The weird and wonderful world of biblical scholarship may seem a thousand miles removed from the day to day life of ordinary Christians. To the outsider, biblical scholarship looks like a strange little enclave where papers get written, learned journals get printed, books get published and theories get advanced and refuted, all with seemingly negligible effect on the day-to-day preaching of the gospel. However, looks can be deceptive. Biblical scholars tend to write (and influence) commentaries; commentaries are read by the preachers; and preachers regularly teach the Bible to their congregations. Of course, the main lesson to learn from this phenomenon is that preachers should keep reading the Bible carefully for themselves before turning to the commentaries so as to gain from the positive and avoid the negative aspects of such scholarship. But every so often, a movement comes along in biblical scholarship that has so much momentum, is so influential, and produces so many interesting insights, that it tends to shape and mould the commentaries, and hence the sermons, and hence the beliefs of ordinary Christians. Such is the influence of a movement in the world of New Testament scholarship commonly called, ‘The New Perspective on Paul’.
What is this ‘New Perspective’ all about? Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question, because the New Perspective is such a diverse movement. It is a ‘perspective’, not a creed or a religion. Different New Perspective scholars (e.g. E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright) emphasise different things, and in different ways. Furthermore, The New Perspective just won’t sit still. Many of its proponents have modified their earlier views. It develops, changes and grows with every new article and book published.
However, because it is so influential, ordinary Christians need to get some sort of handle on the New Perspective. At the very least, we need to be able to detect when our preachers are using New Perspective ideas so that we can evaluate what they are saying. How, then, can we approach such a seemingly impossible task? For those who have the time, there are big books available that survey the issues. There are also articles focussing more directly on the doctrinal and pastoral implications of the New Perspective. But in this article, I’d like to do something a bit more general. I want to present a ‘perspective’ on the New Perspective, to try to convey an overall feel for the emphases of the ‘New Perspective’, and to make some informed generalisations. I will concentrate on N. T. Wright, because he is very influential and is often in dialogue with conservative evangelicals.
What is the New Perspective reacting against?
The general aim of the New Perspective is to emphasise certain aspects of the Apostle Paul’s original teaching (mainly in his ‘early’ letters like Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians) that have been neglected by Protestants because traditional Protestants are (allegedly) too focussed on the debates of the Reformation. According to a well-known website called The Paul Page, the New Perspective is a ‘revolutionary breakthrough’ in understanding Paul’s letters. The New Perspective claims to be ‘engaging first-century Judaism on its own terms, not in the context of the Protestant-Catholic debates of the sixteenth century’. The core issue is that
‘Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about Christian grace versus Jewish legalism [because the Jews were not legalists]. His argument was rather about the status of Gentiles in the church. Paul’s doctrine of justification, therefore, had far more to do with Jewish-Gentile issues than with questions of the individual’s status before God.’
So the ‘New Perspective’ aims to present ‘new’ ways of looking at old material—so that we can better understand Paul’s letters on their own terms. The New Perspective tends to redefine traditional Protestant words and concepts, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly. Often it’s a matter of changing emphasis rather than outright denial of anything in particular. N. T. Wright, for example, is able to affirm most of the evangelical creeds, slogans, articles, etc., sometimes because he agrees wholeheartedly (e.g. on the principle of ‘Scripture Alone’), at other times because he has redefined the words so that they mean something different to their traditional interpretation (e.g. ‘justification by faith’).
Because the New Perspective tends to see itself as correcting the errors of the (Protestant) past, a good starting point is to look at some of the ‘errors’ that the New Perspective is trying to rectify.
The proponents of the New Perspective believe that they are correcting an unhealthy emphasis on individual salvation that Martin Luther began and later Protestants have perpetuated. In an influential article originally published in a psychological journal, Krister Stendahl claimed that Martin Luther’s ‘testimony of conversion’ involved a long introverted struggle with his individual conscience until finally the light dawned and he was ‘justified by faith’. According to Stendahl, Protestant theology has been unknowingly and illegitimately influenced by Luther’s individual psychological issues. According to Mark Mattison, ‘One of the primary features of the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification is an emphasis on the plight of the individual before God, an individual quest for piety apart from concrete social structures.’ As I was listening to a sermon by N. T. Wright on Romans, he was outlining God’s grand plan for salvation from creation to new creation centring on Christ. He is an engaging speaker, and was beginning to get very excited and stirred up by this topic (understandably!) Finally it appeared he could contain himself no longer and he burst exclaimed: ‘Isn’t this so much grander than the little question of “how I can be saved”?’
It must be said that this alleged ‘traditional Protestant doctrine of justification’ is not the ‘justification by faith’ that the sixteenth century Reformers believed and taught. Take Luther’s balanced summary statement in his early work about justification by faith, Concerning Christian Liberty: ‘A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.’ This work, all about ‘justification by faith’ addresses the effects of justification on all sorts of concrete social structures such as governments, neighbourhoods and churches. It concludes, ‘We conclude therefore that a Christian man does not live in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour, or else is no Christian: in Christ by faith; in his neighbour by love.’ Hearing this, it is pretty hard to accuse Martin Luther of introspective individualism!
However, there are other movements that have done their bit to contribute to individualism in modern Protestantism. German pietism, consumerism, secular individualism, existentialism (via Bultmann), and Sigmund Freud, among others, can all share some of the blame. The New Perspective is reacting against a real contemporary problem, even if it misdiagnoses the cause.
We might recall here the comic antics of Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese), in the memorable episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’. In this episode, the very English Fawlty goes to ridiculous extremes to avoid upsetting his German guests by mentioning World War II (and fails spectacularly). He constantly reminds himself and his staff: ‘Whatever you do, don’t mention the war!’.
The comedy works, of course, partly because it taps into a very serious and deep-seated sentiment in the modern Western psyche. Following the horrors of the Holocaust in Nazi Europe, ‘The West’ has an introspective corporate conscience, smitten to its core. This is, of course, understandable. Sin of this magnitude should smite our conscience!
However, some have traced the Nazi anti-Semitism back to Luther (with some cause, since Luther used harsh words for harsh times) and have thereby implicated the whole of Lutheran theology (with much less cause). The argument proceeds along the following lines. Lutheran theology was about individual faith-righteousness versus legalistic individualistic works-righteousness. Lutheran theology needed a foil, a bogeyman, an arch-nemesis which embodied legalism. Judaism became that foil, because this is Paul’s main sparring-partner. But then, enter E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) whose attempt to ‘cleanse’ the West’s corporate introspective conscience has been the most successful:
‘Sanders has coined a now well-known phrase to describe the character of first-century Palestinian Judaism: “covenantal nomism.” The meaning of “covenantal nomism” is that human obedience is not construed as the means of entering into God’s covenant. That cannot be earned; inclusion within the covenant body is by the grace of God. Rather, obedience is the means of maintaining one’s status within the covenant. And with its emphasis on divine grace and forgiveness, Judaism was never a religion of legalism.’
Traditional biblical scholarship tended to treat Paul’s letters (especially Romans) as a ‘compendium of timeless theology’, and sometimes lost sight of the historical situation that Paul was actually writing from / to / about. The New Perspective proponents aim to restore the significance of the historical particularity of Paul’s letters (especially the Jew / Gentile issue).
The loss of biblical theology
One of the problems in modern biblical scholarship (and much contemporary preaching) is that the ‘big picture’ of what the Bible is all about has been all but lost. People are so busy focussing on the particular text of Romans or Galatians that they have forgotten the fact that these books were written in the context of the whole Bible, and need to be understood in light of the big biblical story. N. T. Wright attempts to provide a coherent, reasonable picture of the whole biblical story from creation to new creation using the overarching theme of ‘covenant’.
‘What I miss entirely in the Old Perspective, but find so powerfully in some modern Pauline scholarship, is Paul’s sense of an underlying narrative, the story of God and Israel, God and Abraham, God and the covenant people, and the way in which that story came to its climax, as he says, “when the time had fully come” with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.’
According to Wright, the theme of ‘covenant’ can account for all of God’s dealings with humanity, Jew and Gentile. It is also the overarching theme behind the strong ‘community’ focus of the Bible, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the place of justification by faith and the historical specificity of biblical revelation.
A preliminary response
Unfortunately, the New Perspective tends to adopt an ‘either/or’ approach when it reacts against these perceived problems. For example, proponents of the New Perspective have perceived ‘individualism’ to be a real problem in contemporary Christianity. But their solution is often to emphasise the ‘community’ as more important than the individual, instead of trying to integrate individual and community issues together on an equal footing. This creates a tendency to lose sight of the very real individual issues that abound when it comes to salvation.
Furthermore, in reacting against anti-Semitism, the New Perspective has lost sight of the pan-human tendency for legalism and works-righteousness that was present among Judaism as it was also amongst medieval Catholicism; and as it is in our own day!
Finally, in using ‘covenant’ as the key to biblical theology, N. T. Wright has not considered other strong and coherent ways of understanding biblical theology that don’t use ‘covenant’ as their integrating theme. For example, Graham Goldsworthy’s very helpful biblical theology is based on the ‘Kingdom of God’, not on ‘covenant’.
N. T. Wright and ‘the covenant’
N. T. Wright claims that he is adopting ‘a covenantal reading of Paul’. For Wright, ‘covenant’ is the key to understanding all of Paul’s letters. Righteousness is ‘covenant membership’, justification is ‘the declaration of covenant membership’, faith is ‘the badge of covenant membership’, etc. Although Wright never really defines ‘covenant’, here (in broad brushstrokes) is what I think he means by the concept.
Basically, ‘covenant’ is the way that God relates to humanity. ‘Covenant’ defines a closely-related or even synonymous entity called the ‘people of God’ (or ‘God’s worldwide family’, or ‘The Church’). This ‘people’ has distinct ‘boundaries’ which define who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. Diagrammatically, I think this is a fair representation of Wright’s schema of the relationship between God and his people:
Wright’s view of the covenant:
This ‘people of God’ idea is very important for Wright, because it means that there are two distinct places where God works. Firstly (and most importantly), God works at the level of the ‘covenant’ between God and his ‘people’. The ‘covenant’ is where things such as righteousness, election, salvation, atonement and even (possibly) wrath belong. Secondly (dependent on the first, and quite distinct from it), there are individuals moving (or being moved) inside and outside the boundaries of God’s people.
So if you asked the question, ‘Did Jesus die to turn away God’s wrath from the sins of God’s people?’, Wright would answer, ‘Yes, absolutely!’. Because according to Wright, Jesus’ death happens at the level of God’s covenant. But if you asked the question, ‘Did Jesus die to turn away God’s wrath from me, a sinner?’, the answer tends to something along the lines of, ‘Wrong question! That’s your introspective conscience talking. That’s not what Jesus’ death was about. Just join the covenant, and everything else will be taken care of.’
What was the problem with Judaism, according to Wright? Judaism had no problem with their understanding of how God relates to the covenant. But they had too narrow a view of the extent of the people of God!
Wright’s New Perspective on Judaism:
When Christ came, he fulfilled God’s covenant by his death and resurrection. Hence the only valid ‘boundary marker’ for who is in or out of the covenant is faith in Christ, not Torah.
Wright’s New Perspective on Paul:
How ‘covenant’ redefines other concepts
Here is a summary of some of Wright’s statements in his commentary on Romans that help us to see how he redefines certain traditional Protestant words in the light of his ‘covenantal’ reading. According to Wright:
- the gospel is not a message first and foremost about how humans get saved but an announcement about Jesus, the Messiah, i.e. the covenant head of the people of God.
- the law is not a principle or a moral regulation but it is the Torah, which includes ceremonies that can estrange Jew and Gentile but whose ultimate ground is faith.
- sin is not individual transgression of the rules of the law but The fall of Adam, in which all humans are incorporated. Its main effect is estrangement between people, particularly Jew and Gentile.
- God’s righteousness is not God’s justice in rewarding the godly and punishing the ungodly but God’s faithfulness to his covenant, which may even involve forgiving sinners in order to remain faithful to the covenant.
- our righteousness is not an undeserved, imputed state of non-condemnation from God but membership of the covenant people of God.
- justification is not a description of how somebody becomes a Christian but the verdict of righteousness at the last day based on covenant membership, now able to be pronounced on all who have the badge of covenant membership (faith).
- grace is the work of Christ in bringing us into the covenant plus the work of the Spirit in making us act in line with the covenant.
- sacrifice / propitiation is the mysterious and complex removal of God’s wrath at sin from his covenant people (not so much from the individual) by the death of the Messiah.
- faith is not a spiritual act which gains merit for the sinner in place of works [N.B. this is Wright’s understanding of the Protestant view, but not the Reformer’s view] but the badge of membership in the people of God, given by God’s sheer grace, which includes Christlike trust and active Christlike loyalty to God.
- works are not the keeping of moral regulations to earn God’s favour but ceremonies which distinguish Israel from the nations
So the most serious consequence of Wright’s ‘covenantal reading of Paul’ is that he has drastically reconfigured the idea of ‘justification by faith’ in Paul’s letters. According to Wright, justification is simply one aspect of the covenant between God and his people. ‘[J]ustification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated [. . .] the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation.’ This means that for Wright, the covenantal ‘people of God’ becomes a sort of mediator between the individual believer and Christ’s cross. Once you join the ‘people’, your vindication is guaranteed. The individual is not so much justified by faith (according to the traditional Protestant understanding) as declared a member of the covenant people by virtue of wearing the ‘covenant badge’ of faith. Wright claims that when Paul says that we are now ‘justified by faith’ what he means is that we are members of the people of God—and since we will therefore be vindicated on the last day, we can even now be declared ‘vindicated’ on the basis of our covenant membership. Paul was not primarily interested in the justification of the individual sinner. He was much more interested in whether an individual was a member of the people of God.
Problems with ‘the covenant’
‘The people of God’?
I hope that the above discussion has already shown the absurdity of drawing a distinction between the ‘people’ of God and the individual persons who make up that people. Let me take a familiar example (at least to me!). I love my family. When I say this, I am saying absolutely synonymously that I love my wife, I love my daughter and I love my son. My ‘family’ consists in the individuals who make it up. It does not exist, in either practice or in theory, apart from these individuals. It would be absurd to say, ‘I love my family. What is my family? My family is defined by certain covenantal boundary markers – we live together, we eat together, you trust me, etc. If you are part of my family, then I will love you as an individual, too.’ This is a crazy distinction. But it appears this is the way ‘people of God’ is, in practice, used by Wright.
I think the following diagram presents a better understanding of the ‘people of God’.
Covenant: What Saint Paul Rarely Said?
There is also an important question that Wright does not appear to have properly addressed in his writings: Is ‘covenant’ really the primary category of relationship in the Bible? Does ‘covenant’ really hold the testaments together? Jesus’ first words in his public ministry were ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15), not ‘The covenant has reached a climax’! Paul uses terms like ‘faith’ and ‘righteousness’ far more often than he uses the term ‘covenant’ (only nine times in all his letters). When Paul does use the term ‘covenant’, he usually speaks of covenants (plural), or of a ‘new covenant’ (Gal 3:15, 3:17, 4:24; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; Rom 9:4; Eph 2:12). Wright is too quick to assume that ‘covenant’, rather than (for example) ‘gospel’ and ‘kingdom’, is the main link that ties Paul to his Old Testament background.
I argue in my essay The Fulfilment of the Covenants: an Acovenantal Perspective on Paul that the way that N. T. Wright and others in the New Perspective use the term ‘covenant’ is unbiblical. The New Perspective’s use of the term ‘covenant’ is more akin to the sociological notions of the ancient Qumran sectarians than it is to the Old or New testaments. Rather, Paul’s view of the relationship between God and Christians is ‘acovenantal’. ‘Covenant’ is an inappropriate category for describing the fundamental character of a Christian’s relationship with God. Rather, the covenants were instruments that God used historically to bring about such a relationship. The ‘new covenant’ is not a ‘new relationship with God’, but Christ’s atoning death and the apostolic preaching of the gospel. The covenants inform our relationship with God, but the relationship itself is not a covenant. The relationship is best expressed as spiritual union with Christ by faith.
Learning from the New Perspective
While the New Perspective has some pretty serious flaws, it also has a number of helpful things to say. Before moving on to the dangers in the New Perspective, it’s worth pointing out some of the things we can learn from it.
The proponents of the New Perspective are good at pointing out things in Paul’s letters that a lot of contemporary evangelicalism tends to neglect. Although the New Perspective tends to overreact (e.g. by neglecting the importance of individual justification by faith), we can still learn it by asking ourselves if the critiques do actually apply to us. For example, are we too individualistic in our daily life and worship, spurning community and society? Are we too human-centred in our Christianity, forgetting that the gospel is actually about God’s work through Jesus, and not ‘all about us’? Are we insensitive to the historical character of Paul’s letters, treating them as direct solutions to our own problems before we understand what issues Paul was faced with in his own day?
The New Perspective is especially good at picking up ‘representative’, ‘participatory’ elements of Paul’s teaching. How often do we hear about the importance of corporately dying and rising with Christ as a basis for Paul’s ethical commands (e.g. Romans 6:3-6)? Too often, we talk about obedience to God as if it’s just a matter of being ‘grateful’ for our salvation, instead of an intrinsic aspect of who we are in Christ.
Dangers in the New Perspective
However, there are many grave dangers in the New Perspective on Paul which can’t be ignored.
Sidelining Justification by Faith
According to Wright, ‘The gospel’ of ‘Jesus is Lord’ is primarily for the world, not the individual. It is a royal pronouncement comparable with the pronouncement of an ancient emperor. The individual’s response and experience is acknowledged by Wright, but sidelined in the interests of community. But when the question, ‘How can I be saved?’ is sidelined as secondary, it doesn’t disappear. The individual believer will keep asking the question, and the answers he or she receives will be inadequate because Christ’s work has not been used to properly define his person. Jesus is Lord because of his atoning death which justifies individual sinners through faith; the two cannot be separated (e.g. Rom 4:23-5:2, 1 Cor 6:11).
Asking the question, ‘Is the gospel about Christ’s lordship or justification by faith?’ is a bit like asking the question, ‘Which leg do you want me to chop off?’ Why ask it in the first place? Are you planning to get rid of one or the other? Even though Wright protests the importance of justification by faith, by redefining it he has really made it a ‘subsidiary’ issue that is relegated to second place in the overall scheme of things.
We need to realise that there are other motivations driving these dichotomies. If justification by faith can become secondary, then there have a basis for fellowship with Catholics, Orthodox, etc. Fellowship is not bad, of course! But we need to be aware of this ecumenical agenda.
Imposing a theology of inclusion / exclusion on the whole Bible
I was recently listening to a sermon on Romans 8, directed at gospel ministers. Romans 8:1 says ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ The preacher asked us: ‘How could you be (wrongly) exercising a ministry of condemnation?’ This is a great question to ask gospel ministers! Since ‘condemnation’ is all about pronouncing guilt, announcing God’s wrath, etc, then I would have expected the preacher to go on and warn us about the danger of imposing guilt upon Christians, making them think that they are worthy of God’s anger for their sin despite Jesus’ sacrifice for them, excessively questioning them about their private lives, etc.
However, what the preacher meant by the ‘ministry of condemnation’ was a ministry that subtly ‘excluded’ certain people from the ‘evangelical camp’ because of unsavoury beliefs and not being like minded. So the ‘ministry of condemnation’ at this point means ‘exclusion’ from the theological ‘camp’.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this application. It is, in fact, sorely needed. Sometimes theology is treated as a club to bludgeon the ‘other side’ in a kind of tribal warfare. But this application should come from elsewhere (e.g. Ephesians 2:11-21, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,’). This application doesn’t really seem to follow from the context of Romans 8:1. If we mute the aspects of personal sin, wrath, condemnation, salvation, etc in those passages which most clearly speak about it (e.g. Romans 8:1), then a theology of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ may effectively end up dominating over these other very fundamental aspects of the gospel.
(Note: at first, I had thought that the preacher was operating within a framework in which ‘condemnation’ was always equivalent to ‘exclusion’, but after interaction with the preacher himself I’ve changed my mind and I have removed statements from this section of my article that implied this).
Muting the gospel
I also find intriguing a recent newspaper article by a non-Christian journalist describing her experience of having friends in a Christian group. The journalist describes how she was both attracted to and repelled by the group. The attraction, to her, was the sense of ‘community’ that gave the group cohesion and caused her to envy them. But she was also overwhelmingly repelled by their use of the word of God which, in her mind, placed ‘boundaries’ on who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. She had seemingly not heard about the death and resurrection of Christ (which is what she should have been attracted and repelled by!). That is, she had not actually heard the gospel. However, she had surmised from the speech and behaviour of this group that Christianity was all about whether you were included or excluded from the community. This may be just her misunderstanding, and certainly she does not have the full picture. However, it is worrying, because, at least in this case, the idea of ‘community’ had replaced the work of Christ as the central tenet of Christian witness to an unbeliever. The New Perspective may well have been at work in this group.
Being found outside of Christ
The greatest danger I can see is that the ‘people of God’ (in Wright especially) has been drastically redefined. It has morphed away from being the community of individuals whom God loves, and has become a separate entity which one must join. This new so-called ‘people of God’, if it isn’t held in check, may well turn into a beast that claims to be a mediator between the individual and God. In seeking to be justified by joining this alien entity, we may find ourselves outside of Christ and his benefits (cf. 1 Tim 2:5). This is a very grave danger indeed!
-  E.g. Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid (eds), Justification and Variegated Nomism (2 vols.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001 & 2004), 1-38.
-  E.g. Robert S. Smith. Justification and Eschatology: A Dialogue with ‘The New Perspective on Paul’. (Reformed Theological Review Supplement 1; Doncaster: RTR, 2001).
-  Mark Mattison, The Paul Page. This is is a great compendium of New Perspective scholarship and critiques.
-  Stendahl, ‘The Apostle Paul and Introspective Conscience of the West’, HTR 56 (1963), 199-213.
-  Mattison, The Paul Page.
-  I’m not sure if I’ve quoted him verbatim, but this was certainly the point that he was making!
-  Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
-  Mattison, The Paul Page.
-  N. T. Wright, New Perspectives on Paul (2003 Rutherford Lecture)
-  Graham Goldsworthy, According to Plan: the Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Leicester: IVP, 1991).
-  N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Oxford: Lion, 1997), 132.
-  N. T. Wright, ‘The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections’, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary In Twelve Volumes, Vol. 10 (ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 393-770, esp. 464-93.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 117-18, 160.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 131.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 131.
-  cf. N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (London: T & T Clark, 1991).
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 153-57.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 157.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 157-58.
-  Wright, Saint Paul, 158-59.