If pushed, what would you say Paul’s problem with the Judaism of his day was?
How did his gospel of Jesus Christ ‘solve’ that problem?
Or in other words, what changed between him standing over Stephen’s dying body as a defender of Pharisaic Jewish orthodoxy and him preaching to pagans in Athens that they too could join the people of Israel’s God?
Or put it this way; if you are a Christian, what was your ‘salvation narrative’? Did it go something like this?
I grew up thinking God was waiting to catch me out. I tried my best to be a good person, but I always felt that I couldn’t meet my own standards, let alone a holy God’s. I felt guilty. I realised eventually that I needed something, someone, beyond myself. I couldn’t do it on my own. And I came to understand the grace of God – that he sent his Son to die my death, to take away my sin, to give me his righteousness, to give me new life and a fresh start. I realised I couldn’t earn this whatever I did, I could only accept it as a gift, through faith in Christ. I’m grateful to God for his love for me.
Or in Martin Luther’s own words
I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans … but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners …
At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.
OK, the answer to both of these narratives is justification by faith through the grace of God. The ‘question’ they are both ‘answering’ is the failure of our best efforts (works) to produce righteousness.
The NPP does not reject the legitimacy or truth or reality of such narratives – heck they are good news experiences of God’s forgiving grace.
But it does ask this; is the ‘problem’ they address (our personal senses of guilt, legalism and failure to be ‘righteous’) actually the problem that Paul had with Judaism? Or is Paul’s focus elsewhere and we have tended to read back into Paul our modern introspective spiritual struggles?
Have we tended to equate the Judaism of Paul’s day (and today) with ‘works righteousness’ – a continual and ever-failing attempt to live righteous lives under the Law? And the good news of the gospel is that you are not under Law but grace and are therefore set free in Christ?
This is a pretty negative view of OT faith is it not? And of contemporary Judaism as well.
So, these are the sort of questions that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has been wrestling through for nearly 40 years. It goes back to 1977 and the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E P Sanders. This was followed up by the numerous works of J D G Dunn and N T Wright, with counterworks by people like Stephen Westerholm, Mark Seifrid, Francis Watson etc. It’s been the biggest theological revolution within Pauline studies for pretty well all that time and it’s still a hot topic.
Now you could read all Dunn’s and Wright’s books and many many more by other scholars weighing into the debate from different angles – I’m ploughing through quite a few at the moment including Tom Wright’s heavyweight (literally that is, it’s actually a joy to read) Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) which is shaped by his own take on the NPP, if also covering much other ground.
But maybe you don’t have a year of your life to read all the books on the NPP. So, for a bit of light relief I thought I’d try to summarise the main themes of the NPP in a picture.
And this is primarily descriptive – I’m not getting into criticisms and push-backs against the NPP in this post.
Just in case for some inexplicable reason you don’t, it is of the mediterranean, Egypt and Israel, with the Sinai peninsula and the (admittedly a bit rough) route of the Exodus.
1. SL= Land of Slavery
‘Israel’, although not yet formed as the people of God, are under slavery. God hears their cry, remembers his promise given long before to Abraham, and sets about liberating them from Pharoah with the reluctant help of Moses.
2. EX = Exodus
God’s gracious promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many and that God would give the land to his descendents (Gen 15) is the key to the Exodus. Election comes first.
Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness [justification]. (Gen 15:6) Justification by faith comes before the Law (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians using Abraham as his model). Those who are children of Abraham are those, like him, who have justifying faith (in Jesus the risen Christ).
3. L = LAW
It is in Sinai that the newly rescued people are given the Law. The Law comes after the promise; after ‘salvation’; and after Israel is formed into a nation, the people of God. The Law was never the ‘way in’ to the covenant. Election and grace precede the Torah.
This was the big theme of Sanders’ book back in 1977; he argued from a study of Palestinian Judaism that it was a religion of grace, not legalism. He coined the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’ – Israel is elected by God’s grace into a covenantal relationship with God and is to live by and under the Law (nomos) to stay in that covenantal relationship.
For Sanders, the ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul was that it was not Christianity. In other words, both are shaped around God’s election and grace, but with the coming of the Messiah all has changed. Now Gentiles are also welcomed in by grace. Obedience to the Law no longer defines the covenantal relationship of God’s people.
You can see how radical this is if we come back to the salvation narratives above. They both work from ‘plight to solution’; from spiritual crisis to resolution; from legalistic imprisonment to grace-filled liberation. And if this is your framework, then this will be how you tend to read Paul. Thus, the Judaism of his day was legalistic works righteousness (‘plight’) and the ‘solution’ is justification by faith through grace alone.
Sanders and most of the NPP authors, argue that what we have in Paul is actually ‘solution to plight’. And this means a radically different way of reading Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.
OT faith is full of grace, love, faith and justice. Mere external legalistic obedience to the Torah was never enough. Think Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”; Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings”; the books of Amos and Malachi are examples where judgement comes where there is hypocrisy in Israel; where external religious ritual is not matched by relationships of love for God and neighbour.
J D G Dunn largely agreed with Sanders but developed his own take on things. The ‘works of the law’ that in the salvation narratives above tend to be equated with Jewish legalistic works, are better understood as being the identity markers of being Jewish (circumcision, food laws, worship). The main ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul then is that physically and spiritually ‘being Jewish’ (ethnocentrism) is not enough. It leaves you relying on the wrong thing (the Law) to receive new life. That only comes through faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, whether you are Jew or Gentile.
Tom Wright also sees ‘plight’ in Paul NOT as Jewish legalism, but in bigger terms as the brokenness of the world. The ‘solution’ is God’s redemptive action to renew all of creation and defeat sin and death and evil. And for Paul this all become blazingly clear when he is confronted with the crucified yet risen Messiah, who is Lord of all.
Paul’s ‘problem’ with Judaism, and particularly the Judaizers of Galatians who wanted to make Gentiles good Jews in order to follow the Messiah, is that God’s redemptive plans for all of creation have moved on. You can’t try to stop or freeze the story. To try to ‘go back’ to ‘the works of the Law’ is to seek life in something that cannot give life. The new age of the Spirit has dawned. He alone gives life and that life comes through faith in the Messiah.
There is significant continuity with OT faith (it is one story after all, the NT is built on the OT) but there has been a dramatic plot twist that has now welcomed anyone in to the people of God. Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and Col 3:11 “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”
And all of this is made possible because Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel, of Torah, who overcomes sin and death, and is the living Lord who will return to establish his kingdom over creation.
4. PL = Promised Land
And so to the promised land. This was the place Israel could be Israel; the place of temple, of Torah, of legal and political autonomy. This hasn’t been a big theme in the NPP – but the implications are clear. Just as you ‘can’t go back’ to the Law, so you ‘can’t go back’ to the historical period when the Promised Land belonged to ethnic Israel.
This post got longer than I intended. But hopefully that picture helps give a way in to the ‘big picture’ of what the NPP is saying.
And this leads on to questions that are very ‘live’ today:
1. If the ‘problem’ Paul faces is not primarily legalistic works righteousness, what difference does this make for Christian teaching and preaching? What difference will it make to appreciate afresh the Jewish framework of Paul’s thinking and theology?
2. Has much of post-Reformation Protestantism tended to articulate the gospel as an individualistic solution to an existential-crisis? And if it has what have been the implications?
3. What would you say continues from OT to NT faith and what is discontinuous? This is a big question. If you have full continuity and there is no need for Jesus at all. Some forms of Zionist pro-Israel theology seems to come close to this – if you hint that modern Israel is not to be equated with OT Israel you get accused of being supersessionist and anti-Semitic. But if you have a radical discontinuity between Israel and the Church, then does this mean God has gone on to plan B after abandoning plan A? Was the OT a mistake?
4. A strength of the older perspective on Paul (and there has never been just one, Luther and Calvin differed quite a bit) is a clear sense of sin, guilt, need for grace, and trust in God’s saving righteousness not our own. This was strongly connected to the idea of imputed righteousness – God counts or reckons or transfers Jesus’ righteousness to us.* This gives assurance of faith (I am righteous in God’s sight) once I have repented and follow Jesus. This is still the most common conversion story that I hear from students, in church, in home group etc. It has clarity and also resonates with human experience. A question for the NPP is how does its insights ‘work out’ in terms of evangelism, repentance, faith and assurance?
* Tom Wright (and others outside opposed to the NPP so it is not a one-sided thing here) have questioned whether Paul actually teaches imputed righteousness at all. It is this, more than anything else I think, that has caused the traditional Reformed camp to criticise him.