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Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul's writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to ascribe the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to first-century Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul's Writings are called the "old perspective" by adherents of the "New Perspective on Paul". Thus, the "new perspective" is an attempt to lift Paul's letters out of the Lutheran/Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms. (Within this article, "the old perspective" refers specifically to Reformed and Lutheran traditions, especially the views descended from John Calvin and Martin Luther, see also Law and Gospel.)
Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the old perspective, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians' good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to the new perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general.
In 1963 the Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl published a paper arguing that the typical Lutheran view of the Apostle Paul’s theology did not fit with statements in Paul’s writings, and in fact was based more on mistaken assumptions about Paul’s beliefs than careful interpretation of his writings. In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this work he performed an extensive study of Jewish literature and an analysis of Paul's writings in which he argued that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul was fundamentally incorrect. Sanders continued to publish books and articles in this field, and was soon joined by the scholar James D. G. Dunn. In 1982 Dunn labelled the movement "The New Perspective on Paul". The work of these writers inspired a large number of scholars to study, discuss, and debate the relevant issues. Many books and articles dealing with the issues raised have since been published. The Anglican Bishop and theologian N. T. Wright has written a large number of works aimed at popularising the new perspective outside of academia.
The new-perspective movement is closely connected with a surge of recent scholarly interest in studying the Bible in the context of other ancient texts, and the use of social-scientific methods to understand ancient culture. Scholars affiliated with The Context Group as well as many others in the field have called for various reinterpretations of biblical texts based on their studies of the ancient world.
It is often noted that the singular title "the new perspective" gives an unjustified impression of unity. It is a field of study in which many scholars are actively pursuing research and continuously revising their own theories in light of new evidence, and who do not necessarily agree with each other on any given issue. It has been suggested by many that the plural title "the new perspectives" may therefore be more accurate. In 2003, N. T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, commented that "there are probably almost as many ‘new perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them". There are certain trends and commonalities within the movement, but what is held in common is the belief that the "old perspective" (the Lutheran and Reformed interpretations of Paul the Apostle and Judaism) is fundamentally incorrect. The following are some of the issues being widely discussed.
Paul's letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of "works of the law". The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by "works of the law" is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The old perspective interprets this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God's standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is arguing against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works (note that the New Perspective agrees that we cannot merit salvation; the issue is what exactly Paul is addressing).
By contrast, new-perspective scholars see Paul as talking about "badges of covenant membership" or criticizing Gentile believers who had begun to rely on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship. It is argued that in Paul's time, Israelites were being faced with a choice of whether to continue to follow their ancestral customs, the Torah ("the ancestral customs"), or to follow the Roman Empire's trend to adopt Greek customs (Hellenization, see also Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity). This is comparable with Westernization and the decision faced by modern individuals such as American Indians to follow their native culture or to adopt Western customs and lifestyle, see also Cultural imperialism. The new-perspective view is that Paul's writings discuss the comparative merits of following ancient Israelite or ancient Greek customs. Paul is interpreted as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs makes a person better off before God, pointing out that Abraham was righteous before the Torah was given. Paul identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days.
Due to their interpretation of the phrase "works of the law", old-perspective theologians see Paul's rhetoric as being against human effort to earn righteousness. This is often cited by Lutheran and Reformed theologians as a central feature of the Christian religion, and the concepts of grace alone and faith alone are of great importance within the creeds of these denominations.
New-perspective interpretations of Paul tend to result in Paul having nothing negative to say about the idea of human effort or good works, and saying many positive things about both. New-perspective scholars point to the many statements in Paul's writings that specify the criteria of final judgment as being the works of the individual.
"Final Judgment According to Works... was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works." (N. T. Wright)
Wright however does not hold the view that good works contribute to one's salvation but rather that the final judgement is something we can look forward to as a future vindication of God's present declaration of our righteousness. In other words our works are a result of our salvation and the future judgement will show that. Others tend to place a higher value on the importance of good works than the old perspective does, taking the view that they causally contribute to the salvation of the individual.
Old-perspective advocates often see this as being "salvation by works", and as a bad thing, contradicting fundamental tenets of Christianity. New-perspective scholars often respond that their views are not so different. For in the old perspective, God graciously empowers the individual to the faith which leads to salvation and also to good works, while in the new perspective God graciously empowers individuals to the faith and good works, which lead to salvation.
An ongoing debate related to the new perspective has been over Paul's use of the Greek word pistis (πίστις, meaning "trust", "belief", "faith", or "faithfulness"). Old-perspective writers have typically interpreted this word as meaning a belief in God and Christ, and trust in Christ for salvation with faith that he will save you. This interpretation is based on several passages from the Christian Bible, notably Ephesians 2:8–9, which reads, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Interestingly, E. P. Sanders, a major figure in the development of the "new perspective of Paul", himself notes that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional (or "old") perspective.
By contrast, many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship. As such, the word could be almost synonymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to his master). Far from being equivalent to "lack of human effort", the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need to "faithfully" obey God's commands is quite different from one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that he will do everything for us. This is also argued to explain why James was adamant that "faith without works is dead" and that "a man is saved by works, and not by faith alone", while also saying that to merely believe places one on the same level as the demons (see James 2). The New Perspective argues that James was concerned with those who were trying to reduce faith to an intellectual subscription without any intent to follow God or Jesus, and that Paul always intended "faith" to mean a full submission to God.
Another related issue is the pistis Christou ("faith of Christ") debate. Paul several times uses this phrase at key points in his writings and it is linguistically ambiguous as to whether it refers to our faith in Christ ("objective genitive"), or Christ's own faithfulness to God ("subjective genitive"), or even our faith/faithfulness to God like that which Christ had ("adjectival genitive"). There is wide disagreement within the academic community over which of these is the best rendering. The NET Bible translation became the first mainstream English Bible translation to use a subjective genitive translation of this phrase.
Old-perspective writers have generally translated the Greek word charis as "grace" and understood it to refer to the idea that there is a lack of human effort in salvation because God is the controlling factor. However those who study ancient Greek culture have pointed out that "favor" is a better translation, as the word refers normally to "doing a favor". In ancient societies there was the expectation that such favors be repaid, and this semi-formal system of favors acted like loans. Therefore, it is argued that when Paul speaks of how God did us a "favor" by sending Jesus, he is saying that God took the initiative, but is not implying a lack of human effort in salvation, and is in fact implying that Christians have an obligation to repay the favor God has done for them. Some argue that this view then undermines the initial "favor"—of sending Jesus—by saying that, despite his incarnation, life and death, Christians still have, as before, to earn their way to heaven. However, others note this is the horns of a false dilemma (all grace versus all works). Many new-perspective proponents that see "charis" as "favor" do not teach that Christians earn their way to heaven outside of the death of Christ. Forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ is still necessary to salvation. But, that forgiveness demands effort on the part of the individual (cf. Paul in Phil. 3:12–16).
For old-perspective writers the atonement theory of Penal Substitution and the belief in the "finished work" of Christ have been central. New-perspective writers have regularly questioned whether this view is really of such central importance in Paul's writings. Generally new-perspective writers have argued that other theories of the atonement are more central to Paul's thinking, but there has been minimal agreement among them as to what Paul's real view of the atonement might be.
The following is a broad sample of different views advocated by various scholars: E. P. Sanders argued that Paul's central idea was that we mystically spiritually participate in the risen Christ and that all Paul's judicial language was subordinate to the participationary language. N. T. Wright has argued that Paul sees Israel as representative of humanity and taking onto itself the sinfulness of humanity through history. Jesus, in turn, as Messiah is representative of Israel and so focuses the sins of Israel on himself on the cross. Wright's view is thus a "historicized" form of Penal Substitution. Chris VanLandingham has argued that Paul sees Christ as having defeated the Devil and as teaching humans how God wants them to live and setting them an example. David Brondos has argued that Paul sees Jesus as just a part in a wider narrative in which the Church is working to transform lives of individuals and the world, and that Paul's participatory language should be understood in an ethical sense (humans living Christ-like lives) rather than mystically as Sanders thought. Pilch and Malina take the view that Paul holds to the Satisfaction theory of atonement. Stephen Finlan holds that Paul uses numerous different metaphors to describe the atonement; “justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9) means that a cultic substance has a judicial effect. Paul also taught the transformation of believers into the image of God through Christ (Theosis).
|This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (December 2011)|
The new perspective has been an extremely controversial subject and has drawn strong arguments and recriminations from both sides of the debate.
In 2003 Steve Chalke, after being influenced by new-perspective writers, published a book targeted at a popular audience which made comments highly critical of the penal substitution theory of the atonement. This caused an extensive and ongoing controversy among Evangelicals in Britain, with a strong backlash from lay-people and advocates of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.
Both sides of the debate attempt to claim the higher, and more accurate, view of scripture. New-perspective advocates claim that old-perspective supporters are too committed to historic Protestant tradition, and therefore fail to take a "natural" reading of the Bible; while old-perspectivists claim that new-perspective advocates are too intrigued by certain interpretations of context and history, which then lead to a biased hermeneutical approach to the text.
The new perspective has been heavily criticized by conservative scholars in the Reformed tradition, arguing that it undermines the classical, individualistic, Augustinian interpretation of election and does not faithfully reflect the teachings of the Scriptures. It has been the subject of fierce debate among Evangelicals in recent years, mainly due to N. T. Wright's increasing popularity in evangelical circles. Its most outspoken critics include Calvinists John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson, C. W. Powell, Mark Seifrid, D. A. Carson, Tom Holland, Ligon Duncan. Barry D. Smith has claimed that the New Perspective's challenge to the traditional view of Jewish faith practice as legalistic is misplaced.
The new perspective has, by and large, been an internal debate among Protestant scholars. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writers have generally responded favorably to new-perspective ideas, seeing both a greater commonality with their own beliefs and seeing strong similarities with the views of many of the early Church Fathers. From a Catholic point of view, the New Perspective is seen as a step toward the progressive reality of human salvation in Christ. Moreover, passages in the works of many early Church Fathers show that new-perspective-style interpretations were widely held among them.
One of the many exceptions is the influential Augustine of Hippo. While most in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox schools would see him as espousing a view of grace and justification in keeping with this new perspective, Augustine is blamed by some for introducing incorrect ideas (some Orthodox would agree that Augustine erred on these ideas, and introduced novelties into the teachings of the Church Fathers).
The increased importance new-perspective writers have given to good works in salvation has created strong common ground with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Historic Protestantism has never denied that there is a place for good and faithful works, but has always excluded them from justification and salvation, which Protestants argue is through faith alone, and in which good deeds are of no account, either within or without God's grace. This has, since the Reformation, been a line of distinction between Protestantism (both Reformed and Lutheran) and other Christian communions.
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