This title may have attracted some witch hunters seeking evidence to burn N.T. Wright at the stake. If this is you, then better go back and read the previous four posts. The title, as the rest of you may know, means that this is the last of our New Perspective posts, which may elicit a blend of “yeahs” and “boos.” In any case, I’ll wrap up this series by laying out my own views about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ve insinuated throughout that I’m not an advocate of the NPP, and yet I’ve tried to accurately and fairly represent it in the previous posts.
So, what do I see wrong with the New Perspective? Three things.
First, NPP proponents (broadly speaking) see Paul and first-century Judaism as having the same structure of salvation, but different identify markers. If I just lost most of you, let me explain. It’s typical of NPP interpreters to see Paul and Judaism as having the same understanding of grace and works. Both Paul and Judaism, they say, believe that salvation is by grace and our works are nothing more than a response to grace. This is pretty much what Sanders, Dunn, and even Wright would say. Or in the words of the brilliant NT scholar, Morna Hooker, “just as Palestinian Judaism understood obedience to the Law to be the proper response of Israel to the covenant on Sinai, so Paul assumes that there is an appropriate response for Christians who have experienced God’s saving activity in Christ” (Hooker, “Covenantal Nomism,” 48).
My only problem with this understanding of Paul and Judaism is this: it’s just not true. Having studied the original documents of Judaism for the last 6 years, I must say that while they were not robustly legalistic (merit mongers working their way to heaven apart from grace), they weren’t as “Calvinistic” as Paul (please excuse the anachronism). Our beloved Apostle believed that “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) and—take note of this—nowhere in first century Judaism do we see such a radical assertion. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are famous for being “hyper-Calvinists” (tongue in cheek) and even they don’t make such ridiculous claims. For the Scrolls, “God atoned” for and “justified the righteous, and pronounced the wicked to be wicked (CD 4:6-7 [a famous scroll from the Dead Sea]). God doesn’t justify the ungodly—that would be offensive! But for Paul, it was not only affirmed but necessary, since we’re all ungodly! Paul believed that all—including Jews—are insatiably sinful and can do no good on their own. This leaves only the wicked to be justified by God—even though this was considered heretical and absurd by most Jews in the first century. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3), but his Damascus road experience really rattled him something fierce. Paul’s view of divine grace is unparalleled in first-century Judaism. (I’ve got a few caveats here for those interested.)
Second, the phrase “works of the law” cannot be limited to Jewish boundary markers. I may have built a good case for this in my first two posts, but a close look at all the passages shows that “works of the law” refers to the demands of the old covenant law which Israel failed to keep. Dietary regulations may be emphasized in Galatians 2:16 and perhaps in Romans 3:28 (I still have my doubts here), but in all other instances (e.g. Rom 3:20; Gal 3:2, 5, 10), “works of the law” refers to the demands of the Mosaic law as a whole. So when Paul says that no one is justified by works of the law in Romans 3:20, he’s simply saying what he says elsewhere: that righteousness did not and cannot come through law (Gal 2:20-21; 3:21; Rom 4:4-5; 7:6-8:11). Limiting Paul’s critique to ethnocentrism cannot account for Paul’s driving point: we’re all jacked up and in need of unilateral grace to be saved (Rom 4:4-5 my translation).
Third, and somewhat related to the previous point, although the NPP has very helpfully brought to light the importance of the Jew/Gentile issue in Paul, this should not be pitted against a more classic reading of Romans and Galatians. In other words, we need to distinguish between the unique and surprising content of justification by faith (Rom 4:4-6)—that God declares righteous his ungodly enemies—and its universal scope (Rom 4:9-16)—that this salvation is given to Jew and Gentile on the same basis. The “Old Perspective” seemed to emphasize only the former, while the “New Perspective” the latter. Both, to my mind, are beautiful and true.
Let me end, however, by tipping my hat one more time to the New Perspective. Having read piles of stuff written by NPP advocates, I’ve been forced to go back and bury my nose in the text of God’s precious word. It’s been tedious at times, but overall I feel that I have a better grasp on what God was breathing out through the pen of Paul. And any time we are forced to revisit the text with fresh eyes, new questions, and a sensible spirit, that’s a pretty good day at the office. So let me end by encouraging you with the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who on the eve of his exile from Nazi Germany, exhorted his students with these words:
“We have been studying cheerfully and seriously…And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the Scripture that has been given to us.”
–Karl Barth, on the event of his formal farewell to his students in Bonn, just prior to his expulsion from Germany in 1935.