Dipping a Toe into the “New Perspective” Debate

So lately, among many, many other things, I have been trying to get a handle on this thing called the “New Perspective on Paul” (hereafter, “the NPP”). I know very little about it, and what I do know, I’m not sure I understand all that well.

I am not going to spend time and energy right here and now trying to explain it very much. Anyone reading this post is certainly capable of doing their own search to find out more about it. But so that what I write here will make a certain amount of self-evident sense, I’ll jot a few sentences to give only the crudest picture of the NPP.

Basically, certain scholars in the last 20-30 years+ have come to read the writings of the apostle Paul in a very different way from the way Protestant Evangelicals have been understanding them since the time of Martin Luther and the other Reformers. James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, as I understand things, say that Luther and others misunderstood what Paul was actually talking about in his writing against the Jewish religion of his day. They say that his theology of justification by faith simply is not addressing the issues Luther assumed it was. Luther, they claim, was reading his own rather troublesome setting of the 16th century Roman Catholic world into the writings of Paul. A bit earlier than Dunn and Wright, E.P. Sanders apparently went so far as to say that Paul was, himself, in error about the 1st century Judaism against which he wrote.
Throughout the work of these scholars and others, there are discussions of what Paul really meant when he wrote about “justification,” “law,” “grace,” “covenant,” “salvation” and more. In the end, there seems to be little question that what is at stake in this discussion is the very nature of the gospel according to Paul.

Okay, so here’s what I’m wondering: Much of the battle between proponents and opponents of the NPP seems to take for granted a Literal-Grammtical-Historical (LGH) hermeneutic. But what of a Literary-Canonical guy like me? It is of little concern to me just what 1st century Judaism was like, except as it is presented within the context of Scripture itself. I am not particularly interested in figuring out how Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) understanding of Judaism (or any other subject) compares to that which historical scholars have decided was the actual nature of 1st-century Judaism. My concern is with the world of the text. I begin with the world of text and then ask how it informs this world of time-space-history in which I live, not the other way around.

I have developed my own picture of the apostle Paul by way of the Literary-Canonical approach to Scripture that I have had for the past 15+ years. I am not actually seeking to blaze new trails in Pauline studies, but to be perfectly honest, I do think that my own work on Paul is as deserving of the tag “new perspective on Paul” as that discussion which is widely traveling under that banner these days.

I’m wondering what bearing my work on Paul might have on this discussion.

More to come later… (I hope)…


4 thoughts on “Dipping a Toe into the “New Perspective” Debate

  1. First, no one may have accurate historical thoughts at all about any one or any subject where the text is so varied. Logically if the data is inconsistent the interpretation of the data can be no better. The manuscripts are defined by the Interpreter’s Bible as having thousands of variations.

    Second, Eusebius writes that Paul was excised as an apostate!

    “Thus they shared in the impiety of the former class, especially in that they were equally zealous to insist on the literal observance of [Torâh & Halâkhâh]. They thought that the letters of the Apostle [Paul] ought to be wholly rejected and called him an apostate from [Torâh & Halâkhâh]. They used only the Gospel called according to the Hebrews and made little account of the rest. Like the former they used to observe Sabbath and the rest of the Jewish ceremonial, but on [Sun-god-days] celebrated rites like ours in commemoration of the Savior’s resurrection. Wherefore from these practices they have obtained their name, for the name of Ebionites indicates the poverty of their intelligence, for this name means ‘poor’ in Hebrew.” (Eusebius, EH, III, xxvii, 1-6).

    • Hello, Eliyahu —
      Thanks for dropping by The Long War.
      But I’m afraid your comment leaves me rather puzzled. I understand the words of your two points, but I do not understand what you are trying to say with either of them.
      Have you done much in the way of New Testament textual criticism? I have done enough to say with great confidence that the New Testament is probably the most reliable set of ancient texts now extant–matched only by the Old Testament.
      On your second thing, what in the world is the point of this citation? Who is the “they” referred to?
      Sorry… If you want to be understood, please try again.

  2. After a casual perusal of wikipedia (take that for what it is), I’m discovering that i would probably be considered a NPPer myself. Having gone to a Lutheran church myself for some years now, you cannot understand my disgust with the phrase “by grace alone”. It is a long overused excuse used by people of this background do demonize any sort of work as an attempt to be saved by the law. Contrary to this I read in Paul and especially James that works and faith are complamentary and that one cannot be without the other. And this seems to be the central theme of the NPP camp, that faith and works go hand in hand in the process of working out our salvation. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

    • Hey, Dylan — I can totally appreciate your point. But there is that old well-worn phrase (it’s been attributed to Calvin and to others): ‘Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.’ As hackneyed as it is, I still think this saying conveys much truth. There is a lot about the NPP that I appreciate. In fact, as I hope to be able to write about in a post or two soon, some of what they say seems to be very much like some of the things I have been discovering in Scripture myself. Still, there is a lot of stuff that is pretty essential to the NPP that is quite disturbing. It is serious. If they are right, then Protestant evangelicalism has been preaching the wrong gospel for 500+ years. And if they are wrong, they are preaching a false gospel, one which will lead to real trouble. That’s why this is so important. There’s a lot at stake. Oddly, though, it seems to me that the best and most powerful elements of the NPP would be very profitable, if they were saying ‘not only that, but this too.’ Instead, they seem to be saying ‘not that, just this.’ For example, they would say ‘It’s not faith IN Christ that justifies; it’s the faith OF Christ (i.e. Christ’s own faith in the Father).’ I say it’s both. For another example, they say that Paul’s teaching about justification is concerned with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of God, not about individual salvation from sin and wrath. And again, I say, it’s both. The trouble is that they don’t seem to want to bring a corrective emphasis to evangelical faith. They want to jettison it in favor of something really quite different. Thanks for the comment, my friend!

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