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.