78. What Are the “New Perspective(s)” on Paul?

The “New Perspective on Paul” is a relatively recent paradigm shift in understanding what the Apostle Paul meant in his teaching on justification. According to the New Perspective, justification does not address the question of how a sinful individual may be pronounced righteous before a holy God; it actually answers the question of who may be considered a member of the covenant community. According to this perspective, Paul's criticism of the Judaizers had nothing to do with their legalism, or basing their hopes of being accepted by God upon a moral lifestyle; on the contrary, the Jewish religion that Paul was confronting was a grace-based religion. Paul was actually condemning their ethno-centrism, in saying that a person had to accept Jewish customs such as circumcision in order to be counted a part of the family of God. Present justification is only the recognition of someone as a part of God's family; and there will likewise be a future justification, based upon the whole life lived, which will determine whether or not God accepts someone into future, eternal bliss.

In this new understanding, several major theological terms receive a drastic redefinition. One of the most notable is “works of the law”. According to the New Perspective, these are not works done to earn favor or acceptance with God, but rather, cultural “badges” of Jewish ethnicity. The Jews themselves believed that their nation would be saved by grace alone (sola gratia); but they believed that they had to display the “works of the law,” that is, circumcision, dietary regulations, etc., not as meritorious deeds, but to show themselves a part of this people that would be saved by God's grace. The “righteousness of God” is another theological term that receives a thorough reworking, so that, against the historic Reformed understanding, it never means an alien righteousness, outside of us (extra nos), that is imputed to the believer by faith; rather, it means God's faithfulness to vindicate his promises, and other similar things. Imputation itself, as a theological doctrine, is likewise strictly denied: righteousness is simply not a substance that can be passed from the Judge to the defendant; and therefore, all the classic texts supporting the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, such as 2 Cor. 5:21, are made to teach something different altogether.

There are essentially three big names associated with the promulgation of the “New Perspective” on Paul; E. P. Sanders and James Dunn were two of the first pioneers of the movement; but the most well known and widely read is certainly N. T. Wright, who has done more than anyone else to popularize it.

Inasmuch as the New Perspective demands a radically different understanding of themes central to the entire bible, an adherence to its basic point of view is something that touches upon not the periphery, but the very heart of the gospel. The New Perspective denies the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, and teaches instead a future justification upon the basis of the believer's whole life lived; therefore, if the New Perspective is wrong, and if Paul's teaching on justification does indeed address the question of how an individual can be declared righteous before a holy God, then the New Perspective dogma is precisely what falls under his condemnation in such epistles as that to the Galatians. In other words, the disagreement is a life-and-death controversy; if by “works of the Law,” Paul really meant the good things we do to merit acceptance with God; and if by “justified,” he really meant “declared legally righteous before God”; then the doctrine of a future justification based, not upon the “fiction” of an imputed righteousness, but upon a whole life lived (i.e. the good, moral things we do) is exactly what falls under Paul's anathema in Galatians. And in that very letter to the Galatians, it seems clear that his term, “the works of the Law,” means much more than just a badge of cultural identity: in 3:10-14, for example, he defines the term as a flawless fulfillment of everything commanded by the Law, the failure to perform which results in a curse, which can only be satisfied by the substitutionary curse-bearing of Christ and the righteousness which comes by faith, apart from these works of the Law (inclusive not just of “ethnic badges,” but of every commandment written).

Similarly, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul explicitly disavows every moral accomplishment he had attained, in order to rest in the righteousness of Christ which comes by faith. He did not trust in “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). At the very minimum, what this means is that, if Paul really is referring to a righteousness from God that is imputed by faith, then anyone denying this truth, and refusing to hope in an imputed righteousness for justification, but choosing rather to base his hopes on a “whole life lived,” is of the same sort as the “dogs” and “evildoers” he condemns above (verse 2).

N.T. Wright believes "we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism," (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 32). In light of this, we can see that one of the fundamental premises of the New Perspective is that Phariseeism was actually a religion of grace. We agree that as far as the creeds go, the religion of the Jews as a whole was a gracious one, something Reformed Theology has always affirmed. The covenant God made with Abraham is a gracious covenant and not merit-based. So the Jews were saved by grace alone in Christ alone, like all of us. But just as many Christians today may have a correct doctrinal statement, it is human nature to self-justify and we believe there is an abundance of historical evidence to show that the first century Pharisees had slipped into a form of legalism. Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collecter and his repeated condemnation of their hypocritical religion alone should confirm this to be true.

Further Resources:

New Perspective on Paul @Monergism.com


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