Perspectives on the Apostle Paul


What is the New Perspective all about?

Readers of Vision will realize we talk frequently about the apostle Paul. In the field of Pauline studies, we would appear to support what is known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” Yet for many, understanding the differences and the implications is not readily accomplished. It could take a book to effectively contrast Pauline perspectives. 

Last week, Bruce Fisk posted a preliminary hand-out on his blog site “Crossings” showing the basic differences of the two approaches. Bruce is preparing this for use in his class New Testament Theology and Ethics at Westmont College Santa Barbara, California, where he is Associate Professor of New Testament. Good work Bruce.

Obviously, any table such as this can only represent an overview at a particular juncture. Both arguments continue to develop and change as a result of interaction. But as one reader commented to Bruce, despite the scholarly interchange in these areas, few commentaries provide this information and the laity, as a result, have little if any real conception of the differences. With acknowledgement to Bruce, his table is reproduced below. The color coding is supplied by Bruce. Names supplied are principal contributors to the discussion.

 

Lutheran / Traditional Perspective 
versus 
The “New Perspective”


Central Concern

Justification: how can sinners be made right before God?

Gentile inclusion: on what terms may Gentiles join God’s people? 

State of 1st Century Judaism

Burdened by the Law; dead in sin; marked by hypocrisy and legalism; bound up with sin, death & law (in contrast to grace, life & faith).

Vibrant, dynamic, diverse; a religion of grace; pattern of religion: “covenantal nomism*” (Sanders); in (spiritual) exile (Wright)


*"Covenantal Nomism” (according to Sanders): the notion that the Israelite’s place in God’s plan is determined by the covenant which God established with Israel, and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace.

The Law in Judaism

Onerous burden for those who broke it; cause of boasting for those who kept it.

A gracious, delightful gift from God, “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12Ps 119:97)

Paul’s problem with Judaism

Legalism: it promotes legalistic works righteousness; merit theology; pride in accomplishments; faulty view of grace and works

Nationalism / racism / exclusivism / particularism: the role of the Law in establishing boundary markers, Jewish privilege (Dunn); “It is not Christianity” (Sanders)

Paul’s condition prior to conversion

A frustrated, guilt-ridden sinner who valued works over faith, and who struggled unsuccessfully to measure up to the Law’s demands (Rom 7:14-24). 

A Law-keeping (blameless) Pharisee who denied Jesus was God’s Messiah (Gal 1:14Phil 3:4-8). Images of a distressed Paul are projections of the West’s “introspective conscience.”

Paul’s conversion

Paul leaves his now-dead ancestral religion and its Law to trust and follow Christ. Paul rejects Law-keeping as impossible and/or pride-producing.

Paul is not “converted” from Judaism but “called” within it to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Stendahl). Paul didn’t so much convert from Judaism but to Christianity (Sanders). See 2 Cor 3:4-18Phil 3:3-11.

Justification by faith

The center / organizing principle of Paul’s Gospel: God’s gracious declaration that a sinner is right before God through his faith in Christ’s work. God’s response to human failure / pride. 

A “subsidiary crater” in Paul’s thought (Schweitzer); a polemical / apologetic doctrine developed to defend the full status of Gentile converts and to refute Jewish-Christian efforts to impose circumcision, etc. on them. 

Paul’s Gospel

Repent of dead works and trust in Christ’s atoning work to be justified / saved (Rom. 3:21-24). Key antithesis: Law versus Gospel.

Jesus is the anointed, risen and exalted Lord over all nations (Wright; Rom 1:1-5). Salvation comes by transfer to the realm of his lordship, by union with / participation in Christ (Sanders; 2 Cor 5:17Rom 6:3-7). 

Paul’s reasoning

Forward: from plight to solution: Law-sin-guilt à faith in Christ à justification apart from Law

Backward: from solution to plight (Sanders): Christ à various (unsystematic, inconsistent, incompatible) assessments of sin & Law (Gal 2:21; 3:19, 24-25; Rom 3:20; 4:15; 10:4)

Or: From plight to solution to plight (Wright): exile à Christ à sin / law

Theme of Romans

A “compendium of Christian doctrine” (Melancthon). 
A theological treatise on justification by grace through faith.
Romans 9-11 are a parenthesis.

An occasional document defending the faithfulness of God (to the nations, to Israel) and the co-equal status of Jews and Gentiles.
Romans 9-11 are the climax of the letter.

Works of the Law (erga nomou, e.g. Rom.3:28)

Striving to do good; good works performed for salvation

Observing Torah; what pious Jews do; only bad when imposed on Gentiles; passé because it excludes Gentiles.

Pistis Christou (e.g., Ga.2:16)

Faith in Christ (objective genitive; anthropological reading) (Dunn) 

Faith(fulness) of Christ = subjective genitive; Christological reading (Hays)

 


Tags: First Century, Paul, New Perspective, Luther, New Testament Theology

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