May 5, 2012
THE NEW PERSPECTIVE(S) ON PAUL
In 1977, E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This book challenged traditional views about Paul’s view of justification by investigating Second Temple Judaism. Is Paul’s message one of grace over against works righteousness? Is the concept of imputed righteousness biblically valid? Were Luther and the Reformers correct in their criticisms of Rome on this issue? These are some of the things at stake in this debate.
My goal here is to briefly explain the basic tenets of the New Perspective on Paul, critique some of its problems, and offer the biblical data I think contradicts any understanding of justification which does not include imputation. Basically, I am going to discuss why the all New Perspectives on Paul get justification wrong and why imputed righteousness is a biblical concept.
James D.G. Dunn furthered the aforementioned project, claiming that Sanders’ work established a new perspective on Paul (NPP from here on). One example of the NPP found in Dunn’s own work, is Dunn’s notion that Paul was ultimately attacking the ceremonial and Jewish nationalistic aspects of the law because these functioned as boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles. Dunn thinks Jewish anti-Gentile bigotry is what Paul is fighting against, not an imaginary merit theology in Second Temple Judaism.
Already, three differences emerge from the NPP understanding of Paul: second temple Judaism did not hold to salvation by works; “works of the law” in Paul’s theology meant Jewish customs (which functioned as practical demonstrations of justification), and Paul’s doctrine of justification was not focused on the repentance of the sinner for his sin; rather that Gentiles should be included into the covenant community. This would mean that Pauline justification was aimed at Jewish prejudice more than Jewish moralistic legalism.
Even though there are differences among NPP proponents, there are usually three more common tenets (I have mentioned three already): the meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God”, the meaning of “faith”, and a denial of the concept of forensic imputation. I am going to briefly explain the first two areas and then focus on the concept of forensic imputation.
The NPP believes Paul uses the phrase “the righteousness of God” to denote the covenant faithfulness of God. This means that “the righteousness of God” (δικαιοσυνη θεου) in Romans is not referring to imputation but rather to God’s own nature. Therefore, for one to be seen as righteous means he displays faithfulness to the covenant and is to be counted among the people of God. Similarly, the NPP does not think Paul views faith as primarily about trusting in God to forgive sin. The NPP sees faith as being more of an identity marker – a badge of sorts – for those who belong in the people of God. Faith could perhaps be thought of as a proof of membership for those in the covenant community.
 E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
 James D.G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” in Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), 183-214.
 Dunn coined this phrase in a 1982 lecture of the same name. Cf. James D.G. Dunn, “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10-14),” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 523-542. There are many varieties of the New Perspective (hence the phrase “the New Perspectives on Paul”) and so it is difficult to summarize its core beliefs. However, I recommend the following two articles by Jeffrey Smith, “An Overview and Critique of the New Perspective on Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: Part 1,” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 3 (Jan 2006): 77-108; and “An Overview and Critique of the New Perspective on Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: Part 2 – The New Perspective Critiqued (1),” Reformed Theological Review 3 (July 2006): 118-133.
 N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul.” www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm
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