefore the church’s understanding of what Paul was teaching in Romans and Galatians has been seriously flawed at least since the time of Augustine.

An Overview of Basic Teachings

I will handle the all-important issue of justification and the gospel message in the third part in this series. At this point let’s identify some other vital teachings of the NPP. I will warn you in advance that these teachings are complex and difficult to grasp.

Covenantal Nomism

Covenantal nomism is a centerpiece in the theology of the NPP. Quoting Sanders, Guy Waters gives this definition:

One enters the covenant by baptism…. Once one enters the covenant, then membership provides salvation. Obedience to (or repentance for a transgression of) a specific set of commandments keeps one in the covenantal relationship, while repeated or heinous transgression removes one from membership.[4]

Under covenantal nomism one is placed in the covenant through the grace of God (although baptism is necessary). One does not earn a place in the covenant through works (except the work of baptism). However to maintain one’s position in the covenant requires obedience to the laws of the covenant. One enters the covenant by faith but stays in by works. Jack Hughes is correct when he notes,

The similarities to Roman Catholic theology are very striking. Roman Catholic theology teaches that infant baptism places one into the “covenant community” and as long as that person continues to observe the sacraments, he will preserve himself and be saved. That is legalism, salvation by works.[5]

Correcting the Reformers

The NPP proponents see themselves as the first people since the early Church Fathers who have rightly understood Paul and his message. This is the case, they say, because believers in the past have used the wrong grid with which to filter the words of Paul at least since Augustine and especially since Luther. John Armstrong, once a defender of Reformed theology who has in recent years become an adherent to the NPP, writes,

Luther understood Paul’s description of the Jews, and their relationship to the law, through the grid of his medieval Roman Catholic experience. By this approach Luther saw Judaism as a religion of merit, a religion in which one earns salvation. Coming to rest in the grace of God alone, Luther believed that Paul’s first century experience was essentially like his own sixteenth century one. Justification by grace through faith was really new, or at least the new element of the gospel that had not been clear to Jews of the Second Temple period. In Luther’s view this gospel of grace was the central point of his entire reformation effort. This is why Luther said, “The true Church stands or falls” by this article, sola fide.[6]

In other words, Luther read his own experience into the Pauline epistles. Since the Roman Church of the sixteenth century was legalistic, seeking salvation through merit, so Luther reasoned that Judaism described in Paul’s epistles did the same. But the NPP leadership assures us that such was not the case. We have been misunderstanding Paul all these years. So what was Paul really after?

Racial reconciliation

Wright insists, “Justification in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final creation.”[7]

Since legalism was supposedly not on the table for first century Judaism, Paul apparently was not discussing the issue of how one is saved, but rather who belongs at the same table. In other words, how can Jews and Gentiles live together peaceably in the same covenant community? For Gentiles to be accepted in the community it would be necessary for Jewish believers to lay down their laws concerning foods, circumcision and holy days and welcome Gentiles on equal terms. The “badge” (a favorite NPP term) of community membership must be shifted from Kosher laws to baptism, faith and obedience to Christ.

To Paul, the NPP scholars tell us, justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology. That is, Paul is not really concerned about the individual’s standing before God. His concern is about the status of Gentiles who are now joining the Jews in the covenant community. Paul is laying down boundary markers for those in the community (the church); badges that tell who is “in,” not requirements for getting “in.” Since those who practiced Judaism were already in the covenant community, so say the NPP scholars, the only issue is how to integrate Gentiles into the already-established community.

The NPP bases most its theological views on its understanding of the rabbinical teachings of what is known as “Second Temple Judaism.” I will explain what Second Temple Judaism is, and its implications to us, next time.

 


[1] Nathan Busenitz, “What Did Saint Paul Really Say?” https://www.gracechurch.org/sfellowship/default.asp (registration required).

[2] See Gary E. Gilley, “The Emergent Church” Parts 1-3 http://svchapel.org/Resources/articles/read_articles.asp?id=122.

[3] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said ( Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 19.

[4] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul ( Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), p. 61.

[5] Jack Hughes, “A New Perspective’s View of Paul and the Law,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 16 #2; p. 272.

[6] John H. Armstong, “Do Good People Go to Heaven?” Reformation Revival, the Weekly Messenger/February 10, 2003, p. 1.

[7] N. T. Wright, p. 122.

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