It is arguable that the most significant, but controversial development in New Testament studies in the last 30 years is the “New Perspective on Paul (NPP)” that is forcefully promoted by articulate scholars like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright.
The NPP represents a paradigm shift from the traditional view on the Apostle Paul inherited from Reformers like Luther and Calvin, who understood Paul’s epistles to be polemics against the legalism or work-righteousness oriented religion of Judaism of his times (variously described as 2nd Temple, Palestinian or NT Judaism). E.P. Sanders’ landmark book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress Press 1977), asserts that in reality Paul was in substantial agreement with Palestinian Judaism on the close relation between grace and work for salvation: “On the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism – grace and works – Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism… Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works’…God saves by grace, but… within the framework established by grace he rewards good deeds and punishes transgression” (p. 543). That is to say, Paul was not disputing with Palestinian Judaism which should more accurately be described as “covenantal nomism” – “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression” (75).
James Dunn builds on Sanders and argues that the dispute between Paul and his Jewish opponents was not legalism. It was rather the case of his rejection of Jewish ethnic nationalism when his fellow Jews were using the law, such as the practice of circumcision, Sabbath and food laws as “boundary markers” to separate them from the gentiles.
N.T. Wright rejects the Reformers’ doctrine of justification whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer to establish a right relationship with God. For Wright, justification is about “covenant membership.” It is not about how one becomes a Christian, but how you can tell one is a member of the covenant community. He adds, ‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people” In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.119).
Not surprisingly, conservative, mainstream Evangelicals judge the NPP as a serious departure from the central insights of the Christian doctrine of salvation. Whether this judgment is justified can only be settled by a running commentary of Paul’s letters based on detail exegesis of the texts. This post aims at something more modest. It shall look critically at several presuppositions underlying the NPP, focusing on E.P. Sander since many scholars consider his ground-breaking work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism as the fountainhead of the NPP.
1) Sanders is unwarranted in simplifying the complexity or diversity of Palestinian Judaism. Sanders tries to brush aside his critics, claiming that they did not look at the primary sources of Palestinian Judaism as carefully as he did. This ploy no longer works today as a series of published doctoral theses have contested Sanders’ reading of Palestinian Judaism. Of special importance is the scholars’ collaboration project resulting in a 2 volume work (1200 pages): Justification and Variegated Judaism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (vol.1), and The Paradoxes of Paul (vol. 2). I urge the reader to go through carefully the excellent summary of this massive research given by Peter O’Brien at the appendix of this article. The conclusive judgment is that Sanders has exaggerated the prominence of grace in question of soteriology for Palestinian Judaism. This in turn skewed his reading of the Apostle Paul.
2) NPP scholars argue that the Reformers’ reading of Paul set within the context of medieval religious controversy rather than within the context of Palestinian Judaism resulted in a distorted Pauline soteriology. However, one may refute the NPP’s charge in several ways:
a) It is granted that any interpretation of the Bible should take into account its original context. But what is the original context? This is precisely the question in dispute. Scholars can no longer ignore the serious challenges to Sanders thesis that Palestinian Judaism was primarily covenantal nomism. More importantly, one should not overlook the fact that when NPP scholars device a contestable social construct of Palestinian Judaism and then impose it as THE grid to interpret the Pauline epistles, they could well end up with a picture of Paul that is more distorted than the Paul of the Reformers. It is granted that present day scholars have access to more ancient documents of Palestinian Judaism than the Reformers. But this does not preclude the possibility that the Reformers may enjoy a closer affinity with Paul and his Jewish contemporaries in matters of spiritual sensibility, because all of them were probing deep spiritual questions that may well be overlooked when one interprets Paul through the artificial construct of contemporary NPP scholarship. At the minimum, it should be acknowledged the jury is still out on this matter.
b) Contemporary research has enabled scholars to analyze the historical background of Bible in greater depth and sharper relief. Readers can no longer approach the Biblical text with hermeneutical naivete in an age of (post)historical criticism. But the reader should acknowledge the creative tension when he juxtaposes the polarities of the Bible and its (reconstructed) historical context. It is not necessarily the case that understanding is achieved only when the reconstructed historical context sheds light on the Bible. The converse is also true – the Bible also sheds light on the reconstructed historical context that one is studying. More importantly, the interpreter should not allow the ‘world in front of the text’, the ‘world of the text’, the ‘strange new world of the Bible’ to be displaced by the contested world of the reconstructed historical background.
c) One unacknowledged assumption lurking behind present critical reading of the Bible is the supposed obscurity of the Biblical text if read on its own. Hence, critical scholars place great importance to the task of discovering historical concepts and practices that are seen to be analogous to what is narrated in the Bible. Presumably, juxtaposing the parallel concepts would shed light and understanding of Paul and other Biblical writers. Reader would do well to heed the caution from Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, “that the simple observations of similarity between historical events are often less than valid, but at times lead to a phenomenon where an author first notices a supposed similarity, overdoses on analogy, and then ‘proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying a literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.” See, “Parallelomania” in Journal of Biblical Literature (1962).
d) Which polarity (see note (b) above) should have hermeneutical priority in this reading process? For the Christian believer, there can be no equality between the two polarities as the surface reading of the Pauline texts set within the Biblical Canon (‘the world in front of the text’) should take precedence over an artificial and tentatively reconstructed historical context (‘the world behind the text’). Perhaps, one may take a lesson from the witty remark from Karl Barth in another context, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Indeed, it is precisely the influence of historical criticism informed by the European Enlightenment atheistic rationality that leads to a neglect of the exercise of reading the Bible holistically on its own terms, in its canonical context. (See Hans Fries, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative). The relation between faith and historical criticism will be addressed in a later post.
e) Undoubtedly, the hermeneutical debates will continue interminably given the contingent interpretation of historical scholarship. But faith cannot be held hostage to the unpredictable fortunes of historical scholarship. It was no accident that the Reformers insisted that understanding the Bible is not a preserve, reserved for a learned ‘priestly’ class with esoteric academic knowledge. On the contrary, they upheld the doctrine of “the perspicuity or clarity of God’s scriptures” that assures the common reader that he can with due diligence gain an understanding of the Bible. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains, “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” In this regard, the Reformers preferred reading of the Bible holistically in its canonical context and on its own terms should not be prejudged as inferior hermeneutics because they did not take into account aspects of historical criticism that are considered important by some contemporary schools of thought. Hermeneutical humility from both sides of the debate is surely in order.
3) Sanders’ subject of covenantal nomism was literary or ‘high’ Judaism (unavoidable, since he was analyzing ancient texts), while Paul’s subject/interlocutors included both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ Judaism. As such, when the NPP scholars and the Reformers presuppose different expressions of Judaism, they naturally arrive at different images of Paul who live in different spiritual worlds. Perhaps a concrete illustration may clarify the issue at hand. Imagine a scholar who after studying the Upanishads forcefully declares that missionaries are misguided when they critique idol worship in Hinduism, since Hinduism is a sophisticated philosophy and a vigorous spiritual discipline for meditation. I can imagine the scholar backing his position with appropriate citations from the Upanishads. But, one only needs to visit a typical Hindu temple to confirm that idol-worship is the defining spirituality and religious practice for the majority of Hindus. The spectrum of religious beliefs and practices could well be similarly found in Palestinian Judaism that was addressed by Paul which the Reformers found most useful in their critique of practical faith and popular theology.
4) One highlight of the NPP controversy was the debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright on the meaning of justification. Some readers unfairly suggest that Piper reads Paul as a systematic theologian through the distorting wide-angled lenses of Reformation theology, unlike Wright the Biblical scholar who uses proper exegetical categories of Biblical theology. Readers of Piper’s book, The Future of Justification (Crossway 2007) which critiques Wright should also read his earlier books like The Justification of God 2nd ed., (Baker 1993) and Counted Righteous in Christ (Crossway 2002) to gain an appreciation of his exegetical foundations. Similarly, readers of Wright’s earlier response to Piper in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (SPCK 2009) now have the benefit of reading his massive 2 volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013) which gives a synthetic view of Pauline theology. Indeed, Wright’s response to Piper did not really get down to exegetical details needed to settle the debate.
5) Perhaps, the heated debates over the NPP could be avoided if scholars refrain from posing false alternatives on the nature of God’s righteousness and justification. In the debate between N.T. Wright and John Piper – Wright emphasizes that the righteousness of God in his covenant faithfulness, whereas Piper emphasizes God’s imputed righteousness to believers. But surely the righteousness of God is manifested precisely because of his saving action that restores and transforms broken relations with fallen sinners, and at the same time fulfills his promises to gather a righteous covenant people? As Michael Bird observes, “I agree with Wright insofar that justification possesses a covenantal or horizontal dimension in terms of defining who the people of God [are]… Yet the problem is not what Wright affirms but what he denies. There is no reason why justification cannot be both covenantal and initiatory at the same time… justification is indeed about initiation into both salvation and into the church.”
In his regard, scholars should consider Calvin’s teaching of “union with Christ” as it is a soteriological motif that is comprehensive enough to bring together Piper’s imputed righteousness and Wright’s emphasis of God’s covenantal righteousness. A conciliatory way forward may be found in Kevin Vanhoozer’s brilliant lecture on the justification debate at Wheaton Conference on Justification (2011) where he highlights how justification is a declarative speech act which both acquits the sinner and incorporates Christ righteousness or right covenant relation to the believing sinner. Calvin’s holistic soteriology of “union with Christ’ does not separate Christ’s work of justification, sanctification and adoption and as such would set aside the shibboleth of truncated soteriology that fuels the current debate. [See also Richard Gaffin, By Faith: Paul and Order of Salvation (P & R 2013)]
5) The positive reception of Sanders and NPP scholarship is a reflection of the mindset of contemporary society rather the compelling logic of the mind of the Apostle Paul. Post-holocaust Westerners are trying to overcome the ugly history of anti-Semitism. In seeking to bridge the hostile divide between Judaism and Christianity they are pressed to advocate a ‘Paul’ who shares the same soteriology with Judaism, reframed as primarily covenantal nomism. Another motive at work could be the desire to express a socially relevant biblical theology. For this reason, some NPP scholars criticize conservative Christianity for its pre-occupation with introspective conscience and individual salvation based on personal justification. The NPP advocates the broadening of Paul’s teaching of justification as this would open God’s new covenant membership to both Jews and gentiles (c.f. N.T Wright), and provide an important contribution to the project of ‘multiculturalism’ and interfaith dialogue in the West.
6) The debate about God’s righteousness and justification is not an indulgence over semantics. Notwithstanding Wright’s earlier claim that justification is not about how one becomes a Christian, the debate on the NPP is about the salvation of the believer and the nature of his new relationship with God. In the end, we must judge the protagonists in this debate based on whether we gain from them genuine insights into the heart of religious faith and spiritual practices. We can do no better than John Stott’s concluding observations:
Finally, I am grateful for Professor Sanders’ reference…to ‘human nature being what it is’. For our fallen human nature is incurably self-centred, and pride is the elemental human sin, whether the form it takes is self-importance, self-confidence, self-assertion or self-righteousness. If we human beings were left to our own self-absorption, even our religion would be pressed into the service of ourselves. Instead of being the vehicle for the selfless adoration of God, our piety would become the base on which we would presume to approach God and to attempt to establish a claim on him. The ethnic religions all seem to degenerate thus, and so does Christianity. In spite of the learned literary researches of E. P. Sanders, therefore, I cannot myself believe that Judaism is the one exception to this degenerative principle, being free from all taint of self-righteousness. As I have read and pondered his books, I have kept asking myself whether perhaps he knows more about Palestinian Judaism than he does about the human heart…
In the end, however, it comes back to the question of exegesis. It is universally agreed that Paul’s gospel in Romans was antithetical. He was expounding it over against some alternative. But what was this? We must allow Paul to speak for himself, and not make him say what either old traditions or new perspectives want him to say. It is hard to see how any interpretation of Paul can explain away either his negative conclusion that ‘no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law’ (3:20), or his positive affirmation that sinners are ‘justified freely by his grace’ (3:24). [John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP 2001), pp. 29–30)].