Saturday, 14 April 2012

What is the ‘new perspective on Paul’?

1. Introduction

The Reformation generated arevival within Christian theology. It is very well-known that Martin Luther found great relief from a guilty conscience in discovering that salvation was by grace alone, a gift of God not dependent on works of the law. By ‘works ofthe law’ Luther understood this to be works-righteousness, or in laymen’s terms: doing good acts. Therefore, he developed an understanding of first century Judaism, justification and church governance that was built upon these assumptions. Theology since Luther has used his understanding of these concepts as presuppositions for developing church doctrine. Generally speaking such theologians are today labelled ‘Reformed’ and would be thought to be ‘Old Perspective’. [1]

The New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP) claims that Luther had an incorrect understandingof first century Judaism, and related it too closely with the unreformed Catholicism of his day.[2] With a fresh understanding of first century Judaism one begins to understand Paul’s polemics with the Judaizers in Romans and Galatians (and other books) in a different light. By changing the definition of the foundational tenets of the Christian faith, the ramifications are vast, affecting many areas of theology, doctrine and church practice.

2. Brief History of NPP

Initial murmurings of an NPP were published in 1963 in an article by Krister Stendahl that questioned the traditional understanding of Paul’s writings.[3]However, this article is not frequently cited as the beginning of NPP scholarship,but rather E. P. Sanders’ work: Paul and Palestinian Judaism published in 1977 is more widely recognised as the ground breaking piece of scholarship in this area. Sanders is the first member of what is known as the ‘big three’ in terms of NPP studies. In this book he argued for what he names ‘Covenantal Nomism’,which I will expand upon below. Later, in the 1980s, James Dunn joined the chorus of authors espousing a form of NPP, the second of the three. Lastly, N.T. Wright completes the trio, with the well known book entitled What Saint Paul Really Said published in1997. NPP has, since the publication of Wright’s book, become increasingly well known. This is due to Wright’s ability to write on a popular level, which has also brought the debate into the ‘public square’.[4]

3. Areas of Debate

As I mentioned in the introduction the NPP has ramifications for all aspects of theology. As such, I have only highlighted below what I believe to be the main areas in which NPPhas changed our interpretation of Paul’s writings.

3.1. Covenantal Nomism

‘Covenantal Nomism’ is a phrase Sanders uses to describe first century Jewish understanding of the means of salvation. Sanders questioned Luther’s work-righteousness model, primarily by analysing first century extra-Biblical Jewish sources. He argues that Jewish understanding of the means of salvation was primarily by their faith in Covenant:

Brieflyput, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan isestablished on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as theproper response of man his obedience to its commandments.[5]

Jews, he states, therefore believe in salvation by grace; grace by which God chose them to be in the Covenant through Abraham, and in which each Jew needs to ensure he/she stays, by being righteous.[6]This is different to a system of legalism because through covenantal nomism the aim is to stay in the covenant, where legalism aims to get into thecovenant.[7]As a result, salvation-history was thought to be nationally defined. Symbols of membership to the Jewish race were circumcision and adherence to the Jewish law, which have been called identity markers by James Dunn.[8] Wright also agrees with Sanders’ hypothesis, but believes that he has not followed his argument through to its logical conclusions in regard to the doctrine of justification, which we will come onto review below. [9]

However, John Piper questions the foundational tenets of Covenantal Nomism by highlighting the irony that NPP scholars ‘bring their assured interpretations of extra-biblical texts to illumine their less sure reading of biblical texts.’[10]Piper attacks Covenantal Nomism because it has such (negative) far reaching effects on the rest of theology – which we will move on to look at below.

3.2. Justification

As stated above, the aim of this essay is not to analyse all the issues arising from the NPP, certainly not to analyse all of Paul’s writings. Therefore, I hope to look at two sections of Paul’s epistles, one from Galatians and one from Romans, in reference to the doctrine of Justification.

3.2.1. Identity Markers: Galatians 2:12-21

Dunn believes Sanders made Paul make an ‘arbitrary jump’[11]from faith in the law to faith in Christ. Dunn fills in the gaps with an exposition of Galatians, and argues that Paul was not breaking with the law,but rather broadening the concept of covenant by focussing on the Abrahamic covenant, rather than the Mosaic covenant, because it was promised to Abraham that ‘through your offspring shall all nations be blessed.’[12]

A pivotalpassage in NPP studies is Galatians 2: 11-21. Here Paul recalls a crisis in the church in Antioch. Peter and Barnabas had withdrawn from eating with the Gentile believers when a group of Christians ‘came from James’, presumably from the church in Jerusalem. Paul opposed Peter publically: ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like aJew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ He goes on to substantiate this remark by arguing that ‘we know’ that no-one can be saved by works of the law, but rather by faith in Christ. Dunn argues, due to the content of the wider letter, that what Paul is arguing against is a presumption that God will judge according to whether or not one observed the Sabbath, was circumcised and other laws including abstinence from unclean foods:
WhenPaul denied the possibility of ‘being justified by works of the law’ it isprecisely this basic self understanding that Paul is attacking . . . the ideathat God’s verdict of acquittal hangs to any extent on the individual’s havingdeclared his membership of the covenant people by embracing these distinctivelyJewish rites.[13]

Due to the context ofGalatians 2: 11-21 I am inclined to agree with Dunn. Andrew Wilson helpfully comments that the NPP has brought new insight to passages like Galatians 2:11-21, but that other passages of scripture, such as Ephesians 2, are still more naturally interpreted in an ‘Old Perspective’ framework.[14]

3.2.2 Works of the law: Romans 2:12-16

Paul argues that salvation is found by faith in Christ alone, not by works of the law. But Covenantal Nomism has changed our perception of what ‘works of the law’ are. This has a direct impact on our understanding of Justification. For if we are saved by faith as opposed to Jewish national/covenantal participation Paul may not be arguing that one cannot be saved by work-righteousness. No NPP scholar claims Paul is saying we are saved by works, but rather that the emphasis changes with our understanding of Covenantal Nomism, and therefore works might play a more prominent role than Luther and those since have believed.

Wright has successfully popularised the issue causing Piper to respond directly, due, hestates, to his responsibilities as a pastor. [15]Wright argues that final justification is ‘on the basis of an entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is . . . on the basis of ‘works.’’[16]This has caused a torrent of accusations that Wright is proclaiming a salvation apart from faith in Christ. He responds:

When,by clear implication, I am charged with encouraging believers to put theirtrust in someone or something ‘other than the crucified and resurrected Saviour’,I want to plead guilty – to this extent and this extent only: that I also say,every time I repeat one of the great historic creeds, that I trust in the HolySpirit.[17]

Piper, however, also says that he believes in the necessity of a transformed life by the power of the Holy Spirit, but argues that Wright’s phraseology is misleading. By claiming that Justification is on the basis of good works Wright implies that one can rely on good works as well as Christ’s sacrifice for one’s Justification. Piper writes that it is better ‘to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ.’[18]

Wright and Piper’s exegeses of Romans 2:12-16 are enlightening. Wright looks at the smaller details of chapter 2, while Piper takes an interpretation from the broadermeaning of the passage, which is ironic since both theologians tend to work the other way around. Wright places a lot of weight on verse 13, claiming that heanswers his critics saying ‘I did not write Romans 2; Paul did’[19],which, arguably, is quite beside the point. However, since verse 13 says; ‘the doer of the law will be justified’ Wright claims that Paul is laying out the first principles for Justification by works, in which those born by the Spirit will be seen to be justified by the works that they have performed in this life.Wright sees the ‘doers of the law’ as Christians at the final judgement. He argues that those who believe that Romans 2:12-16 is an ‘elaborate charade’,that is, hypothetical because chapter 3 tells us that no-one is a doer of thelaw, put forward a ‘desperate suggestion exegetically’[20]

On the contrary, Piper does not believe that hypothetical language in Romans 2 at all constitutes a ‘charade’, but rather provides foundational teaching for Romans 3. At the beginning of chapter 2 Paul claims that all will be held accountable to God. Romans 2: 12-16 deals with the question: how can the Jews and the Gentiles both be judged impartially if only the Jews had the Law? Paul’s answer across chapters 2 and 3 is to say that both Jews and Gentiles had a form of the law,and neither kept the law. Piper follows Tom Schreiner’s careful analysis of the arguments and points to verse 14 and comments that if indeed the passage is referring to Christian Gentiles; it would imply that believers are a ‘law to themselves’, which seems unlikely.[21]
Interestingly, the comparisons made by Paul between the Lawand Gentile conscience in this passage imply that the ‘law’ is primarily a moral code. As such, when Paul says that no-one is saved through works of the law later in Romans, is he not also implying that no-one, especially Gentiles, is saved through moral works? NPP scholars state that ‘works of the law’ are primarily identity markers which include moral precepts. However, this passage implies that Paul is teaching that a Gentile is not saved by their works of the law; Gentiles cannot be saved by following their conscience, by doing good. This is clearly stated by Paul: ‘they are a law to themselves’. Therefore, Covenantal Nomism can only go so far, and cannot rule out the possibility that Paul treated the law and conscience as synonymous.

4. Conclusion

Kevin Vanhoozer very helpfully summarises the debate on justification, and provides a promising conclusion. With reference to the debate surrounding ‘works of the law’ and the‘righteousness of God’ he says that Piper and Wright have been using different types of law court constructions in which to mould their views that has lead to considerable confusion. Piper models a criminal court where individuals are acquitted, Wright a civil court where you are shown to be a part of God’speople[22].Vanhoozer suggests that perhaps we should use a family court where Christians are adopted and imputed filial status. This construction is the ‘best of Wright and the best of the Reformed tradition.’[23]This model does justice to the truth of Wrights position that morality and covenant matters, in that one is shown to be in the family of God. It also does justice to Piper’s position in that filial status is imputed to the individual.

Therefore in conclusion, the NPP has revealed many new and helpful insights into scripture, especially Galatians, which has shaken up the protestant world. Although, as I have shown above, some of the conclusions made by the NPP scholars, in my opinion, go too far. In the end, I believe Vanhoozer’s position will provide the happy balance in which Paul’s writings will be best understood.

Appendix 1: Righteousness of God

Wright has suggested that thereformed understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans 3:21-26 isincorrect. He supplies a very helpful table that can be viewed in appendix 2.Wright argues for a righteousness that is part of God, both subjectively andpossessively, A1b in the table. And thus, the righteousness of God, Wrightexplains, is a forensic term taken from the law courts. Dikaiosune can mean ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice,’[24]and therefore Wright is thinking here of Justice being distributed in court. Heargues that the definition of justification/righteousness is God’s ‘covenantalfaithfulness’[25]declaring one righteous on the basis of works empowered by the Holy Spirit,rather than imputed righteousness. However, Sanders did not take this line ofargument as far as Wright, for he still saw warrant for Imputed righteousnessin scripture. [26]

Pipercriticises Wright for ‘stretching Paul’s language to breaking point.’[27]He is joined by Stephen Westerholm who states that God’s righteousness andGod’s promises are not synonymous.[28]He goes on to explain:

Inbrief “God’s righteousness” need notmean his “covenant faithfulness”; given Paul’s inattention to matterscovenantal, it is unlikely that it would do so; and nothing from the contextsin which he uses the term requires such a sense.[29]

As such, although Wright mayhave helpful ecumenical motivations for his position on Romans 3 and the‘righteousness of God’, it is by no means watertight.

Appendix 2: Wright,What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 101

A. God's own righteousness
A1. Righteousness as a moral quality ('of God' - possessive genitive)
A1a. Distributive justice.
A1b. Covenant faithfulness.
A2. Righteousness as God's salvation-creating power ('of God' - Subjective genitive)
A2a. Acts of covenant faithfulness
A2b. Non-covenantal world-defeating actions
B. A righteousness given to humans
B1. Righteousness as a righteous standing 'from God' ('of God' as a genitive of Origin)
B1a. Imputed righteousness
B1b. Imparted righteousness
B2. Righteousness as a quality 'which comes before God' or 'avails with God' ('of God' - objective genitive)
B2a. A natural quality recognised by God
B2b. A special gift from God, then recognised as such.



  1. Dunn, James, The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, Germany, 2005
  2. Dunn, James, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Eerdmans, 1998
  3. Sanders, E. P., Paul, Past Masters Series, Oxford University Press, 1991
  4. Wright, N. T., What Saint Paul Really Said, Lion Publishing, 1997
  5. Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s plan and Paul’s Vision, SPCK Publishing, 2009
  6. Piper, John, The Future of Justification, Inter-Varsity Press, 2008
  7. Gombis, Timothy, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed, T&T Clark International
  8. Westerholm, Stephen, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his critics, Eerdmans, 2004
  9. Dunn, James, “The New Perspective on Paul”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 65, 1983, pp. 95-122


  1. Wilson, Andrew, ‘Learning to Discern’., Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  2. Wilson, Andrew, The Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. The Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 22 November 2011].
  3. Five Views On Justification | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. Five Views On Justification | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  4. New Perspective on Paul - Theopedia, an encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity. 2011. New Perspective on Paul - Theopedia, an encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  5. Interview with Piper on Wright, Pt 5 - Desiring God. 2011. Interview with Piper on Wright, Pt 5 - Desiring God. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].

[1] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011.The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 14 November 2011].
[2] Ibid
[3] Stendahl, Krister.,'The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West' in TheHarvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 199-215
[4]Notably theWright-Piper debate of the last few years.
[5] Sanders, Pauland Palestinian Judaism, p.75
[6] Westerholm, Perspectives Old and Newon Paul, pp. 261–262
[7] Sanders, Pauland Palestinian Judaism, p.75
[8] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul.[ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 14 November 2011].
[9] Wright, WhatSaint Paul Really Said, p.18
[10] Piper, Future ofJustification, p.35
[11] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011.The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 14 November 2011].
[12] Genesis 22:18
[13]Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. TheNew Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 14 November 2011].
[14] Wilson, ‘Learningto Discern’, Newfrontiers: Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : TrainingTracks. [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 08 November 2011].
[15]Piper, Future of Justification, p. 27
[16] Wright, NewPerspective on Paul, p. 260
[17] Wright, Justification,pp.163 -164
[18] Piper, TheFuture of Justification, p.101
[19] Wright, Justification,p. 160
[20] Ibid, p. 159
[21] Piper, TheFuture of Justification, p.107
[22]Wilson, ‘Learningto Discern’, Newfrontiers: Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : TrainingTracks. [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 08 November 2011].
[23] Vanhoozer, Kevin., video found at: The Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by theKJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. The Wright-PiperDebate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK.[ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed 22 November 2011].
[24] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said,p. 95
[25] See appendix 2
[26] Sanders, Paul, p.48: ‘When they were ‘righteoused’ they were made one personwith Christ (Galatians 3:28), or, as Paul put it in another letter, they madebecome part of a ‘new creation’ . . . The passive of dikaioun does not easily bear this meaning – changed, transferred,incorporated into another person – but Paul forced it to do so’
[27] Piper, TheFuture of Justification, p.40
[28]Westerholm, Perspectives Oldand New on Paul, p. 292
[29]Ibid, p. 293


  1. Check out the response recorded here:

  2. Excellent series on the new perspective, very clearly written, by Dr. Spinkle of Eternity Bible College [in 5 parts] here:


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