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.