The New Perspective on Paul: "What Saint Paul Really Said"?

Rembrandt. The Apostle Paul. c. 1657. This article appears in the July/August 2006 issue of Frontline Magazine. It appears here with permission of the publisher.

By Albin Huss Jr.

The traditional Reformation understanding of the Pauline doctrine of justification has come under attack recently. Surprisingly, the chief assault has not come from Catholic or liberal Protestant theologians but from mainstream Evangelical theologians through an increasingly popular position known as the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).(1) Not only does this distinct theological perspective challenge the orthodox view of justification by faith, but it categorically rejects the traditional understanding that first-century Judaism was a works-based religion. In effect, the NPP charges that the Reformers, especially Luther, were so prejudiced by their own struggles with Catholicism that they falsely caricatured Judaism and, in so doing, misread Paul. Thus, NPP advocates have taken it upon themselves to tell us What Saint Paul Really Said.(2) Herein, we will critically examine this “new and informed” reading of Paul to determine whether it is accurate or aberrant.

E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism provided the initial catalyst behind the NPP.(3) With subsequent contributions from James Dunn and N. T. Wright, these three scholars now constitute the “big three of the NPP.”(4) While differing on certain points, each promotes a fresh understanding of first-century Judaism which, if accepted, will revolutionize our reading of Paul. While some may be inclined to dismiss the NPP as just another passing fad, it has been embraced by a substantial number of Evangelical scholars and is beginning to make inroads within the church at large.(5)

It must first be noted that the NPP is neither new, nor can it be reduced to a single monolithic perspective. Actually, its heritage can be traced to at least the first part of the last century.(6) Moreover, NPP advocates promote a rather diverse set of views, with at times competing beliefs. Yet at its essential core the NPP comprises the following tenets:(7)

  • First-century Judaism was not a legalistic works-based religion; rather, it was characterized by grace, and, as such, Paul had no real quarrel with the Judaism of his day.
  • Paul has been largely misunderstood because he has been read through the lenses of Luther and the Reformation. That is, Luther’s agonizing struggle to find peace with God was (and continues to be) anachronistically and inappropriately read into Paul’s teachings regarding sin, the law, and justification.
  • Paul’s dramatic Damascus Road experience was not so much a conversion as a call and commission to evangelize the Gentiles. Consequently, justification by faith was not the center of Paul’s theology, but rather a pragmatic tactic to facilitate this new Gentile mission.
  • Since Paul had no quarrel with the law, his arguments against “works of the law” do not concern works-righteousness, but rather Jewish symbols of privilege (e.g., circumcision) that separated them from the Gentiles. In other words, Paul’s problem was not with the law per se but with the Jews’ misplaced emphasis upon nationalistic or distinctively Jewish boundary-marking elements.
  • Moreover, for Paul, justification is more about who is part of the covenant community and what are its boundary markers than about the universal problem of sin and how an individual is made right with God.
  • Finally, NPP advocates generally reject the forensic concept of justification wherein the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the account of all who trust Him as Savior. They claim that the language of justification principally relates to God’s recognition of those who are already in the covenant people of God as evidenced by their obedience.

In evaluating the NPP, we begin with its principal assertion that first-century Judaism was not a legalistic works-based religion. According to Sanders, intertestamental Judaism is best described by what he calls “covenantal nomism,” meaning that Jews “got in” through the covenant (by God’s gracious provision) and “stayed in” by their obedience to God’s law.(8) The mistake of many Christians, Sanders asserts, has been the abstraction of the law from the covenant, resulting in the mistaken conclusion that Judaism was legalistic. Conversely, argues Sanders, the Jews did not view the law as a yoke of oppression but, in response to God’s gracious provision, gladly obeyed it. Sanders further asserts that since “covenantal nomism” was “pervasive in Palestine before 70 A.D.,” it would have been the type of religion known by Jesus and Paul.(9)

Regarding Sanders’s proposal, his characterization of all first-century Judaism under the single rubric “covenantal nomism” is both reductionistic and misleading. While some intertestamental Jewish writings certainly acknowledge God’s mercy and grace, others emphasize a meritorious works-righteousness.(10) Rather than pointing to a singular “covenantal nomism,” the evidence indicates that first-century Judaism was, in fact, variegated—with at least one strand characterized by legalism. Furthermore, to deny the presence of a legalistic attitude among at least some first-century Jews requires a total disregard or reinterpretation of many New Testament passages.(11) Perhaps C. K. Barrett said it best: “He is a bold man who supposes that he understands first-century Judaism better than Paul did.”(12) Finally, in promoting “covenantal nomism” as the alternative to strict merit theology, Sanders misses the point—the real antithesis to merit theology is not “covenantal nomism,” but salvation by grace. Thus, the NPP begins with the wrong set of categories. The issue is not whether Judaism spoke of grace, but whether it spoke of grace alone!

The above arguments notwithstanding, Dunn and Wright build upon Sanders’s distorted version of Judaism in developing their “fresh” reading of Paul. According to Dunn, since the law signified the Jews’ special relationship with God, it became, for some, a racial barrier to exclude Gentiles from the people of God.(13) It is this use of the law that Paul is said to take issue with.(14) Moreover, Dunn asserts that the Pauline phrase “works of the law” does not mean “good works done as an attempt to gain or achieve righteousness,”(15) but rather is the “Pauline term for ‘covenantal nomism.’”(16) Consequently, Paul’s pejorative use of the phrase “works of the law” must be interpreted as a rejection of his contemporaries’ undue emphasis upon those aspects (e.g., circumcision and food laws) that highlight Israel’s claimed privileged status. Thus, Paul rejects “the works of the law” (so understood) as a perversion of rightly practiced “covenantal nomism.”(17)

Contra Dunn’s claim, Paul was on occasion addressing those who promoted a merit theology. The assertion that “works of the law” was simply shorthand for “misunderstood law” or select nationalistic “boundary markers” lacks textual warrant. Paul’s concern was with the law in its entirety, not merely with selected ceremonial features (Gal. 5:3). His discussion of circumcision (Galatians) is within the broader context of the entire Mosaic Law. Similarly, Paul’s declaration, “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Rom 3:20) is not a statement countering Jewish elitism; it counters the erroneous belief that anyone could be justified apart from Christ. Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:10–12, as well as the allusion to Psalm 143:2 in Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20, indicates that “works of the law” have always been an improper way to seek God’s righteousness. Thus, Paul criticizes “works of the law” not because they are “of the law” but because they are “works.” Finally, in Paul’s treatise on the universality of sin (Rom. 3), one is hard pressed to find a single reference to circumcision, the Sabbath, or kosher foods!

While the NPP’s view on Paul and the law is problematic, an even greater concern involves the doctrine of justification.(18) Specifically, leading NPP advocates generally reject the “forensic” nature of Paul’s righteousness language,(19) wherein the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the account of a repentant sinner the moment that individual trusts Him as Savior. For example, Dunn argues that justification is not “a distinctively initiatory act of God,” but rather “God’s acknowledgment that someone is in the covenant.”(20) Wright argues that the language of justification relates not so much to “how you become a Christian,” as to “how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.”(21) Accordingly, the ground of the believer’s acceptance with God is his or her covenantal faithfulness. Wright thus claims that “justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession,”(22) while Dunn concludes that “justification is not a once-for-all act of God.”(23) It is perhaps not surprising that, for these two NPP advocates, the Pauline doctrine of justification looks a lot like Sanders’s “covenantal nomism”—involving a mixture of faith and works.

Finally, NPP advocates’ claim that the doctrine of justification was simply Paul’s polemic response in support of his Gentile mission misses the entire point of Paul’s argument. Justification by faith is foundational because it addresses the most fundamental of human needs—redemption from universal sin and depravity. J. Gresham Machen’s challenge to the early NPP voices of his day provides a fitting conclusion:

The real reason why Paul was devoted to the doctrine of justification by faith was not that it made possible the Gentile mission, but rather that it was true. Paul was not devoted to the doctrine of justification by faith because of the Gentile mission; he was devoted to the Gentile mission because of the doctrine of justification by faith.(24)

Unfortunately, NPP advocates would have us believe otherwise! Thus, on the points reviewed herein, we conclude that the NPP is aberrant and should therefore be rejected. At its best, the NPP merely promotes a false caricature of first-century Judaism. At its worst, it represents a serious departure from the traditional orthodox doctrine of justification by faith. It certainly does not tell us What Saint Paul Really Said.


(1) This designation was first applied by James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” BJRL 65 (1983): 95–122.
(2) The title of a recent work by leading NPP spokesman, N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
(3) Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
(4) For an extensive analysis of these NPP advocates, see: Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), esp. 35–149; Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
(5) See, for example, N. T. Wright’s recent commentary series Paul for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press). As noted by Waters (Justification and the New Perspective on Paul, 119), Wright “has done more than any other single individual to mediate NPP exegesis into the mainline and evangelical churches.”
(6) For a survey of the NPP’s history, see Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 99–200.
(7) D. A. Hagner, “Paul & Judaism: Testing the New Perspective,” in Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification, by P. Stuhlmacher (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 78–83.
(8) Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 75, 236, 419–28.
(9) Ibid., 426.
(10) For specifics, see: D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, and M. A. Seifrid (eds.), Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 1—The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), esp. 543–48.
(11) E.g., Mark 10:17; Gal. 1:6–9; 3:1–6; Col. 2:14, 16.
(12) Paul: An Introduction to His Thought (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 78.
(13) James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 188–200.
(14) Ibid., 231.
(15) James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 354.
(16) Ibid., 355.
(17) For an overview of the NPP’s nontraditional view of “works of the law,” see William D. Barrick, “The New Perspective and ‘Works of the Law’ (Gal 2:16 and Rom 3:20),” TMSJ 16/2 (Fall 2005): 277–92; M. Silva, “The Law and Christianity: Dunn’s New Synthesis,” WTJ 53 (1991): 339–53.
(18) For more extensive treatments, see: Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul; also, Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification.
(19) For analysis of the forensic aspect of justification, see: Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 270–90; Mark A. Seifrid, “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language against Its Hellenistic Background,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 2—The Paradoxes of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 39–74.
(20) Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 190.
(21) Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 122.
(22) N. T. Wright, “Romans and the Theology of Paul,” in Pauline Theology, vol. 3, edited by D. M. Hay and E. E. Johnson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 440.
(23) Dunn, Theology of the Apostle Paul, 386.
(24) J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921), 278–79.

Dr. Albin Huss is currently a Professor and Chairman of New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Landsdale, Pennsylvania.

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