Over the last 30 years the world of Pauline theology has experienced a powerful seismic shock, followed by tectonic shift in how scholars read and articulate the basic thrust of the apostle Paul’s message. Though the ominous rumblings of the so-called “New Perspective” can be traced back as early as the 1950s, it is now generally agreed that 1977 can be viewed (for convenience) as the moment of actual emergence for this revisioning.
In that year, E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress), wherein the basic instincts and assumptions of traditional Protestant thought were called into question. Any Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Methodist could explain without hesitation that the apostle Paul, if he preached anything, preached a gospel of justification by faith alone, and that this justification stood in direct opposition to the beliefs of the Jews in the first century. Even a Sunday school student could explain that Pharisees and Sadducees (and all other brands of Jews!) were laboring with all their energy to be justified by “works,” hoping they could generate a sufficient surplus of good deeds to offset the weight of sin accumulating on the other side of the scales of justice. Judgment day before God, for these industrious Jews, would culminate in that terrifying moment when they would discover whether they had done enough to merit their salvation. So misguided were these Jews that they failed to perceive that even their best efforts at keeping the law were doomed from the start, for they failed to realize that the law must be kept perfectly, if it were to be useful at all for earning salvation. Then they failed to realize that the law was, even in principle, impossible to fulfill. Worst of all, they failed to realize that their very effort in obeying the law constituted the profound crime of denying the pure grace of God. While these Jews clung to the law, to meritorious strivings, and fleshly boasting in human accomplishment, Paul and the true gospel stood on the other side of a deep chasm, in different theological territory altogether, glorying in faith, in God’s work alone, in unilaterally operative grace, and in the power of the Spirit.
The power of such a vision of Paul’s fellow, unbelieving Jews comes in part from the way Paul’s own letters seem precisely to confirm such a view of Jewish beliefs in that day, in part from the obviousness that such a vision now enjoys as the default setting of most Protestant spirituality, and in part because it clarifies our own Protestant identity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism. Were any feature of this portrait of Judaism altered, then Paul’s impassioned arguments could seem misdirected, and the basic insights of the Reformation itself would be called into question.
The approach of Sanders was to reconstruct the theological self-understanding of Jews in Paul’s day, not by combing back through the Pauline letters themselves, but by freshly examining Jewish religious literature itself within that general time frame. After evaluating various Rabbinic materials, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and selected portions of the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Sanders offered his surprising conclusions—that is, the various streams of Judaism agreed with each other in viewing salvation as resting solely in the electing grace of God, while the matters of reward and punishment operate secondarily within the assurance of salvation already established by that election.
In Sanders’ view, Paul’s teaching adopted the very same theological structure as did the Judaism of his day. “Getting in,” and thereby belonging to the people of God in their stream of salvation, occurred simply as the sheer, mysterious, unilateral grace of God. “Staying in,” and maintaining one’s position within this grace, would depend upon the intention and effort to be obedient to God’s will. For both Judaism and Paul, obedience need not be perfect, since God has provided means of atonement for sins committed. In neither system did human obedience function as a meritorious cause of final salvation, only as the condition for final salvation. This systematic parallel between Paul and Judaism reveals, then, that the two did not differ because one embraced human works while the other rejected human works. Rather, their difference lay in what they identified as the ultimate expression of God’s unilateral grace toward humanity. Was it to be found in the Mosaic covenant and law, or in christocentric redemption? Paul’s shift from the former to the latter in locating the pinnacle of God’s saving grace explains his difference with Judaism, and therefore his primary point of debate with it. As Sanders famously expressed it, “This is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity” (552).
Westerholm’s survey of the history of the New Perspective will provide helpful orientation for the student in tracking the widening and deepening discussion that Sanders has provoked (cf. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics [Eerdmans, 2004]). And it is important to keep in mind as one reads within this swelling tide of scholarly debate that while many do resonate in a general way with the New Perspective’s critique of the traditional Protestant understanding of Paul’s gospel (often called the “Lutheran” Paul), there is no tightly unified school of thought among writers typically identified with the “New Perspective.” The complexity of the intertwining issues allows a great many variations of thought, even among those who would agree that the “Lutheran Paul” should be put out to pasture.
Yet with that being said, two writers are generally recognized as having taking up the mantle of Sanders, in both extending and even modifying the thrust of Sanders’ program. J.D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, each in his own way, have offered extensive historical, exegetical, and theological argumentation at crucial points in the debate, and in particular regarding the “works of the law” (see the extensive bibliography related to Dunn, Wright, and their opponents at www.thepaulpage.com).
Not even the casual reader of Romans and Galatians can deny that Paul launches salvo after salvo against trusting in “the works of the law.” But what are these works? To most Protestants, as noted above, this Pauline expression (works of the law) can conveniently and without loss be reduced to the expression “works,” that are then typically identified as “any and all human moral effort to win God’s favor.” According to the traditional Protestant viewpoint, the counter proposal of Paul’s gospel argument, therefore, lands with universal impact on the pervasive human instinct to “improve my standing” before God through varying degrees of my “effort.”
But under the analysis of Dunn and Wright, the expression “works of the law” points precisely to the Jewish observance of a highly specific and reduced set of ethnic identity markers: circumcision, Sabbath, and abstinence from eating pork. They claim that Jews knew themselves to be Jews, and maintained their place in God’s covenant family, by adherence to these non-negotiable, boundary-setting pillars, even if they allowed larger moral obligations to slip away. Paul’s complaint in Rom 2 with (at least some of his fellow) Jews illustrates the point well: they boast in (the salvation guaranteed by their) circumcision, but otherwise seem morally adrift and perverse. It is particularly telling that we do not find here the morally zealous Jew (of Protestant imagination) who was expending all of his energies to accumulate good works in the hope of earning final justification. Oddly enough, for a Jew to embrace the “works of the law” in the sense just described, then, would tend not only to reduce Jewish moral obligation, but to cut the nerve of zeal to obey the whole law in all of its moral dimensions.
As can be imagined, the ensuing scholarly debate has been occupied with teasing out and evaluating the theological implications of such redefinitions, along with reexamining the historical and exegetical bases upon which they rest. Impressionistic comments scattered throughout the scholarly literature suggest that, outside evangelical circles, the “New Perspective” has won the day, and has been received as providing a much-needed corrective to the distortions inflicted upon Pauline theology by Luther in the course of his battle against the corruption of the Catholic church of his day. In evangelical circles the reception has been more varied, with most attention garnered by those who have become convinced that the New Perspective is itself a distortion based upon a selective and tendentious reading of the Jewish literary sources, and upon a similarly perverse reading of Paul. While many Evangelicals admit that Luther’s understandings at many given points must be modified, and that the tone of much Protestant writing about Jews and Jewish beliefs requires modification (and even repentance?), they would still insist that at a foundational level, Luther “got it right” and that the Protestant vision of the gospel as a word of grace over against human “effort” stands as the great recovery of Paul’s momentous breakthrough.
For those with commitment to or interest in Wesleyan theology, the New Perspective sets forth issues that bear an uncanny resemblance to those argued centuries ago by John Wesley. First, though the English reformer believed that Christians were justified before God by grace through faith as an instantaneous work of God (in so preaching, Wesley was knowingly affirming the Protestant view of Justification, and acknowledged specific indebtedness to Luther’s own writings), Wesley also taught what Luther could never imagine—that is, one’s future entry into heaven depended upon a “final justification” largely based upon works. Wesley even came to view with alarm and distrust the way in which the Lutheran exposition of justification seemed to work against his larger interest in moral transformation in holiness. While the way Sanders postulates the distinction he sees in Judaism and Paul between “getting in” (by grace) and “staying in” (by works) does not perfectly match Wesleyan vision, it nevertheless bears strong resemblance to the conjunctive instincts (faith and works) of the Oxford don.
Second, the New Perspective’s desire to narrow down the “works of the law” to the specific identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath, and food law essentially removes from the category of “works” those human behaviors many would classify as “positive moral efforts.” If such efforts no longer fall under the condemnation of the apostle as a condition for entering into the covenant of salvation, then is it possible to imagine that “trust in God’s grace” and “positive moral effort” can walk hand in hand without contradiction as appropriate behaviors for those seeking right standing with God?
Now, to be sure, no Christian theological tradition would wish to eliminate positive moral effort from the fabric of the Christian life. But in explicitly Protestant traditions, positive moral effort is carefully and emphatically made secondary to faith “alone,” whether by explaining obedience as the inevitable result of genuine faith, or by urging obedience as the appropriately grateful response to an antecedent saving grace. This obedient response, it is usually claimed, is absolutely unrelated (causally) to final salvation, though it may have direct bearing on our quality of present life, the degree of our ministerial effectiveness, or the scale of our heavenly reward.
It is at this point that some formulations of the New Perspective overlap with Wesley’s concern to deny that good works are a cause of salvation, but yet to assert that good works are indeed a condition of salvation. Such a distinction allows us to affirm the necessity of real obedience in good works, while at the same time rejecting any notion of merit in them, and rejecting any notion that we (to any degree or percentage) save ourselves. One might speak of obedience as a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of salvation.
Finally, this friendlier connection between human and divine action draws the Wesleyan interest in the “means of grace” into a more vital connection with the faith necessary for salvation (both initial and final). If we consider the means of grace (especially the so-called “appointed” means of grace) as human behaviors graciously provided to us by God (even commanded by God), graciously enabled by God, and infused with the promise of God’s gracious response to our practice of these means, then such human behaviors are the handmaid of faith, ways of saying “yes” to God by blending faith and obedience together into something more resembling a chemical solution than a clumpy amalgam. When Jesus commanded the lame man to rise and walk, can we really neatly separate the man’s faith (as if it had to be first) from his obedience (as if it had to be secondary)? Is it not possible to speak of his “obedient faith” or his “trustful obedience”? Could such a fusion of response be precisely what Paul himself envisioned as his ministry goal, that all the gentiles exhibit “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26)?