The so-called New Perspective has come up a few times recently here, not least because it has a significant bearing on how we understand New Testament teaching about wrath, judgment, “hell”, and salvation. My impression is that the New Perspective is still largely confined to the academic sphere and that we are only slowly beginning to grasp its revolutionary implications. So Kent Yinger’s nifty and very readable book The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction (Wipf & Stock, 2011) is a timely resource for the church as it struggles to rethink its identity and purpose.
Sensitive to the concerns of many outside the world of academia—evangelical pastors in particular—regarding the impact that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is having on the faith of young, impressionable theology students, Yinger sets out to answer four questions: What is it? Where did it come from? What are the potential dangers? What good is it? Yinger, who is Professor of New Testament at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, suggests that the roughly fifty year lag between what scholars are thinking and what pastors are preaching is not always a bad thing—it “avoids faddish movements” (2). But in some instances it is a bad thing “since it blocks out a better understanding of Scripture”—and it is clear from the outset that Yinger believes the NPP falls into this latter category.
He starts by outlining the origins of the NPP in the work of E.P. Sanders, whose book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) radically transformed the dominant scholarly understanding of the place of the Law in second temple Judaism. To a large extent Reformation theologies, including modern evangelicalism, have grounded their argument about faith and salvation in the view that second temple Judaism was inherently legalistic. Sanders argued that the pattern of Jewish religion that provides the background to the New Testament is better defined as “covenantal nomism”, where “covenantal” precedes “nomism”, the gift of Israel’s relationship with God precedes observance of the commandments of God. But clearly, if a central premise of Reformation theologies has been misconceived, the conclusions reached by Reformation theologies may also have to be re-examined: “If, in fact, Jewish theology of the first century was not particularly legalistic, we’re going to have to re-read these and other central passages, and possibly re-envision the Christian understanding of salvation” (14).
In the next two chapters Yinger sets out the arguments of the major proponents of the NPP as it was developed from this point. J.D.G. Dunn maintained that the phrase “works of law” referred not to “works-righteousness but to particular observances of the Law that functioned as badges of Jewish identity in the ancient world” (20). N.T. Wright then set Paul’s theology in the context of a narrative about Israel: “for Wright the story is less about sinful individuals being rescued from judgment for guilt (although it is, for him, also about that), and more about God’s fulfillment of his purposes for all creation through Israel” (28). Then we have a number of further developments, sketched in rather cursory fashion: Francis Watson’s sociological reading of Paul; Heikki Räisänen’s emphasis on the non-systematic, even incoherent, nature of Paul’s thought; the anti-imperialist reading, which Wright has worked into his “fresh perspective’; and the “two covenants” argument that places Paul’s Gentile-oriented theology in parallel with the “Jewish way of Torah-observance”. Finally, Yinger mentions a couple of attempts (Longenecker, Bird) to reconcile the traditional and NPP positions.
The three central chapters of the book address the critical response to the NPP. Was first century Judaism really as grace-filled and non-legalistic as is claimed? Can Paul’s argument about “works” and “Law” really be reduced to the issue of the sociological markers of covenant membership? Surely in Romans 4:1-5 we find exactly the “contrast of faith (or gift) versus works which the Reformation highlighted and which Sanders and the NPP called into question” (65-66). And perhaps most seriously of all: Does the NPP amount to an implicit repudiation of the Reformation and its central dogma of “justification by grace alone through faith alone”? Has a principle of salvation by good works been allowed to sneak back in by the back door? Does the NPP undermine the Christian assurance of salvation? Is the NPP taking us back to Rome? Has the NPP lost interest in individual salvation?
Yinger deals with these questions succinctly and cautiously, though the book is not as impartial as it sometimes purports to be. In an interesting “concluding aside” he makes the point that the criticisms “arise largely form the realms of church history and systematic theology”, whereas NPP writers are primarily biblical scholars. “Some of the tension we have felt in these more theological debates is the tension felt when moving from the biblical text… to the horizon of our theology and church praxis” (84-85). Biblical scholars tend to stick with what Paul actually said. Theologians need to construct coherent systems out of the disjointed biblical material:
Biblical studies may deliver the building blocks, but these blocks cannot be left lying around, they must be sorted and organised into a coherent structure. (86)
That seems to me an odd argument. If the NPP has shown anything, it is that Paul’s theology is not simply a collection of building blocks waiting to be assembled into a meaningful “modern” theology. When the right perspective is adopted, his thought appears not only internally coherent, by and large, but also externally coherent: it fits its historical context. By the same token, it is not so clear that Paul’s thought needs to be processed systematically before it becomes accessible to the church for formation and praxis. The problem is simply that we have not yet worked out how to live in the light of the NPP.
I happened to notice today an observation by J.R. Daniel Kirk on Barth’s insistence on the need for a dogmatic theology:
Here, I think he mistakes the necessity foisted upon us by our existence in the western intellectual tradition with an inner necessity in the Christian faith itself. There is no reason in principle why Christianity could not have gone the route of Judaism, where biblical interpretation and instruction in life are the ways in which the faith is explored rather than dogmatics or systematic theology.
That is well stated, and it seems to me that we will increasingly find in the convergence between the New Perspective and emerging forms of church the resources to forge a way of being Christian in the world that does not first have to jump through the hoops of modern neo-Reformed theology.
In a final chapter, Yinger answers the question, “What good is it?” It gives us a better understanding of Paul’s Letters; it helps to correct the “Western overemphasis on the individual”; it may serve to “reduce some Christian tendencies toward anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism”, though the question of the relationship between Judaism and the Gentile church is not being resolved to everyone’s liking; it gives us a much better basis for understanding the relation between the Old Testament and the New; it puts Paul and Jesus on the same page; and it may just provide the basis for a reassessment of the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism.
I think the book could have done more. We could have had some discussion of the hermeneutical paradigm that underlies the NPP. I think that this will be a critical part of the task of translating these new theological perspectives into a usable, practical theology. The book reinforces the impression that we have a new perspective only on Paul, but there is equally a new perspective on Jesus, indeed on the whole of the New Testament; and the challenge now is to develop an integrated account. This is not a shortcoming of the book, but in my view the NPP also does not yet do justice to Paul’s eschatology—that is, to his sense of prophetic-narrative context. But Yinger does an excellent job of summarizing, in a mere 93 pages, the current state of the debate surrounding the New Perspective on Paul—and the more people, especially within the emerging church, who get to grips with these issues, the better.