The “new perspective” era in Pauline studies had its heyday through the final two decades of the 20th century, dying out in the later 1990’s. After the publication of E. P. Sanders’s book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, Pauline scholars around the world produced a flood of dissertations, monographs, and articles re-evaluating previous assumptions about Paul and established interpretations of passages in his letters. This era put a charge into Pauline scholarship that continues today in a wide variety of directions.
Sometime in the late 1990’s, evangelical leaders and pastors became aware of what was happening in scholarly discussions. The conduct of many evangelicals since this time indicates a desperate need to clarify the nature of evangelical identity.
To be evangelical is to welcome the opportunity to grapple with the Scriptures more vigorously with the end of embodying the gospel more faithfully and proclaiming it more clearly.
Some evangelicals, however, have reacted quite negatively to the challenge to dig into the Scriptures more deeply and to wrestle more profoundly with the various strands that make up our theological heritage. This debate, which offers so much promise for everyone involved, has been beset by some very disappointing behaviors. I’ve been struck by two reactions.
First, some have demonized and condemned others who draw exegetical or theological conclusions that are only slightly different from their own. Rather than take the time to read and re-read what others have written, engaging with the biblical text in its historical setting, some have chosen to publish fulminating and rhetorically-charged critiques on blogs or web-sites, smearing brothers and sisters in Christ.
Many critics have not taken the time to understand rightly what they’ve read, resulting in confusion, frustration, and division. For those whose Christian heritage stretches back to an earlier reactionary and denunciatory fundamentalism, this may appear to be acceptable. But such behaviors ought not to be found among Christian people.
A second reaction that I find puzzling and bizarre is the tendency among evangelicals to surrender their evangelical identity in an attempt to preserve it. Let me explain.
My evangelical heritage goes back at least four generations, so I grew up hearing things like, “we’re people of the book;” “no creed but the Bible;” “the Bible says it, that settles it.” I had understood evangelical identity to be a serious submission to the authority of Scripture and Scripture alone. We cultivated a constant readiness to hear Scripture afresh, and we had an inherent allergy toward appeals to any sort of doctrinal magisterium.
It is mind-boggling to see evangelicals try to grapple with this unsettling issue by making appeals to creeds and confessions in other traditions rather than doing what we claim to do best—wrestling with the text of Scripture, searching out the meaning of Paul in his historical context.
It is equally ironic that many evangelicals have discovered that within those traditions shaped by creeds and confessions, the theological issues raised by “new perspective” debates have been up and running for at least the last five hundred years. Simple appeal to dogmatic tradition—something evangelicals ought to be slow to do—settles nothing.
Evangelicals are those who proceed with both humility and vigor, reading Scripture in the fear of the Lord alongside our brothers and sisters who just might articulate the truth of God using slightly different terminology from our own. If we truly are the people of the book, desiring to be careful students of Scripture for the glory of King Jesus, we will refuse to demonize our brothers and sisters. We will hold our theological conclusions in submission to Scripture, always seeking to refine our understanding and to grow in faithfulness to Scripture. We will keep in mind the essence of the Reformed impulse—“Reformed and always reforming.”
I’ve noticed over the years that evangelicals can hardly stand to be challenged with regard to interpreting Paul. After all, he’s one of us! We are the ones who are more shaped by Paul’s gospel than anyone else, right? If Paul could imagine his dream church, surely it would be one of our evangelical fellowships or Bible churches—our communities mapped by Romans roads and charted by the Pauline gospel! For us to be sent back to the text to make sure that we’ve really got it right can be mystifying, and perhaps downright offensive.
It shouldn’t be this way. The need to take a fresh look at the text ought to excite genuine evangelicals. Such opportunities hold promise for us to gain a fresh vision for things in the text we may have missed. Evangelicals, more than anyone else, ought to welcome the opportunity to hear afresh the always devastating and always redeeming Word of God. We ought to delight in opportunities to provoke one another to love, shrewd exegesis, and faithful theological articulation, and to excel still more at vigorous dialogue and debate, striving always to understand our conversation partners as we learn together from the Word of God.
Saying all this, of course, doesn’t score points for any side over the other and it doesn’t justify Piper or Dunn, MacArthur or Wright. It is only to say that we must pursue theological dialogue as seriously Christian people. We must believe the best about one another, assuming that our sisters and brothers are also diligently searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so.
All students of Scripture are called by God to truly embody the very best of Christian scholarship for the glory of King Jesus, for the good of the church, and for the blessing of the world.
10 thoughts on “Evangelicals & the New Perspective on Paul”
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While riding the mower I remembered the blurbs on Wright’s book from McKnight and Hays that touch on these same themes:
Imagine a world where critical thinking and polite discourse ruled. That is where I want to live.
Tim, thank you so much for this post. You have said things that I have been thinking and saying for years. We are not here to defend a particular confession or statement of faith. We are here to be faithful to the Scripture that God has given to us. I especially like what you said here (from your post):
“Evangelicals are those who proceed with both humility and vigor, reading Scripture in the fear of the Lord alongside our brothers and sisters who just might articulate the truth of God using slightly different terminology from our own. If we truly are the people of the book, desiring to be careful students of Scripture for the glory of King Jesus, we will refuse to demonize our brothers and sisters. We will hold our theological conclusions in submission to Scripture, always seeking to refine our understanding and to grow in faithfulness to Scripture. ”
Also, sometimes I wonder whether we are “followers of Jesus” or “followers of followers of Jesus”? I use the latter to refer to our tendency to follow our faith heroes, whose teaching has become the primary interpretive lens to understand Scripture. Yes, we all have our favourite authors and speakers. But the Scripture needs to be our primary source. Perhaps the “New Persperctive” is a good example. I find that Christians do not necessarily know much about the New Perspective, but they are either for or against (e.g.) Tom Wright, simply because so and so says Tom Wright is good or bad. This is not the Evangelical practice that I knew when I came to faith in Christ.
You’re spot-on, S.! I’ve been thinking about recent comments about “tribalism” among evangelicals lately. Such tribalism is rampant among evangelicals. We don’t want to have our favorite authors critiqued, or we attach ourselves too tightly to certain individuals, becoming rabid “fans.” None of that is good.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “all things are yours.” All teachers are for the good of the church, though we should never say, “I am of Wright, I am of Piper, I am of McLaren…”
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Well said! I remember being exposed to some of these new ideas in college. Initially I reacted because it was different than what I was taught and the teacher was a Catholic. The fact that I still needed a good grade in the class forced the issue to read carefully and respond thoughtfully. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was learning things that were true about the Bible. My core beliefs didn’t need to change, but my view of what and from whom I might learn beyond that changed drastically.
You offered us a good perspective to approach the NPP problems. The central issue is not which side you take on the NPP but how well we approach the Pauline text with vigor, scholarly humiity, and the sense of ever new appreciation of the text, I think. So thank you for encouraging
Tim, I really liked this post. But I was a bit puzzled by the end of the first sentence: “The “new perspective” era in Pauline studies had its heyday through the final two decades of the 20th century, dying out in the later 1990’s.” Are you saying ther heyday of tHE NPP or the NPP was dying out?
In one sense, I would have thought the NPP has become virtually mainstream or at least, in the words of the IVP ‘Dictionary of Paul and His Letters’: “The present time is securely opportune to harvest the gains of such inquiries, proposals and investigations. We are sufficiently distant from E. P. Sanders’s epoch-making volume Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), rightly praised, if then pertinently criticized, by J. D. G. Dunn (in his essay “The New Perspective on Paul,” 1983) as breaking the mold of current Pauline research and posing a new set of agenda questions, to attempt a re-evaluation and assessment. The team of essayists who have contributed to the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters mainly stand in the shadow of this major new appraisal of Paul’s attitude to the Law, the covenant and the people of Israel, and reflect their reaction, whether positive or cautious, to the “new look” on Paul’s gospel of righteousness by faith and the elements of continuity with the ancestral faith”
I only mean that the scholarly discussions sparked by the early work sort of exploded in the 80’s and mid-90’s, but that things have gone off in so many different directions that it’s probably best to call this a post-NPP era (though it’s not that big of a deal to label eras).
There was a sort of standard form that Ph.D. dissertations took in that era, examining the trajectory from the OT through to the Jewish literature and then comparing the trajectory between the OT and Paul. To some extent that’s come to an end, though you do still see the odd dissertation that takes that form. But things have just spun out into different directions.
That’s not to say that “it’s over,” or that the conclusions reached were wrong. Not at all! Just to say that the initial period of provocation to dig more deeply is over and now we have many different (and exciting) lines of inquiry.