What The “New Perspective” Is & Isn’t

I mentioned the other day that the “new perspective” era in Pauline studies is in the past.  Confusion, however, abounds regarding what it is and what it isn’t.  What follows is an attempt at clarification.

The “new perspective” is an interpretive angle of approach to Paul that does not assume that he is attacking Judaism because it is legalistic.  To the extent that he criticizes Judaism, he is doing so rather for its ethno-centric impulses, its limiting the scope of God’s salvation to those who are ethnic Jews.  Those writing from this new perspective have emphasized the need to read Paul against his first century Jewish background rather than in the context of Reformation theology and sixteenth and seventeenth-century ecclesiastical polemics.

The “new perspective,” then, is mostly negative and focuses narrowly on one item in Paul.  It mainly has to do with Paul’s statements in Romans and Galatians that no one can be justified by “works of law.”  The question up for debate is, What does Paul mean by “works of law?”  Is he referring to legalism or something else?

The defining element in the “new perspective,” therefore, is the shared sense that dominant “traditional” readings of Paul’s statements about justification by “works of law” are not fully satisfying.

“Traditional” readings regard Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, as addressing legalistic impulses within Judaism driven by an anthropological optimism whereby humans are thought to be able to earn salvation before God on the basis of their good works.

The “new perspective” is simply and only this shared sense of dissatisfaction with Reformed or Lutheran readings of Paul’s regard for Judaism.  Beyond this, there is no “new perspective” view of anything.

The “new perspective” is not a view of justification.  It is not a view of the relationship between “already” and “not yet” aspects of justification.  Even “new perspective” critics note that there are future aspects to justification.

The “new perspective” is not a view of imputation, nor of how believers are made righteous.  Many assume that the debate is over the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Robert Gundry, however, is both a fierce critic of the “new perspective” and of the notion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  There are others.

In my opinion, this confusion arose because alarm bells were sounded in the late 1990’s about a new threat to orthodoxy called the “new perspective” and N. T. Wright was one proponent.  Many picked up his accessible book, What St. Paul Really Said, and encountered his critique of imputation.  They assumed that this was the “departure” from orthodoxy they had heard about and a firestorm began.

The problem here is that this portion of Wright’s book was simply a rehearsal of a debate that had been going on for decades, if not centuries, among Pauline scholars and Reformed exegetes.  Evangelical and Reformed scholars agree that believers are declared righteous before God, as does Wright.  It’s another question entirely whether the imputation of Christ’s righteousness can be found anywhere in Paul’s letters.  Almost everyone agrees that Paul nowhere explicitly articulates a formula of imputation.

The “new perspective” is not a view of the phrase pistis Christou—whether it is an objective or subjective genitive.  James Dunn, a “new perspective” person if there ever was one, strongly advocates for an objective genitive interpretation of this and related phrases.  This is usually understood as the “traditional” position.

Beyond the narrowly focused notion that Paul is not criticizing Judaism for its legalism, there is nothing that constitutes the “new perspective.”  These other issues are not properly “new perspective” issues.  They have received greater attention since the texts that are battleground passages in the “new perspective” debate are also those that relate to imputation and justification.  Now that these key texts in Romans and Galatians are receiving more attention, it is coming to light that these doctrinal and theological formulations are just that—theological conclusions that don’t necessarily lie right on the surface of the text.

11 thoughts on “What The “New Perspective” Is & Isn’t

  1. Joel

    Dr. Gombis,

    Forgive me for being obtuse, but in your final paragraph – do you agree with NPP or align more with the Reformed exegetes? (Or, go in a different direction altogether?

    1. timgombis

      I guess your third option, Joel. It seems to me that Reformed exegetes (and Reformed theology, generally) grasped some significant theological impulses in Paul but over time Reformed exegesis hardened into assured conclusions. They stopped reading Paul and parrotted the same things over and over. I think the NPP broke the hegemony of Reformed readings so that Paul can be read afresh.

      So, I’m not aligning with any camps, but am a friend to anyone and everyone reading Paul for what he’s really saying. Of course, everyone wants to say that, so…

      1. Joel

        I reckon, then, what we need is a guide for the perplexed for Paul.

        But I do see your point, especially about the “assured conclusions.”

      2. timgombis

        That’s precisely what’s needed! Thankfully, the Lord hath sent a man…

        Quite honestly, it seems to me the best thing regarding readings of Paul is that there be a diversity of interpretive angles and methodologies. A plurality of methodologies best ensures that we genuinely hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures. When any singular interpretive angle, dogmatic school, or methodology becomes hegemonic, that’s dangerous and we increasingly hear only ourselves and no longer what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

        So, I’m not necessarily opposed to Reformed readings, but Reformed hegemony over Pauline texts. They have a seat at the table, but need to welcome sisters and brothers and listen and contribute.

        And ‘Dr. Gombis’ is my dad–an actual, useful doctor–I’m just ‘Tim’!

  2. Allen Browne

    Tim, that blog posting is an excellent summary of an issue that confuses many people. You have pin-pointed the issue: it is as narrow as you defined it.
    Wright, Dunn, and Sanders would happily admit there is huge diversity among them regarding all the other related issues. You nailed precisely what the NPP is.
    After spending a few months wrestling with it this year, Sanders’ voluminous research has helped us better understand Judaism better, especially the boundary markers. But that doesn’t mean that Paul’s comments should be understood limited to Judaism’s, i.e. while Paul received much from Judaism, his perspective is bigger. So, “works of the law” for Paul means more than what it does for Judaism, and he criticizes them for their too-narrow definition (Gal 6:13)
    This is my first post, Tim. Love your perspective, and especially your work on Ephesians. God bless.
    Allen Browne.

  3. Joel

    Tim, then!

    I was thinking over this and it seems to me that those who are rushing away from the Reformed position, or the solely Reformed position, come to treat the NPP with the same assurance. I tend to think think that’s a human flaw, with one needing something to be black and white and unchallengeable.

    I agree about the varied interpretative strategies – I just wish both people, and I at times, could see them even in the one author of Paul. In reading Willimon (as a Methodist, I think it’s what I have to do to get to heaven), he noted that Jesus never said that a set of doctrinal beliefs were the way, but that He was the Way. Admittedly, that raises other questions of which Jesus, but I have to wonder if Willimon’s view wouldn’t allow us to better reach out, sit down, and break bread with those with whom we find disagreements regarding interpretation?

    1. timgombis

      Yes, great point, Joel. I think it’s important to note that Reformed & Lutheran readings are getting at something in Paul–namely, his critique of anthropological optimism. It’s just that the form it took during the Reformation period is different from the form it took in the first century and both are different from the forms we encounter today. So, fresh readings of Paul are necessary, ones that are not straight-jacketed by assumptions of what Paul must be saying.

      But just to say that we all must sit down and read Paul together and not exclude anyone. When we do that, we’re in prime position to truly “hear” the text and can give each other courage to go out and perform the text.

  4. athanasius96

    Good stuff! I’ve already recommended to this post to friends, but will be linking from my blog on Wednesday. Thanks for the new perspective on the new perspective. 😉

  5. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.18.2011) | Near Emmaus

  6. Pingback: New Perspective on Paul | God is the Gap

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