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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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