The limitations of the New Perspective on Paul in its standard form can be illustrated from a piece by Tim Gombis. Tim strongly affirms the New Perspective and nicely expresses his bemusement over the “fear-mongering and hysteria” that the approach has generated in certain quarters. But when you read his summary of the core issues, it is apparent that what we are dealing with is a rather narrowly circumscribed debate about “Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and his discussions related to the Mosaic Law”.
The problem, in the first place, is that Tim appears to view things primarily through the lens of Galatians, where the question of whether Gentiles need concretely to identify themselves with Law-based Israel by means of circumcision, etc., is very much at the forefront. This is a specific issue, however, occasioned by the activity of Judaizing apostles from Jerusalem. What are the markers of authentic membership of the people of God? Works of the Spirit or those particular “works of the Law” that demarcate Jews from Gentiles (Gal. 3:5)?
Romans, on the other hand, addresses the issue of “works of the Law” on a much broader and logically prior basis. Here the premise of Paul’s argument is that a “day of wrath” is coming upon the ancient world. This will bring a dramatic and decisive end to the whole system of pagan religion and ethics; and Israel, despite having the Law and a bunch of other privileges, will not be exempt from “judgment”. Judgment means destruction (Rom. 9:22). So the critical question is not about membership but about survival. On what basis will the “righteous” live when the day of wrath comes (cf. Hab. 2:4)? Not on the basis of “works of the Law”, because the Law now condemns, but on the basis of a radical faith—which is also faithfulness—in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So the New Perspective, as Tim Gombis presents it, is limited in the first place by its failure to grasp the historical-eschatological dimensions of Paul’s thought. Tim cites the generalized Christian apocalypticism of scholars such as J. C. Beker, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell, and Leander Keck. But I think that Paul’s apocalypticism is much more focused, contingent, historical and, indeed, Jewish—and that his argument about Law and faith in Romans 2-4 cannot be properly understood without taking this narrative of wrath into account.
Tim writes that the “incarnation is the invasion of the Son of God to retake God’s world for God’s glory”. I would say that the resurrection of Jesus is for Paul a clear indication that the God of Israel intends to annex the Greek-Roman world for the sake of his glory. I think that Paul lies quite a bit further outside the sphere of a theology shaped by the western Christendom-modern paradigm.
This brings us to the second limitation, which is highlighted by this paragraph:
Several scholars have complained that the “new perspective” can tend merely to describe Paul’s flow of thought sociologically so that we’re left with a very thin theological reading of Paul. This criticism isn’t too far from the mark. I agree with Stephen Westerholm’s point that while “new perspective” scholars may outstrip the reformers in grasping historically what Paul was getting at, they cannot match the reformers at recovering Paul’s deeper theological impulses. Interpreters such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin do indeed provide for us excellent models of theological interpretation of Paul.
The word “sociologically” is wrong. Paul’s argument remains thoroughly theological even when located within its own historical-eschatological setting, for the reason that I gave above: it is not merely a matter of the terms of membership in the covenant community; it has to do with the agenda of Israel’s God. But the criticism is correct: we have not yet worked out how to derive from the re-contextualized Paul a theology compelling enough to drive and sustain the life and thought of the church today.
The answer to this dilemma, however, cannot be that we simply bolt a Reformation theology on to the New Perspective. Tim Gombis seems to want to both have his cake and eat it. These are incompatible paradigms. The distinction between what Paul meant historically and his “deeper theological impulses” is an invalid one. We only have the historical Paul.
Instead, we have to take the much more difficult approach of plotting a new theological trajectory from a consistent New Perspective reading of Paul to land somewhere beyond the modalities of Christendom—remember that the Reformation was only an attempt to reform the Christendom model of church. If the insights of the Reformers or of modern evangelicalism then help us to understand more clearly what it means to have been brought into this narrative, fine. The same could be said of any other Christendom tradition. But Paul has first to be allowed to speak for himself.