What is the "New Perspective on Paul"? A Basic Explanation (Part 2)

(Read part 1.)

The Affect on Exegesis

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10)

From what has been said already we may view the NPP as an attempt to adjust Christian understanding of the way First Century Jews saw themselves in relation, first to God and second to the Gentiles. To God they apparently did not think, like the Reformers believed they did, that they could earn merit with God. Instead it is claimed, they held that by grace they were in the grace covenant which assured national blessing to Israel. Hence, by observing the rites and solemnities of circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher practices, etc., they were showing fidelity to the covenant. Hence, when they read “works of the law” as in Gal. 3:10 above, the Jews understood it to mean these exclusivistic observances.

But that is not all. The New Perspective also urges us to reinterpret the Apostle Paul’s mindset in these same terms. Once we do that, we are told, we will see that Paul was not speaking about works of merit at all in Romans and Galatians. Rather, he was speaking about these badges of exclusivity.

You see, the real problem Paul was writing about was that the Jews would not allow that through Christ’s work on the Cross the Gentiles too were invited to become covenant people along with Israel. Just as the Jews believed they were partakers of God’s covenant grace, so also they must accept that Gentiles likewise would be included with them if they believed the good news that God had opened the covenant up to them as equal sharers of covenant grace with Israel, but without the need for Israel’s badges—which, remember, as markers of exclusivity, would be rendered unnecessary and redundant.

Let us take another look at Galatians 3:10a with these things in mind:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.

Reformation interpreters and their followers would read the verse like this: “For as many as are of the works of the law [that is Jews and those who follow their lead, who are seeking their justification in works of merit, trying to establish their righteousness by obeying the law] are under the curse. [The curse that comes because the law can do nothing but condemn us, and therefore put us under a curse.]”

The standard NPP interpretation would be: “For as many as are of the works of the law [now seen as those Israelites who are looking to their external “badges” or emblems, trying to find their justification in them] they are under the curse. [Because of failure to see that justification through covenant membership is extended to non-Jews].” “They” here is Israel generally. This is a national curse which has come upon them. (This also explains why NPP advocates tend to use strong replacement language).

The nationalistic problem

So NPP advocates believe the problem is not with individuals, but with the nation of Israel, which believes itself to be safe in the covenant because of these grace emblems that they’ve been given by God and which set them off from the Gentiles. In actual fact, we’re told, those very things, Paul would say to the Jews, “do not justify you if you exclude Israel.”!

Conversely this means that justification would not be interpreted as individual justification because that’s not what is needed. Rather, “justification” is that Israel embraces Messiah, understands that Messiah has come, and that the true “badge” of the covenant is faith and not these external markers. As Westerholm represents the NPP writers as teaching:

Justification meant for Paul what it meant for other Jews; the decisive vindication of God’s people when God as a court of law pronounced in their favor. Righteous or justified here designates those in whose favor the Divine Judge has pronounced. But for Paul, the people of God destined for justification were not those demarcated by the works of Torah. Justification, a divine verdict at the end of history, known in anticipation by God’s people in the present, is for those who have faith in the gospel. What Paul was at pains to demolish was the national righteousness pursued by those who imagined that their place in the covenant people of God was secured by their loyalty to the signs of Jewish ethnic identity. (Stephen Westerholm. Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 182-183)

What of faith?

Does this focus on the corporate nature of salvation alter the doctrine of justification by grace through faith? We must answer this question with a resounding “Yes”, although it is important not to overstate the case. Someone such as N. T. Wright will not discount individual salvation, but he would still say that the main issue in Paul’s Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant community. For example, he says,

Paul’s new vocation involved him not so much in the enjoyment and propagation of a new religious experience, as in the announcement of what he saw as a public fact, that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by Israel’s God, that he had thereby been vindicated as Israel’s Messiah, that surprising though it might seem he was therefore the Lord all the whole world. (N.T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said, 43)

In his response to John Piper, simply entitled “Justification,” Wright seems dismayed that his critics can’t fathom that he has not kicked the individual into touch in his view of justification. From his more recent statements it appears that he does have a place for the “Lutheran view” (i.e. the justification of those individuals who place their trust in the Cross). However, he says, that’s not the whole story. Still to many onlookers he seems to treat the received view of individual justification by grace through faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ as fairly subordinate in the gospel.

To say the same thing in different words, the NPP basically teaches concerning justifying faith that it ought to be directed at the inclusive and integrative message that both believing Jews and believing Gentiles make up “the people of God.” By contrast, the New Testament points its finger at each one of us and demands our individual repentance and embrace of Christ’s blood covering for our sins.

This brings up another problem, which is the way in which the attention is shifted from off of sin and on to the message of inclusion.

To be continued.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

I think your analysis is correct in all points. Good job.  N.T. Wright is a shade better than Sanders. Sometimes the two issues are intertwined, but there are enough clear and obvious passages (such as Romans 4:4-5) that teach our need to individually covenant with God by personal trust (faith in Jesus), at which time we are justified.

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