Review: Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul

Title of Work:

Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response

Author of Work:

Guy Prentiss Waters


Pastor Phil Arnold

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resize-cover-new-perspectivesThe April 2014 edition of Christianity Today features a profile of 21st century biblical scholar N. T. Wright.  On the issue’s front cover, we are told that Wright “is brilliant, prolific, and controversial – and says we’ve missed the heart of the gospel.”  Wright has, indeed, become as close to a “household” name as any biblical scholar might hope to be.  In addition to appearing on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report (June 19, 2008), entire conferences devoted to his understanding of Paul have been held by Wheaton College (Theology Conference, April 2010) and the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS Annual Meeting, November 2010).  The reason for such sustained attention to Wright’s work can be attributed to him being the most widely recognized proponent of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” a movement focused especially on Paul and the role of the law in his writings.  This new approach seeks to make sweeping changes in the traditional understanding of the main doctrinal emphases in Paul’s epistles.

In his book Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, Waters seeks to provide a succinct summary of the “New Perspectives” and give a critique of these positions in the interest of defending the traditional understanding of Paul’s letters.  Waters puts forth the following three purposes of the volume: “…to give an exposition of what leading scholars, recognized as proponents of the NPP [New Perspectives on Paul], are saying about the theology of Paul and related issues…to show how the NPP emerges from an academic and theological discussion that predates it by more than two centuries…to illustrate the ways in which the NPP deviates from the doctrines set forth in the Westminster Standards” (ix-x).  Waters feels his study is necessary “in view of the potential dangers to the church that are occasioned by enthusiastic and uncritical receptions of the NPP” (xi).

The first section of the book seeks to “set the stage” for evaluating the NPP by tracing the historical development of Pauline scholarship.  Beginning with the Reformation, Waters commends Luther and Calvin for laying “the foundation for exegesis of Paul that was both grammatically and historically grounded, while sensitive to the insights and reflections of past interpreters” (3).  He then traces how the Reformers’ convictions concerning the centrality of the doctrine of justification were lost in the midst of 19th century continental rationalism, as represented by F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School (3-6).  The deterioration of the Reformation view of Paul then continued into the twentieth century with the development of historical-critical exegetical methods within liberal theology (7-9), the history of religions school or Religionsgeschichteschule (9-10), and culminating in the writings of Albert Schweitzer (10-12).  After these developments, the two major questions circulating in critical studies of Paul’s works were: 1) What is the “core” of Paul’s theology?  and 2) Was Paul more heavily influenced by Jewish or Greek (Hellenistic) theology? (12-13).

Waters’ overview of significant twentieth century interpreters revolves around Rudolf Bultmann, W. D. Davies, and Ernst Käsemann.  Bultmann is especially significant for his construction of 1st century Judaism as primarily Pelagian in nature, a system that Paul was rejecting as a possible way of having a right relationship with God.  The rejection of this basic understanding and a reconstruction of 1st century Judaism would serve as the basis for much of NPP’s rejection of traditional understandings.  W. D. Davies, on the other hand, argued that Paul “had no fundamental soteriological controversy or disagreement” with Pharisaic Judaism (20) and his views opened the door to critical understandings of Paul that were sympathetic (as opposed to antithetic) to 1st century Judaism.  Finally, Waters considers how Käsemann anticipated contemporary NPP understandings by redefining the term “righteousness of God” as a “cosmic, saving power” which “for all intents and purposes forfeited forensic language” in justification (22).

The historical overview continues with the introduction of Krister Stendahl, whose articles “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” and “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles” (1976) argued that “the conversion experiences of Luther and Augustine had tinctured the West’s reading of Paul” and “had taken a relatively minor component of Paul’s thought (justification by faith alone), turning it into the center…and had sidelined more significant themes, such as the role of Jews and Gentiles in the plan of God” (23).  Stendahl then concluded that the true emphases of Paul’s epistles is primarily ecclesiological and corporate in nature (that is, focusing on how God included both Jews and Gentiles into one people) rather than soteriological and individualistic in nature (that is, focusing on how the individual sinner relates to God) (32-33).  Stendahl’s views would resurface in modern NPP readings of Paul as an emphasis on the corporate over the individual and the minimization of the doctrine of imputation.

Having considered the historical development of Pauline studies, Waters begins the second part of his book which aims at describing the position of several leading proponents of the NPP.  The first scholar considered is E. P. Sanders, whose unique contribution to the discussion “consists in synthesizing many diverse strands of Pauline interpretation that have preceded him, and in presenting a case grounded on a fresh reading of the primary sources pertinent to ancient Judaism” (35).  Sanders posits that there was an emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness in 1st century Judaism and the characterization of Judaism as a “religion of works” is unfairly harsh. Waters commends Sanders for his careful analysis of Second Temple Period literature which “has provided a more balanced picture than prevailed in earlier German scholarship, viz. of a purely Pelagian system” (55).  However, Sanders’s conclusion that Judaism was a “religion of grace” must be rejected because “at least some of its teachers on some occasions proclaim that an adherent is ultimately accepted at the bar of judgment because the sum total of his good deeds outweigh the sum total of his bad deeds” (57).

The second primary contribution Sanders makes to the discussion is his insistence that “Paul proceeds logically from solution to plight” (64), a line of argument that results in Paul making contradictory assertions about the law.  Sanders proposed that sometimes Paul presents a negative view of the law in view of Messiah’s appearance to save all mankind (65-66), while maintaining elsewhere his (primarily Jewish) conviction that the law is essentially good (67).  By means of evaluating Sanders’s comments on various important Pauline passages, Waters shows why Sanders concludes that Paul “is not a consistent or systematic but a coherent thinker” and notes that “[t]his has become an increasingly common distinction employed by New Testament scholars” (89).

The next two proponents of NPP understandings of Paul are Heikki Räisänen and James D. G. Dunn.   Räisänen – who receives only a very brief treatment (91-96) – represents a radically critical reading of Paul.  Räisänen suggests that the apostle “has deliberately misrepresented Judaism’s soteriology by representing Judaism to teach that the law is the means to righteousness” (95).  In other words, Räisänen proposed that, in the midst of his argument with the Judaizers, “Paul chose several ‘ad hoc’ and contradictory arguments to serve his immediate interests, even to the point of arguing ‘more radically than his natural reasoning would suggest’” (96).  Waters suggests that Räisänen is not primarily important for his impact of other NPP proponents, but because he “takes components of Sanders’s proposal to their logical conclusion” (91).

The next figure, James D. G. Dunn, is treated in much greater detail (96-117).   Dunn – who is credited with coining the term “New Perspective on Paul” – proposes that the phrase “works of the law” in Paul is representative of “The whole pattern of Jewish obedience to the Mosaic Law” and was viewed by 1st century Jews as “boundary-marking ordinances” (116).  These ordinances, Dunn argues, inevitably became a source of privilege and pride, leading Jews to improperly exclude Gentiles from God’s covenant people.  For Dunn, then, the “works of the law” are not “good works in general or any attempt by the individual to amass merit for himself, but…that pattern of obedience by which ‘the righteous’ maintain their status within the people of the covenant.”  This leads to Dunn’s conclusion that Paul’s critique of the law is in Israel’s “misplaced emphasis on boundary marking ritual…a tool of sin in its too close identification with matters of the flesh…a focus for nationalistic zeal” (98).

Another important aspect of Dunn’s contribution to this discussion is his understanding that the term “righteousness” in Paul does not have a “fundamentally forensic” meaning, but is “primarily relational and transformative” (98).  For Dunn, being “righteous” does not describe one’s transfer into the kingdom of God, but “as an acknowledgment or declaration that one is already in the community of the saved” (104).  This idea – a common thread running through many NPP views of Paul – essentially turns the believer’s acts of covenant obedience into the means by which he or she remains in the covenant.

The final scholar in Waters’ consideration of NPP proponents is N.T. Wright (119-149).  Wright is of special significance because he – more than any of the other scholars previously discussed – is responsible for bringing NPP views out of the academy and mediating “NPP exegesis into the mainline and evangelical churches” (119).  Waters suggests Wright has been successful in influencing conservative evangelicals because “his interest in engaging the text as it stands has won him the respect of many younger evangelicals in the academy” (120).  Because of Wright’s continuing popularity and influence, his NPP views are especially important to consider.

One of the main ideas that sets Wright apart from other NPP proponents is his overarching conviction that “story” or “narrative”– at least indirectly – contains “an inherent bias against doctrinal formulation and linear, logical reasoning, a predisposition against conceiving of the relationship of God and man in vertical terms.  Rather, Wright is inclined to understand that relationship in essentially horizontal categories” (121).

A second important aspect of Wright’s reading of the New Testament is his conviction that “in biblical thought, sin and evil are seen in terms of injustice – that is, of fracturing of the social and human fabric.”  For Wright, then, God’s “righteousness” is not a gift he imputes to those who have sinned against his timeless, moral commands, but is “covenant faithfulness” or the “instrument of putting the world to rights – of what we might call cosmic restorative justice” (125).

Similarly, “faith” for Wright is primarily “the covenant faithfulness of Jesus, not the believer’s subjective appropriation of Christ’s propitiatory death” (134).  This view is illustrated in Wright’s comments on Romans 5:18-19.  In his interpretation of these verses, “Wright…explicitly repudiates the traditional view that this verse teaches that Christ’s active and passive obedience are imputed to those whom he represents” (135).  When “faith” is attributed to the individual believer, Wright conceives of it “as faithfulness or a life of covenantal faithful obedience [as] the ground of the believer’s future justification” (139).  Both of these definitions are significantly different from the traditional, Reformation understanding of faith and illustrate Wright’s predisposition toward thinking of religion in horizontal rather than vertical terms.

The third and final section of Waters’ book provides a critique of NPP views and explores the ramifications of an uncritical adoption of its ideals.  The first major criticism of NPP proponents is based on hermeneutical principles, especially surrounding academic reconstructions of Second Temple Judaism.  Waters argues that “The NPP operates with the mistaken principle that the interpretation of Paul is to be controlled by a scholarly reconstruction of Judaism” which is itself difficult to ascertain and subject to interpretation (154-155).  The most compelling argument Waters makes on hermeneutical grounds is the idea of using this scholarly reconstruction of the Second Temple period as a “lens” through which Paul must be read.  He poignantly concludes this argument with the plea: “Let us not predetermine what Paul is or is not permitted to teach and so miss what the apostle is communicating to us” (155).

Waters’ second major criticism of NPP proponents is on exegetical grounds.  Briefly examining several key Pauline texts (Romans 11:5-6; Romans 3:20; Romans 4:4-5; Romans 9:30-32; Romans 10:5; Philippians 3:2-11; Ephesians and the Pastorals), Waters shows how the leading proponents of NPP views depart from traditional Reformation understanding of justification.  While Waters’s argument for each passage deserves its own careful study, we should especially note the widely-held conviction among NPP proponents that Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles are not genuine Pauline letters, allowing them to dismiss or ignore verses in these letters which strongly undermine NPP thought (167-168).

The third critique of NPP views put forth by Waters is on theological grounds.  Especially important to Waters are NPP tendencies to downplay (or explicitly deny) the doctrine of imputation of Adam’s sin or Christ’s righteousness to the individual believer (187), the minimization of the “forensic” nature of God’s grace in favor of a “transformative” view (188), and a denial that justification is primarily soteriological rather than ecclesiological in nature (189-190).

The final chapter of the book explores what Waters considers to be the most dangerous “implications” of NPP views for conservative Christianity.  It should be noted that – more than any other part of the book – Waters’ commitment to Reformed theology is evident in this chapter.  Remember that his express purpose is “to illustrate the ways in which the NPP deviates from the doctrines set forth in the Westminster Standards” (ix-x).  Confessional Lutherans can expect to disagree about those doctrinal convictions which separate the Westminster Standards from the Lutheran Confessions.  Nevertheless, most of the issues Waters raises are equally application to confessional Lutherans.  Of particular importance are the implications of the NPP concerning the method of “doing” theology (192), the reliability of Scripture (193), the definitions of justification (194) and faith (195), and the meaning of Christ’s atoning death (194-195).  The chapter concludes with some suggestions as to why NPP views are making inroads into conservative evangelical circles despite the hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological difficulties that come with them.

Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul will serve the Lutheran well as an introduction to the greatest Pauline controversy of our day.  The strengths of this volume include its historical overview of Pauline studies that have led to NPP views, its concise presentation of its leading proponents, and the frank discussion of an uncritical reception of its ideas.  In addition, Waters provides a helpful annotated, chronological bibliography which allows an interested individual to go into greater depth.  While the confessional Lutheran may not completely agree with all of Waters’ doctrinal conclusions, he will generally appreciate his traditional understanding of Pauline doctrine and his concerns about the implications of NPP to the church.

Guy Prentiss Waters is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.  He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (B.A., Greek and Latin), Westminster Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Duke University (Ph. D. in religion, with concentrations in New Testament, Old Testament, and ancient Judaism).  At Duke he studied under Richard B. Hays and E. P. Sanders, two leading expositors of the New Perspectives on Paul.  Waters is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in America.  He is also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute of Biblical Research.