From Luther to Wright: Interacting with and Confronting the New Perspective on Paul
In many reformed theological circles, a heated discussion has been broiling for the past two decades. These debates center on the teachings of the Apostle Paul, his ministry, and its intended purpose for the church. Theologians such as E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright have found themselves at the forefront of these discussions as they press new ideas and viewpoints upon the reformed theologians of today. This paper will give an overview of the Reformed perspectives, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and finally will close with my personal analysis.
During the reformation, the faith of the western world was solidified through the interpretation of biblical texts by Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant denomination. Martin Luther was the first to assert that it was a personal relationship with Jesus that would lead to salvation from an individual’s own sins, and that no amount of good works would ever be able to make a man righteous before a holy God (Associated Content). This caused quite the ruckus within a Roman Catholic faith that was based upon “works” righteousness, and the stark division between the two denominations was born. Luther’s interpretation of the bible had been accepted as truth within protestant circles until New Perspective theologians proposed the idea that it was possible justification for the individual’s sins wasn’t a central theme in the gospel, but rather justification for membership within the kingdom of God was (The Paul Page). This paper will look at each side of the argument, discuss the different viewpoints of NPP major theologians, and will close with my own personal analysis. No 1st century Jewish writings will be used in this study, but a myriad of other modern texts will be considered.
It has already been asserted that justification is one of the major tipping points between Protestants and Catholics, but this paper has not clearly examined it. Developing an understanding for each side of the argument will be crucial for comprehending the scope and reorientation of the NPP, and the arguments that are held against it. Despite this difficulty, the most basic idea and form of justification can be stated as “the act of declaring someone innocent” (Dictionary.com). This definition holds true for both the reformed and the new perspectives on justification.
Reformed or “Old” Perspective
As time has continued on, the reformed perspective on Paul’s teachings within the New Testament have developed in a variety of ways, ultimately leading to the modern doctrine that many follow today. Reformers fought for the idea that justification was instantaneously received, unlike the progressive justification that was being taught and practiced by the medieval Roman Catholic Church (Berkhof 512). The reformed theologians claimed that justification before God came about the moment that an individual believes in the salvific work of Christ Jesus. The main proponents of these views were the reformation fathers Martin Luther, John Calvin.
The most important stance that reformed theologians hold to is that a believer is justified through faith alone, through Christ alone, and is justified before God by grace alone (Venema 7). This view of justification before God is what shapes much of the reformed ideas of biblical study, evangelism, systematic theology, semantics, and spiritual discipline. Justification is the venue and medium through which a sinner becomes vindicated before God and gains righteousness through Jesus Christ.
The “Old” Gospel
Through the reformed view of Justification, the Gospel becomes focused on an individual sinner’s relationship and belief in Jesus Christ (Soteriology). Romans 1:18-32 states that man has lost community with God because of his own individual sinfulness and moral shortcomings. No former covenant with God protects a sinful human from God’s wrath in the final judgment, thereby grouping together the need for salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. While we are sinners and were estranged from God because of our sin, it is because of God’s need for his own personal holiness that he sent Christ to die for us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ then has become “Good News” to all who believe in it. Because God sent Jesus to die on the cross for every sinner’s sins and to achieve victory over death, the proclamation of the Gospel is one of personal salvation from sins. Jesus became a substitute for us in the penalty of sin (penal substitution), as is stated in Romans 3:23-25, thereby giving humanity the opportunity to once again join in community with God.
The reformed tradition of belief claims that justification before God is obtained strictly through faith alone, or sola fide (Venema 7). There is no amount of work, Jew or Gentile, which would be able to make up for the breach in humanity’s former relationship with God. Reformed theology also strongly opposes the idea that “works”, or “good living”, maintains the justified state that a sinner receives from God upon believing in Christ. The Pauline epistles of Romans and Galatians are two of the strongest accounts of the Apostle Paul’s rebukes of Judiazers and Israelites that were trying to gain righteousness with God because of their works. (Gal. 2:16; 3:10-14; 5:2-4; 6:13; Rom. 2:6; 3:20,28; 4:2-4; 9:32). The doctrine of sola fide was obvious to the reformers.
The problem that comes from the idea of sola fide is that faith itself is not what justifies a sinner. A sinner is justified through their faith in Christ, but it is God’s grace (sola gratia) and Christ’s atoning sacrifice that actually imputes righteousness upon a believer (Piper and Wright 35). Faith is the medium through which God’s righteousness is imparted upon us, and it is this faith that continues to draw us closer to Christ.
As a result, there are 2 major components of a reformed view of justification: A believer is forgiven of all of their sins, and they are accepted into the family of God as an adopted son. (Rom. 8:15) The individual believer obtains a righteous acquittal in the name of Christ, and the spirit of God begins to dwell within the believer. God’s spirit begins the process of sanctification and the regeneration of the individual’s spirit and soul. It is beneficial to the believer because with the acceptance of Christ’s righteousness, the believer also receives a “perfected blanket of righteousness” in Christ. In Christ no condemnation will be found, and so all sins, even those committed when belief in Christ had already occurred, will be wiped away.
New or “Fresh” Perspective
For hundreds of years, mainline Protestants have accepted the reformed father’s interpretation of Paul and the doctrine of justification as dogma. Despite this, the questioning mind is ever present in scholarship and critical thinking. The questioning mind that sparked the fire for the NPP was the theologian E. P. Sander. He was the first to assert that the theologians of the reformation had given an inaccurate portrayal of the 2nd temple Judaist situation, therefore incorrectly interpreting the Gospel, Paul’s mission, and justification before God.
Sanders delved into extra biblical Jewish texts from the 1st century and came up with a form of Judaism that was more focused on grace than it was upon rote legalism. He coined this new view of Judaism “Covenantal Nomism”, and this new 1st temple Jewish structure completely undermines the reformed interpretations of Paul (Clary). Covenantal Nomism is in opposition to the belief that 1st century Judaism was a religion that was focused on gaining their righteousness before God by their own personal works. This thinking is also sometimes called Pelagianism (Lusk). Covenantal Nomism claims that believers received their salvation through the grace of God, but they were obligated to maintain their status within the community of the saved by their works.
The first question that comes to mind from Sander’s new view of 1st century Judaism is, “If the Jews weren’t legalistic, then what is Paul confronting throughout the letters of Romans and Galatians?” Sanders claims that instead of confronting the 1st century Israelites about religious legalism, Paul was actually confronting “the rejection of the new reality of God’s saving work through Christ” (Venema, 30). This view of the Jewish religion greatly challenges the reformed interpretation of much of the Pauline corpus and the implications of what Paul intended with his epistles.
Works of the Law
E. P. Sanders laid the foundations for the NPP movement, but it was James Dunn who began to further re-orient the scriptures to fit into the NPP. Dunn is known as the theologian who worked upon the meaning of “the Works of the Law” within scripture. This simple phrase has a far-reaching interpretation that affects the way Paul is understood.
Within the NT and especially within Paul’s writings, “Works of the Law” have traditionally been understood as a religious legalism that barred Jews from grasping the new covenant promises through Jesus. Dunn projects that this is in fact incorrect, and even that this view has fueled anti-Semitism (knoll.google.com). Dunn understands that “Works of the Law” is actually referring to Jewish exclusivism within the new body of believers.
If the law was functioning as a marker of exclusion for the gentiles, then the law was functioning in a sociological sense instead of in a personal sense. This revelation focuses much more on the ecclesiological (or the communal) nature of the law as opposed to the soteriological (or the individualistic) (Mattison). With the old “boundary markers” that the Israelites had to identify themselves from non-believers (circumcision, torah based laws, and other religious requirements) the basic thought from NPP theologians was that these habits were dying hard.
Because Dunn suggested that Paul rebuked the Israelites for exclusivism instead of for legalism, justification and righteousness within reformed doctrine needed to be reordered and reinterpreted. An ecclesiological gospel is much different than a soteriological gospel in practice and profession.
The most significant theological topic that has received a new perspective “makeover” is the topic of justification. Reformed justification came under fire from the theologians that were making headway underneath the banner of the NPP for its soteriological focus and incorrect interpretation of 1st century Jewish justification. (Gilley) N. T. Wright, the biggest proponent of the NPP view of justification, claims that justification isn’t about how a sinner is saved from their own personal sins, but rather how a sinner can tell if they are part of the covenant community of God (Venema 39). Wright also holds to the belief that it is the requirement of the believer to join the covenant community through faith in Christ, and that the believer stays in the covenant community through their works. Unlike the reformed view of justification (one is justified before God when they turn to Christ in repentance), NPP justification comes after a sinner has turned to Christ and God professes that they are justified before him. This profession from God imbues the covenant membership that is a sinner’s salvation. Interestingly enough, this view of justification makes huge strides in bridging the gap between the protestant and catholic denominations. NPP thinking says that, “If everyone who believes in Christ is in the same body, then all other religious views are not significant causes to separate the covenant community.”
Traditionally, justification has been seen in an “already, but not yet” sense of fulfillment. The believer is justified before God the moment they believe in Christ. This is not the case within NPP theology. Justification, according to Wright, is entirely eschatological in its scope. Wright states, “...justification by faith...is the anticipation in the present of the justification that will occur in the future, and gains its meaning from this anticipation” (Baker 22). The justification that is experienced in the present is just an announcement of the impending justification that will occur before God in the final judgment of all souls.
The “Fresh” Christ
The atoning work of Christ takes a very different approach within NPP studies. Christ’s death is seen as a “representative” death and his resurrection is seen purely as his personal vindication before God (Venema 54). It is Christ’s death that is the climax of the Abrahamic covenant with Israel, and through Christ’s resurrection the covenant is reinstated to the entirety of mankind (Venema 55). Through Christ, God made it possible for others to approach him to gain a righteous standing before him, but Christ’s death itself did not justify the believer before God. Because of this view, Wright and other NPP theologians downplay the importance of penal substitution greatly (Venema 54).
The “Fresh” Gospel
Within NPP justification, the orientation for the believer is a communal one. The message of the gospel (the medium for justification) is not one of “how a sinner gets saved” but rather “who is Lord?” (Venema 39). Jesus is seen to be the fulfillment of all the Abrahamic covenants with Israel, and it is the knowledge of who he is, his coming kingdom, and his lordship that make up the message of the gospel. NPP theologians state that there is no mechanism within the gospel that purposes itself with the salvation of an individual’s sins. Wright blames the reformed view of the gospel with over exaggerating the doctrine of justification, causing the true purpose of Paul’s mission to become ever foggier (Venema 39).
The NPP has begun to restructure much of the traditional beliefs around Pauline theology, but possibly the most controversial is the NPP view of God’s righteousness. It has been customary within reformed theological circles to understand that righteousness from God is imputed to the sinner when they believe in Christ. This is not so within NPP ideology. Righteousness from God is not a trait that can be passed from person to person, like a material object. Wright proposed that the reformed view of righteousness is incorrect because of the “court room” images displayed when discussing God’s righteousness. Wright states,
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom…to imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake (Clary).
In lieu of righteousness being imparted upon the believer, God’s righteousness carries out two objectives: to show God has been completely faithful to the covenants that were made between He and Israel, and to be the divine badge that signified membership within the covenant community of the righteous chosen. Picture God as the judge at the end of time, and the individual sinner as the plaintiff or defendant. God does not physically give his verdict to the accused as an object, but rather he grants a “title” to the accused: guilty or not guilty. It is this view of righteousness that the NPP holds to (Meadors). The believer receives God’s righteousness as a “righteous standing” in the covenant community, while the non-believer is condemned to hell to pay for their sinfulness.
Critique & Personal Opinion
Now that the foundations of both views have been laid, I will sound off on what I believe to be true. While NPP theology is the cutting edge center of study within the Christian religion, I personally still hold to the reformed camp’s theology. Reformed theology is not without its cracks, knocks, and loopholes, but I still believe that Christ was sent to the earth to justify humanity before a holy God.
NPP theologians assert that the 1st century Judaism that was proposed by reformed church fathers was incorrect. The NPP believes that Judaism was actually a religion based within God’s grace, not in idolatrous religious legalism. Through Covenantal Nomism, the Israelites approached God graciously, and the first major flaw within NPP theology can be seen in this claim. Covenantal Nomism was no doubt a system that involved God’s grace, but there is no evidence that supports the idea that Covenantal Nomism only involved God’s grace and not works (Venema 62). Reformed theologians have accused NPP of a “proto-pelagian” viewpoint on 1st century Judaism, or a blending of pelagianistic views and a grace based religion (hornes.org). Throughout the history of the church, there have been many different pelagian movements that have been attempted; yet all of them have failed. Pelagianism has been determined to be an “illegitimate form of Soteriology” by the church, and there is no reason that it would have been any different within the first century (hornes.org). Reformed theologians have also stated that Covenantal Nomism bears remarkable resemblance to the semi-pelagian medieval Roman Catholic Church and its views of justification (Venema 65). Secondly, it is very presumptuous of NPP theologians to state that all of 1st century Judaism was a “covenantal nomistic” religion. Judaism had multiple denominations all vying for power within the scope of the first century, and each denomination held its own specific beliefs (hornes.org). Lumping all of 1st century Jews into Covenantal Nomism is a historical error and an inaccurate claim.
Work of The Law
The NPP claims that whenever Paul uses the phrase “works” or “Works of the Law” he is actually referring to an Israeli nationalistic exclusivism that was barring Christian gentiles from joining the saved covenant community because they lacked traditional Jewish customs and laws. The interpretation of “works” that reformed theologians claim is incorrect, as their presupposed version of “works”, grinds an axe against Pelagianism and merit based Soteriology. Despite assertions from NPP theologians, scripture itself speaks to the multi-faceted nature of the phrase “works of the law”. Paul uses the phrase in a very broad sense, covering such topics as religious legalism to semi-pelagianism (Rom. 3:19-20; 7:7-12; Gal. 3:10). The evidence lends itself toward the reformed camp of thinking, or more specifically that “works of the Law” is referred to as religious legalism more than a form of nationalistic exclusivism (Venema 70).
Lastly, the doctrine of justification is a fitting end to this critique. This doctrine has been the last vestige that NPP theology sits upon, and it is this new foundation that possibly differs the most from mainline reformed theology. NPP justification is Ecclesiological, not Soteriological in its focus. It should be noted that any discussion concerning justification has an ecclesiological emphasis at some point in the discussion, but to say that a communal view of justification is the sole purpose is far too narrow. Paul writes abundantly on the topic of justification, and through his writing we can see that there was a strong correlation to an individual’s salvation. (Rom. 6:20-23) Romans 1-5 is completely concerned with the realization of an individual’s sins.
John Piper sums up the reformed view of present justification and future justification in a compact, yet powerful way.
Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation (Piper and Wright 35).
Without the doctrine of penal substitution to connect the relationship with the believer and Christ (maybe use “… the relationship a believer has with Christ), the NPP has a very thin theology; to explain the relationship a believer has with Christ, his atoning sacrifice, and the reception of God’s righteousness. (Rom. 3:22) Belief in Christ is relegated to the position of a “stepping stool” into the covenant community, and it is this weak view of faith in Christ that leaves the scent of universalism in the air (Gilley). Without the reformed view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, a massive chunk of the power of the Gospel is also dissolved.
No matter the argument within biblical studies, the view that is most supported by scripture is always the view that is “victorious”. Through this paper both the reformed and new perspectives on Paul’s epistles, justification, God’s righteousness, and interpretations of biblical texts have been examined and critiqued. While the NPP is indeed an audacious venture into the true meaning of Christianity, there is not enough solid evidence that supports its claims. The reformed traditions and viewpoints of scripture still hold the most water within scripture, and I’m personally willing to place my cards within the reformed camp of thinking. Christ came and died on the cross for my sin, and in him I am free from damnation. I cannot think of better news for all that are willing to listen to his call.
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