Thoughts on the New Perspective on Paul

Posted By on June 7, 2011

Time for a few thoughts on the “Law” article I posted lasted time to get us started on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) topic.

First, I think the article is telling in its summary of how modern reformed theology (and so, much of evangelicalism) has essentially filtered Paul’s statements about the law through the Reformation debate / rejection with / of Catholic theology about faith and works. It’s a classic example of using the 17th century as a hermeneutical grid for the New Testament.  As I have said many times, we can talk about how we owe it to Scripture to interpret it “in context,” but the context for the Bible is not the Catholic Church, Reformation, or modern evangelicalism — it’s the context in which it was produced and which (in part) produced it.  That’s why the NPP (to me) is largely the “1st century perspective on Paul.”

Second, the article helped me come up with this summary of what the NPP is saying (at least with respect to the issue of the Law.

1. Salvation for the Jew was not via a “works merit” system. No Jew would say your works earned you salvation. It was God’s grace in electing you *as a Jew* (“making you Jewish) that = salvation. Works were a way to maintain standing within the elect community. Since no Jew would say anyone could do that perfectly, forgiveness and grace were regularly needed.

2. This Jewish view of the role of works with respect to salvation is therefore very close to common evangelical notions about sanctification. A big difference is how one gets into the community of the people of God. For the Jew, one was born into it (election). For most evangelicals, one enters the family of God by faith in the work of Christ. I know some reformed folks who believe you’re born into it, too, by election — and must later believe (and have that faith “confirmed” — which sounds a bit like bar / bat mitsvah to my ear).   Maybe the NPP is a little close for comfort there (i.e., it’s easy to not feel too Pharisaical when the Pharisees get defined as fire-breathing legalists).

3. Paul rejected the notion that being a Jew meant salvation by election (in Romans 9-11 he describes how that was set aside). For Paul, one needed to be “in Christ” (as opposed to being “in Israel”). Therefore, when Paul talked about the works of the law not being able to justify anyone, he was targeting those laws that made someone distinctly Jewish – i.e., laws that resulted in entrance into the Jewish community or maintained that membership (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.). In other words, Paul was opposed to any practice or understanding of the Law that amounted to arguing that salvation meant being Jewish. Keeping those laws (to be Jewish) didn’t justify anyone.

4. Whenever Paul states a position of morality, whether speaking to a Jew or a Gentile, he uses the Law to do so. This shows Paul was not opposed to the Law. But here we speak of morality and ethics, not laws that “made one Jewish” as though that could save anyone. Paul is not inconsistent here where one keeps in mind (above) what he was targeting / opposed to.

In my view, the NPP clarifies Paul’s talk about the Law, but it actually doesn’t resolve the issue of “what is the relationship of faith and works in salvation?”  I’ve blogged my thoughts on that already. Readers may recall me saying “no one is in heaven who didn’t believe” or “no one is going to heaven who doesn’t believe.” I don’t believe there is any sin one can commit that results in forfeiture of salvation. But I do believe people stop believing, and they ain’t going to heaven. We can argue or wonder if they ever really believed prior to their change of heart. I really don’t care. I don’t try to answer too many questions that require omniscience. I don’t have that much time. My answer in any respect is the same: No one is going to heaven who doesn’t believe — so “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

With that as backdrop, here’s what I’d ask a pro-NPP person and an anti-NPP person (think N.T. Wright and John Piper, respectively, if you want, but I’m generalizing).

Would you affirm or deny the following:

1. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior will be in heaven.”
2. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior and do good works will be in heaven.”
3. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior and don’t do enough good works will NOT be in heaven.”

Do you think a pro-NPP or anti-NPP would reject any of these statements? Let me be blunt.  If you can’t see a pro-NPP person affirming #3, then you have no right to say they are altering the gospel. It is one thing to argue about the role of works in relation to saving faith, but #3 will separate the “salvation by merit” folks from those who reject that idea.

Feel free to chime in.

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31 Responses to “Thoughts on the New Perspective on Paul”

  1. Paul D. says:

    As a non-expert, I’m pro-NPP. In fact it’s the only way I can make any sense out of Paul’s writings.

    However, I don’t think anyone “goes to Heaven”, so I guess the question is meaningless for me.

  2. Jason Leonard says:

    From my grasp of the NPP, you’ve got everything right here. Though I have trouble following the last paragraph or so – too many negatives! I know Wright and others would affirm salvation by grace *in order to do works* (as part of a reward system). The kingdom isn’t built by sitting around watching televangelists!

    Anyway, just wanted to put in my thanks for treating this topic fairly. Your ability to toss off certain bias when evaluating theology is what keeps me coming back here. I’ve been irritated by the backlash against this topic, almost as much as that towards Rob Bell (I don’t care for Bell but not ALL of his points in Love Wins are invalid). It is clear most people do little more than parrot what they read elsewhere, unfortunately, and that’s not fair to the scholars involved.

    I guess I have to just keep praying that more people will be exposed to context issues, and that I can help bring that perspective to the people I know and teach. I have to believe people won’t forever be stuck in the 17th century!

    • Cognus says:

      I was going to make another comment but when I saw Jason L’s post I had to “ditto”.
      As a career marketeer I was aware of the Rob Bell campaign [can’t really blame/fault them for it… this is the rapidly-decaying-post-modern-West, after all] and re: MSH’s treatment of such cows – its what drew me in way back in his pre-Doctoral days and keeps me checking in to see if he’s straying off-course :)

      The Reformation largely and in multiple instances embraced not only Election-to-salvation but Election-to-condemnation in explicit terms. There is not so much as a faint whisper of the latter in the encyclical that issued from the first Church Council, Acts 15, and – NPP or old – Saul/Paul’s growing influence was felt strongly on the outcome of their deliberations.

      I’ve yet to meet a self-avowed Calvinist who is convinced he/she is Elect-to-perdition

      • MSH says:

        you should read John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (he was convinced he was not elect; the book is his story of how that changed).

  3. John R Franklin says:

    I’ve read extensively in Dunn and Wright and I am catholic. Matters of salvation, law and gospel are clearer to me now for having read their writings. Perhaps following NPP arguments lead me to scripturally summarize my faith in at least two thoughts: Acts 15:10,11 and Romans 2:28,29. The RCC lays a burden on its parishioners they cannot bear yet I reject Luther’s program as noted in the Thielman article. When a believer who internalizes the truth of the meaning of the law as it pertains to salvation history he sees that this is what God was aiming at all along; salvation as a matter of the heart. At the risk of sounding perfunctory I include this thought from St. Paul: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is among the most profound statements re: the new covenant ever written.

    • MSH says:

      I’m not sure verse references have pop ups in comments (I always view comments under the hood), so just in case not, here are the verses John cites:

      Acts 15:10-11 – 10 Now, therefore, why ?are you putting God to the test ?by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples ?that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we ?believe that we will be ?saved through ?the grace of the Lord Jesus, ?just as they will.”

      Romans 2:28-29 – 28 For ?no one is a Jew ?who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one ?inwardly, and ?circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. ?His praise is not from man but from God.

      I agree — “matter of the heart” with respect to believing the gospel is the issue, regardless of how other things are parsed.

  4. Kurt says:

    NPP wants to fuse Law into Gospel instead of seeing their distinction.

    Steven Paulson has some good insights here.

    • MSH says:

      this is vague; they are both related and distinct; the question is “how?” in both respects. Every “system” attempts to articulate that. The NPP also has the advantage (maybe the burden is better) of getting its definitions from primary (early Jewish) sources, not the Reformation. I say this to telegraph my own interests / concerns on the issue: (1) I don’t care what reformed theologians are saying unless they are referencing the actual primary sources, and (2) we have to acknowledge that works are *in some way* related to the gospel — the book of James is the most obvious NT example — but HOW?

      As I have blogged before, my view is that “works are essential to salvation but they are not the meritorious cause.” or, put another way, “for by grace are you saved through faith without works is dead.”

      We can’t avoid the faith and works issue by merely separating them when they are overlap in some way in the NT.

  5. Benjamin Smith says:

    Two questions:

    1) Do you think there’s any legitamacy in contextualising the law to issues today, as Karl Barth did? i.e. seeing law as the tenets of other religions or even liberal humanism? Obviously the gospel challenges those other systems anyway, but is comparing them to the law viable anymore in light of what you outlined?

    2) Am I right in saying that Paul sees the ‘moral aspect’ of the law as condemning gentiles as well, as in Romans 2, while the Jewish people are only ‘under the law’ in the ceremonial sense (circumcision, etc.)?

    I think this discussion on the law will provide an important extension of range for the blog, so keep it up.

    • MSH says:

      Paul quotes the law to Gentiles on questions of morality, so I think that addresses your questions (Paul wasn’t shy about assuming God’s law was for non-Jews, too). In the OT there are such ideas as well — statements that God was displeased or would judge nations other than Israel presume God has authority over all nations.

      • Benjamin Smith says:

        Great. That’s helpful. One more thing – what about the Romans 5 – ‘sin is not counted where there is no law?’ That can’t mean that pre-Moses people were ‘let off the the hook’ in light of the rest of the passage, but it’s confusing. Any ideas?

  6. Kurt says:

    I understand salvation in a Lutheran sense. Works are spontaneous, they are beyond our control. I’d even say any work done with intention is not a work at all.

    Paul’s message is to declare an end of the Law “in Christ”. But this happens in real time, as we live and breath, not outside or beyond time as Calvinists would have it.

    • Areadymind says:

      Works are spontaneous? A work that is intentioned is not a work? I am glad that God did not obey that rule when he created the universe. Or the work Christ finished on the cross was not beholden to such a principle. I wonder what Jesus would have said had he thought this way on the cross. “Huh, How did I get up here, guess I’ll just go with it?” Maybe I am not understanding what you mean, but that seems like a very confusing life to live. The Holy Spirit told Philip to go down into the desert, and to jump on the chariot, both simple and intended things, neither were spontaneous, they were planned participation.

  7. Although I know the vast majority of posters on this board could care less about this discussion, I know there are a few that do. The arguement previously presented dealing with the Lords Supper, based on this “New perspective on Paul” was well presented and I want to make sure that those that may have taken pause to believe it as truly the concensus view of New Testament Scholars were given a full accurate account.

  8. Nobunaga says:

    I’m just wondering how much your views on Monergism and Synergisim has on what you think with regards to the issues raised by NPP.

  9. Areadymind says:

    After thinking about these things, I concluded that the danger in accepting a “new” perspective on Paul would be that a new hermeneutic, or an old one revealed (as shown by the article) lends itself to questioning the hermeneutic of the reformation. If you do that, then all of a sudden the reformers may have been wrong about something. If they were wrong about something then they may have been wrong about other things. And we all know how much some people do not like it when you take aim at some of those sacred cows.

    • MSH says:

      yeah, that would be a “danger” – but since I’m not here to protect the reformation, that doesn’t move me. But your thoughts are accurate, as so many equate a tradition like that of the reformation with biblical theology itself.

      • Areadymind says:

        Exactly. I cannot count how many times I have heard someone introduce the book of Romans or the Book of Galatians by talking about what it meant to Martin Luther. I mean, I am glad the books impacted his life, but frankly, the book was not written for Martin Luther, it was written to the Romans, and I want to know what it meant to them.

  10. Craig says:

    What is the “New Perspective on Paul?”

  11. Thanks for the clarification – I think NPP offers the best starting place to resolve most controversies about what is meant by “works” in Paul. Some of the early Anabaptists who were treated very poorly by the magisterial Reformers were I think trying to make the following point you make:

    [from #3) “when Paul talked about the works of the law not being able to justify anyone, he was targeting those laws that made someone distinctly Jewish – i.e., laws that resulted in entrance into the Jewish community or maintained that membership (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).”

    The tendency to misinterpret Paul’s term “works of law” to mean moral and ethical doings causes the false dichotomy works-or-grace in the question of salvation.

    Still, on the question of ethical and moral obligations (the NPP view of “Law”), if I understand the problem right, I think Paul was properly wary of the problem of believing that ‘doing good’ as simple rule-following behavior was not salvific – at least not the same as doing good ‘from Christ’ i.e. from love.

  12. Patrick says:

    Over at Wheaton College’s website, you can access some good debates with NT Wright and his peers on the NPP.

    I think largely Bishop Wright laments how the Church (especially here) may have decoupled itself from the Jewish/Old Testament theological roots that Jesus and His own theology emanated out from and what that means to “how we live now”.

    Do we see the world as a trash heap to be fled from(pre millenial, non Jewish/OT rapture theology) or do we see ourselves within the Jewish active “kingdom of God” being animated now by the spirit to serve mankind here( I will pour out my spirit on their old men,etc)?

    Lots more, this is a synopsis of what he fears the erroneous understandings have led us to.

    Wright sees Paul teaching the active “kingdom of God” theology predicted by Isaiah,Joel and several other prophets, not a futuristic fulfillment, everything is inaugurated by Jesus in 30 AD and heading towards completion/fulfillment(rev 21-22,”lion shall lay down with the lamb”,Isaiah’s “feast of Messiah” began when Jesus “came eating and drinking”,etc).

    • MSH says:

      thanks for the heads up – I’m in the “active kingdom of God” group, but I dare say that one need to disown premillennialism to be NPP.

      I see Paul teaching both and active and future kingdom (already, not yet). I don’t consider it an either-or question (and so, it’s not an either-or choice).

  13. Patrick says:

    Concur on the now and not yet, active and future concepts.

    Pre millenial view might cause one to have that “escapism” view and not want to be involved in the “active Kingdom of God” view.

    However, I think Wright fears that too much although I share his view of eschatology. I could believe the pre millenial thing and the active Kingdom thing easily. I just don’t.

  14. Patrick says:

    Consider that Paul may have disagreed with #3’s perspective.

    I think Paul saw “in Christ” = “In Israel”. Israel meaning authentic Israel of belief(after Abraham’s pattern) as opposed to ethnic/cultural Israel only.

    Romans 11:25-26, Galatians 6:16, plus the “one is not a Jew who is one outwardly, rather one is a Jew who is circumsized in the heart w/o hands” idea.

    Add Revelation 2:9, 3:9 comments of Jesus, “who say they are Jews, but, are not” idea.

    Dichotomy between Jews here. One is ethnic/cultural, one is based on belief?

    Church replaced ethnic Israel in Paul’s theology? Nope. The Church IS spiritual/authentic Israel in Paul’s theology.

    Galatians 6:16, the Israel of God idea.

    Messiah is referred to as “My Son, Israel” in the OT. In Exodus in the “corporate form” and in Micah(or another late prophet) in the corporeal form.

    Reference Matthew for specifics , “I called My Son out of Egypt” verse.

    • MSH says:

      yes, if one defines “Israel” as “believers” and being in Christ as “being a believer” then you have an alignment (and one people of God). And I think it is also coherent that such an “Israel” is not ethnic Israel nor does it replace ethnic Israel. It’s pretty evident that Paul saw Israelites who weren’t believers or faithful Jews, and had a hope that they would be re-grafted into the believing community.

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