Resources On The New Perspective On Paul

In 1963, Krister Stendahl published a seminal essay in a movement that was to become known as the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP), “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” As Michael Kruger writes, Stehdahl argued “the traditional protestant/reformed view of justification is largely due to the cultural influence of “the West” and its emphasis on individualism and subjectivism.” In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press). His work advanced the turn toward a turn to reading Paul against his Jewish context. This was part of a broader trajectory in the study of the history of Christianity post-World War II. Sanders argued that Paul was not the fellow Luther had led us to believe, that Christians (particularly Protestants) had read Luther back into Paul. According to Sanders, as it turns out, Paul was really more like the Pharisees in his theology. He was much less concerned with individual salvation than we had hitherto thought and his doctrine of salvation (soteriology) is not what we were told. Sanders was followed by a waves of scholars such as James Dunn, N. T. Wright et al. This movement has become known as the “New Perspective on Paul.”

Among them, Wright has been the most successful popularizer of this approach. The so-called NPP has been influential among biblicist evangelicals, who, like the more liberal advocates of the NPP, do not know or care much about the medieval church and who seem unaware that some of their conclusions are not new at all. Further, most of them are relatively uninformed about the Reformation and thus are quite prepared to accept the thesis that it had an fictional doctrine of justification,

This society of  fairly uncritical supporters seem to be quite unaware that there are serious, even fatal, flaws in Wright’s revision of Paul (and of Reformed theology), beginning with his redefinition of Paul’s doctrine of justification and carrying through his entire program of “God’s faithfulness.” There are good reasons not to be persuaded by his revisionism. Those reasons are not just mere knee-jerk conservatism of the past but are grounded in the text of Holy Scripture, in biblical exegesis that takes account of the Judaic setting of the New Testament, in a coherent account of the history of redemption, grounded in faithful attempts to correlate passages with one another, including their implications (what we used to call “theology”), and in an attempt to relate our contemporary reading of the Holy Scriptures to that of the church before us (historical theology and the history of exegesis, something that Wright freely admits and regularly demonstrates he little cares about or understands). The pastoral consequences of Wright’s program might also be mentioned as reasons for doubting.

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  1. Some resources from Simon Gathercole might be helpful as well. His book-length Where Is Boasting? on ancient Judaism and the letter of Romans as well as his essay in Justification in Perspective (edited by Bruce McCormack) are, I think, insightful critical engagements of new perspective angles on Paul.


  2. I realize you aren’t fond of evangelicals and that evangelicals are not profound doctrinal animals, but it would seem the tone of your title and post could come across as ironic considering people like Shepherd didn’t exactly emerge from a Mega church.

  3. Scott,

    Any way you can disable the “Reply” option on WordPress? It makes following an ongoing discussion almost impossible since the new comments aren’t placed at the end of the thread, but are imbedded throughout (making them difficult to locate).

    Just a thought.


  4. I agree with Jason Stellman’s remark about the replies interleaved within the various comments making it difficult to follow the thread. One way I’ve seen this problem dealt with on a different blog is to assign a numerical value to each reply. That way, someone making a comment on someone else’s reply can simply enter something like, “To John @ #14,” or similar.

  5. Whenever I run into someone who is curious about N T Wrong I always refer them to this interview with the man himself. It is just so obvious that his whole take on Paul is a giant exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics. And since he is speaking (and is such a clear communicator), there is no possibility of shrugging it off as the lies of his enemies.

  6. I’m reading Covenant and Salvation just now and I don’t have enough superlatives to describe it. Horton defends a confessional position while utilising some of the insights of contemporary scholarship. For instance, it seemed that Horton is not altogether opposed to the subjective rendering of “pistis Christou” (i.e. the faithfulness of Christ) and sees the force in this reading for buttressing the confessional understanding of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

    J&VN and CJ&PM are two other volumes well worth the read. Thanks for this list.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Are folks who “like Predestination” really attracted to NT Wright? I thought he mostly attracted everyone except for those with Reformed (or Calvinistic) leanings?

    • David,

      Most, if not all, of the major supporters I can think of are predestinarians. I don’t know of any non- or anti-predestinarians who support NTW. That’s the problem. There is a school of thought that has existed for a long time–indeed, it has roots in the medieval church– which says that as long as one says “God is sovereign” it doesn’t matter what else one says. There were folks in the Scottish Presbyterian Church who were saying this in the 18th century and there have been folks saying it since.

  8. Wow, how did I not know that? I guess I just assumed that since the NPP was a critique of the traditional Protestant (or “Lutheran”) Paul, that those attracted to it must all be looking for a reason to abandon the Reformation (including its teaching on Predestination).

    Plus, all the folks I knew at Biola who liked NT Wright were either Eastern Orthodox or just had a beef with Calvinism, so I figured that was the case more broadly as well.

  9. “Honest words can be painful, but what do your criticisms amount to?”
    (Job 6:25)

    “Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.” (2 Timothy 14)

    Here is a first warning.

    I have read a bit about the theological squabbles regarding justification by such notables as N.T. Wright and his many critics (&/or supporters). The more I read, the more the conflict appears to be the modern equivalent of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” We know that this silly question serves as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of little practical value and where no resolution is really possible. Such topics may be about secondary issues where the salvation of those who are presenting their points is not in question, where scripture does not answer the question as definitively as we would like, and where there always will be (at least until the Lord returns) valid room for disagreement. Of course, those already strongly ego-invested in a particular side to an argument are not likely to shut up about it. Their motivation to argue may be more of the flesh (ego-centered) than of the Spirit (Christ-centered).

    I have never been a Tom Wright fan nor am I a major critic, so I have no dog in this fight—but I am very much against silly dogfights. I think perhaps some of these argumentative people, if they searched their own hearts, would find that they are simply envious (jealous) of Wright’s degree of fame and respect in the protestant theological community.

    Others are just “ginners”, that is, they are always finding something to be against. They will protest that they are for the classic Reformed perspective, but in most of their online writings, I hear a whole lot more criticism of others and sheer negativity than anything positive. I do not even hear much about Jesus Christ or anything that would glorify Him. There appears to be “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men..” (1 Tim 6:4-5)

    Still others (perhaps even Wright) put extreme effort into elevating certain narrowly defined theological doctrines—even above the words of Jesus. For example, lacking theological balance, they may regard their idea of ‘justification by faith’ as more important than actual faith itself. And for some of these people, it could be a subtle form of idolatry; for example, treating ‘justification by faith’ as more important than the person of Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen.

    The pastoral epistles exhort us to not be divisive about secondary issues:
    “Have nothing to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:23-26)

    “But avoid foolish controversies … and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.” (Titus 3:9-10)

    • Before I reply let me be clear, are you suggesting that the Pauline and Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is a trifle?

  10. I liked Bruce Atkinson’s sermon… I don’t think he said justification by faith is a trifle. He is saying that faith itself, having faith, is more significant than understanding the idea of it. That Jesus is the real justification/atonement. That our faith is a gift from God. That understanding justification by faith, without living in faith, is not sufficient. That faith without works is dead, and that Jesus and the epistles emphasized obedience even more than faith.

    But most of all, make sure the dogfight is worth fighting. Will it bring more people to Christ? Will it increase your obedience in daily living? Will it comfort the afflicted and restore the broken-hearted? Will it help the widows and the orphans (true religion)?

  11. Not sure who your target audience is, but it seems like you’re more interested in preaching to your choir.

    I can’t imagine anyone whom you so disdainfully describe as an “evangelical” ever getting past your opening paragraph.

    Be careful, your pride is showing.

    • My audience is those who are interested in truth.

      “Evangelical” can be a sociological or theological designation.

      Evangelicals are presently abandoning the gospel of free acceptance with God for a mess of medieval porridge being hawked by Tom Wright. There are superior alternatives. Why is warning people about that possibility and alerting them to alternatives prideful?

      Was Paul prideful when he warned Peter?

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