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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.


Five Books That Changed Everything

One nice thing that my unexpected midlife spiral into biblical study has done for me is to teach me to read. In my younger days, I was always more of a “worn out VHS tape of The Simpsons or Mystery Science Theater” kinda guy than a “book” guy. When I first started asking big questions about faith and tradition, now almost a decade ago, the only resources I had handy were my ESV Study Bible and sermon podcasts from the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll.  (I had no idea back then that my biblical education had been entrusted almost exclusively to neo-Calvinists. I barely knew what a Calvinist was.)

Seminary taught me to read, and to read wide. It taught me to eagerly seek diverse points of view and to expose myself to scholarship from many disciplines and traditions (not just Christian, not just American, not just western). I still regularly consult books I bought in seminary: reference books, theologies, histories, and books on biblical languages. And my library shelves (and Kindle and Audible accounts) continue to expand.

Looking back on the journey that has taken me from familiar and safe surroundings to new and uncharted frontiers, there are some books which represent distinct moments of discovery, correction, and transformation; what I might call “intellectual repentance.” These are not necessarily my “favorites” or my “desert island” reads, but they mark the major moments of progress in my ever evolving relationship with the Bible. If I remain diligent, this list will never be a “closed canon.” Here’s how it looks today:

1. The First Testament In Historical and Cultural Context, R. Bryan Widbin

first testamentThis one has more to do with a man than a book. The First Testament is a published presentation of notes and curriculum from Dr. R. Bryan Widbin, Professor of Old Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary. As the title of his book suggests, Dr. Widbin does not prefer the moniker “Old Testament,” which too often reflects unhelpful Christian notions about the Hebrew Scriptures.

I had the honor of studying under Dr. Widbin in several courses and the great honor of assisting him in the teaching of Hebrew for a couple of terms. Few experiences have been more profoundly transformational than my time in classrooms with Dr. Widbin. He taught us about the world, culture, language, and people which created the Hebrew Bible, emphasized the prophetic call for justice, and exemplified a peaceful, hopeful reading of difficult ancient material. In short, his courses set me on the critical and theological trajectory that has defined my faith ever since.

Thank you, Dr. Widbin!

2. How to Read the Bible, James Kugel

how to read bibleI bought this book on the recommendation of Dr. Widbin. In fact, I seem to recall that it was listed on the syllabus for one course or another. It wasn’t until some time later that I actually picked it up and started reading it, and it proved to be immensely helpful. Kugel is a distinguished professor of Bible (retired from Harvard, now at Bar Ilan in Israel) and an Orthodox Jew. In How to Read the Bible he pursues two objectives: he provides a comprehensive and invaluable survey of current Hebrew Bible scholarship, and at the same time wrestles with his own conclusions in light of both his scholarly accomplishment and his personal Jewish faith. For a Christian just beginning to study and ask unsettling questions, it was disarmingly instructive and comforting to observe such vulnerable teachability in someone from a very different perspective and station. This book gave me mountains of data to consider, but more importantly it modeled sensitive and responsible scholarship.

The Bible As It Was is another essential book from Kugel, a reference volume in which he compares interpretations of Hebrew Bible texts from various rabbis and church fathers. His In Potiphar’s House is also highly regarded, though I have not read it myself yet.

3. The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

prophetic imaginationThe third and final “Old Testament” title on the list, and one of the most stunning intellectual experiences a Christian can have reading about the Bible. Brueggemann’s very short book reframes and clarifies the role of the biblical prophets, clearing up unhelpful assumptions and giving the original prophetic voices a fresh broadcast. Dr. Brueggemann portrays prophets not as unfeeling, mechanical vessels for divine announcement and prediction, but as poets artfully inviting their hearers (and especially the powers-that-be) into an alternative world of imagination. These prophets don’t merely wag their fingers at sinners, they challenge us all to consider that “it doesn’t have to be like this.” I cannot do this powerful book justice in such a brief description.

Brueggemann also published a full and excellent Introduction to the Old Testament, and his recent Sabbath As Resistance is another watershed.

4. Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright

jesus and the victory of godI usually treat lengthy theologies like reference books, consulting them topically as-needed. But when the 700 page Jesus and the Victory of God arrived at my doorstep from Amazon, I opened it up and read it straight through over the course of a few evenings. Then I immediately went back and re-read a couple of key sections. When it comes to the New Testament and the historical person and ministry of Jesus, no work has been more influential and definitive to me than Wright’s. After providing an alarmingly thorough history of Jesus scholarship, JVG offers a meticulous and multidimensional examination of the (ancient, prophetic, and Second Temple) Jewish contexts of Jesus’ life and message. No aspect of the historical Jesus is left unexplored or unclarified: his self-concept as a prophet, the political background to his public campaign, the meaning of his miraculous “signs,” the exile as the interpretive key to his parables, the historical roots of his eschatology, and the reasons for his arrest and execution. If you care about who Jesus was and what he said, JVG provides invaluable guidance. The follow-up volume The Resurrection of the Son of God deals with Easter from a similar perspective and with the same rigor.

Also highly recommended are Wright’s books on Paul (his major scholarly work Paul and the Faithfulness of God and his more reader friendly Paul: In Fresh Perspective), Surprised By Hope, and The Kingdom New Testament, his own fresh and eye-popping translation.

5. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Bradley Jersak

her gatesFor a brain like mine, Jersak’s book is what Rob Bell’s Love Wins should have been. That’s probably not fair to Bell, who surely wrote the book he intended to. But Her Gates Will Never Be Shut examines the questions of hell and judgment with an evangelical attention to the contents and contexts of scripture, even as it gives voice to perspectives that go far beyond the traditional Protestant configurations. Jersak exhaustively catalogs those biblical terms and scenarios which deal with judgment and ultimate human destiny and demonstrates their rich diversity, their obscured and unexpected origins, and some surprisingly beautiful pastoral implications. This book doesn’t call the debate for the universalist side, it simply constructs a holistic – and ultimately hopeful – biblical view to a future in which God’s mercy conquers, redeems, and rescues all. If you are a serious and conscientious reader of the Bible who finds traditional formulations of judgment and hell untenable, this book is a gift.

Brad Jersak appears in the fascinating documentary Hellbound?, now streaming on Netflix, and his upcoming book is titled A More Christlike God.

Other Game-changers:

Understanding Genesis and Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna
Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson
A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd
Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass
For the Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns
The Jesus Driven Life, Michael Hardin
And for old times’ sake: The Reason for God, Timothy Keller


Rescuing the Bible From Inerrancy

A Plea For Honesty and Realism

Ask an evangelical Christian today what the center and heart of Christianity is, and they’re likely to say something like “Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Jesus saves sinners.” But they’re just as likely, in my experience, to say something like “the Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible Word.” A recent interview with Norman Geisler by the Billy Graham Institute underscores the intense manner in which many Christians are doubling down on “biblical inerrancy” as a sort of moral stand against non-believers and the greater culture.

So this is an awkward but opportune moment for me to chime in and explain why I do not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy and why I think it’s actually harmful to both faith and personal sanity.

Inerrancy Defined

Biblical Inerrancy is a Christian doctrine about the factuality, reliability and authority of the Bible. It comes in harder and softer flavors, the hardest claiming the text is infallible in all forms and softer versions asserting that the original texts were correct in every fact they affirmed. The major implication of the doctrine, according to its adherents, is that every teaching of the Bible is as true and reliable as every other, and that God’s own authority is carried by every word. This is meant to give the Christian believer a measure of confidence and certainty as they read and proclaim the Bible.

Inerrancy in History?

Proponents of inerrancy assert that it has always been a central part of historic orthodox Christianity. While it’s true that the inspiration and authority of Scripture have always been integral to the faith, “inerrancy” is a distinctly modern category. The early Church writers like Clement of Alexandria spoke often about the sacred and inspired nature of the Scriptures, but they had no concept of inerrancy (and many like Clement himself subscribed to mystical and allegorical readings of the Bible that most inerrantists would reject).  The question of factual veracity as a measure of reliability and value is a product of post-Enlightenment thought.

Historically, biblical inerrancy is a major tenet of the American Evangelical movement of the 20th Century. The concept developed throughout the 1950’s and 60’s but was expressed publicly and explicitly in the “Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy” in 1978 (within my lifetime!). This is not an ancient doctrine fighting against modern sensibilities, it is a modernist attempt to describe the authority of the Bible in the most extreme terms available.

Inerrancy in Scripture?

What does the Bible say about its own inerrancy? Keeping in mind everything we just observed, and setting aside the question of whether any text could conceivably establish its own “inerrancy,” it is helpful at this point to clarify a few things about the Bible and the way it talks (or seems to talk) about itself. For instance:

  • Our term “the Bible” does not refer to a single work of literature, but to a collection of ancient texts that were celebrated and preserved by religious communities and collected together many centuries after they were written.
  • In biblical texts, the word “scripture” does not refer to the canonized collection of texts we call “the Bible,” it simply refers to writings that were known and cherished by the author and community which produced that text. Many writings that were considered sacred to ancient communities were never canonized into the Hebrew or Christian Bibles.
  • The phrase “word of God” in Scripture does not refer to the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures it refers to the wisdom, decrees, and will of God expressed through creation, providence, and messengers like the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is the “Word of God” embodied.

And so, a few quick examples of how this affects our reading of Bible passages frequently quoted in support of biblical inerrancy:

  • “The words of YHWH are flawless!” Psalm 12:6. The poet David compares YHWH’s promises to refined silver.
  • “Every word of God proves true!” Proverbs 30:5. The prophet Agur celebrates God’s reliable character.
  • “All scripture is breathed out by God, and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16. Paul implores a younger minister not to forsake the sacred writings of the early church community when teaching and serving his congregation.

Bible texts have much to say about God’s own “words” and the value of the “scriptures” cherished by the ancient Jewish and Christian communities, but the onus of authority and infallibility is always on God and never on the writings themselves.

The Heart of the Problem

You might assume at this point that I’m mounting a technical or scientific argument against inerrancy. While I think I’ve already demonstrated how that might work, it’s actually not what I’m on about. I certainly have no desire to convince my fellow Christians that their Bible contains errors, general or specific. I don’t find inerrancy to be historical, biblical, or technically tenable, but my real objection is to the ideological assumptions behind the doctrine.

The most revealing rhetoric about inerrancy, in my opinion, comes in response to the question, “Why do we need it?” Or more to-the-point, “What do we lose without it?” Norman Geisler’s answers in the interview linked above are typical:

“If we can’t trust the Bible, then we’ve lost the very foundation of our faith.”

“Once you deny the inerrancy of the Bible, you don’t have any basis for your teaching. And you’ve lost the power of God because if it’s not the Word of God—if what the Bible says is not what God is saying—then how can we preach it with authority and life-transforming ability?”

Not only does Geisler reinforce the traditional oversimplification that “God’s Word” = “the Bible,” his answers betray the fear and faulty assumptions at the heart of the inerrancy claim. If we lose inerrancy, he says, we lose the “foundation of our faith” and the “power of God” which gives us “authority” when we preach the Bible.

Two questions:

  1. Why? Why would losing the claim of inerrancy cost us our faith? Is our faith a vulnerable and open-hearted trust in the good character of God, revealed in Jesus and testified in the Bible, or is it an anxious and tenuous faith in a system of facts, a house of cards that might come crashing down at any moment? Is our certainty just a mask to hide that fear?
  2. Where did we get the idea that we need this “power” and “authority”? Did Jesus teach his followers to seek power and authority? Is the aim of our faith to dominate and control others into thinking and believing like us? Is the Bible a living and breathing testimony to the traditions of God’s people, or a magic trump card with which we can “win” the culture? Are we being pious or just arrogant?

My point is not that everyone who holds to inerrancy is just afraid and arrogant. In my experience the doctrine’s adherents are devout and godly people with the absolute best of intentions. But those lofty intentions are part of the reason why the troubling implications of the doctrine have gone largely unexamined. I think that an honest and humble reassessment is in order.

Finding A Better Way Forward

I understand the appeal of inerrancy, I really do. I love the Bible, and my desire to “prove” and “defend” its integrity is what led me to study it and ultimately to attend seminary. But the Bible I encountered in my studies was not a catalog of theological propositions and cultural truth bombs, it was a diverse library of stories and songs and poems and histories and visions that cried out across the millennia with a startling and broken humanity, even as they testified to the divine. Inerrancy, in my estimation, is part of a modern approach to the Bible that often silences those voices and even puts words in their mouths. There has to be a better way.

For the sake of discussion, I offer two examples of “better ways” of thinking about the Bible and its value and authority for the Christian:

  • N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God is, in many ways, a very traditional and “orthodox” take on the question of Scripture. What I find so refreshing about it is the clarity and realism it has about the nature of the texts and how they work. Wright compares the Bible to a signpost, set up by helpful people, which points you on your way, but your business is ultimately at your destination. Wright’s full of stuffy little British analogies like that.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns is one of the more insightful and helpful books I’ve read on this subject. Enns suggests an “incarnational” approach to understanding what the Bible is and isn’t. If God’s infallible love had to be embodied as a mortal human being so that we could encounter it, surely we can appreciate the subjective, human origins of the Bible while still acknowledging its sacred payload. (Enns was fired from an evangelical seminary for his views.)

These are the first two examples I could think of, and they aren’t perfect. That is to say they are errant, but I’m afraid those are the only types of methods available to us. What they have going for them is a combination of intellectual honesty and intense devotion to the texts of the Bible.

My original title for this post was “Embracing Errancy.” I nixed it because it’s a bit misleading and over-the-top, but I still like the phrase. I’m not talking about embracing the factual errancy of the Bible, but embracing our own errancy, and the errancy of our traditions. Our beliefs and interpretations, like the Bible itself, can be powerful tools, signposts pointing us in the right direction. But we will always struggle with the temptation to trade vulnerability and trust for certainty and pride. That’s when our doctrines and even the Bible itself can become idols.