Thoughts on Engaging the New Perspective on Paul

Our online class just finished up our discussions on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Many of the students had never heard of NPP before our class and there were a variety of responses to the topic. I wanted to leave the class with some direction on how to engage this issue (and others like it). Here, in bullet-point format, is the general approach to the topic that I left my students with.

Addressing doctrinal controversy

  • Christian maturity means steadfastly contending for the faith that was delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3), with humble openness to new insights, in submission to Scripture as the very words of God.

Specific issues related to NPP

  • Various NPPs, not one NPP
    • Sanders vs Dunn vs Wright: don’t mush them together.
    • Sanders: Paul was wrong, the Jews were not legalistic
    • Dunn: Paul was not wrong, but he is attacking ethnocentrism, not legalism
    • Wright: agrees with Dunn, and adds that justification is not about salvation, but who is in the covenant
  • Do the NPPs on Paul give any beneficial insights?
    • I am not an expert on this area. I am familiar with the issues, but I have barely read anything by these authors themselves, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But from what I understand of the issues, here are my thoughts:
    • The question of how 2nd Temple Judaism impacts our reading of Paul
      • Prior to NPP: Judaism viewed exclusively through the light of the NT. It was not studied in and of itself, but only in comparison with Christianity:
        • Matthew Black, Romans (1973): “The key to an understanding of Paul’s essential thesis is his conviction of the total bankruptcy of contemporary Pharisaic “scholasticism,” which seemed to base the whole range of active right relationships within the Covenant (“righteousness”) on the meticulous observation of torah as expounded and expanded in the “tradition of the elders.” This was “legalistic righteousness,” a form of ethics based entirely on a code, external and “written,” losing sight entirely of the gracious personal will of a holy and good God, of which it was originally intended to be the divine vehicle of expression.” (pp. 47–48).
        • In another place: “Pharisaism is the immediate ancestor of rabbinical (or normative) Judaism, the arid and sterile religion of the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem, and finally, the Bar Cocheba debacle (A.D. 135).”
      • We have to take into account the question of what do the primary sources of first century Judaism tell us about what Jews believed and practiced. It is important to note that we can do this without abandoning the authority of the NT (in contrast with the practice of Sanders).
      • Luther’s comment on the theory that the earth revolves around the sun: basically, he thought they were idiots who should just read their Bibles and realize that the sun goes around the earth. Don’t be like Luther here 🙂 We can learn things about issues that the Bible addresses without abandoning the Bible. We sometimes have to nuance our understanding in light of more information.
      • Here are some good examples:
        • Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles: “Representatives of the New Perspective are correct that not all, probably not even most, first-century Jews depended on legalistic works-righteousness for salvation. However, the evidence demonstrates that many did.” (p. 386)
        • Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (p. 34): Evidence shows that one important difference between Pharisaic Judaism and Paul is that Paul viewed mankind as essentially sinful, whereas Pharisaic Judaism viewed man as having both positive and negative inclinations. Therefore the major difference between Paul and Pharisaic Judaism is that, whereas Pharisaic Judaism believed in grace, but Paul was different in that he believed salvation was exclusively by grace.
      • T. Wright’s insights?
        • Placing Paul in light of the current thought. We believe that you have to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering the author’s intended meaning. Paul’s historical context matters.
        • Reading Paul in light of the OT. We tend to either read the NT in exclusion from the OT, or read the NT back into the OT. We can disagree with Wright about his conclusions, and still respect that he may have some insights that can help us. Ex: emphasis on the exile and need for a second exodus. This has been influential in our circles and may be right.
        • My own opinion: he may be on to something in his attempt to connect our justification to the resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom 4:25). More work needed to be certain, but I am open.
        • Wright’s work on Christian living is useful (see Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters). We have tended to see justification as crucial and sanctification as an optional add-on, but this is wrong. God saves us for Himself, not just so we can go to heaven. Salvation includes both justification and sanctification, so even if they are distinct, they are inseparable. Wright pushes on this weakness in Evangelicalism in a helpful way.
      • Why is this important?
        • Intellectual honesty:
          • We need to answer objections raised against Scripture with evidence and arguments. Let this sink in: “Sanders’s portrayal of ancient Judaism has been so widely accepted by NT scholars that it has virtually become the consensus view.” (KKQ, 380). You cannot ignore what people are saying in the broader world if you want to reach the world for Christ.
          • We can learn from the insights of even unbelieving scholars. By God’s common grace they can come to know true things about the world and God’s word even if they take those facts and integrate them into a flawed system. Augustine has a famous statement about how Christians can use the true insights of the ungodly. He compares this to when the Israelites “plundered the Egyptians of their gold” in the exodus.
          • Develop the ability to think in complex rather than simple terms. See Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology. This is not relativism, but recognizing the God gives us in Scripture multiple angles on the truth, and while we must figure out how they relate to one another, we should resist the temptation to choose one to the exclusion of others.
        • Faithfulness to Scripture:
          • Teaching sound doctrine necessitates engaging the issues of the day. We have to protect the church from drifting away from the gospel (being conservative), as correcting errors and distortions of our own tradition (being humbly open to new light).
          • We have to connect faith and reason. See Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, who shows how Western culture has gradually come to the conclusion that science has to do with facts, while religion has to do with subjective opinion and is not based on reason. We have to beware that we are not subconsciously influenced by our culture to think that we can practice the Christian faith while leaving the theologians to fight over doctrine, as if it is unrelated. If you get sick, you will be personally vested in the debates among doctors over the nature of the disease and cure. Why do we act differently about doctrinal disagreements about the Christian faith?
          • It is possible to both understand the Bible and grow in understanding of the Bible. It is not a contradiction to say that the church has understood the Bible, and that the church can grow in understanding the Bible. With people, we can both know them and get to know them better; how much more so with Scripture! Even though the content doesn’t change, as we look at it from new angles and come to it with new questions, we should expect our understanding to deepen and become richer. Since we will never have perfect understanding in this life, even the insights and questions of unbelievers can provide opportunities to grow in our understanding of the Scriptures. This is what it means to follow the in the footsteps of the Reformers. Neither new nor old is better simply because it is new or old, but rather whatever is in accordance with Scripture.
            • Ex: When my father died, his friends told me stories about him. While I truly knew him before this, what I learned about him gave me a new perspective on what kind of man he was. It is like that with Scripture.
          • On the controversial topic of works in the Christian life:
            • The important contribution from the reformation is distinguishing justification from sanctification. Previous to them, the church mushed them together (as with Augustine).
            • Also, the specific point of debate between Protestants and Catholics regarding works is the question of merit. Protestants uniformly said that Christ merits salvation for us. Catholics claimed that God’s grace enables us to merit salvation. This is the specific point of the debate.
            • However, there have been differences of opinion among Protestants as to the role of works in the Christian life, and from time to time heated discussions arise among us. Some Christians have claimed that even if repentance is necessary for salvation, the gospel of “grace alone” is threatened (a view I disagree with). Others would argue that good works are necessary in some sense, though not meritorious (Some within the Reformed tradition; see Mark Jones, Antinomianism, pp. 61–79). This is related to perennial debates in Evangelicalism over whether the law has a continuing role in the life of the believer. It is important to recognize that even within our class, we will likely not all have the same view about this topic.
            • From what I can tell of NT Wright’s position from the reading we have done, I don’t think he is teaching works righteousness, because it seems that he is saying that our works testify in the last day that we are in Christ. I am not arguing for his position, and I have read very little of his work directly, but from what we have read, we need to be careful to distinguish between what is and is not being said. I refer you to KKQ’s assessment:
              • “Moreover, this ‘justification’ is essentially an eschatological declaration that occurs in final judgment and will be based on the evaluation of the totality of one’s life, a judgment according to works. This in no way implies that an individual earns or achieves salvation by his own moral efforts. Rather, good works are the inevitable expression of the activity of the Spirit in the believer so that one’s life demonstrates whether an individual is truly in Christ. Justification is a projection of eschatological justification into the present, an anticipation of God’s final verdict.” (KKQ, 382).
            • I am open to being shown that I am wrong about this, but if this is a true assessment of his view, that does not seem to advocate for works righteousness. While we should feel free to disagree with him and provide arguments for why he is wrong, we need to be reserved about throwing the “heresy” label around.
          • Where I stand on justification:
            • Westerholm argues convincingly that in the OT and NT, righteousness has to do with ethics and morality, not just the status awarded to a party but the court.
            • Several Scriptures seem to clearly indicate personal righteousness is at issue:
              • Phil 3:7–9:   But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith . . .
              • Rom 10:3ff:           For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. 6 But the righteousness based on faith [. . . he then defines it in vs 8 as follows] the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
            • Therefore, I think the “traditional” view stands, and is what I personally believe, teach and defend.
            • In this I heartily agree with the doctrinal position of the seminary, as well as the basic tradition of our churches, which expresses its view this way:
              • BF&M IV, B. “Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.”
            • Further Resources for your study of this topic:


Bird, Michael F. “Incorporated Righteousness: A Response To Recent Evangelical Discussion Concerning The Imputation Of Christ’s Righteousness In Justification.” JETS 47:2 (June 2004): 253–275.

Carson, D. A. Talks on the New Perspective. Available online at:

Klink, Edward W., and Darian R Lockett. Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2012, pp. 93–122.

McGrath, Alister E. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 3rd ed. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Smith, Jay E. “The New Perspective on Paul: A Select and Annotated Bibliography.” CTR 2/2 (Spring 2005): 91–111.

Various. Lectures on the New Perspective. Available online at:

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