Saturday, July 28, 2007

The "New Perspective" on Paul and Justification

Did Paul really mean what the 16th century reformers say he meant when he spoke of being "justified by faith"? Or was it something very different? Theologians of the biblical view called "the new perspective" argue that Paul's statement reflects something very different than what Reformation churches have long taught.

Simon Bathercole, in "What Did Paul Really Mean?" (Christianity Today, August 2007), reports on the essential argument in this trend within Pauline scholarship that attempts to reinterpret what Paul meant when he wrote about justification.

"The difference between old and new perspectives," writes Bathercole, "can be summed up briefly. In the old perspective, works of the law are human acts of righteousness performed in order to gain credit before God. In the new perspective, works of the law are elements of Jewish law that accentuate Jewish privilege and mark out Israel from other nations."

The "new perspective," which began with E.P. Sander's book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), was mainly concerned about "anti-Jewish tendencies in the old perspective and its portrayal of Judaism as inferior to Christianity." As Bathercole puts it, "Sander's aim was to present a cleaned-up picture of early Judaism, untainted by Christian prejudice."

The "new perspective" has continued under the banner of other scholars down to the present, especially D.C. Dunn and the prolific author H. T. Wright. However, to say that all who put forth this teaching are unified would not be accurate. These scholars, it is said, argue among themselves as much as the traditionalists do.

Although I respect the scholarship of those who wish to be true to the text and seek to better understand the culture of Paul's time, I would say that requiring rethinking of the age-old Reformation doctrine on justification is premature - and unnecessary. Bathercole demonstrates well that balance is needed in this discussion, and that faith cannot be seen solely in nationalistic terms to the exclusion of personal faith, which the extreme of the "new perspective" would require. Yet new scholarship sometimes favors the extreme of a point of view, and time is required for others to glean the gems of possible truth that will enrich the overall discussion.


Rev. Benjamin Mayes said...

Thanks for this review of an important topic. I appreciate your blog for your awareness of the theological lay of the land.

318@NICE said...

Very good that you bring this up. About 3 years ago, I read two books by NT Wright on this topic. It was given to me by my friend who is a Presbyterian Pastor because at the time, this heresy, and that's what it is, was creeping its way into the Presbyterian Church. He wanted my take on it at the time because I was in the LCMS. NT Wright outright denies that Christ's righteousness can be given to humans because God does not share his holiness, etc.
But this summer, my friend told me that the Presbyterian PCA renounced this new teaching and will no longer allowed it in the PCA.
I do remember when reading the books, and I still have them, that the wording is sometimes obscure so you are left scratching your head not knowing "exactly" what they are saying, then there are times when they teach outright heresy. But when finished, I was left not really knowing which direction they were going or what they were "exactly" trying to say.
However, one person that is a defender of NT Wright told me that I just read his books in the wrong way.
See, that's the confusion!