The New Perspective on Paul – Part 2

(March 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 3)

In part one of our series on the New Perspective on Paul, we examined the origins and surveyed its basic teachings. We concluded that introduction by stating that the NPP bases most of its theological views on its understanding of the rabbinical teaching of what is known as “Second Temple Judaism.”

Second Temple Judaism

This leads us to a brief discussion about what Judaism of the New Testament times actually believed and taught. Foundational to NPP theology and without which the system collapses, is Sanders’ thesis that Judaism of Paul’s day (often referred to as Second Temple Judaism or Palestinian Judaism) was not a self-righteous, merit-based religion. Long before the Reformation, Augustine had defended the faith against Pelagianism which taught that salvation was obtained through works. The Reformers, they claim, had read their struggle with Catholicism back into the New Testament texts and assumed the practitioners of Judaism were as Pelagian as medieval Catholicism. The Reformers equated sixteenth century Roman theology with Pelagianism then linked both with Second Temple Judaism.

Thus, in the minds of Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers, Paul was addressing first century Pelagianism found in Judaism much as they were addressing it in Romanism. It is the contention of the NPP leaders that the Reformers misread Paul because of this faulty link between Judaism and Pelagianism. For this reason it is believed that Paul did not so much as even address legalism, for Palestinian Judaism was not a legalistic religion. First century Judaism was a religion of grace and Paul did not have any significant theological disagreements with it.

On what do the NPP scholars base their understanding of Second Temple Judaism? They claim when the primary rabbinical writings are studied they yield a very different understanding of Judaism than that of the Reformers and evangelicals since. What these writings yield is covenantal nomism as described above; that is, a religion in which one enters the covenant by the grace of God but stays in the covenant through obedience.

How do we respond to this claim by the NPP?

  • There is much disagreement even by scholars who are reading the same texts. Interpretations of the texts are not easy and vary widely; the state and date of the texts are often uncertain; many rabbinical documents were written in the 3rd to 5th century but are being used to illustrate Jewish teaching in the 1st century.[1]
  • The NPP misrepresents what evangelicals teach. No one is saying that either Catholicism or Palestinian Judaism were Pelagian in the sense that they were totally work-based religions. Rather they both were semi-Pelagian, meaning that they both taught that salvation (whatever that might mean to the NPP) is based on the grace of God and accepted by faith plus works. Both Rome and Judaism were semi-Pelagian – God does His part and the rest is up to us (also known as synergism).
  • This means that Sanders and the others do not really understand legalism. Even as they claim that Judaism is not legalistic they provide quotes from rabbinical sources showing that it clearly is.[2] Even the definition of covenantal nomism, as given by Sanders, is a synergetic, and thus legalistic, defining of Judaism.
  • The NPP places more confidence in rabbinical sources than they do in the New Testament. The Reformers in the past, as well as modern evangelicals, have drawn their conclusions about Judaism primarily from the inspired text of Scripture. Indeed, it is impossible to go to the New Testament and not conclude that first century Judaism is clearly legalistic. Acts 13:38-39; Luke 18:14; Galatians 2:16; and Romans 3:20 and 9:30-32 would be hard to refute. We would have to wonder what so disturbed Jesus about the Pharisees that He would pronounce them hypocrites who added their traditions to the Word of God if, in fact, they and He were basically on the same page.

William Barrick offers this critique of Judaism as analyzed in the book of Galatians. He writes, “Consider the following characteristics of Paul’s opposition:

  • They preach a different gospel (1:6).
  • They are “disturbing Paul’s converts and “distorting” his gospel message (1:7).
  • They are “false brethren” (2:4; 5:1).
  • They belonged to the “party of the circumcision” (2:12).
  • They compel Gentile Christians to live like Jews (2:14).
  • They cause Galatian believers to be spellbound and drawn away from the gospel (3:1).
  • The Gentiles must accept their ethic in order to be saved (4:17).

“Paul’s antagonists were not simply first-century Jews with a grace perspective practicing so-called “covenantal nomism” nor were they “right wing” Jewish Christians. Clearly, they were first-century enemies of the faith and opponents of the gospel in particular.”[3]

Phil Johnson summarizes the evangelical position well: “If in fact, we allow the gospel accounts to inform our understanding of the Pharisees’ religion, rather than selling out to the scholarship of E. P. Sanders, we must come to the conclusion that the old perspective of first-century Pharisaism is the correct one”[4]

The Gospel

Martin Luther said that the church stands or falls on this one doctrine – justification by faith. If that is so, and conservative Christians down through the ages have agreed with Luther, then an examination of the NPP’s gospel message should be very instructive. And what is the gospel according to this school of thought? In “older theology,” N. T. Wright tells us, “‘the gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved,” or how “Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness” or something along that order.[5] To Wright this is not what Paul meant by the gospel. The gospel instead is “the narrative proclamation of King Jesus;”[6] [Paul] “is announcing…that Jesus is King, not just of Israel but of the whole world.”[7] Said with greater clarity, “The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord – Lord of the world, Lord of the cosmos, Lord of the earth, of the ozone layer, of whales and waterfalls, of trees and tortoises.”[8] While no thinking Christian would deny the lordship of Christ over all things, nevertheless when the gospel itself becomes the message of lordship rather than the message of redemption and justification, there will necessitate a seismic shift in our understanding of why Jesus came and died and what we are to proclaim as a result. Wright leaves no doubt where he is headed:

As soon as we get this right we destroy at a stroke the disastrous dichotomy that has existed in people’s minds between “preaching the gospel” on the one hand and what used to be called loosely “social action” or “social justice” on the other. Preaching the gospel means announcing Jesus as Lord of the world; and…we cannot make that announcement without seeking to bring that lordship to bear over every aspect of the world… It is bringing the whole world under the lordship of Christ.[9]

I see many things wrong with this definition of the gospel; two are outstanding. First, it transfers the focus of God’s people from the proclamation of redemption to social enhancement of the planet. For, as Wright points out, His gospel is not merely the announcement that Jesus is Lord (something true before the cross, by the way) but the rallying point from which the church is to “bring the whole world under the lordship of Christ.” Our mandate under the NPP is not to rescue people “from the domain of darkness, and transfer them to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). Rather our mandate is to rescue the planet and ultimately to crown Christ as lord over all earthly systems and structures. God’s people are to set up the kingdom which Christ began. This is a clear “kingdom now” perspective found in postmillennialism. That is, we are in the kingdom now and our job is to advance the kingdom to the point where Christ can declare kingship over the earth and ultimately reign in person. For now this shakes out to be a social agenda.

This becomes even clearer when vital aspects of the true gospel are either minimized or eliminated altogether. Thus, my second concern is even more serious, for in elevating the social agenda the redemption agenda is devalued. Take the all-important doctrine of justification, for example. Conservative Christians have agreed that justification is defined as Christ forgiving and taking away our sin and giving us God’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). The NPP rejects this definition replacing it with Christ’s eschatological victory for the nation of Israel .

“Justification” is a law-court term, and in its Jewish context it refers to the greatest lawsuit of all: that which will take place on the great day when the true God judges all the nations, more particularly the nations that have been oppressing Israel . God will, at last, find in favor of his people: he will judge the pagan nations and rescue his true people. “Justification” thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant ( Israel is God’s people) on the one hand and the law court on the other (God’s final judgment will be like a great law-court scene, with Israel winning the case).[10]

Phil Johnson is correct when he offers the follow summary,

Ultimately, the New Perspective divests the gospel of – or downplays – every significant aspect of soteriology. The means of atonement is left vague in this system; the issues of personal sin and guilt are passed over and brushed aside. The gospel becomes a proclamation of victory, period. In other words, the gospel of the New Perspective is decidedly not a message about how sinners can escape the wrath of God. In fact, this gospel says little or nothing about personal sin and forgiveness, individual redemption, atonement, or any of the other great soteriological doctrines. Soteriology is hardly a concern of the New Perspective – even when they are dealing with the gospel message.[11]

It gets even more complicated for, as the NPP leaders seek to foster their new perspectives, it necessitates that they change the meaning of every issue that touches the subject of justification. They start with the covenant, for the big issue with the NPP is being in the covenant. This presents several questions, foremost of which is how does one get into the covenant? Amazingly, considering the covenant’s importance in the system, the NPP proponents do not like to talk about how one gets in. Wright, however, offers a 3-fold process, “They come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and they begin to share in its common life and its common way of life. That is how people come into relationship with the living God.”[12] So, people are to believe the message about Jesus, and remember it is not a message of redemption (Christ dying for our sins) but a message of lordship, a belief that Jesus is Lord. This is followed by baptism and joining the church.

Once in the covenant, as we have already seen, one remains in the covenant through obedience. Some, such as Sanders, apparently make this a minimal level of obedience saying that only a “renunciation of God and his covenant can put one out of the covenant.”[13] While the NPP gives lip-service to faith it can readily be seen that one enters the covenant by faith plus works (baptism), is sustained in the covenant by involvement in the church, and is maintained in the covenant by obedience. You can understand why many see the NPP as merely a thinly disguised road to Rome. As a matter of fact, under NPP theology, a theology which places no weight in sola fide, all who claim the lordship of Christ, whether Catholic, Protestant or something else, “belong together in the one family.”[14]


[1] F. David Farnell, “The New Perspective on Paul: Its Basic Tenets, History, and Presuppositions,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 16 #2; p. 220.

[2] Guy Waters, pp. 42-57.

[3] William W. Barrick, “The New Perspective and Works of the Law,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 16 #2; p. 281.

[4] Phil Johnson, “A Defense of the Old Perspective on Paul,” (membership required)

[5] N. T. Wright, p. 41.

[6] Ibid., p. 45.

[7] Ibid., p. 53.

[8] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[9] Ibid., pp. 154-155.

[10] Ibid., p. 33 (emphasis in the original).

[11] Phil Johnson, p. 4.

[12] N. T. Wright, pp. 116-117.

[13] Guy Waters, p. 48.

[14] N. T. Wright, p. 158.


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