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.