New Perspective on Paul

It was asked in a comment what is the significance of the New Perspective on Paul. First of all, I am not going to pretend to be an expert. It’s a bit of a tricky subject that people will want to argue about.  If you want a more expert debriefing, check out one of the audios here. Or you may want to look at John Piper’s book “The Future of Justification.”

The simple version is as follows: Back in the 70s, a scholar named E.P. Sanders wrote a book called “Paul and Palestinian Judaism.” It claimed that Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism, he was just arguing against Jewish exclusivity. It was based on research which Sanders believed showed the Pharisees and others to not be oriented toward salvation by works by to salvation by grace.

It seems like a minor argument, but it’s actually quite significant. If Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism then this affects the meaning of terms like “justification” and “works of the law.” If Paul was not arguing against those who would seek salvation by human effort, then in effect things like the letter to the Romans are no longer about how to be saved. They are about who gets to be in the church or not. The logical conclusions of this observation are what the proponents of the New Perspective on Paul system either don’t want to follow through on , or don’t want to be completely transparent about.

Sanders further contended that Luther’s tortured conscience is really the source for our reading of these terms as dealing with legalism. Ever since the Reformation we’ve been misunderstanding it. In essence, this reading of Paul reverses the Reformation. Out is the “old” Lutheran salvation by faith perspective and in is something about being part of God’s covenant people.  If Salvation is not by faith, then dare I say we labor in vain.

This argument was picked up by James D.G Dunn of the University of Durham in England and then N.T. Wright, who is now Bishop of Durham. N.T. Wright is the main person influencing the average evangelical. This is because he sees himself a kind of moderate evangelical, and has taken strong stands in the past against the crazy theological liberal ideas. People that are otherwise very orthodox are drinking down his commentaries and books. Certain ultra-Calvinist groups have also picked up on this as a basis for their views called the “Federal Vision” or “Auburn Avenue Theology,” which undermines salvation by faith too, but just in a more conservative way.

Now of course Wright is too slippery to show his cards and take these ideas to the logical conclusion. If someone from the New Perspective on Paul were to show up and read this blog they would most likely claim that I had not really understood the New Perspective, or that I was making conclusions that the proponents themselves do not make. I think Wright as an Anglican may see himself as trying to create a new path by de-emphasizing certain Reformation distinctives and thus build a bridge between Protestants and Catholics, but it’s not really a new path, it’s a new basis for the old path of salvation through the “church.”  It seems that ever since it’s founding Anglicanism is always fighting between the Puritan and High Church parties — see for example the “Oxford Movement” Regardless, it’s not a path we can take, because even if Wright and other proponents are unwilling to draw the conclusions, they will inevitably surface.

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  1. Tom have you read any of NT Wright’s stuff or are you basing your arguments on what others have said?

    Rev Wright is my local Bishop, I live in Durham, England and he is very highly regarded in the UK.

  2. I’m basing my analysis on people like D.A Carson, who actually went to school with Wright and understands the nuances.

    I’m sure that Wright has some good stuff, what is of particular concern here is the NPP.

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