CSC: WELS Topical Q&A: Bible: Interpretation/Meaning: New perspective on Paul
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Q:Are you familiar with the "New Perspective on Paul" and the views of NT Wright? I have been trying to find information on the web about this from a Lutheran standpoint but have been unsuccessful.

This is a big issue right now in reformed circles and I was curious whether it is also in the WELS? Have any books been published that you would recommend to deal with this issue? Would you be able to give some good general points against this new theory.

I perceive that it is indeed very dangerous and must be rejected since it seeks to reinterpret Justification and the letters of Paul, especially Romans. I would greatly appreciate any help you could give me on this issue.


A:You have put your finger on a key issue in modern interpretation. The issue has to do with a shift in the way some scholars have been answering important questions in the study of Paul. What was the nature of 1st century Judaism? What exactly was Paul’s attitude towards the law and towards his former beliefs in Judaism? What exactly was his problem with the Judaizers in Galatia? How important is the teaching of justification in Paul’s overall thinking? For the last twenty-five years the “new perspective on Paul” has been transforming the way many Evangelicals “read” Paul on these points.

Since we believe that the doctrine of justification—how a sinner gets right with God—is at the center of the Church’s faith and proclamation, any change in the way we understand Paul on these points has profound implications for our confession of God’s truth. I agree with you, then, on the danger the adoption of the new perspective poses for our theology. You have asked for some good general guidance in how to counter some of its themes. This I will try to supply as well as suggest some books and websites where you can find more information.

I’d like to begin by summarizing the key emphases of the new perspective. Not all of its proponents would necessarily agree with every one of these points, but running through them quickly will give readers at least a sense of the general contours of this kind of thinking. The new perspectivists would say:

1. Luther and Lutheranism have presented the Church with a distorted picture of 1st century Judaism. They have portrayed it as if it were a hugely legalistic religion, crassly teaching that the only way to get to heaven was to do good works. This is not the case. A better description of 1st century Judaism is to see it as a religion of grace. The rabbis of the first century were deeply conscious of God’s gracious election of Israel. Within the framework of this gracious election, they emphasized Israel’s possession of the law (the Torah) as a gift of grace, too. In other words, the rabbis did not see the law as a burden demanding absolute perfection. They rather saw the keeping of the law as a way of maintaining the covenant relationship with God, a relationship into which they had entered by grace. In cases of failure there were also the sacrificial provisions within the law for obtaining forgiveness. E.P. Sanders first championed this view in the 1970’s, calling it “covenantal nomism.”

2. Luther and Lutheranism have also distorted Paul’s problem with the law. Prior to his conversion, Paul was not troubled by a tortured conscience nor burdened by the law’s strict demand for perfect obedience. Luther rather read this into Paul as a result of his own introspective conscience, shaped as it had been by centuries of medieval theology. Krister Stendahl first emphasized this idea of Paul’s “robust conscience” in an influential article written in the 1960’s.

3. Justification by faith is not Paul’s central teaching, nor his final word on the importance of the law. In emphasizing justification where he did, Paul was not trying to combat the legalism of a Judaism that he perceived as being works-righteous. Quite to the contrary, prior to his own conversion, Paul was a covenantal nomist and so understood very well that Judaism was not a works-righteous religion. To this point, most new perspectivists are agreed in their discussion of Paul’s beliefs. Where they disagree is on the essential purpose of justification in Paul’s argument with the Judaizers, even as they differ slightly in what they define the problem between Paul and the Judaizers to be.

For E. P. Sanders, justification arose out of Paul’s understanding that all people are saved through Christ. Since that is true, one no longer need to enter into Israel’s covenant to be saved. “There was no dispute over the necessity to trust God and have faith in Christ. The dispute was about whether or not one had to be Jewish.” (Sanders, "Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People"). Or as some have (rather bitingly) suggested, according to Sanders, “(practicing) Judaism is wrong because it isn’t Christianity.”

James Dunn sees justification coming to the fore in Paul’s thought as a way of combating particularism and nationalism. Paul is not so much concerned about the individual becoming right with God through justification. He rather is concerned about the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christian communities. In using the expression, “works of law” Paul has in mind the identity markers of Judaism, their practice of circumcision, their observation of dietary laws and the like. They are no longer important as “badges of the covenant,” nor is Christ merely one more “badge of the covenant” among others (as the Judaizers taught). Paul’s teaching of justification is intended to emphasize that only one badge of the covenant is now necessary, and that is faith in Christ.

N.T. Wright builds on Dunn’s “insights” and extends them. Justification, he contends, is not a response to the question, “How can I get into the people of God?” but rather to the question, “How can you tell who is in the community of God’s people?” The doctrine of justification, then, “insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences” (Wright, "What Saint Paul Really Said," 121). As he unfolds “what Paul really said” on this matter, Wright is quite critical of bringing in notions of “imputed righteousness,” calling it a “category mistake” to suppose that in justification, the righteousness of the judge is “transferred” to the account of the sinner.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this is a gross distortion of the Lutheran teaching of justification, I simply want to point out one more feature of Wright’s theology in this regard. Wright insists that the expression “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 refers to his “covenant faithfulness” (99), and not (as Lutheran’s have always interpreted it) to God’s act of declaring his people not guilty for the sake of Christ.

What then shall we say to these things? To begin with, I would first like to point out that after first denying that the problem is a do-it-yourself form of salvation, the new perspectivists cannot seem to agree as to what the problem “really” is. This alone should give a person pause. It certainly seems as if Luther’s definition offers a more coherent explanation of all the biblical data. What compelling reason is there for anyone to prefer a set of differing and often contradictory explanations for his?

There really is none. In order to make their case, the new perspectivists have to set up a straw man. The Lutheranism they describe is not one that I recognize. For example, orthodox Lutherans have never suggested that 1st century Judaism was a legalistic religion. Along with Jesus and Paul, we recognize that while there were legalistic Pharisees and Judaizers, there were also many in Israel who were joyfully waiting for their Messiah to come to bring the forgiveness of sins. People like Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Joseph, Simeon, Nathaniel and others come to mind.

Secondly, the new perspectivists fail to realize that covenantal nomism (as they describe it) really is not a religion of grace at all. Not if one has to “maintain one’s status” under the covenant by keeping the law, that is. It was precisely this sort of teaching that medieval Catholicism offered Luther, and precisely this sort of teaching that caused Luther to feel so much anguish of heart. So what if I “get in” by grace? If, in the end, I can only stay in because of what I do, then doesn’t my future fate ultimately rest on my ability to keep of the law? How, then, will I ever know that I have done enough?

It is precisely this sort of “gospel PLUS works” that Paul is combating in his letter to the Galatians. Let me translate the first few verses of Galatians 3 in a somewhat literal fashion. Notice what Paul sets in parallel alignment to “works of law.”

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was publicly displayed as the crucified one.
This one thing I want to learn from you:
"by law works"
did you receive the Spirit or
"by hearing and believing the message?"
Are you really so foolish?
"You began by the power of the Spirit"
"Are you going to reach your goal by power of your flesh?"

Paul is contrasting the power of Spirit who works through the gospel message to the power of human beings who operate by doing the law. He sees the matter as an either/or situation. Either you will receive the Spirit from the gospel, or you will try to “reach your goal” by your own powers. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot get into the covenant by grace and then maintain your position by your own deeds.

It is just this “sharply antithetical” language that new perspectivists too lightly pass over in their consideration of the Biblical evidence. As to the idea that Paul is simply contrasting different badges of belonging to God’s people, and that he really means to say no more than that Gentiles don’t have to keep food laws in order to be recognized as God’s people, one need only consider Paul’s words in Romans 4:4-5. There the contrast is clearly between “working” and “trusting.” These are stated in the broadest possible terms, with God’s crediting righteousness simply to the one who trusts in his promise of forgiveness “apart from works.” It strains credulity to believe that in this broad expression refers to no more than getting circumcised or to observing dietary laws.

In fact, the third problem with the new perspective is just this, according to Moises Silva: it ends up ignoring some of the crucial evidence. For example, in his discussion of the righteousness of God, Wright has to explain away the parallel expression in Philippians “the righteousness 'from' God” (Philippians 3:9), as well as offer differing interpretations for one and the same expression in the rest of Romans. Besides this, in his need to avoid the idea of an imputed righteousness, Wright is forced to play games with 2 Corinthians 5:21, rendering up what Thomas Shreiner has called “a strange and completely implausible interpretation of the verse” ("Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ," 201 n.; see Wright on pp. 104-105).

In this same connection, Romans 7:14-25 really deserves a closer examination than that given to it by Krister Stendahl. You will remember him as the one who asserted Paul’s “robust” conscience verses any thoughts of Paul being troubled by guilt. Whatever Paul’s inner turmoil or lack thereof prior to his conversion, how can anyone imagine that he did not experience a shattering of all illusions on the Damascus road. As his discussion in Philippians 3 makes clear, then and there Paul was forced to confront the fact that at that precise point where he had thought he was most right, he was in fact most wrong. Where he thought he was honoring God, he was in fact b.htmlheming him. This in turn caused a radical re-valuation of all that he had previously known or believed. Gain became loss. Supreme values became rubbish.

Consider what had happened to him. The pre-Christian Paul had put zealous Torah keeping at the center of his religious life, and then had discovered that this zealotry of his that he considered so righteous brought him into direct conflict with his Messiah and Lord. In view of this experience, how could Paul ever “trust” himself and his abilities again? The law now became law to Paul in a way that it had not been to him before, driving him to his knees and making him realize his powerlessness, his wretchedness. Now he realized, as he had not fully before, that in his flesh there lived no good thing (Romans 7:18). Even in his life as a Christian, he found himself doing what was contrary to those godly desires planted in him by the gospel. His only hope was and would remain Christ who alone could rescue him from “this body of death” (Romans 7:25). It’s clear enough that Paul speaks of these things not to wring his hands in public or to serve his own emotional needs, but to help us all understand our relationship to the law even after we come to faith. Here again we might suggest that Luther did not miss Paul’s point, as the new perspectivists suggest.

Finally many scholars are now questioning Sanders’ depiction of 1st Century Judaism as a religion of grace, unburdened by any thought that the law required a perfect obedience for salvation. A fresh reading of the evidence by A. Andrew Das, yields the following conclusion: “The very existence of a system of atonement shows that any act contrary to God’s law, even the least infraction, had to be rectified in some way; each of God’s laws demands obedience. God is holy and expects the same from Israel. 'Perfect conduct always remained the ideal'” (emphasis mine. Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, 44). Similar conclusions were reached by Colin Kruse in his book "Paul, the Law, and Justification." At the very least, these studies suggest that Sanders’ depiction of the state of 1st century Judaism was somewhat selective in its use of the evidence.

For further reading on this topic, in addition to the books by Shreiner and Das which I’ve already mentioned, I might also recommend Martin Hengel’s "The pre-Christian Paul," In all of these works one will find things to disagree with. For a theological counterweight against the new perspective, Shreiner’s presentation is the best, but is scattered here and there in a larger work on Paul’s theology. Das zeroes in on the new perspective, and is excellent in general in pointing out its flaws, but he is questionable in his reading of Paul’s view of the atonement. Hengel is a tremendous Lutheran scholar with an international reputation, although his views are somewhat tainted by the historical critical method. Still he is unswerving in his presentation of Paul as a preacher of justification by faith alone. He has so little respect for the new perspective that he accords it scarce a mention in his book. The value in his book, therefore, lies chiefly in his giving an entirely credible reading of the 1st century extra-Biblical evidence in a way that is congenial to Lutheran views.

For a more popular refutation of Wright’s take on the new perspective, one can hardly do better than C.E. Hill’s article in Modern Reformation, “Justification in Galatians: New and Old Perspectives” (September/October, 2001). Helpful, too, are the following two websites. The first gives what I believe is one of the best sympathetic summaries of the new perspective out there, and the second gives a very credible and more in-depth refutation of it from a conservative Reformed perspective.

http://www.thepaulpage.com/Summary.html
http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086 CHID560462 CIID1415620,00.html

Finally, for a positive presentation of Paul, the man and his message, you could hardly do better than David J. Valleskey’s "A Portrait of Paul."

I hope this is useful to you. Thank you for asking an excellent question.



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