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New Perspective on Paul


New Perspective on Paul

Valentin de Boulogne: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Sixteenth Century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas).

The new perspective on Paul is a significant shift in the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul.

Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective, known as Sola Fide, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians' good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. But according to the "new" perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath laws (these were the 'boundary markers[1] that set the Jews apart from the other nations), not good works in general. This grew from the work of Ed Parish Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[2] It was Sanders' premise that the Jews were not a 'legalistic' community. They were not 'works-salvation' oriented. For Sanders, the Jews felt they were saved as they were God's chosen people. By being God's chosen people they were under His covenant. The Jews kept the law to remain under the covenant. It, the Law, was not a way of entering the covenant but of staying in the covenant.


  • Development 1
  • Main ideas 2
    • Works of the Law 2.1
    • Human effort and good works 2.2
    • Faith, or faithfulness 2.3
    • Grace, or favor 2.4
    • The Atonement 2.5
  • Criticism and rhetoric 3
  • Catholic and Orthodox reactions 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul’s writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to have been ascribed to the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to Second Temple Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul's Writings are called the "old" perspective by adherents of the "new" perspective on Paul. The "new" perspective is an attempt to lift Paul's letters out of the Lutheran-Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms.

In 1963 the Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl published a paper arguing that the typical Lutheran view of the Apostle Paul’s theology did not fit with statements in Paul’s writings, and in fact was based more on mistaken assumptions about Paul’s beliefs than careful interpretation of his writings.[3] Stendahl warned warned against imposing modern Western ideas on the Bible, and especially on the works of Paul.[4] In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[5] In this work he studies Jewish literature and Paul’s writings arguing that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul was fundamentally incorrect.

Sanders continued to publish books and articles in this field, and was soon joined by the scholar James D. G. Dunn. In 1982 Dunn labelled the movement the "new perspective on Paul".[6] The work of these writers inspired a large number of scholars to study, discuss, and debate the relevant issues. Many books and articles dealing with the issues raised have since been published. The Anglican Bishop and theologian N. T. Wright has written a large number of works aimed at popularising the "new" perspective outside of academia.[7]

The "new-perspective" movement is closely connected with a surge of recent scholarly interest in studying the Bible in the context of other ancient texts, and the use of social-scientific methods to understand ancient culture. Scholars affiliated with The Context Group as well as many others in the field have called for various reinterpretations of biblical texts based on their studies of the ancient world.

Main ideas

It is often noted that the singular title "the new perspective" gives an unjustified impression of unity. It is a field of study in which many scholars are actively pursuing research and continuously revising their own theories in light of new evidence, and who do not necessarily agree with each other on any given issue. It has been suggested by many that a plural title of "new" perspectives may therefore be more accurate. In 2003, N. T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, commented that "there are probably almost as many 'new' perspective positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them".[8] There are certain trends and commonalities within the movement, but what is held in common is the belief that the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives of Paul the Apostle and Judaism is fundamentally incorrect. The following are some of the issues being widely discussed.

Works of the Law

Paul's letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of "works of the law". The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by "works of the law" is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives interpret this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God's standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is arguing against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works (note that the "new" perspective agrees that we cannot merit salvation; the issue is what exactly Paul is addressing).

By contrast, new-perspective scholars see Paul as talking about "badges of covenant membership" or criticizing Gentile believers who had begun to rely on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship.[9] It is argued that in Paul's time, Israelites were being faced with a choice of whether to continue to follow their ancestral customs, the Torah ("the ancestral customs"), or to follow the Roman Empire's trend to adopt Greek customs (Hellenization, see also Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity). This is comparable with Westernization and the decision faced by modern individuals such as American Indians to follow their native culture or to adopt Western customs and lifestyle, see also Cultural imperialism. The new-perspective view is that Paul's writings discuss the comparative merits of following ancient Israelite or ancient Greek customs. Paul is interpreted as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs makes a person better off before God, pointing out that Abraham was righteous before the Torah was given. Paul identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days.[10]

Human effort and good works

Due to their interpretation of the phrase "works of the law", theologians of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives see Paul's rhetoric as being against human effort to earn righteousness. This is often cited by Lutheran and Reformed theologians as a central feature of the Christian religion, and the concepts of grace alone and faith alone are of great importance within the creeds of these denominations.

"New-perspective" interpretations of Paul tend to result in Paul having nothing negative to say about the idea of human effort or good works, and saying many positive things about both. New-perspective scholars point to the many statements in Paul's writings that specify the criteria of final judgment as being the works of the individual.

Final Judgment According to Works... was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works.
— N. T. Wright[11]

Wright however does not hold the view that good works contribute to one's salvation but rather that the final judgement is something we can look forward to as a future vindication of God's present declaration of our righteousness. In other words our works are a result of our salvation and the future judgement will show that.[12] Others tend to place a higher value on the importance of good works than the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives do, taking the view that they causally contribute to the salvation of the individual.

Advocates of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives often see this as being "salvation by works", and as a bad thing, contradicting fundamental tenets of Christianity. New-perspective scholars often respond that their views are not so different. For in the perspective of Luther and Calvin, God graciously empowers the individual to the faith which leads to salvation and also to good works, while in the "new" perspective God graciously empowers individuals to the faith and good works, which lead to salvation.

See also Synergism in theosis in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Orthopraxy in Christianity.

Faith, or faithfulness

An ongoing debate related to the "new" perspective has been over Paul's use of the Greek word pistis (πίστις, meaning "trust", "belief", "faith", or "faithfulness"). Writers with a more historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective have typically interpreted this word as meaning a belief in God and Christ, and trust in Christ for salvation with faith that he will save you. This interpretation is based on several passages from the Christian Bible, notably Ephesians 2:8–9, which reads, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Interestingly, E. P. Sanders, notes that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional perspectives.[13]

By contrast, many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship.[14][15][16][17] As such, the word could be almost synonymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to his master). Far from being equivalent to "lack of human effort", the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need to "faithfully" obey God's commands is quite different from one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that he will do everything for us. This is also argued to explain why James was adamant that "faith without works is dead" and that "a man is saved by works, and not by faith alone", while also saying that to merely believe places one on the same level as the demons (see James 2). The "new" perspective argues that James was concerned with those who were trying to reduce faith to an intellectual subscription without any intent to follow God or Jesus, and that Paul always intended "faith" to mean a full submission to God.

Another related issue is the pistis Christou ("faith of Christ") debate. Paul several times uses this phrase at key points in his writings and it is linguistically ambiguous as to whether it refers to our faith in Christ ("objective genitive"), or Christ's own faithfulness to God ("subjective genitive"), or even our faith/faithfulness to God like that which Christ had ("adjectival genitive"). There is wide disagreement within the academic community over which of these is the best rendering.[18] The NET Bible translation became the first mainstream English Bible translation to use a subjective genitive translation of this phrase.[19]

Grace, or favor

Writers with a more historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective have generally translated the Greek word charis as "grace" and understood it to refer to the idea that there is a lack of human effort in salvation because God is the controlling factor. However those who study ancient Greek culture have pointed out that "favor" is a better translation, as the word refers normally to "doing a favor". In ancient societies there was the expectation that such favors be repaid, and this semi-formal system of favors acted like loans.[20] Therefore, it is argued that when Paul speaks of how God did us a "favor" by sending Jesus, he is saying that God took the initiative, but is not implying a lack of human effort in salvation, and is in fact implying that Christians have an obligation to repay the favor God has done for them. Some argue that this view then undermines the initial "favor"—of sending Jesus—by saying that, despite his incarnation, life and death, Christians still have, as before, to earn their way to heaven. However, others note this is the horns of a

  • The Paul Page—Extensive list of online articles relating to the New Perspective
  • Galatians, Paul, the Torah-Law and Legalism
  • Theopedia: New Perspective on Paul—Traditional Reformed perspective
  • Report on Justification Presented to the 73rd General Assembly (Orthodox Presbyterian Church)
  • Mississippi Valley Presbytery Report (Presbyterian Church in America)
  • Catholic Perspective on Paul—A Catholic analysis of topics pertaining to the New Perspective on Paul
  • WELS Topical Q&A: New Perspective on Paul—A Confessional Lutheran evaluation of the New Perspective

External links

  • Gosdeck, David, Nicholas Thomas Wright - New Perspective on St. Paul, 2013
  • Badenas, Robert, Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective, 1985. ISBN 0-905774-93-0
  • Despotis, Athanasios, Die „New Perspective on Paul“ und die griechisch-orthodoxe Paulusinterpretation, [VIOTh 11], St. Ottilien: EOS-Verlag 2014, ISBN 978-3-8306-7705-5
  • Dunn, James D. G., "The New Perspective on Paul", in: Jesus, Paul and the Law, 1990. ISBN 0-664-25095-5
  • Gathercole, Simon J., Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1–5, 2002. ISBN 0-8028-3991-6
  • Irons, Lee, Seyoon Kim’s Critique of the New Perspective on Paul, 2007.
  • Kim, Yung Suk. Christ's Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor 2008 ISBN 0-8006-6285-7
  • Kim, Yung Suk. A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul 2011 ISBN 978-1-60899-793-0
  • Marshall, Taylor R. The Catholic Perspective on Paul, 2010.
  • Smith, Barry D., What Must I Do to Be Saved? Paul Parts Company with His Jewish Heritage, 2007.
  • Thompson, Michael B., The New Perspective on Paul (Grove Biblical Series), 2002. ISBN 1-85174-518-1.
  • Wright, N. T., What St Paul Really Said, 1997.
  • Wright, N. T., New Perspectives on Paul, 2003.
  • Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh Perspectives, 2005.
  • Yinger, Kent L., The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, (Cascade Books), 2010 ISBN 978-1608994632
  • Young, Brad, Paul the Jewish Theologian, 1998
  • Kok, Jacobus., The New Perspectives on Paul and its implication for ethics and mission, Acta Patristica, vol 21, 2010, pp. 3–17

Further reading

  1. ^ Dunn, James D. G. (2005). The New Perspective on Paul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.  
  2. ^ Sanders, E. P. (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  
  3. ^ Stendahl, Krister (1963). "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West". Harvard Theological Review 56 (3): 199–215.  
  4. ^ Stendahl, Krister (1963). "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West". Harvard Theological Review 56. 
  5. ^ a b Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977  .
  6. ^  
  7. ^ For example,  
  8. ^ N. T. Wright, New Perspectives.
  9. ^ For "badges of covenant membership", see N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans part one (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 35–41. 5. For reliance on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship, see Eisenbaum, Pamela (Winter 2004). "A Remedy for Having Been Born of Woman: Jesus, Gentiles, and Genealogy in Romans" (PDF). Journal of Biblical Literature (The Society of Biblical Literature) 123 (4): 671–702.  
  10. ^ Dunn, James D. 'The New Perspective on Paul', 104, 2005.
  11. ^ Wright, N. T (August 2003), New Perspectives on Paul, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference .
  12. ^ Wright, NT, New perspective (PDF) .
  13. ^ Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, p. 167, notes "Sanders has conceded to me that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional view."
  14. ^ Douglas A. Campbell, "The Quest For Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy", 2005, pp. 178–207
  15. ^ Hay, D. M. (1989). "Pistis as "Ground for Faith" in Hellenized Judaism and Paul". Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (3): 461–476.  
  16. ^ Howard, G. (1974). "The 'Faith of Christ'". The Expository Times 85 (7): 212–5.  
  17. ^ Pilch and Malina, "Handbook of Biblical Social Values", 1998, pg 72–75
  18. ^ See, e.g.: for subjective genitive:
    • Howard, G. (1974). "The 'Faith of Christ'". The Expository Times 85 (7): 212–5.  
    • Hays, Richard B. (2002). The faith of Jesus Christ: the narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1–4:11.  
    • Hooker, Morna D. (1989). "Πίστις Χριστοῦ".  

    For objective genitive:
    • Hultgren, A. J. (1980). "The Pistis Christou Formulation in Paul". Novum Testamentum 22 (3): 248–263.  
    • Dunn, J. D. G. (1991). "Once More, ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ". Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers: 730–44. 
  19. ^ E.g., Romans 3:21–22: 'But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. ...' (emphasis added. Also see Gal. 2:20).
  20. ^ David A.deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 2000, pg 117
  21. ^
  22. ^ N. T. Wright, "Jesus and the Victory of God"
  23. ^ Chris VanLandingham, "Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul", Hendrickson 2006
  24. ^ David Brondos, "Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption", Fortress Press, 2006
  25. ^ Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, "Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul" Ausgburg Fortress 2006
  26. ^ Stephen Finlan, Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine, Liturgical Press 2005, pp. 58–59, 120–23.
  27. ^ Chalke, Steve; Mann, Alan (2003), The Lost Message of Jesus, Zondervan .
  28. ^ John Piper, Interview with Piper on Wright, October 11, 2007.
  29. ^ Sinclair Ferguson, What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?
  30. ^ Ligon Duncan and Sinclair Ferguson (video resource) Is Wright Teaching Another Gospel?
  31. ^ C. W. Powell, Was There Legalism in First Century Judaism
  32. ^ D. A. Carson Don Carson on the New Perspective, MP3 file of lecture
  33. ^ Tom Holland Contours of Pauline Theology
  34. ^ J. Ligon Duncan, The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.
  35. ^ Barry D. Smith, The Tension Between God as Righteous Judge and as Merciful in Early Judaism; id., What Must I Do to Be Saved? Paul Parts Company with His Jewish Heritage.
  36. ^ Despotis, A., Die „New Perspective on Paul“ und die griechisch-orthodoxe Paulusinterpretation, [VIOTh 11], St. Ottilien: EOS-Verlag 2014, ISBN 978-3-8306-7705-5
  37. ^ Irenaeus, "Against Heresy" 4:13–16. Ambrosiaster, "Commentary on Romans". Pelagius, "Commentary on Romans". Origen "Commentary on Romans". Justin Martyr, "Dialogue" Ch 10–11. Clement of Alexandria, "Stromata" 6:6. Ignatius, "Magnesians" 8. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Catechetical Lectures" 4:33.
  38. ^ Fr. John Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998, passim
  39. ^ "Augsburg Confession". Book of Concord. Article 20. Retrieved 8 September 2012. [..]Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing. For man's powers without the Holy Ghost are full of ungodly affections, and are too weak to do works which are good in God's sight. Besides, they are in the power of the devil who impels men to divers sins, to ungodly opinions, to open crimes. This we may see in the philosophers, who, although they endeavored to live an honest life could not succeed, but were defiled with many open crimes. Such is the feebleness of man when he is without faith and without the Holy Ghost, and governs himself only by human strength. Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works.[..] 
  40. ^  
  41. ^ "Canons of Dort". FIRST HEAD: PARAGRAPH 3. Retrieved 9 September 2012. Rejections of errors[..][of those W]ho teach: That the good pleasure and purpose of God, of which Scripture makes mention in the doctrine of election, does not consist in this, that God chose certain persons rather than others, but in this, that He chose out of all possible conditions (among which are also the works of the law), or out of the whole order of things, that act of faith which from its very nature is undeserving, as well as it incomplete obedience, as a condition of salvation, and that He would graciously consider this in itself as a complete obedience and count it worthy of the reward of eternal life. For by this injurious error the pleasure of God and the merits of Christ are made of none effect, and men are drawn away by useless questions from the truth of gracious justification and from the simplicity of Scripture, and this declaration of the apostle is charged as untrue: "who has saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time (2 Tim 1:9)." 
  42. ^ "Augsburg Confession". Book of Concord. Article XII. Retrieved 8 September 2012. They also are rejected who do not teach that remission of sins comes through faith but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own. 


See also

The increased importance new-perspective writers have given to good works in salvation has created strong common ground with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Historic Protestantism has never denied that there is a place for good and faithful works, but has always excluded them from justification and salvation, which Protestants argue is through faith alone, and in which good deeds are of no account, either within or without God's grace.[39][40] This has, since the Reformation, been a line of distinction between Protestantism (both Reformed[41] and Lutheran[42]) and other Christian communions.

One of the many exceptions is the influential Augustine of Hippo. While most in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox schools would see him as espousing a view of grace and justification in keeping with this "new" perspective, Augustine is blamed by some for introducing incorrect ideas (some Orthodox would agree that Augustine erred on these ideas, and introduced novelties into the teachings of the Church Fathers[38]).

The "new" perspective has, by and large, been an internal debate among Protestant scholars. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writers have generally responded favorably to new-perspective ideas,[36] seeing both a greater commonality with their own beliefs and seeing strong similarities with the views of many of the early Church Fathers. From a Catholic point of view, the "new" perspective is seen as a step toward the progressive reality of human salvation in Christ. Moreover, passages in the works of many early Church Fathers show that new-perspective-style interpretations were widely held among them.[37]

Catholic and Orthodox reactions

The "new" perspective has been heavily criticized by conservative scholars in the Reformed tradition, arguing that it undermines the classical, individualistic, Augustinian interpretation of election and does not faithfully reflect the teachings of the Scriptures. It has been the subject of fierce debate among Evangelicals in recent years, mainly due to N. T. Wright's increasing popularity in evangelical circles. Its most outspoken critics include Calvinists John Piper,[28] Sinclair Ferguson,[29][30] C. W. Powell,[31] Mark Seifrid, D. A. Carson,[32] Tom Holland,[33] Ligon Duncan.[34] Barry D. Smith has claimed that the New Perspective's challenge to the traditional view of Jewish faith practice as legalistic is misplaced.[35]

Both sides of the debate attempt to claim the higher, and more accurate, view of scripture. New-perspective advocates claim that supporters of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective are too committed to historic Protestant tradition, and therefore fail to take a "natural" reading of the Bible; while those of the Lutheran and Reformed perspectives claim that new-perspective advocates are too intrigued by certain interpretations of context and history, which then lead to a biased hermeneutical approach to the text.

In 2003 Steve Chalke, after being influenced by new-perspective writers, published a book targeted at a popular audience which made comments highly critical of the penal substitution theory of the atonement.[27] This caused an extensive and ongoing controversy among Evangelicals in Britain, with a strong backlash from lay-people and advocates of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

The "new" perspective has been an extremely controversial subject and has drawn strong arguments and recriminations from both sides of the debate.

Criticism and rhetoric

The following is a broad sample of different views advocated by various scholars: E. P. Sanders argued that Paul's central idea was that we mystically spiritually participate in the risen Christ and that all Paul's judicial language was subordinate to the participationary language.[5] N. T. Wright has argued that Paul sees Israel as representative of humanity and taking onto itself the sinfulness of humanity through history. Jesus, in turn, as Messiah is representative of Israel and so focuses the sins of Israel on himself on the cross. Wright's view is thus a "historicized" form of Penal Substitution.[22] Chris VanLandingham has argued that Paul sees Christ as having defeated the Devil and as teaching humans how God wants them to live and setting them an example.[23] David Brondos has argued that Paul sees Jesus as just a part in a wider narrative in which the Church is working to transform lives of individuals and the world, and that Paul's participatory language should be understood in an ethical sense (humans living Christ-like lives) rather than mystically as Sanders thought.[24] Pilch and Malina take the view that Paul holds to the Satisfaction theory of atonement.[25] Stephen Finlan holds that Paul uses numerous different metaphors to describe the atonement; “justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9) means that a cultic substance has a judicial effect. Paul also taught the transformation of believers into the image of God through Christ (Theosis).[26]

To writers of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives the penal substitution atonement theory and the belief in the "finished work" of Christ have been central. New-perspective writers have regularly questioned whether this view is really of such central importance in Paul's writings. Generally new-perspective writers have argued that other theories of the atonement are more central to Paul's thinking, but there has been minimal agreement among them as to what Paul's real view of the atonement might be.

The Atonement


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