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The New Perspective on Paul: We’re Down with NPP

NewPerspectivesPaulComing up next week, Dr. Constantine Campbell will be leading this month’s Table Talk on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Now, if you study theology at Trinity or have come anywhere near Dr. Carson, you’re probably already pretty familiar with this school of thought. However, for those of you who may like an introduction (or a refresher), I’ll do my best in this blog post to get you up to speed with the major concepts. Now, let me state right off the bat, this is going to be an extremely quick and dirty analysis. As anyone who’s studied the issue can attest, it’s a gnarly one to try and wrap your head around — for two main reasons. First, it proposes a fundamentally different understanding of Christian faith and practice than the one most Protestants have espoused for half a millennium. Second, not even its three main proponents (E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright — what is it with theologians and abbreviated first names?) totally agree with each other on how these ideas play out. But I get ahead of myself.

In order to understand this “New Perspective” on Paul’s theology, we first have to know what “Old Perspective” is being critiqued. And so, in good Protestant fashion, we turn to Martin Luther. In the early 16th century, “Uncle Marty” (as I like to call him) was battling the Spirit-crushing legalism of the late medieval Roman Catholic church — so that’s what he saw when he encountered Paul’s description of the Jewish “law” in the opening chapters of Romans. And for the most part, ensuing generations of Protestants have followed in his footsteps: pre-Jesus Judaism was largely understood to have been a legally-oriented system, in which salvation was based on an individual’s ability to follow the terms of the agreement God made with Abraham and his descendants.

Starting in the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the ocean liner (granted, some may consider it the Titanic) of Protestant scholarship on Paul began to change course. In 1977, E.P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he argued that the Judaism that Paul knew was actually a religion founded on grace. In the book, he coined the term covenantal nomism to describe how Jewish law worked: according to Sanders, it’s “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression…. Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such…. Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect” (p. 75ff). In other words, according to covenantal nomism, people’s acceptance into God’s covenant is entirely God’s call — but staying within the covenant is theirs. Keeping the law is about covenant faithfulness, not legalism; it’s about responding to the grace and glory of God and demonstrating God’s grace and glory to the world. However, according to James D.G. Dunn, another of the leading NPP scholars (and, incidentally, the one who came up with the term “New Perspective on Paul”), what Jews had done between the times of Father Abraham and Apostle Paul was to take these “covenantal boundary markers” and turn them into “nationalistic boundary markers” that differentiated and excluded non-Jews (i.e., Gentiles) from sharing in God’s promises. Thus, Sanders asserts that what Paul was really arguing against when he railed at the “works of the law” in writings like Romans were those Jewish cultural/religious practices (like circumcision or food prohibitions) that served to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length, and not the Jewish legal system itself.

Enter N.T. Wright onto the scene. Of the three big names in NPP, he’s the widest read (especially among evangelicals), and has taken Sanders’ and Dunn’s work in new — and different — directions. Key to Wright’s take on the NPP is a revised understanding of the concept of justification. Rather than putting it at the center of Paul’s thought, as most Protestants have done, Wright views justification a result of covenant relationship with God. In other words, for Wright (and, Wright would argue, for Paul) justification isn’t what gets believers into salvation — it’s simply a marker of membership in the covenant community, within which salvation is found.

Probably one of Wright’s best-known arguments about justification centers on a phrase that has had theologians scratching their respective heads for nigh on 2,000 years: the righteousness of God. Now, if you’ve ever studied grammar, or if you’re a word nut like me, you’ll know that this is an example of the genitive case — a piling of one noun on top of another that can have a variety of meanings. (For example: “a can of Coke” means something different than “a friend of mine,” and they’re both different from “the group of students.”) The problem is, Paul didn’t give the Roman church a handy footnote to tell them which meaning he intended when he used this particular word construction — so today we’re more or less left guessing. From Luther until the NPPers got started, the predominant view has been that this “righteousness” referred to a characteristic of God that becomes ours (theologians use the word imputed) when we become believers. However, Wright argues that God’s “righteousness” and our “righteousness” are two different things, and can be understood best in a courtroom context. Wright asserts that God’s righteousness is measured by His proper judgments, our righteousness comes from the fact that we’re declared not guilty — and the only way those two can be reconciled is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

OK. At this point, you now know just enough about NPP to be dangerous. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I haven’t even gone near the various critiques of the movement. (I’ll try to cobble together another post later on this week addressing those issues, if I have enough time.) But if you’re fired up, or confused, or curious –or just a fan of Dr. Campbell –I encourage you to bring your lunch and join us next Monday at noon for what promises to be a rousing discussion!

*(Bonus points if you got the joke in the title. Yes, I’m a geek, and I’m proud of it.)
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