I recently had the great honor of asking Michael F. Bird (lecturer of Theology, Ridley College, Australia) a few questions regarding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I reached out to Bird not only for his extensive knowledge on all things Paul but also because of his evenhanded approach when it comes to the New Perspective.
Many who are informed about the NPP seem to either outright reject it or embrace it wholeheartedly. You seem to fit neither mold. Can you describe your sentiment regarding the NPP, and do you feel it is in fact “new?”
Michael: Generally I think the NPP is correct in what it affirms, but often wrong in what it denies. To say that justification is not about being saved, or not about this, or not about that is genuinely harder to prove. However, where the NPP is right is highlighting the social context and ethnic texture of Paul’s discourse about justification. Remember, Paul was not fighting proto-pelagians or medieval Catholics. Paul’s point in places like Galatians 3-4 and Romans 1-4 was that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians.
I can make anyone sympathetic to the NPP just by asking them four questions: (1) What is the first thing imputed in Romans? It is not righteousness, faith, merit, or the active obedience of Jesus. Rather, look at Rom 2:26: “So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” Paul is here giving a preview of the “A.D” period by talking about Gentiles who have experienced the renewal and blessings associated with the new covenant, and their obedience is such that they will have circumcision (i.e. covenant membership) imputed to them! In other words, Christian Gentiles can be reckoned part of God’s people by experiencing the renewing effects of the Holy Spirit.
(2) Complete this sentence from Roman 3:28-28: “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law, or …” Or what? Or, will the Catholics win? Or, will we become legalistic? What is the opposite of justification by faith? Well, listen to what Paul says: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Note, the opposite of justification is ethnocentrism, the view that God has limited his grace and favour to one group of people, the Jews. Works is ruled out on the basis of salvation because no mixture of effort or ethnicity can warrant salvation. Justification by faith is just as much about the scope of salvation (Jew and Gentile) as the instrument (faith rather than works).
(3) Let me ask, why was Christ cursed on the cross? Paul says this in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ — in order that …” Wait, “in order that” what? We would be saved, go to heaven, have peace with God, rest in his righteousness? Why was Christ cursed on the cross? Most Christians answer this by talking about personal individual soteriology, how do I get saved? But listen to Paul’s answer: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us … in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:13-14). Paul’s answer here is not about the individual getting saved, rather, it is redemptive-historical, God’s plan to save the Gentiles, to have a multi-ethnic family of Abraham, to create a people for himself made up of Jews and Gentiles.
(4) You should know Eph 2:8-9, salvation by grace, through faith, a gift from God, rules out any kind of salvation-by-works theology you can imagine. But what does Paul shift to next? It is not sanctification, the doctrine of the church, or election. No, the rest of Ephesians 2-3 is all about how Jews and Gentiles have been united in Christ, and Gentiles, though aliens and covenant outsiders, have become co-heirs in the commonwealth of Israel. Again, note the emphasis, ecclesiology, ethnicity, Jews and Gentiles, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, united together. This emphasis has been lacking in Reformed theology if you ask me.
Many Christian leaders are publicly and loudly denouncing the New Perspective as heretical. Do you think the New Perspective is a threat to orthodox Christianity, or is this an overreaction?
Michael: Over-reacting like Reagan in Grenada! In all things, do what Paul says in 1 Thess 5.21, “Test everything, hold to that which is good.” While not everything is correct in the NPP and I disagree in places with N.T. Wright, I have more far agreements with him than differences.
What, if anything, is at stake in this debate? In other words, what difference does it make to the average layperson if the NPP can hold its weight? If the New Perspective is true or false, what weight does this bear on Christian praxis?
Michael: Oh my word, yes, it matters. In my view, the NPP loses none of the Reformed, evangelical and protestant emphases on piety, salvation, grace, and election, etc. What you gain is a rich understanding of how justification means that the church belongs together as the multi-ethnic people of God. Justification by faith means fellowship by faith. It means multi-cultural churches should be the norm. It means nobody gets asked to sit at the back of the bus. It means that that racism and ethnic prejudice has no place in our churches. It means, in Christ, there is not Jew nor Gentiles, neither African-American nor Hispanic American, neither Arab nor Israelis, but all one in Christ Jesus. Because that which unites us is infinitely more powerful than anything that might divide us. See the excellent book by Scot McKnight and Jo Modica on The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life.
In that the NPP seems to be restoring Jesus and Paul to their first century Jewish context, some strongly believe that the New Perspective is a sort of second phase of the Reformation, and that New Perspective proponents are doing in our day what Luther did in his. What’s your reaction?
Michael: To be honest, I have a soft spot for Luther. He was a reader of Scripture, recovering Paul, the message of sola gratia, salvation by grace alone for his own day, particularly against the darkness of the synergistic schemes of medieval sacramentalism and nominalism. However, Luther was trying to recover the apostolic gospel, he got a lot right, and some bits wrong (hence his viscious anti-semitism). But if we are semper reformanda – always reforming – then we need to keep recovering the apostolic message about Jesus as well as Paul, Peter, James, and John. I think the NPP is one thing for us to consider as we seek to situate Jesus, Paul, and the early church in the context of second temple Judaism, and the challenges of their own day.
Looking back, do you feel the pros of what the NPP has brought to New Testament discussions outweigh any cons? In other words, are you happy about the conversations that the New Perspective has been stirring up for some time?
Michael: Look, to be honest, we are now past the NPP debate. If you look at John Barclay’s book Paul and the Gift, I think the pendulum has swung back to the reformed side, but in a chastened way, since we have learnt a lot about ancient Judaism, St. Paul, the early church, and even about NT interpreters themselves. The NPP brought has great insights on the social setting and the ethnic mode of discourse within which much of Paul’s theology and exhortations are to be situated. We must keep these in mind. In several of my books like The Saving Righteousness of God and An Anomalous Jew I’ve tried to affirm the validity of the reformed tradition even while recognizing the insights and gains of the NPP.
Thank you for your time!
Describing himself as a “biblical theologian,” Michael F. Bird (PhD, University of Queensland, 2005) is an ardent researcher, having written and edited over thirty books in the fields of Septuagint, Historical Jesus, Gospels, St. Paul, Biblical Theology, and Systematic Theology. Running a popular blog, Bird has debated the likes of Bart Ehrman as well as interviewed N. T. Wright. His 2013 Evangelical Theology is an attempt to develop a truly gospel-based theology that promotes the advance of the gospel in Christian life and thought. The co-editor of the New Covenant Commentary Series, he is an associate editor for Zondervan’s The Story of God Bible Commentary, and speaks often at conferences in the Australia, the UK, and USA. Bird is currently working on a New Testament Introduction co-authored with N.T. Wright. (For more about Michael F. Bird see here.)