New Perspective

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get into a topic I’ve been reading into for quite a while now, but it’s so deep and I’m so shallow. The issue is the so-called New Perspective on Paul. The Paul Page has some extraordinary articles describing it (start with Mattison’s summary), and so what I reproduce on this blog should only be seen as appetite-whetting for that excellent website.

For those of you who would like a summary of the summary listed above, read on. What is this “new perspective”?

Well, for starters, it’s not really new; it takes into account what its supporters insist is the actual historical context for Paul’s teaching on justification and removes it from the lens of Luther’s anachronistic understanding of the issue. What’s “new” about it is that it wasn’t until the seventies that Christians first started taking it seriously. The four most important scholars for this view are Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders (with his watershed 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism), James Dunn (who modified Sanders’s view), and N.T. Wright (who has modified Sanders and Dunn). This position has plunged the scholarly community into a flurry of debate for the last forty years, with old school Reformed types standing the hardest against it but other Reformed theologians (such as Wright) showing a willingness to accept criticism of traditional Lutheran understandings on justification.

If you want a short sound-bite summary of this view as I did, you’ll be disappointed; it is, after all, an interpretation of one of the fundamental aspects of Pauline theology, which is remarkably complex for any position. But let me say a couple things that help position us to view Pauline theology in this way.

Dunn and “the works of the law”
Since the Reformation, Christian theology has taken it for granted that the Judaism at the time of Christ was one that taught justification by works. Paul’s message according to the Reformed tradition was, “It’s not anything you do that gets you saved, but faith in God’s work.” However, the new perspective denies that the Jews thought they were earning their salvation through works. Rather they believed then, as they do now, that their “salvation” was a matter of the grace of God in His selection of them as a covenant people. Their adherence to the Law was not considered salvific, but was a pledge, a necessary sign to the world of this gracious covenant. This is where Paul’s criticism comes in. First, the “works” that Paul argued against were not Jewish attempts at achieving justification, but Jewish insistence upon certain specific observances of the Law as probative for being a member of God’s covenant people. As Mattison describes in summary of Dunn, “It was not the law itself which Paul criticized, but rather its misuse as a social barrier. The misuse of the law is what Paul means by the term ‘the works of the law.'” To quote Dunn directly from his landmark 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture,

“Works of law”, “works of the law” are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God”s people;…in other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls “covenantal nomism.” And what he denies is that God’s justification depends on “covenantal nomism,” that God’s grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant.

Dunn demonstrates that the “works of the law” that were being demanded by the Judaizers were specifically those recognized as signs of the covenant status of the Jewish race by both Jew and Gentiles. These most highly visible “badges” were circumcision, ritual purity through observance of the food laws, and the observance of special days and feasts. Indeed, we find these specific hot button issues mentioned throughout the New Testament (Acts 12, 1 Cor 10, Gal. 4).

Individual vs. corporate salvation

Elsewhere, Dunn states,

The other key feature of the new perspective begins from an observation made particularly by Krister Stendahl in the last generation – that Paul’s theology of justification emerges as his attempt to explain how it is that Gentiles are acceptable to a Jewish God. Prior to Paul it was characteristically assumed that in order to be acceptable to God they had to become Jews. But Paul discovered – the early Gentile mission discovered – that the gospel of Jesus preached to Gentiles was received by faith, by faith alone. Gentiles received the Spirit, God’s sign of acceptance; so that was that! Paul’s whole concern, as apostle to the Gentiles, is to defend this gospel, this understanding of how the gospel works. This gives a quite different twist to the old debate about justification by faith. It’s not just about the problem of individuals trying to earn salvation by pulling their bootstraps. It begins as a statement of the way in which God accepts all who believe. The gospel is for all who believe, as Paul again and again emphasizes.

The covenant was being opened up to Gentiles, and the Jewish Christians sought to have them please God by becoming good Jews in their traditional sense. Paul was saying that participation in the covenant did not need to be demonstrated through the works of the law. Dunn affirms Stendahl’s (and this is a central point),

…Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith should not be understood primarily as an exposition of the individual’s relation to God, but primarily in the context of Paul the Jew wrestling with the question of how Jews and Gentiles stand in relation to each other within the covenant purpose of God now that it has reached its climax in Jesus Christ. It is precisely the degree to which Israel had come to regard the covenant and the law as coterminous with Israel, as Israel’s special prerogative, wherein the problem lay. Paul’s solution does not require him to deny the covenant, or indeed the law as God’s law, but only the covenant and the law as ‘taken over’ by Israel. The models of the man of faith are for Paul the founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, where covenant membership was neither determined by physical descent (racial consanguinity) nor dependent on works of law (Rom. 4; 9.6-13).

A majority of Protestant theology has taught that Paul’s intent in Romans was to argue against the idea of faith and “works” in the sense of good deeds. Dunn disagrees and says,

Nor should we press Paul’s distinction between faith and works into a dichotomy between faith and ritual, simply because the works of the law which he has in mind belong to what has often been called the ritual or ceremonial law. There is a distinction between outward and inward, between ritual and spiritual, but no necessary antithesis. Paul has no intention here of denying a ritual expression of faith, as in baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Here again we should keep the precise limitations of Paul’s distinction between faith in Christ and works of law before us. What he is concerned to exclude is the racial not the ritual expression of faith; it is nationalism which he denies not activism. Whatever their basis in the Scriptures, these works of the law had become identified as indices of Jewishness, as badges betokening race and nation – inevitably so when race and religion are so inextricably intertwined as they were, and are, in Judaism. What Jesus has done by his death and resurrection, in Paul’s understanding, is to free the grace of God in justifying from its nationalistically restrictive clamps for a broader experience (beyond the circumcised Jew) and a fuller expression (beyond concern for ritual purity).

Dunn argues that “faith in Messiah Jesus” in Galatians 2:16 emerges “not simply as a narrower definition of the elect of God, but as an alternative definition of the elect of God.” This is the “better covenant” of Hebrews! The “new perspective” neatly fits in with my belief that this new covenant that was to find its fullness not in the destruction of the world at the end of time, but with the replacement of superficial ritual distinctions with the ultimate demonstration of those with whom God made His covenant: this was accomplished when the site of the Jewish cultus was destroyed in AD 70. There’s a lot more to this, particularly when you factor in N.T. Wright’s contributions. But this has already gone on too long for such a dense subject…

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