Friday, December 31, 2010

The New Perspective on Paul and Theology

A third post on the New Perspective on Paul in as many days… This will probably mark the end of this discussion for a while on this blog, but these thoughts were inspired by another section of the response to my initial post by my friend Nick.  This is not as much a rejoinder to his comments as just continued thinking inspired by his comments, so no quotation here.

The basic thought is this: does the debate about "Justification" that swirls around the NPP necessarily follow from what the NPP says or is it something resulting from other doctrinal debates that the NPP simply interacts with?  My theory is this: the difference between the Reformed "traditional" understanding of Justification and the "NPP" understanding of Justification, particularly as found in NT Wright, has more to do with Wright being of the Anglican tradition, and thus closer to Catholic theology to begin with, than it has to do with something that the NPP actually says.

In its most basic form it seems that the New Perspective is arguing for a reading of Paul's statements about the law in light of the Second Temple understanding of the law as a boundary marker setting apart the Jews as the people of God.  I have argued in the previous two posts that this idea is somewhat present in the Old Testament law itself- the people are to be different from the world around them.  However, it seems to have gained a new level of exclusivity in the Second Temple period, leading to a debate about whether gentile converts to Christianity had to submit to Jewish legal practices. 

In and of itself I think this is as far as the New Perspective has to go.  Theological questions about the meaning of justification or the order of salvation are not themselves issues of Biblical Studies proper and the New Perspective, in its pure form, is part of the discipline of Biblical Studies.  However, inevitably Theology and Biblical Studies are linked and we do move from Paul to our theology and ask these questions.  One criticism that has often been levied against the NPP is that there is no unified NPP understanding of justification or other such theological issues.  However, because such questions necessarily involve a move beyond simply interpreting the text to a theological proposition in which other factors come into play, it may not be possible to have a consensus on such questions.  So the former Church of England Bishop NT Wright, who has a tendency toward a more Catholic theology anyway, takes a much more Catholic sounding reading of Justification from the NPP, arguing that inclusion in Christ leads to a "life lived" on which the basis of final judgment will be made.  In contrast, the very Reformed (though interestingly, now Methodist) James Dunn argues (as best I understand him) that the question of Justification is not an individual doctrine but pertains to the entire community found in Christ (and not exclusively the community found in the Jewish law).

Essentially, the point of this post is fairly simple.  I am arguing that the New Perspective itself does not dictate a particular theology.  The New Perspective is an attempt to read Paul in light of his Second Temple influences, which I have argued also gives a reading with much more continuity to the Old Testament than a "traditional"/dispensational reading of Paul.  Beyond that, as we develop a theology from Paul, there are a variety of other factors that come into play that will shape that theology.  I'm not sure that distinction has been appreciated enough in debates and discussions about the NPP.  Most "Reformed" critics of the New Perspective that I have read immediately attack the theological conclusion of Wright, for instance, without recognizing that his theological conclusion has as much to do with his Anglicanism as it does his understanding of Second Temple Judaism.  In doing so, I think they miss the mark and in effect are not actually dealing with the issues raised by the NPP.  This may be the greatest irony of the debate- a tradition founded on the principle of sola scriptura is more concerned with preserving a particular theology than dealing with issues related to the interpretation of the text.


  1. I agree that the NPP does not necessarily lead to this view on justification. You wrote:

    "In contrast, the very Reformed (though interestingly, now Methodist) James Dunn argues (as best I understand him) that the question of Justification is not an individual doctrine but pertains to the entire community found in Christ (and not exclusively the community found in the Jewish law)."

    This seems to be the heart of the issue, in my opinion. I think that many of these doctrinal issues try to systematize that which is transcendent. In doing so they are forced to provide metaphorical language as a means to explain what actually happens in justification. From this it seems to me possible that Wright & the reformers are coming at this daunting task from two different angles. As you have noted Wright and Dunn both seem to focus on how justification functions in relation to the community, whereas the reformers focus more on justification in relation to the individual. Obviously more work must be done, but I see these as able to be reconciled. Perhaps one group is holding the tail and the other the trunk, but they don't yet know it is the same animal.

  2. David,

    Thanks for the comment, bro! That is very interesting, I hadn't thought of it quite that way before. But I think you may be on to something. Definitely food for thought!


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