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paul

The “New Perspective On Paul” and Why It Matters

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is hardly new, being a product of the twentieth century, but it is still proving deeply influential in some circles and intensely divisive in others. In this post I want to briefly explain the “new perspective” and why I think it’s an important debate with some deep stakes.

The perspective has evolved over time, to be sure. Its original conceptions by authors like Krister Stendahl and E.P. Sanders have been largely left behind but its fundamental idea has endured. Today the most famous proponent of what he calls a “fresh perspective on Paul” is former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, who has written more pages on Paul in the last few decades than most theologians do in a lifetime. Those pages have been the gateway to the new perspective for many American students of Bible and theology. (Wright himself has become a divisive figure because of this. A Calvinist seminary professor saw me with one of Wright’s books on Paul and warned me to “be careful with that guy.”)

What is the “New Perspective”?

The fundamental question addressed by the new perspective is how to read the writings of Paul. As in, what was that guy even talking about? The “old” or traditional perspective is informed by the theological interpretation of the Protestant Reformers, themselves heavily influenced by the Augustinian grace-vs.-law tradition. According to the old perspective, Paul’s letters are primarily concerned with the pursuit of “salvation by grace not works,” whereby Christians are declared righteous and worthy of heavenly reward because of their faith in Jesus rather than their own good deeds and virtue. Indeed, for millions of Christians this isn’t a “perspective” at all, it’s the plain truth. It’s “the gospel.”

The new perspective rereads Paul with a renewed emphasis on his personal and cultural context. That is, his Jewish context. It recognizes that Paul was not a proto-Protestant writing textbooks for future Protestants, that he was a Jewish Christian apostle in the first century writing letters to Jewish and Gentile Christians in a network of first century church communities. As such, he is not chiefly concerned with abstract philosophical matters like the legalities of sin guilt or soul salvation, but with the practical experiences and crises of his congregations. And perhaps the most pressing issue facing Paul and his churches, according to his own writing, was the day-to-day challenges of Jewish and Greek Christians attempting to live together in the same community (the “covenant community” in Wright’s language).

According to the new perspective, “justification by faith” is not about legalism, judgment day, and how one might enter the gates of heaven. It’s about who might call themselves members of the covenant family and on what basis. Is it by “works of law,” by obeying Torah or being circumcised or keeping kosher? This would (and did) put the Jewish Christians at a steep advantage over the Gentiles in their midst. Paul emphatically says no, everyone who comes to church belongs there because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything they have done or not done. Paul is not against “good works” in general as if they disqualified one from God’s salvation, indeed he teaches ethics and love (radical, egalitarian love!). It’s just that no one in this community ought to think themselves a more authentic child of God than anyone else based on their observance of customs.

This shines a new light onto all of Paul’s authentic writings and how we read and interact with them. Not that they become meaningless or irrelevant to modern Protestants and other Christians, but that their true meaning is far more grounded in Paul’s ancient Jewishness than our traditions have been interested to acknowledge.

So What? This is Boring. You’re Boring.

I understand that this is a potentially boring and narrow debate. Something for the theology nerds. An internal matter for Protestants. But here’s why I think this matters so much: This is ultimately a debate about history, about how much we are willing to allow history and culture to inform and correct our reading of religious texts. The public squabble between John Piper and N.T. Wright over the issue of justification exposed this subtext in a major way.

In 2007 Piper wrote an entire book in response to N.T. Wright’s “fresh perspective” called The Future of Justification. In it he vehemently repudiated Wright’s understanding of Paul, based not on an alternate interpretation of the historical background, but on his own pastoral intuition, specifically his own distaste for historical backgrounds. Piper goes so far as to suggest that teaching history in church will only “confuse” and muddle people who need to believe in the old perspective for their own good.

Piper’s mindset is shockingly myopic and anti-intellectual. Dismissal of historical perspective as an unwelcome and even dangerous distraction from doctrinal correctness reveals an obtuse and possibly nefarious desire to keep church laypeople in the dark. It is one thing to disagree on the analysis of history, it is quite another to bury one’s head in the sand and hope it just goes away. Also, in eschewing the good and important work done by historians in recreating the world of second temple Judaism, and by actively choosing to remove Paul from that milieu, figures like Piper risk perpetuating the anti-semitic undertones of the classical grace vs. law doctrines.

It’s OK to Learn Something New

I understand that it is scary to even consider rethinking such fundamental assumptions and beliefs. But it can also be liberating and good. I am not especially interested in the “new perspective” as a movement or a label, but I welcome any opportunity for a refreshed and enlarged perspective on history and the Bible. After all, if we’re so afraid that a glimpse of history might confuse or ruin the ideas we’ve got, maybe they’re not quite as good as we think?

Combined with a refreshed vision of the context and message of Jesus in the gospels, a renewed perspective on Paul offers us an invaluable opportunity to rediscover aspects of ancient Christianity which have perhaps been obscured by our traditions. The insights of the Reformers are valuable, of course, but it would be a shame to permanently tether our understanding of Jesus, Paul, and Bible in what is ultimately an arbitrary point in fairly recent western history. Maybe we are due for our own reformation, one which takes us back to the future of Christianity, so to speak.

Because what is true in politics, war, and culture is also true in religion: we can’t afford to shut our ears to what history has to tell us.

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Two Big Mistakes of Early Christianity From Which We Haven’t Fully Recovered

One of the strange assumptions religious believers make is that the human forerunners who formed and curated our traditions operated under some kind of spiritual protection that kept them from veering off course or making errors. “God wouldn’t let us be wrong about something so important!” Sure, there’s a basic level of faith we must have that we are following something good and true, and that all of it points back to an authentic revelation of God in Jesus. But the sheer multiplicity of Christian streams and convictions is enough to challenge the notion of divinely guaranteed consistency or theological purity. This shouldn’t plunge us into suspicion or despair, but it should pique our interest in the history and evolution of our own religion. It should also dispel the notion that our ancestors couldn’t make mistakes, or that those mistakes cannot affect us today. (It should also keep us humble in regard to our own ability to err and learn.) Very briefly, here are two examples of dramatic transformations from the early centuries of Christianity that are still causing trouble today.

1. Greek Philosophy Hijacks Bible Interpretation

If you told American Evangelicals today that Christianity had been co-opted by new agers or astrologers or dualists who were rewriting our traditions to conform to their own beliefs and selling them back as orthodoxy, there would be panic in the streets (and probably some kind of boycott or hashtag). Yet this is the very sort of thing that happened to Christianity in its early centuries. The thinkers, authors, and apologists we call “church fathers” were a collection of non-Jewish Christian men who defined the doctrines and canons which still define Christianity many centuries later. Some of the most influential church fathers (most notably Origen) were deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, a connection which had inevitable ramifications in the way they synthesized and described their theology. To be sure, many church fathers (like Tertullian) took a strong rhetorical stance against Greek philosophy as inferior to Christianity. But even these thinkers were indelibly locked into the categories and assumptions of Greek scholarship. When they defended the Bible against Greek ideas, they often did so on Greek terms. And when they interpreted the Bible, they did so within that same framework.

I’m not saying the church fathers as a group constitute a “mistake,” or that they did nothing good to benefit or enrich the faith. But their frequent disregard for the fundamental Jewishness of the scriptures and the categorical assumptions they injected into Bible reading and theology set Christianity on a very rocky path. If you believe in humanity’s “fall from perfection” or the “immortality of the soul” or a “spiritual afterlife,” your faith may have been influenced more by these writers (and thus by Plato and Aristotle) than by the actual texts of the Bible. In a few extreme cases, the efforts of the church fathers actually fueled and codified anti-semitic sentiment in the church. That is a path that takes us as far from the heart of scripture and of Jesus as we can get. Modern Christians should learn about the church fathers and read their work critically.

2. Constantine Imperializes and Militarizes Christianity

The legend is well known: In 312 CE at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, military leader Flavius Constantine I looked up and saw a cross in the sky emblazoned with the command, “By this sign, conquer!” He went on to become Caesar Constantine the Great, and to lead armies into war under the banner of the cross of Christ. It is often said that he made Christianity the “official religion” of the Roman Empire, but it is more appropriate to say that he favored it. Roman pagan practices continued, but those wanting to please and impress the emperor would undergo an expedient conversion to Christianity. Constantine reformed Roman imperialism based on “Christian” principles, if that makes any kind of sense. For example, he outlawed crucifixion to honor the death of Jesus and made hanging the new official mode of execution. The empire could still dominate and victimize and terrorize, but it would do so in a way that “honored” Jesus. Christianity had a king on earth, and that king had bloody hands.

Of course, many thoughtful Christians today would cringe at the idea of a “Christian” army or a weapon emblazoned with a cross. At the same time, how many American Christians claim that they live in a Christian empire? How many connect God’s will and blessing with the power and success of that empire? And it is not uncommon in conservative Christian circles to justify the Roman expansion of Christianity as God’s undercover plan to disseminate the religion around the globe. But how can a machine built on death and domination deliver a gospel about peace and reconciliation? The spirit and legacy of Jesus cannot be managed or defended by an empire. Constantinian Christianity represents an abject failure to realize the gospel of God’s kingdom. It should be a byword for us, and we should strive to define ourselves against it in belief and practice.