Putting Paul in Perspective

I like N.T. Wright. The man can write. When Wright is right it is a sight to behold. But there is a sense in which it might be helpful for us to right some of Wright’s apparent wrongs. In the next several articles I hope to accomplish two modest goals. The first of these is the more modest of the two, and it is simply to record my thoughts on what has come to be called the New Perspective on Paul. Stating those thoughts for the record has become increasingly important because in some conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles the issue has been quite controversial. Not surprisingly with the rising heat of that controversy there has been a corresponding diminution of light. Once dust starts getting thrown in the air, we usually learn very little except that Diana of the Ephesians is great. It may be a vain hope, but I would like set down in written form a brief account of what I think about the New Perspective.

This is important because many of those who have been so exorcised over the issue have not exhibited too great a concern for what theologians of another era used to call the truth. In other words, if the facts had a case of the small pox, many Reformed Christians would be quite free from any fear of contagion. In some parts of the Reformed world, it is thought that the scriptural requirement to have two or three witnesses against a brother is satisfied simply by hitting the send key twice.

The second goal is to interact with some of the central themes of the New Perspective. Because this is no longer a question of scholars debating among themselves, but is rather a very practical question that is roiling congregations, presbyteries, and schools, perhaps some interaction with the material will provide practical guidance for some who are seeking light on the issue. This squares with the general Reformed view that all theology is pastoral theology.

For those who may be interested, a good introduction and summary of some of the central concerns of the New Perspective can be found in a small booklet entitled The New Perspective on Paul. Written by the Rev. Dr. Michael Thompson of Cambridge, the booklet is distributed in the United States by Reformation and Revival Ministries. The writer is clearly in sympathy with the New Perspective, but also does good work in pointing out some of the places where the New Perspective could be responsibly challenged from the text of Scripture.

In my response, I am creating my outline from key comments made in Thompson’s booklet. I have rearranged their order according to my own predilections and purposes, but I am nevertheless interacting with six basic concerns about the so-called “Old Perspective” as raised by someone clearly sympathetic to the New Perspective. Both James Dunn and N.T. Wright are key figures in this debate and controversy, and both of them reviewed the manuscript of Thompson’s booklet sympathetically. So that should warrant its use. If forced to deal with a summary of a giant subject in the space of a few short articles, this seems to me to be a fair way of proceeding.

But fair or not, some might say that it is still not very scholarly to interact with a distillation of such a massive corpus of work in this way, but for that I make no apology at all. N.T. Wright can write faster than I can read, and if we adopted the total-tonnage standard, and if he kept his pace up, we would never get anything done. At the same time, I will refer to the work of Wright, Dunn, and E.P. Sanders, including them where they fit in with the themes outlined by Thompson.

The six concerns with the Old Perspective are listed below. Over against the Old Perspective, the New Perspective wants to deny the following:

1. that justification by faith was a new revelation;
2. that faith replaced works;
3. that law stands in opposition to grace;
4. that Paul’s focus was on the individual’s relationship to God;
5. that Judaism was a religion of merit;
6. that Judaism did not resolve Paul’s burden of guilt.

Common Ground

In line with the New Perspective, I also deny the first three points as stated above. But this is simply because I hold to the historic Reformed faith, over against contemporary dispensationalism or historic Lutheranism. This shouldn’t be surprising. Does this make Calvin or Turretin advocates of the New Perspective also?

This problem of anachronistic agreement reveals that a good part of this controversy is simply the resurgence of an old denominational debate. The picture is complicated yet further because many in the amillennial Reformed tradition have been influenced (and more than a little) by Lutheranism. And many conservative southern Presbyterians have been influenced by the same revivalist mentality that gave us fundamentalist and baptistic dispensationalism. This means that a good portion of the contemporary Reformed world challenges the New Perspective for denying these first three points. But this, I want to argue, is the result of Reformed writers drifting away from their own historic confessionalism, and trading it in for something else.

But to the extent the New Perspective has simply got the vapors about Lutheranism, there ought to be no controversy within the Reformed world. Our Reformed forefathers were not Lutherans for a reason. But the issue is made even more complex because some of the reasons the New Perspective denies the last three points above extend to some classical Reformed formulations of the gospel, which we will consider later. And further, some of the confusions resident in the New Perspective critique of the last three points will also spill over into their discussion of the first three. So historic Reformed thought denies the first three points, just like the New Perspective does, but the language of denial is sometimes markedly different. And the historic Reformed position differs significantly from the New Perspective on the last three points.


Before tackling the first three of our six issues, it is important to make an important distinction. Despite the fact that the Reformed are not Lutherans, the natural tendency among the Reformed has still been to grant a certain pride of place to the Lutherans in the history of the Reformation. After all, as we all know, Luther started the Reformation ball rolling when he nailed the 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to him for that if for nothing else. Now as a matter of gratitude for the grace of God that was with Luther, this is most fitting. Luther is one of the truly great figures in the history of the Church. But as a matter of historical accuracy, we really do need to acknowledge some additional complicating factors.

Instead of thinking of the Reformation as an avalanche caused by Luther, Luther being the one who dislodged the first rock, it might be more helpful to think of the Reformation as a huge pot coming to a boil, and Luther being one of the first bubbles to break the surface. But the whole pot was coming to a boil already, and Zwingli was preaching reformational truth shortly before Luther was. And of course, Zwingli had his own insights and confusions alongside each other, just as Luther did—although it must be said that Luther lived on a much grander scale.

But even if we were to grant a chronological primacy to the Lutheran reformation, or even a primacy of honor, this is not the same thing as granting a doctrinal primacy. We ought not to make the mistake of thinking that the Lutheran formulations on justification by faith (for example) are in some sense the primitive meaning of that doctrine. Our concern should be, in the first place, to understand the teaching of the Bible. That is the primitive meaning of the doctrine. By this I mean the teaching of Genesis about the justification of Abraham, and not just the later harmonious teaching about this thousands of years after in the book of Romans. The first recorded justified sinner to die in faith and go to God was Abel at the hand of his brother. And the history of justification by faith alone needs to put less emphasis on Wittenberg, and more on Ur of the Chaldees.

Justification by Faith a New Revelation?

That said, this leads into our discussion of the first point of agreement between the historic Reformed faith and the New Perspective. Justification by faith is in no way a new revelation that finally arrived in our midst at the time of the New Testament.
While this point is correct, there are two issues here that get entangled. Thompson observes, rightly , that a basic premise of Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is that justification by faith is not something new, but was true for Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-9; Rom. 4). But who is Thompson arguing with? Earlier he states, “At the risk of caricature and oversimplification, we can summarize some key points of the ‘old’ (primarily ‘Lutheran’) perspective as follows . . .” But even here it would have been nice to cite some Lutherans who were maintaining, for example, that Abraham was not justified by faith. I believe at this point the criticism of the Lutheran position, as Thompson anticipated, is something of a caricature. But if the criticism is then extended to another form of the “old” perspective, that of the Reformed, then it is not oversimplified, but rather simply false. One of the distinctive features of the historic Reformed faith has been its insistence of just this point.

Secondly, even in making the correct point that Paul argues that faith is the biblical instrument of justification, and not just the New Testament instrument of justification, important categories are confused. Thompson says, for example, “If the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed, what does this say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith? Have there been two ways of salvation?” This issue will be treated in greater depth in a subsequent section, but note the significant confusion here. There is a difference between Paul as an individual representing a particular erroneous understanding of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament itself. Paul was a Jew, but this does not mean that he was a faithful Jew, rightly understanding the Old Testament.

The issue here is whether the unconverted Paul was a good representative of that Old Testament faith. Paul tells us that he had been a blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent man (1 Tim. 1:13). He was therefore not one to be trusted in a spiritual exegesis of the Scriptures. The word rendered injurious in the AV could be rendered as insolent —the word is hubristes. Paul was full of overweening contempt for others, and he was therefore not a reliable guide for Old Testament studies in his unregenerate state.

So to answer Thompson’s question, what does it say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith if the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed? It says nothing . Paul had been an evil man, and the law was holy, righteous, and good. Because Paul was a covenant member, his wickedness meant that he was a hypocrite, not a pagan, but he was wicked nonetheless. He consistently misrepresented the Old Testament until he repented of his sin and began teaching the true meaning of the Old Testament.

But returning to the substance of Thompson’s point, it is fully orthodox in the Reformed sense to maintain that the just in the Old Testament shall live by faith and that the just in the New Testament shall live by faith. From the beginning, the Reformed faith has insisted upon this. The continuity of the covenants was a cornerstone in the argument for infant baptism, over against the anabaptists, for example. Calvin in his Institutes, in arguing against them, says this about the Jews of the Old Testament:

For they [the anabaptists] depict the Jews to us as so carnal that they are more like beasts than men. A covenant with them would not go beyond the temporal life, and the promises given them would rest in present and physical benefits. If this doctrine should obtain, what would remain save that the Jewish nation was satiated for a time with God’s benefits (as men fatten a herd of swine in a sty), only to perish in eternal destruction?

Men who have come to God in truth have always come to Him in the same way, by grace through faith, lest any should boast. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews alone settles this question. The gallery of saints presented there throughout the course of the Old Testament were characterized by their faith working through love. This has always been the way that God saves. So there is fundamental agreement on this point between both “Old” and “New” perspectives on Paul’s theology.

More to follow…


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