Friday, June 29, 2012

New Perspectives on Paul: Where Wright is Right and Crucially Wrong

Depending on the setting, the words “New Perspective” either garner approving nods or violent repudiations. The topic elicits such varied responses because it cuts to the heart of Christianity: by what means a sinner is found to be acceptable by a holy God. In fact, adherents to this thinking would argue that the problem thus outlined is not the priority of Scripture at all, at least not a priority of Paul's. This paper shall seek to generally outline the ideas put forth by the New Perspective, and interact with the position as both a contributor and detractor to the orthodox Christian faith.
Monica wrote this article on a theological perspective on justification called "The New Perspective." She is currently attending seminary and is involved with missions work in Europe. Upon graduation she hopes to continue serving in ministry or work as a teacher in the Christian education system.
The New Perspective, as has been rightly noted by many others, is not a uniform perspective but rather a group of varying takes on Paul's theology and specifically his soteriology. Three of the major proponents are E.P Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright. While there are a number of things they disagree upon, they all form their conclusions based around the concept of “covenantal nomism”, and the feeling that the Reformation (and especially Martin Luther) did not quite get the gospel right. “Covenantal nomism” refers to a theory promoted by Sanders in his work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. While traditionally theologians understood Paul as fighting against a works-righteousness based system among his fellow Jews in texts such as Romans 2-3, Sanders argued that the Jews never believed they were saved by a merit based on works. Instead, they were brought into the covenant with God through His grace, and they maintained this relationship through their obedience. Thus, their system was far more grace oriented than has been previously assumed, and Paul was not concerned with a sinner meeting a holy God, but rather with cultural elitism amongst his brothers by circumcision. Because of this misunderstanding of Paul's original intent, Protestant Christianity's understanding of salvation since the Reformation has been far more Lutheran than Pauline.

While this assertion has some evidence in the writings from Second Temple Judaism, scholars have also found enough evidence against it to argue that it was not a universal understanding of the Jewish faith.[1] Also, a number of concerns have been raised concerning Sanders' information and the conclusions he drew in his work.[2] While there are certainly some things to be gleaned from the idea of “covenantal nomism”, the system is not comprehensive, nor should it be treated as such.

An interesting aspect to the New Perspective debate is the subjective nature of the discussion. From the New Perspective side there are sweeping generalizations and broadly negative assertions, mostly aimed at Martin Luther, modern evangelicalism, and theological authors like John Piper. On the other side, the New Perspective promoters have been mocked as poor scholars and vilified as heretics. While both sides clearly have allowed human emotions to interfere with academic pursuit, it is apparent why. On one hand, the pseudo-pietistic tradition of modern American evangelicalism needs correction, and on the other hand the New Perspective is suggesting that important soteriological vocabulary and doctrine be rejected.

Beyond the personality driven side of the debate, there are real disagreements that fuel the combative nature of the discussion. The New Perspective has an academic and scholarly background which gives it traction. The proponents encourage careful study of Paul's historical context, and there is definitely a danger to assuming that Paul does not need to be contextualized. This and other valid points from the New Perspective camp makes it a formidable movement, because much of what they suggest is valuable. However, the theological baby is thrown out with the bathwater, and their search for the historical context of Paul has led them to place focus on ethnic boundary markers, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and to redefine “righteousness” and reject doctrines like double imputation.[3]

Probably the most explosive rejection is that of the concept of double imputation. As Wright describes it, it is the difference between a verdict of “not guilty” versus one of “innocent”. Based on his understanding of God's righteousness, he sees no need for Christ's obedience to be imputed to the believer. Instead, God simply wipes the slate clean based on sin imputed to Jesus at the cross. Wright views the “righteousness of God” language in Romans as speaking to God's covenant faithfulness, His guarantee to fulfill what He promised to Abraham. This contradicts the traditional view of God's righteousness. A summary might be that Wright sees righteousness as faithfulness, the Old Perspective sees righteousness as holiness. To say that we are made “the righteousness of God” according to the old view, means we are counted as holy despite our sin; for Wright it means we are counted faithful to the covenant despite Israel's failure to bless the nations.[4]

Arguably most of what Wright argues for can be answered in a more comprehensive view of the covenants. Abraham and Moses were different people, and the covenants associated with them played different roles in redemptive history. By combining the two and effectively downsizing the Mosaic covenant, Wright has lost a major purpose of the Law: to reflect the holiness of God. The Law was not an arbitrary list of requirements to keep Israel special or to designate them as the light God would use in the world. Instead, the Law pointed to God's perfection, humanity's imperfection, and the coming resolution of that in the Messiah. The Law set God's standards. It is not enough for His people to be pronounced neutral, they need something outside of them to meet the standard for them, and then have that obedience designated to them, on their behalf.  Paul was definitely concerned about unity of the Body, and the integration of the Gentiles. But what made that integration possible was that everyone is found righteous—right with God—through Christ; not any other way.

Wright offers a number of valuable points of discussion. There is a trend in modern evangelicalism that verges on ignoring the historical context of the Bible in favor of pragmatic strategy and prioritizes the individual over the body as a whole. For his work on that front Wright deserves commendation. But in his crusade, Wright ignores entire swaths of the faith who are also working to fix this problem. In fact, much of what Wright has to say of value is also being said by many in the Reformed camp, including emphasis on the one story plot line of Scripture, and the importance of covenant. The very desire to place Paul in his appropriate historical context is a worthwhile venture, but the conclusions the New Perspective has drawn from this endeavor are faulty. By putting “ethnic boundary markers” and Paul's concern for the incoming Gentiles as the primary focus of the justification discussion is to miss the mark.

Image From: J.R. Briggs

[1]          From Gathercole, Where is Boasting: “Jewish “soteriology” was based both on divine election and on final salvation by works...and that a number of Jewish groups express the belief that they would be vindicated on the basis of their works.” (33) and, “we have seen that the Jewish people are represented in certain traditions in Second Temple Judaism as a pious, holy, and obedient nation. This national self-praise also translates to the individual level” (193)

[2]          Neusner, “Sanders' Paul and the Jewish People” (416)

[3]          While there are many places of disagreement among the three New Perspective contributors previously mentioned and  traditional evangelical theology (particularly Reformed Evangelicalism), the focus will be on N. T. Wright. Sanders and Dunn pose less of a threat because they do not necessarily identify themselves with orthodox Christianity as Wright does.

[4]   Wright, Justification (233)


  1. This is a fantastic introduction to the New Perspectives on Paul from an orthodox viewpoint. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the introduction to N.T. Wright's viewpoint!

  2. Monica, interesting paper. Now I have to do some research to figure out what this all means. How might this concern the Christian believer who is not a theologian?

  3. It comes down to whether our salvation is through faith or works. N.T. Wright is saying that it's through works even though it's the Holy Spirit giving you the ability. Orthodoxy says that it is through God making us holy through faith.

    I know Monica read this book as part of her research.

  4. Hey Paul,
    I guess my first thought is that hopefully it won't concern them! The New Perspective viewpoint has been around for a number of years now, so it no longer has the shiny excitement of other problematic teachings, for example someone like Rob Bell. The ideal situation would be for this faulty understanding of justification to fall by the wayside and be nothing more than another "alternative view" hidden in footnotes of commentaries.
    However, the standing that N.T. Wright has in the Evangelical community probably won't allow that to happen. Even my old church--which is a pillar of conservative orthodoxy in Boston--had him speak as part of their bicentennial celebration because of his work combatting the liberal "Jesus Seminar". Much of Wright's scholarship is valuable to the Church, which is why it is such a bummer that he goes off track with this New Perspective stuff. Someone might learn about Wright and the good things he has written, and unknowingly trust him on this issue where he's not as reliable.
    So I suppose this topic is important for the general Christian populace because it can potentially get hidden in with solid teachings on other subjects. Christians need to know unequivocally that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, that our sins were taken by Christ on the cross and that His obedience has been imputed to us. To lose that understanding begins to erode the only thing that makes us acceptable before our Holy God--the person and work of Jesus. People get very riled up about this issue because, following the emphasis of Martin Luther, the way we are found righteous before God is the most important aspect of Christianity. Thus the New Perspective becomes an attack on the traditional understanding of justification, and therefore the whole Christian faith as well.

    The book Jonathan linked to was Wright's, and a great response was written by Michael Horton and can be found here:

    1. Hey Monica, loved the point you hit on here. If you haven't read it, Horton's book "Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ" is also excellent. He devotes a fair chunk of space to showing how Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and the NPP all conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants and how each espouses a sort of "monocovenantilism", all in their own specific ways.

  5. Dear Monica,

    I have been interested in this topic of the New Perspective on Paul for some time now. I appreciate what you wrote. I see the NPP as having a few helpful ideas (focusing on the Jewish background of Paul, etc.), but also some very real dangers in its implications for justification and other areas of theology. At the same time what you wrote here reminds me of a student paper I read for a course I taught recently.

    Brian Labosier

  6. Capitalizing "Orthodox" makes me think of the Eastern Orthodox church, which is obviously not what you meant. A lower case "orthodox" would be more appropriate.

  7. Right you are. Thanks for correcting that! I went ahead and changed it.

  8. Thanks for your comment Brian. She let me post her paper after she wrote it for your class. Thanks for giving her an interest in the topic. I think she did a fantastic job and her work is worth sharing.