What Is the “New Perspective(s) on Paul”? (Part 1)


The “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) is a re-calibration of the traditional Protestant understanding of “justification.” NPP has now been a force in New Testament and Pauline scholarship for about three generations. This article aims to present a positive statement of NPP. It is a summary, not a critique—so there will be no critical interaction.

First, we briefly sum up the traditional Protestant understanding of “justification.” Next, we survey five aspects of the NPP that differ from the traditional framework.

The Traditional Protestant Understanding of Justification

In light of the New Testament revelation, “justification is God’s declarative act by which, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, he pronounces believers to have fulfilled all of the requirements of the law that pertain to them.”1 The person “has been restored to a state of righteousness on the basis of belief and trust in the work of Christ rather than on the basis of one’s own accomplishment.”2

God reckons or imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer as a judicial declaration—communicating His righteousness to us “by some wonderous way,” transfusing its power into us.3 For God to “justify” someone means “to acquit from the charge of guilt.”4 This He does “not as a creditor and a private person, but as a ruler and Judge giving sentence concerning us at his bar.”5

One Baptist catechism explains that God “does freely endow me the righteousness of Christ, that I come not at any time into judgment.”6 Millard Erickson writes: “it is not an actual infusing of holiness into the individual. It is a matter of declaring the person righteous, as a judge does in acquitting the accused.”7 Union with Christ makes this possible in what Francis Turretin styled a “mystical … communion of grace by mediation. By this, having been made by God a surety for us and given to us for a head, he can communicate to us his righteousness and all his benefits.”8

The Baptist, 1833 New Hampshire Confession explains that justification:9

  1. Includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness;
  2. that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood;
  3. by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God;
  4. that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.

John Calvin explains that “being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life.”10 In other words, good works are the fruit of salvation. Thomas Oden summarizes: “Justification’s nature is God’s pardon, its condition is faith, its ground is the righteousness of God, and its fruits are good works.”11

A Survey of Five Aspects of the New Perspective(s) on Paul

There is no single “new perspective,” and it is a mistake to assume that (say) N.T. Wright and James D.G. Dunn speak with one voice on NPP. What unites the new perspective isn’t so much a single consensus on Paul, but more a shared understanding of first-century Judaism.12 “There is no such thing as the new perspective … There is only a disparate family of perspectives, some with more, some with less family likeness, and with fierce squabbles and sibling rivalries going on inside.”13

The NPP is not “new” because it displaces the “old” perspective. “Rather, it is ‘new’ because the dimension of Paul’s teaching that it highlights has been largely lost to sight in more contemporary expositions … The ‘new perspective’ simply asks whether all the factors that make up Paul’s doctrine have been adequately appreciated and articulated in the traditional reformulations of the doctrine.”14 Dunn explains that the new perspective “is not opposed to the classic Reformed doctrine of justification. It simply observes that a social and ethnic dimension was part of the doctrine from its first formulation …”15

We will survey the NPP by looking at five related issues:16

  1. The new perspective on Paul arises from a new perspective on Judaism.
  2. The significance of Paul’s mission is the context for his teaching on justification.
  3. What does Paul mean when he writes about justification by faith in Christ Jesus and not works of the law?
  4. What does “justification” mean?
  5. What is the relationship between works and salvation?

The new perspective on Paul arises from a new perspective on Judaism

Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness, but of grace. The Reformed (or “Lutheran”) perspective errs by reading the Protestant-Catholic divide back into Paul’s polemics in Galatians and Romans. “The degeneracy of a Catholicism that offered forgiveness of sins by the buying of indulgences mirrored for Luther the degeneracy of a Judaism that taught justification by works.”17

The NPP objects to this framework. Instead, it sees a “symbiotic relationship implicit in Israel’s religion (and Judaism) between divine initiative and human response.”18 Israel’s obedience to the law was not about amassing good works to wipe away sin—it was simply a response to God’s covenant faithfulness.

E.P. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism” to describe this ethos and said it was “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.”19

The “righteousness of God” was saving righteousness, not judgment. Luther came to realize this, but Dunn writes that “it wasn’t a new insight for the bulk of Second Temple Judaism; it was rather an axiom that was fundamental to Judaism itself.”20 Dunn asks whether “traditional Christian antipathy to Judaism has skewed and distorted its portrayal of the Judaism against which Paul reacted?”21

So, it is a mistake to read Paul as if he were reacting against crude legalism. Indeed, Paul’s “zeal for God” (Phil 3:6) was “not simply zeal to be the best that he could be,” but a zeal to attack Jews who were violating these boundary markers and thus being unfaithful to the covenant they did not realize was now obsolete.22 Paul did not attack legalism—he attacked a now-outmoded Jewish nationalism.

The significance of Paul’s mission is the context for his teaching on justification

Paul’s great burden was to proclaim that God’s community included both Jew and Gentile—and this was unacceptable to the Judaism of his day. The Torah taught the Israelites to be different, to be set apart. Dunn says, “no passage makes this clearer than Lev 20.22-26,” which reads (in part): “You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you,” (Lev 20:23).

So, Dunn argues, this “set-apartness” ethic is what motivated the agitators we read about in Galatians. It is this clash which is “evidently the theological rationale behind Peter’s ‘separation’ from the Gentiles of Antioch.”23

Judaism was not missionary minded. Why should it? Judaism was primarily an ethnic religion, the religion of the residents of Judea, that is, Judeans. So it was natural for Second Temple Jews to think of Judaism as only for Jews, and for non-Jews who became Jews. This was where Christianity, initially a Jewish sect, broke the established mold. It became an evangelistic sect, a missionary movement, something untoward, unheard of within Judaism.24

Even Jewish Christians found it difficult to fathom the Gospel going to Gentiles (see Peter at Cornelius’ home in Acts 10:27-29, 44-48). This conflict—the “who is a child of God and therefore what is required to become one?” question—drove his teaching on justification. “The social dimension of the doctrine of justification was as integral to its initial formulation as any other … A doctrine of justification by faith that does not give prominence to Paul’s concern to bring Jew and Gentile together is not true to Paul’s doctrine.”25

For the new perspective, the concern that Paul’s concept of justification by faith addresses is not a universal human self-righteousness instantiated in a Pelagian-like, works driven Judaism. Rather, it is a problem specific to the setting of the early church, where a dominant (Jewish) majority was attempting to force the Gentile minority into adopting the Torah-based symbols of the (Jewish) people of God in order to gain access to the (Jewish) Messiah Jesus. As such, Paul’s teaching on justification is nothing like the “center” of his theology—let alone the “article by which the Church stands or falls.”26

What does Paul mean when he writes about “justification by faith” in Christ Jesus and not “works of the law”?

“But, if Judaism was essentially a religion of grace, then why did Paul reject it?”27 That is the question! To what was Paul objecting when he railed against “works of the law?”

Well, because Judaism was a religion of grace, this means legalism is not the true issue, and we are mis-reading Paul if we think it is. Because the “works of the law” are not about legalism, they must be about something else—but what? Well, the cultural wall against which Paul kept hitting his head was about whether Gentiles could come into God’s family, and what this “coming in” looked like.

The Jewish agitators believed the “coming in” meant observing certain Jewish “boundary markers” like circumcision, the Sabbath, and the laws about cleanness and uncleanness—that is, becoming Jews. God gave them to keep His people separate from the world. Dunn explains “works of the law” also included “the distinctively Jewish way of life”28—a sort of sociological identity to which the boundary markers pointed.

But Jesus has now come and fulfilled these good but temporary boundary markers. They no longer tag someone as “in” or “out” of the covenant—faith in Christ and indwelling of the Spirit is now the boundary marker. This is the dividing line. This is what Paul meant when he spoke against “works of the law.”

Paul taught and defended the principle of justification by faith (alone) because he saw that fundamental gospel principle to be threatened by Jewish believers maintaining that as believers in Messiah Jesus, they had a continuing obligation to maintain their separateness to God, a holiness that depended on their being distinct from other nations, an obligation, in other words, to maintain the law’s requirement of separation from non-Jews …

For Paul, the truth of the gospel was demonstrated by the breaking down of the boundary markers and the wall that divided Jew from Gentile, a conviction that remained the central part of his mission precisely because it was such a fundamental expression of, and test case for, the gospel. This is the missing dimension of Paul’s doctrine of justification that the new perspective has brought back to the center of the stage where Paul himself placed it.29

We’ll discuss two more aspects of the NPP in the next article.


1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), p. 884.

2 Millard Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, revised ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), s.v. “justification by faith,” p. 108

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody: Hendriksen, 2012), 3.11.23

4 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.3.

5 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 16.3.2.

6 Hercules Collins, An Orthodox Catechism: Being the Sum of Christian Religion, Contained in the Law and Gospel, ed(s). Machael Haykin and G. Stephen Weaver, Jr. (Palmdale: RBAP, 2014), A55.

7] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 884.

8 Turretin, Institutes, 16.3.5.

9 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. V, quoted in Phillip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1882), pp. 743-744.

10 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1.

11 Thomas Oden, Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p. 584.

12 James K. Bielby and Paul R. Eddy, “Justification in Contemporary Debate,” in Justification: Five Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), p. 57.

13 N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), loc. 233-234.

14 James D. G. Dunn, “New Perspective View,” in Justification: Five Views, pp. 176, 177.

15 Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul: Whence, what and whither?” in The New Perspective on Paul, revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 36.

16 Three of these issues are from Dunn, “New Perspective View,” p. 177.

17 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” p. 180.

18 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” p. 181.

19 E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 40th anniversary ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), p. 75.

20 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” p. 182.

21 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” pp. 182-183.

22 Dunn, Whence, what and whither?” pp. 12-13.

23 Dunn, “Whence, what and whither?” pp. 30-31.

24 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” pp. 186-187.

25 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” pp. 189.

26 Bielby and Eddy, “Justification in Contemporary Debate,” in Justification: Five Views, p. 60.

27 Bielby and Eddy, “Justification in Contemporary Debate,” in Justification: Five Views, p. 58.

28 Dunn, “Whence, what and whither?,” in New Perspective, pp. 27-28.

29 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” p. 195.


I read several critiques of NPP years ago and filed it away, then read some others that differed wildly from the first. I walked away thinking “one or both of these critiques does not really understand NPP, and so now I’m not sure I do either.”

If we’re really talking about a variety of perspectives springing from a couple of common roots that would explain a lot.

I remain really skeptical, though, that the NPPs are all for upholding the traditional Protestant/Reformed view of justification. In some cases, they may be affirming their NP and also affirming traditional justification, but that doesn’t make the two genuinely compatible. (It some cases, it’s a mercy that humans are not logically consistent.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I think the common core of the NPPs is a different understanding of Judaism as a religion of grace with a synergistic aspect of good works as a necessary covenant response (i.e , covenental nomism). Everything seems downstream from that, in some form or fashion.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

That ‘core’ is the only part of NPP I can make any sense of, so far. I added comments to Part 2.

I do not see how the rest flows from that core… or even how the rest is coherent.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.