Another introduction to the New Perspective on Paul

Fri, 08/04/2011 - 17:13

Evangelical theology—that is, theology as it endeavours to ground the identity and purpose of the church today in the teaching of the New Testament about Jesus—has arrived at a fork in the road. There is the broad road of the Reformed paradigm and its derivatives, which leads to obsolescence, and many there are who walk long it. And there is the narrow, difficult, and still poorly marked path of the New Perspective, which leads to life, and until now only a small number of scholars and an intrepid advance party of enlightened believers have ventured along it. So any attempt to signpost and map at least the early stages of this new way is greatly to be welcomed.

Kent Yinger has provided a brief, somewhat limited, but otherwise excellent introduction to the New Perspective on Paul. But if you want really succinct and accessible, you should have a look at Michael Thompson’s Grove Booklet, The New Perspective on Paul, which is only 29 pages long and is available as a PDF download for only £3.95. Thompson, who is Vice-Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, takes a similar approach to Yinger. There are chapters on the difficulties with the old view of Judaism as an essentially legalistic religion, the three main proponents of the New Perspective (Sanders, Dunn and Wright), the impact that the new reading has on our understanding of Paul, the main difficulties that some evangelicals have had with the New Perspective, and the general benefits it brings—a new impetus to the study of the New Testament, an appreciation of our Jewish roots, a better sense of the text, and a more balanced and integrated faith.

The booklet also has the same limitations as Yinger’s, which are, of course the limitations of the standard New Perspective model. It gives an account of the controversy regarding the relationship of Paul to Judaism, with the focus chiefly on the issue of justification. It does not consider the relationship of Paul to Jesus. Nor does it bring into view the question of the relationship of Paul to Greek-Roman paganism. The imperial-critical work of people like Horsley, Crossan and Lopez has, to my mind, demonstrated the need also to take account of the non-Jewish context, but it has done so with little regard for the carefully described continuity with Judaism. N.T. Wright has gone some way towards mapping the narrative-theological pathways that lead from the dispute with Judaism to the confrontation with pagan imperialism—oh, and of course, there’s my book on Romans, which really does exactly that!


Hi Andrew,
Talk about the New Perspective? Things are getting interesting over at Scot McKnight's blog where conversation about Rob Bell's book has taken a turn over to discussion about the rich man in Luke 18:18-23 who, as Scot puts it, is asking asking "about the future world and not just the present world". Then someone commented (# "18" on the comment list) that they'd just read N.T. Wright (citing Surprised By Hope) and that "Wright says that the rich young ruler is NOT asking about eternal life as we might be tempted to think about it". The commenter goes onto say that he (Wright) is saying that the Rich Young Ruler is asking 'how do I get in on the kingdom that you are going to establish HERE: political, religious, socioeconomic?' the commenter than asks McKnight, "Are we saying that N.T. Wright is wrong too? I’d like to know what you (Scot) think!" 

And then others joined in the fray. Andrew, do you and Wright agree about the Rich Young Ruler and the definition of eternal life? Is Scot, in your opinion, accurate or is he simply coming from another angle....or what?

What do you think of Westerholm's analysis of the New Perspective (particularly in Perspectives Old and New on Paul), and of his understanding of "works of the law" in Romans (particulalry in Israel's Law and the Church's Faith)?

Westerholm contends that the NPP proponents, in their effort to give 1st century Judaism a fair shake, have (ironically) caricaturized the Reformers understandings of Judaism - claiming that Luther (in particular) had pretty good read on Paul, despite his apparent anti-semitism. 


But has evangelical theology really reached a 'fork in the road'? Is reformed theology really obsolescent? Is the NPP really a narrow path that leads to life?

I'm currently teaching on Galatians in our church, and am presenting a NPP paradigm for reading the letter. So I am certainly wanting to adopt insights which the NPP (plural, rather than singular, for there is no one NPP) have given us.

But I have also noticed that NPP advocates and advocates of the reformed reaction have a tendency to overstate their case, as well as misrepresent each other. Sometimes it seems as if they have not really listened to each other very carefully. I also wonder whether anybody on either side has studied the superb insights of Calvin himself, as an exegete and theologian.

So for instance, N.T. Wright presents a very reformed view of the gospel, in setting out how it works: Jesus is proclaimed (all of his history as we know it), faith is generated within the hearer (or not), the hearer is urged to respond by confessing Jesus as Lord. It is a message which challenges our political and spiritual commitments, since Jesus is Lord over both. Nothing to upset any reformed-leaning believer here.

Where upsets occur is in 'new perspectives' on language and terminology. The meaning of justification has become a major source of controversy, but interestingly not so much in the UK, although this may all change with the forthcoming visit to the UK of Mark Driscoll, and his favour with the UK New Frontiers and FICM church networks. 

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