Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

New Perspective on Paul: Summary/Critique


No longer confined to the halls of academia, the New Perspective on Paul has made great inroads into the thinking and conversation of laypersons in churches across the country. This less than biblical position has been building for thirty years by virtue of its promotion by such notables as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, Krister Stendahl, and most dangerously for evangelicals, N.T. Wright. The assertion concerning Wright has to do with the fact that he has been so helpful to the evangelical world in so many ways and as such has been given a hearing in that world. His assertions are widely accepted because quite frankly, except for this particular issue, "he is one of us." Thus, even if you have not heard of it, the New Perspective on Paul has swept into the evangelical world and threatens to undo the last five-hundred years of Protestant Reformation orthodoxy.

In this little three-part article, I want to do three things. In the first part, I want to offer a plea that evangelicals educate themselves in regard to this issue. At the very least, I recommend J. Ligon Duncan's article entitled, "The Attraction of the New Perspective(s) on Paul." I will make that plea by offering an extremely brief summation of four problems with the New Perspective as outlined by Duncan. This summation will not do Duncan justice, so please, read his article. In the second part, highlighting the serious threat the New Perspective poses, I will offer a brief summation of Kim Riddlebarger's article critiquing the New Perspective entitled "Reformed Confessionalism & The New Perspective on Paul: A New Challenge to a Fundamental Article of Faith." In part three, I will offer one dynamic in my own estimation that cuts the heart out of the New Perspective: the cross of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I will demonstrate how such is the case. Perhaps for laypersons, this dynamic alone will suffice in defense of the biblical position concerning justification and the imputed righteousness of Christ to guilty sinners' accounts.

First, J. Ligon Duncan, President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, offers a scholarly critique of the New Perspective and a defense of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to guilty sinners as the ground for justification before God (www.alliancenet.org). The New Perspectives on Paul, plural, may be more apt a description of the movement as there is really no uniform consensus as to what the position is in every detail. However, Duncan does give a summary outline.

"In a nutshell, the [New Perspective] suggests that:

  1. the Judaism of Paul's day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit;
  2. Paul's argument with the Judaizers was not about a "works-righteousness" view of salvation, over against the Christian view of salvation by grace;
  3. Instead, Paul's concern was for the status of Gentiles in the church;
  4. So justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community and what are its boundary markers than about how a person stands before God.

Thus the [New Perspective] on Paul purports to help us

  1. better understand Paul and the early church in their original context,
  2. vindicate Paul and early Christianity from the charge of anti-Semitism;
  3. clip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul; and
  4. articulate an understanding of justification that has inherent social dimensions and thus secure a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism among evangelical interpreters of the Scriptures; among other things."

(As a side note to Duncan, it seems to me that one can readily see how otherwise solid evangelical scholars can embrace such things as ECT (Evangelicals Catholics Together). Such ecumenism is based upon the notion that those who are physically baptized into the New Covenant community are indeed saved. While not all who signed ECT would support the New Perspective, their underlying ecclesiology is the same and takes priority over their soteriology. Thus, in their view, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike who believe in Jesus, are baptized, and identify with the church, are saved. It is Christendom re-envisioned).

Among a host of other things Duncan does in his article, he points out four basic errors with the New Perspective on Paul. Let me summarize briefly in layman's terms. Firstly, citing Peter Stuhlmacher's critique of E.P. Sanders, he maintains that the proponents of the New Perspective have misunderstood Rabbinic Judaism. Stuhlmacher notes that "Sanders mistakes the 'semi-Pelagianism' of Second Temple Judaism for 'Pelagianism' and thus misunderstands Luther's critique of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Luther's grasp of Paul." In other words, Sanders asserts that Luther's struggle with Roman Catholicism was a struggle against Pelagianism when in fact it was a struggle against semi-Pelagianism. Sanders error here makes a world of difference in terms of the New Perspective's reason for existence. Roman Catholicism did not teach that salvation was by works alone (Pelagianism), but by grace and works: by a cooperation between God and man (semi-Pelagianism). Both Paul and Luther assert that salvation is by grace alone. At the same time, Judaism is semi-Pelagian as opposed to Pelagian as well. Thus, when the New Perspective argues that Luther was in error because he was combating Pelagianism, the New Perspective argues something that does not exist. In other words, because Sanders fails to make a distinction between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, he understands neither Luther nor Paul. Thus, he, and others, miss that which distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism from Pauline Christianity. Thus, the New Perspective falls to the ground as they do not understand Paul.

Secondly, the New Perspective fails on exegetical grounds. One should really read Duncan's entire article to get the scholarship throughout (and it is highly readable I might add). He notes four exegetical problems with New Perspective. But, here, very simply, as the New Perspective maintains that Paul's concept of righteousness has more to do with membership in the New Covenant community than it does with forensic justification, I would point out that among other dynamics, no lexicon can be found which defines the Greek word dikaiosune (righteousness) as "membership within a group," as Wright does. No lexicon can be found which defines dikaioo (justify) as "to make or declare the member of a group."

Thirdly, in Duncan's own words, the New Perspective "has gotten the Reformers wrong. They have done a disservice to Luther's and Calvin's exegesis. This has been pointed out not only by Carl Trueman, but by Lee Gatiss, Kim Riddlebarger and many others who have done good historical work on this issue." Duncan enjoyably offers this shot: "I love the quotation from Stephen Westerholm (no flaming evangelical, mind you), who in responding to Dunn and Wright and Stendahl and others, says this: 'Students who want to know how a Rabbinic Jew perceived humanity's place in God's world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul, but feel that they have nothing to learn from Martin Luther, should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters.'"

Fourthly, a problem exists with Wright's definition of the gospel itself. He makes the gospel about the person of Christ and not about the work of Christ. His mantra is "The gospel is 'Jesus is Lord and Messiah' not 'Jesus died for your sins.'" No doubt exists that Jesus is Lord and Messiah and that truth is indeed part of the gospel message. But, to leave out the work of Christ as part of the gospel message is far from evangelical, much less biblical. In Wright's thought, the gospel is the simple announcement that Jesus is Lord.

According to Wright, the gospel has nothing to do with the message that Christ died for sinners and that His work can be applied to sinners that they might be justified before a holy God. Justification has nothing to do with the righteousness of Christ being credited to the accounts of guilty sinners. Rather, justification, in his mind, has to do with God's simple statement that someone has had his sins forgiven and is now part of the covenant community. This understanding undercuts the nature of sin and the depravity of man. It undercuts our need as sinners and opens the door once again to a Jewish, semi-Pelagian, Roman Catholic, understanding of the gospel, rather than a New Testament, Pauline, biblical understanding of the gospel.

[Part Two Tomorrow]


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