Wednesday, 18 April 2007

What's it all about? The New Perspective on Paul

N. T Wright
The so-called new perspective on Paul (NPP) is based on the assumption that Protestants have misunderstood Paul's teaching on justification. Scholars associated with this revisionist stance include E. P. Saunders, J. G. D. Dunn and N.T. Wright. All NPP proponents are usually named using their initials.
Reformers and Revisionists
The Reformers, in their simplicity used to think that 1st century Jews believed in salvation by works just like 16th century Roman Catholics. Saunders challenged that view by saying that "Second Temple" Jews believed that they were saved by God's gracious election. They may have taught that they had to "stay in" the covenant relationship by works, but they "got in" by grace.
When Paul wrote that we are saved by faith in Christ not by the works of thew law, he was not condemning legalism. He was saying that faith in Christ is that badge that now identifies us as the people of God, not the works of the law like circumcision under the old covenant. Justification by faith, then is about the question, "Who are the people of God?" The answer is, "Jews and Gentiles whom confess Jesus Christ as Lord." Jews who insisted that Gentiles get circumcised and obey the law to be "proper" Christians were being nationalistic rather than legalistic.
Can the NPP be justified?
The Reformers understood that justification is God's declaration that we a right with him on the basis of the obedience and sacrifice of Christ. For them, faith is not a "badge", but the empty hand that lays hold of the righteousness of Christ. In that case, justification is a legal category. It is the opposite of condemnation. It concerns our status before God rather than our identity within the people of God. Strangely, this is exactly what Paul says in Romans 8:33 & 34, "It is God who justifies who is he who condemns?" [Emphasis added]
Second Temple Jews may have believed that they "got in" by grace, but if they had to "stay in" by works, then this is still salvation by works. It seems that in terms of getting through the judgement of God into eternal bliss, many believed that they had to "get there" by their works. NPP scholars like N. T. Wright teach that final justification is on the basis of the whole life of faith, including works.
Paul's pespective on Paul
Paul's great argument in Romans 1-3 is that "by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified in his sight, for the works of the law were the badge of membership under the old covenant." Not really, the text says that we cannot be justified by the works of the law because "by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:20). We have broken God's law. We are guilty before him (Romans 3:19). We cannot bring ourselves into a right relationship with God because we stand condemned as sinners. God justifies us on the basis on the atoning work of Christ (Romans 3:24 & 25). We are declared to be in the right with God because Christ has redeemed us. Justification is primarily about our standing before God, not our membership of his people. It is true that justified sinners are God's people, but justification by faith is not a "Jesus is Lord" badge. How could such a badge help us before the bar of God's judgement?


Andrew and Carolyn said...

Thanks for this synopsis. What texts have you found helpful in getting to grips with the NPP. For me Venema's work (both his short and long books) have been very clear and generous in tone.

I find Wright a great enigma. HIs work on the resurrection is highly lauded (although I haven't read it myself) and yet he is so off beam on the central, stand or fall, doctrine of justification.

The consistent focus on theological issues at this blog is a great idea, and very refreshing.

David Sky said...

I've only couple of chapters into Venema's The Gospel of Free Acceptance. I haven't read his shorter work.

Philip Eveson's The Great Exchange (Day One) is a helpful assessment of NPP. You can get it online for the cost of a Google search.

I've also read Wright's What St. Paul Really Said. You will find most of his major themes here and Paul: Fresh Perspectives. These books have many helpful things to say and set out his understanding of justification. NTW's The Resurrection of the Son of God is excellent. I found it v. helpful for my degree work.

Tom Holland's Contours of Pauline Theology is rather quirky in places but he makes some useful points regarding NPP.

That Exiled Preacher chap has reviews of Paul: Fresh Perspectives and Contours of Pauline Theology. He's not as good as me, but he does his best.

Artur said...

The Reformers, in their simplicity used to think that 1st century Jews believed in salvation by works just like 16th century Roman Catholics.

Is that what RCs believed? Wow. I can see I'm going to learn a lot here.


Nick Steffen said...

Just a thought...I'm not sure that Wright would understand justification (or the faith thereof) as mere boundary markers, though that would certainly be involved.

My impression of his thought is that death and resurrection of Jesus is the result of judgement brought back into the past from the future.

He describes this elsewhere as the overlap of time. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the anticipation (the true anticipation) of the final judgement and resurrection. The future judgement overlaps with Jesus himself. As such, to be in Jesus in the past is to be in him in the future.

Wright describes this in places as future and present justification. The future one by the outworking of the Spirit, and the present one by faith in Jesus' saving kingship (which includes his atoning for sin).

Wright would probably go on to say that Romans is about faith now being the boundary marker (not ethnic or cultural boundaries), because faith is the marker of those who are in Jesus, who are under his reign (ie his saving kingship).

Sorry for this rather long-winded bit of thought. But I've read and listened to a decent amount of his work, and this is the impression that I get. Faith is a boundary marker, only in that it is the marker of God's saving work in us.

R.T. Jones said...

Tom Wright has a great response to this sort of rhetoric that he is "off beam on the central...doctrine of justification. If you haven't already, I encourage you to check it out at Personally I tend to think the NPP has been fairly well established (though I'm sure many of my professors at Trinity would disagree). Anyway, whether you agree or disagree, this article does at least make a strong case that he is still an orthodox (and reformed) theologian.

AndrewE said...

Gosh, I never knew it was so simple...

I look forward to entering the wobbly and dodgy category.

David Sky said...


For that you get a special category all of your own.

Thom Stark said...


I'm afraid I must agree with Nick, David, that your presentation of Wright's view of justification is a bit of a caricature. In addition to Nick's analysis, you've also failed to account for Wright's extensive account of covenantal nomism as the matrix within which the forensic sense of justification has its intelligibility.

Besides that one issue, it seems you've not read widely enough yet to understand all the issues at stake here, one of them being to challenge the very assumption that Paul saw no salvific quality to works of righteousness modeled after the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. You pit the cross up against the Law by reducing the cross to atonement, and yet a more careful analysis of the use of the cross by Paul (and the rest of the NT for that matter, including Hebrews!) will yield more diversity. The Law was seen to be insufficient only in the sense that it couldn't empower the people of God to be faithful. Enter the cross, which is seen in the NT not just as an atoning sacrifice for our sins but as the means by which God ransomed us from the grip of sin and death, establishing in Jesus the model of pistis (faithfulness, obedience) and thus empowering us in a way the Law itself never could to finally be obedient to its demands.

(Jesus never critiqued the Pharisees for keeping the Law. He critiqued them for breaking the Law systematically, for sidestepping God's Law by creating their own laws, which served to sustain the existing social order and power structures in Jerusalem, i.e., the corrupt temple regime installed by Rome.)

Perhaps you've read more widely than you're letting on, but if not, I encourage you to read Richard Hays, particularly his dissertation, published as The Faith of Jesus Christ. Also check out his essay, "Psalm 143 and the Logic of Romans 3," JBL 99/1, for starters.

At any rate, wherever we're going to end up on these questions, it might be in everybody's best interest to acknowledge that the answers may not be as easy as we'd like to think they should be. History being our teacher, whenever a host intelligent and passionate voices rise up to challenge our received readings, well, we owe it to ourselves to give those voices a serious hearing, making d**n sure we understand them before denouncing them as heretical. History being our teacher.