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.