Kent L. Yinger: The New Perspective on Paul

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 [amazon:978-1608994632:inline] (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.

Thanks for highlighting another good resource on the NPP.  I can't help but think that we aren't going to make much headway into getting the NPP outside of academia until we have a bible translation from the NPP perspective.

Interesting thought. I was disappointed to discover only recently that the ESV translates geenna as “hell”. Pistis Christou would be another crux, though Yinger notes that the NET has “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in Galatians 2:16, which tends to be a NPP preference. I wonder what else.

My general thinking is that you need to avoid most traditional word choices(loaded words is my normal phrase) that bring a lot of baggage with them.  Like hell, as we've seen.  It would certainly have to be more nuanced, but right now you pretty much have to re-translate the bible to people if you want them to understand the NPP.

Definately! Thats the best idea I've heard in a while. Not that I'm any kind of scholar or anything, but as someone who advocates the NPP, I find it difficult to communicate certain aspects of it, due to struggles directly related to English translations. A new translation from this perspective could do a world of good.

peter wilkinson | Sat, 03/19/2011 - 12:18 | Permalink

93 pages - that's quite a summary! This is a really helpful review and synopsis. As a teacher/pastor I like the sensitivities of the author, which are the same as mine. I am an advocate of the New Perspective, but not a demolition agent of Reformed or any other theology. I also see the need for systematic theology.

However, in two weeks' time, I will be teaching on Galatians in my church, taking a congregation of 150 through the letter in six weeks. I could happily use twice the time and longer.

I would broadly (crudely, perhaps) summarise the two major interpretations of Galatians as follows.

The one is the historic reformed/evangelical: salvation as a free gift of God through faith in Jesus, which repudiates salvation through works of the law.

The other is the New Perspective: the story of Israel, in which the people of God are now identified through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and faith in him, rather than through the law of Moses.

The first view embodies a truth which the reformers uncovered, and which remains true today: that Christianity uniquely offers access to God through the grace of Jesus alone, and repudiates all attempts to find access through self-energised moral or religious efforts and activities. I find that this view makes some sense of Galatians, resting on the end of chapter 2 in particular, but distorts this and much of Galatians by flattening out the story of Abraham and Israel into a doctrine of personal salvation. On the other hand, I would not hesitate to use this vital distinction of 'grace versus self-effort' (in the reformed/evangelical sense of the word) to summarise the uniqueness of Christianity.

However, I'm increasingly convinced that this was probably not what Paul was saying, though I appreciate that Yinger suggests Paul was saying something like it in Romans 4:4. I also think that the NPP ignores quite a strong 'works/salvation' in 1st century Judaism; but 'salvation' then was not what we think of it as being today.

So I think a better way of viewing Galatians, especially from the standpoint of a congregation which may have some sense of the traditional understanding of Paul, is that Paul's thrust in Galatians is about how you identify of the people of God, rather than how you obtain eternal salvation; that the 'agitators' were trying to turn the clock back to a previous phase of Israel's history; that if they were successful, Jesus died for nothing, and the Galatians placed themselves under the curse of a broken law again. If you take this line, you get personal salvation wonderfully included as well.

The heart of the new identity is to do with the work of the Spirit, making real the work of Jesus, the key verse being: "You are all sons of God through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus" - Galatians 3:26 (my translation).

I'll let you know how I get on, and whether it is actually possible to present a NP view to a church congregation in a way that has worthwhile practical application, rather than being a history lesson. Also whether it sheds light on Galatians in a way that brings life, rather than serving up lifeless information. I'm convinced it will be the former.

I seem to have hijacked this thread. I seem to do that quite often. Watch out for a new blog:, about to be launched on an unsuspecting world, in which I'll be able to channel all these musings, rather than dumping them on Postost.

Peter, I'll be interested to hear how your preaching series goes. For me, this seems to be the test of the NP or any other perspective- I like your comment 'whether if sheds light on Galatians in a way that brings life, rather than serving up useless information.' It has long been a concern of mine to reconcile intellectual integrity with accessible preaching, so I'm encouraged that others struggle with the same issues. 

Jim Hoag | Sat, 03/19/2011 - 18:18 | Permalink


First of all I hope this  has paragraphs, sometimes they disappear when I punch in a post. But anyway, in your post "The Great Convergence: the emerging church and the New Perspective" you said about emerging church and the NP that, "These two developments need each other" and that "The emerging movement...has suffered from a lack of theological clarity and direction, and to my mind would benefit greatly from engaging constructively with the New Perspective". The implication was that the NP needs to bust out of academia and as you said in this post, "The problem is simply that we have not yet worked out how to live in the light of the NPP."

Well, this is very timely. Yesterday I inadvertently ran into a thread initiated by David Fitch centered on Rob Bell's book "Love Wins". At some point the New Perspective was brought up, N.T.Wright etc. and Fitch said, "the New Perspective is hugely important and essential. Yet it needs to be appropriated in a way that leads into practice ... not bland conceptualism. One of the things lacking in NT Wright for me (and he's just one of the figures) is an ecclesiology. Also, Marcus Borg and NT Wright just don't make for a practiceable theology."

Here's the next comment on the thread from someone named Mike: "David I find the conjunction of New Perspective and emergent to be true of my own approach and that of many other post-evangelical emergents as well. In fact, if I was going to pick a description of what I think best delineates that particular "Emergent" stream of things from some of the other options out there right now, I think New Perspective and missional are exactly the characteristics that I would highlight. But that's just my own two cents. And I'm not sure why you lump Borg and Wright together, since they seem very, very different, especially on the subject of eschatology, but at any rate, **I have to completely disagree with you on whether Wright's theology is "practiceable".** In the three years that I led my house church up in Yorkville, our reading of scripture was guided almost entirely by Wright, and we found it to be eminently practiceable. His approach to the New Testament was the most missionally motivating stuff I have ever read. In other words, I know first hand that Wright's New Perspective and a missional/"practiceable" approach do go together, because that is precisely what my own church was all about". 

So, Andrew, I'm hoping you'll comment both on Fitch and Mike's responses as I am wondering how much Fitch has actually kept up with the NP and whether you think it is intersting others are talking about this as well. And also whether you think Mike might be on to something about the NP being a help to praxis already.   

Andrew, one more thing, it seems something in evangelicalism is shaking, as in an intensification of the great change that's been taking place over the past ten years. This article from McKight's blog entitled "A Split In Protestant Evangelicalism" seems to confirm this.

Any thoughts?

Sent from my iPad

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for the heads up!  I'm just now starting to absorb the NPP, and have been looking for a concise overview.