Reading Paul After The New Perspective

The field of Pauline studies is well past the “new perspective” era.  The interpretive insights gained over the last thirty years or so have been supremely helpful for coming to grips with Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and his discussions related to the Mosaic Law.  Debates doubtless will continue in forthcoming books and commentaries on Paul and his letters and that’s as it should be.

The fear-mongering and hysteria about the “new perspective” have, of course, been far less helpful.  I hope those days are over.  I will never understand those behaviors and that mindset.  It seems to me that Christian people ought to see great promise in being challenged to read Scripture afresh.

What follows are some generalized aspects to my reading of Paul, especially where his discussions regarding the Law are in view.

The term “works of law” in Romans and Galatians has reference to deeds done that constitute Jewish identity.  When Paul states that no one can be justified by “works of law,” he is merely noting that one’s ethnic identity does not give one any priority before God.  He does not criticize Jewish identity nor Judaism per se.  He does, however, oppose those who endorse conversion to Judaism as a requirement to establish one’s standing before God.

Paul’s problem, therefore, with “works of law” is not that no one can do them sufficiently, but that full adoption of and participation in Jewish identity is neither here nor there with regard to securing participation in the world to come.

When Paul sets pistis (“faith”/“faithfulness”) in opposition to “works” or “works of law,” he does not intend a contrast between human trust and human action.  Nor does he ever oppose faith to obedience.  He does set in opposition faithful obedience to Jesus and the effort to accumulate credentials toward the establishment of a status before men thinking that such social standing carries weight with God.  The opposition, therefore, is between obedience and disobedience—discipleship to Jesus that looks like faith-working-through-love, to use the language of Galatians, versus discipleship to Jesus that must be pursued within Judaism.

Related to this, Paul regards those who are advocating a Judaizing strategy for gentiles as disobedience to God.  It is not that they are advocating obedience at the expense of faith.  Paul charges them with disobedience in Romans and apostasy in Galatians, and calls them to the obedience of faith.  It’s not that Paul sees an over-emphasis on obedience in this wrong approach to Christian identity, but characterizes the Judaizing impulse as actual disobedience to God, and potentially apostasy.

Paul theologizes from an apocalyptic frame of thought, envisioning the saving power of God that invades and transforms an enslaved cosmos.  God’s good creation has been hijacked and is held in bondage to the cosmic powers of Sin and Death.  The incarnation is the invasion of the Son of God to retake God’s world for God’s glory.  This perspective is represented by scholars such as J. C. Beker, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell, and Leander Keck, among others.

I do not regard Paul as stressing human inability to obey so much as the failure of all humanity to obey God.

Several scholars have complained that the “new perspective” can tend merely to describe Paul’s flow of thought sociologically so that we’re left with a very thin theological reading of Paul.  This criticism isn’t too far from the mark.  I agree with Stephen Westerholm’s point that while “new perspective” scholars may outstrip the reformers in grasping historically what Paul was getting at, they cannot match the reformers at recovering Paul’s deeper theological impulses.  Interpreters such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin do indeed provide for us excellent models of theological interpretation of Paul.

In my opinion, the “new perspective” has been very helpful in reminding us that the problems of ethnicity are at the center of Romans and Galatians.  I don’t know why, but Christian scholars concerned about the life of the church have been slow to exploit the theological resources exposed by newer readings.

31 thoughts on “Reading Paul After The New Perspective

  1. S Wu

    Good points, Tim.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on N T Wright in general, and, more specifically, Douglas Harink’s criticism on Wright in Harink’s Paul among the Postliberals?

    Also, what do you think about Simon Gathercole’s book Where is Boasting, who dialogues with Sanders, Dunn and Wright?

    1. timgombis

      I very much enjoy Wright’s work, especially his broad reading of the Gospels and Paul. I’m an exegete, so I have quibbles with some interpretations of isolated texts, but that’s to be expected.

      I really enjoyed Harink’s book, but his criticism of Wright sort of took me by surprise. It’s been a while since I read it, but wasn’t his criticism over super-cessionism in Wright?

      I don’t think Gathercole scored many direct hits in his book, frankly. It seemed that, like Carson, he wanted to critique those guys for doctrinal reasons, then got into the texts and found that he didn’t have much to go on.

      1. S Wu

        Likewise I really enjoy Wright, but at times I wonder whether he pushes certain issues too far. But then I am not qualified to critique further. Overall I have to admit that Wright has helped me greatly, and I respect him very much.

        It’s been awhile since I read Harink’s book. But from memory I think his main criticism on Wright was about Wright’s super-cessionism, as you said. I think Harink raised some very good questions about Wright. But I am quite sure that Tom Wright says that he is against super-cessionism. I read a review (by Richard Hays???, I think) pointing out the same thing. Thus I am not sure whether Harink reads Wright alright.

        Thank you for your thoughts. Very helpful and affirming.

  2. athanasius96

    It is ironic that those who resist cultural interpretation are often prisoners of their own culture. So long as we ignore the richness of the context we are interpreting, we will fail to appreciate the richness of the context to which we minister.

  3. Jon Mcgill

    Having stood on both sides of this NPP thing I think I can take a stab at why it troubles so many people into “fear-mongering.” There is a certain kind of “spirituality” (for lack of a better term) that is particular to the idea that “it’s really all about human trust versus human action.” Humility before God becomes synonymous with continually thinking ones actions are irrelevant because we’re just that sinful and God is just that holy–which is why it must depend on faith (trust), because otherwise we’re arrogantly trying to procure our own salvation. This oozes out of every pore in prayer and biblical application becoming the centerpiece of christian discipleship and a way of gauging one’s spirituality and the spirituality of others. This existential grip on a way of thinking becomes some quasi-Gnostic secret that determines whether or not people truly “get” it.

    When one is wrapped up in this mentality it becomes difficult to see how something like Jewish ethnocentrism could be at the root of Paul’s most beloved letters–I mean, weren’t we talking about spiritual things?

    This, I think, is why some people are a bit shaken by some of the NPP’s implications. They feel a huge emphasis-shift and with it, their view of how to be, and think, “spiritual.”

    Or maybe this was a gross generalization and I have simply described my own experience. Either way, does this make sense?

    1. timgombis

      I think you’re spot-on, Jon. Scot McKnight attributes the anti-NPP sentiment to Augustinian conceptions of sin and sinfulness. That trajectory feeds a gnostic vision of discipleship, prayer, etc., all of which are threatened by close readings of Paul.

      Good stuff!

    2. Steven McCarthy

      Jon, I get where you’re coming from, and I believe I have seen that psychology, but I do believe you are over generalizing. The historic Protestant doctrine of justification does not call for us to see our works as irrelevant in every respect. In regard to our justification (being declared righteous before God), our works avail us nothing, but rather condemn us. Here then, they are not irrelevant, they are worse than irrelevant. Yet, our works are incredibly relevant in regard to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. Furthermore, good works are what God prepared before hand that we should walk in them. The pursuit of good works in the power of the Holy Spirit is that unto which God saved us from his wrath and the dominion of sin. In this respect, our actions are incredibly relevant. Furthermore, as James teaches, if we are devoid of the fruit of good works then our profession of possessing the root of righteousness is exposed as utterly false. So humility before God is not seeing our works are irrelevant in every respect. Our works are worse than useless in regard to our standing before God, but they are utterly relevant in many other regards.

      1. timgombis

        It seems to me, Steven, that your comment here illustrates Jon’s point. You are indeed representing well a Reformed dogmatic formula with regard to faith and works. But the formula is designed to ward off 16th & 17th cent. threats, not 1st cent. ones.

        Further, it has its origins in a Scripturally-driven theological response to 16th & 17th cent. issues, and, as you say elsewhere, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with the work of our historical brothers and sisters in the faith. But we ought to seek an articulation of the relationships between faith and works that represents Scripture itself, and not necessarily stop at parroting dogmatic formulas. Nor should we demand that Scripture be hemmed in by those formulas.

      2. Steven McCarthy

        “We ought to seek an articulation of the relationships between faith and works that represents Scripture itself.” My conviction is that the 16th and 17th century Reformed Confessions actually do that, especially in regard to Paul’s writings. Still, we certainly can and should rearticulate doctrine to suit the needs of our time. But rearticulating is very different from revolutionizing, which is what, it seems to me, the New Perspective actually does.

      3. timgombis

        Yes, the NPP does indeed challenge historic articulations, but, it seems to me, at least, if you’re an evangelical, you hold to Scriptural authority–it is the norming norm that judges and refines all other historical articulations. So, if it refines some historic articulations, isn’t that okay? For me, it is. If you’re not an evangelical, then perhaps you think differently — in which case, no worries…

      4. Steven McCarthy

        Scripture is indeed the norming norm, “the only rule of faith and life”. Because it is the Word of God, it stands as judge over any dogmatic formulation, and even over you and me. I haven’t said anything to suggest otherwise, so I am a bit confused by this response. As to evangelical, I really couldn’t say that I know what that means. From what I understand, it used to mean holding to the doctrine of justification as set forth in the Protestant Reformation and based upon the Word of God, in which case, I guess being an evangelical would be the reason I object so strongly to the New Perspective on Paul.

      5. timgombis

        By evangelical, Steven, I just mean that this implies holding to Scripture even where it might refine how the reformers articulated things.

        This is the main error that so many reformed folks make, in my view. They assume that the reformers’ articulations of justification are exactly Paul’s without remainder. Any deviationi from the reformers, then, is a departure from Scripture. But this wrongly confuses the reformers with Scripture itself.

        The reformers were doing good theological readings of Scripture in their day. It’s our responsibility not to hold their views as Scripture, but to read Scripture alongside them, bringing Scripture itself to bear in our day, NOT reading their understandings as Scripture itself.

      6. Steven McCarthy

        I guess I shouldn’t say I was surprised by this response. It’s fine for you to look to clarify if that wasn’t clear to you that I considered the Scriptures the norming norm. As I said, I certainly do. It’s good to know where we agree. Evangelical is a fuzzy word these days, as I hint at above, but if all you mean by it is believing in the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and life, then I am certainly an evangelical in that sense.

  4. Dave Wainscott

    1) Here’s the Scot McKnight series on NPP Jon mentioned above.
    2)Love your article on Paul in the new CT. The credits didn’t specifically suggest it was excerpted from, or based on “Perplexed” it? Gotta break down and order that book

    1. timgombis

      Grab it, Dave, I don’t think you’ll regret it! Not really excerpted. While finishing the edits on the book, I saw Scot’s article on Jesus and an outline formed in my mind immediately on Paul.

      Thanks for the link!

    1. timgombis

      I’m trying to respond to your substantive points, Steven, but I had a little trouble making out some of what you were trying to say in your first paragraph.

      By the “fear mongering” and “hysteria” involved in some discussions of the “new perspective,” I do not mean criticisms of its contributions and exegetical insights. Every contribution needs rigorous examination. I am only referring to the rhetorically over-the-top reactions that don’t really engage the textual and historical issues. I do understand, to some extent, the discomfort felt when it becomes clear that cherished dogmatic conclusions need refining in light of Scripture. Some folks have reacted very badly to this challenge, however, choosing to vilify fellow Christians rather than to learn alongside them.

      I didn’t say anything about writing the doctrine of justification out of Romans and Galatians, so I’m not sure how to respond to that. Are you assuming I’m saying something that I’m not?

      Please help me out, here, Steven. You say: “The question is whether the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone which was trumpeted so clearly in the Protestant Reformation need or should be written out of Paul’s letters in the process.” I don’t know how you read my post to indicate that I am implying anything like this. Can you clarify? How am I negating a cardinal doctrine?

  5. Steven McCarthy

    I don’t particularly care for the sarcasm either, although it seemed to me to be called for. If I’ve erred in judgment in that regard I hope you’ll forgive me. In response to your question, if you look at the context of the quote you ask about, I am speaking at that point of the New Perspective in general and not directly about your post. At the same time, you say in your post that Paul’s concern in developing works of the law vs. faith in Christ is “merely” (by which I take you to mean only) to say that we don’t have to do distinctively Jewish works to enter into the new life. As I tried to suggest in my initial response, the irrelevancy of Jewish works is certainly an implication of Romans and Galatians (in fact, it’s the immediate concern that provokes Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of justification), but it’s not the heart and soul of the doctrine set forth in his letters. The Reformers rightly see Paul doing much more than dealing with these ethnic issues. They see Paul contrasting any supposed right standing based on our performance with a right standing based solely on the personal righteousness of Christ imputed (counted, reckoned to us) by faith (receiving and resting upon Christ) alone. I was careful to specify that the doctrine of justification that I’m concerned is being lost is the doctrine set forth in the reformation. The New Perspective portrays the reformation controversy over justification as a huge mistake. I’m quite sure the New Perspective finds (supposedly) its own doctrine of justification in Romans and Galatians, but I’m pretty it’s not the doctrine of justification you’ll find in the Augsburg, Belgic and Westminster Confessions and their respective tradition’s catechisms. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you though. Does the New Perspective agree that in Romans and Galatians Paul teaches justification as God’s declaration of sinners as righteous in His sight based solely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received by faith (a certain knowledge and a hearty trust) alone?

  6. Steven McCarthy

    By the way, Tim, I can believe that some of the criticism of the New Perspective have involved “over-the-top reactions that don’t really engage the textual and historical issues.” I wouldn’t be surprised, sadly, if that has been the case. What bugged me about your post is that it seemed to assume that either you are in basic agreement with the New Perspective, with only, perhaps, some minor criticisms of details, or you are just plain hysterical. However, such an assumption does not leave room for dialog. Such an assumption is not giving “rigorous examination” to every contribution. Such an assumption seems to me to be simply “vilifying fellow Christians rather than learning alongside them.” It seems to be begging the question. But perhaps I’ve read too much into your post. In your mind, could someone utterly reject the New Perspective in substance and still be less than hysterical?

  7. Steven McCarthy

    Perhaps my first paragraph would have been better off without its sarcasm. Here’s a rough translation:

    Your post, Tim, seems to assume that anyone who rejects the New Perspective on Paul is simply fear mongering, that they really ought to just accept its helpful new insights and stop raising all the hysteria. Even though the New Perspective denies that the Reformation doctrine of justification appears in Romans or Galatians, the New Perspective is supposed to be so worth while because it reminds us that Paul’s gospel obliterates the division between Jew and Gentile, and, indeed, every ethnic barrier. But is this reminder worth the cost? You even admit that the New Perspective is weak in interpreting the theology of Romans and Galatians because of its emphasis on these epistles’ sociological implications. Still, your post seems to maintain that someone who ultimately rejects the New Perspective on Paul must just be adverse to looking at the Scriptures afresh. What most the critics, it seems to me, are adverse to, is to reading the Scriptures in ways the Church never has for 2000 years. Yes, you allow that someone can make minor criticisms of the New Perspective, but if they object to it in essence, your post seems to suggest that they are guilty of being narrow minded fear mongers.

    1. timgombis

      Nope, Steven, I am not assuming that you either have to completely accept it (whatever that would look like — there is no singular NPP) or are a close-minded rube at all.

      I only referred briefly to some bad behavior and then went to note some things that constitute my reading of Paul in light of the NPP. I may have to re-read the post, but I don’t think I even endorsed the NPP!

      Perhaps the polemical tone of the discussions have colored our modes of reading one another…

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  10. Steven McCarthy

    Tim, I realize that my initial response was not fair in the following regard. You didn’t actually say that anyone who rejects the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a narrow minded fear monger and so I shouldn’t have put those words in your mouth. I am sorry. It’s an inference that isn’t actually implied by your post. Please forgive me for being too hasty to read you in this poor light. Your conclusion is that the NPP really is, by and large, a helpful contribution, a legitimate “insight” that folks should, at least in general, embrace and strive to incorporate into their own reflection on Paul. I disagree, but it’s the conclusion you’re offering by way of reflection of the NPP. I just want to clarify that there are those who seriously object to the NPP. They sincerely believe that the NPP is a toxic misreading of Paul. They are not all thereby guilty of “rhetorically over-the-top reactions that don’t really engage the textual and historical issues”. There are those who are engaging the textual and historical issues, and yet reaching conclusions vastly different from your own. There are those who simply disagree that the NPP actually points us to legitimate ways in which “cherished dogmatic conclusions need refining in light of Scripture”. Really, their concern is that the NPP actually calls for a lot more than “refining” of “cherished dogmatic conclusions”, but rather for abandoning them as tragically misguided misreadings of Paul, and for a Copernican revolution in our understanding of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”. They, however, are not at all convinced.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Steven. Such folks are dear friends! I’m not at all referring to those who engage the issues and the texts and dialogue with grace. if we disagree, that’s fine! I’ve got good friends with whom I disagree.

      But there are some who haven’t read the literature, haven’t engaged the texts, yet blast away that NPP folks are heretics and are “redefining” justification, etc. That is fear-mongering and it is simply un-Christian behavior.

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