I had the immense honor of asking NT scholar Scot McKnight (Professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary) some questions regarding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).
You have noted elsewhere that you were there during the formation of the NPP. How was this experience? Do you remember your initial reaction to the ideas proposed, and have you grown since then?
Scot: The singular moment, which crystallized the NPP, was the publication in 1977 of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. While he had predecessors advocating some of his central ideas – GF Moore, K Stendahl, in some ways WD Davies – what Sanders argued was that Judaism was not a works righteousness religion, was not a religion that had fallen into corruption at the time of Jesus, was not a religion in need of retrieving the prophetic tradition since the legal and halakhic tradition had eclipsed the relational elements of the Bible’s or Judaism’s relational core with God.
When Sanders argued this, some major planks in what came to be called the “old” perspective snapped. This is where it all began, and I was there when James D.G. (Jimmy) Dunn took Sanders’ work on Judaism as a covenant-based and grace-based religion and reworked how Paul was to be understood. If Paul was not opposing works righteousness, what was he opposing?
Dunn argued in our New Testament Seminar that Paul opposed not Judaism per se but Christian Jews who wanted to impose “works of the law” on gentile converts. Hence, works of the law for Dunn (and Wright followed him on this score) was not the law in general or works righteousness in particular, but works of the law that symbolized adherence to specific halakhic requirements to be fully included among Jews.
The days were heady; we knew we were in on a major breakthrough and grateful to be connected to Jimmy Dunn. I regret only that I was doing Matthew and not Paul studies.
When I read Sanders front to back as part of my investigation of Jewish missionary activity I was compelled to agree not only by Sanders’ or Dunn’s arguments but because, at the same time, I read the OT apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, all the published Dead Sea Scrolls, and huge chunks of the rabbinical writings. What I saw there made me a true NPP believer.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the “faith in Christ” vs “faithfulness of Christ” debate. What are your own thoughts on this conversation? For orthopraxy, does it matter at all if Paul meant “faith” or “faithfulness,” or do you find the implications to be minute?
Scot: First, I’ve never made this a special academic study though I have touched upon all the pertinent Pauline texts and have read some of the scholarship. Second, the issue is simply unimportant when it comes to orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The irony for me is that those who are most convinced of the “active obedience” of Christ to the law’s requirements, a singularly reformed theme so far as I know, seem most opposed to the faithfulness of Christ. The irony is that their theology ought to like this view.
Second at times in Pauline texts I sense that interpretation is most compelling while I don’t think it is wise to get too certain on this one: one can’t, after all, reduce a genitive case (“of Christ”) to certainty. (One can, of course, but those who do know too much.) E.g., Galatians 2:15–21 can be, so I now think, explained slightly better with the subjective (faithfulness of Christ) than the objective.
Third, at times I sense some want a subjective view simply because the objective view is what evangelicals or the conservatively Reformed believe. In other words, it’s tribal at times. It shouldn’t be, and the best example of this is Dunn himself.
Many Christian leaders are publicly and loudly denouncing the New Perspective as heretical. Why do you think the backlash has been so strong? At the same time, why do you think aspects of the New Perspective are gaining so much traction in some circles?
Scot: To those Christian leaders I ask, “Have you read Sanders cover to cover?” and the chaser is this: “Have you read the Jewish sources?” Then I want to press the case farther, but my experience is that almost none of the strident (other than DA Carson) have read Sanders and the Jewish sources.
I don’t know who is calling this a heresy but it is tragic. When the NPP folks are the enemy we’ve missed the evils of this world entirely.
Now here’s the biggest problem: most of these critics are relentlessly unforgiving of Jewish sources when it comes to the themes of works and rewards and the final judgment but are entirely forgiving of Jesus – who speaks of rewards quite often, and one cannot speak of rewards without their being some sort of merit at work in the logic – and of Paul – who himself often enough speaks of judgment on the basis of (not faith) but works. My point is this: these scholars immediately have a more grace-based theology that explains the non-saving theme of works and reward but make no attempt to understand Judaism’s texts on the basis of grace and covenant.
Now enter John Barclay, Paul and the Gift, or Gary Anderson’s Sin: A History, and – as my high school basketball coach often said – “the jig is up.” Game over. Sanders made the point, Anderson made the point, and Barclay made the point: Judaism deserves to be explained as a covenant-based and grace-based religion. Yes, of course, and many times of course, grace in Judaism and in Christianity is not identical.
Now add Jesus’ demand of obedience and discipleship and factor in Matthew Bates’ theme of allegiance as at the heart of what “faith” means and one is very close finally to admitting that Judaism and Christianity do differ dramatically, but the core of that disagreement is over the status of Jesus as Messiah not soteriological elements. By that I mean both are rooted in divine election and grace and covenant and faith and obedience.
As to why some elements are gaining traction: #1, #2, and #3 is NT Wright’s compelling writings. I’ve heard some people say they are “new perspective” after reading Wright and have no idea what it even means. Wright is an example of a NT scholar who writes compelling prose with lilt and tilt in his prose. I can think of no old perspective scholar with that kind of prose and that kind of capacity to compel.
But having said that it may well be just what happened to make it appear on the scene: a deeper appreciation for Judaism, a sensitivity to the impact of the holocaust, and the awareness of the sources in a way that shows compelling continuity between the world of Judaism and the world of Jesus and Paul. The most disappointing element I encounter when I read both old perspective scholars and apocalyptic scholars is how little of Judaism they bring into the discussion. I can think of some examples, but there’s very little to compare with Dunn’s 3 volumes or Wright’s 2 big volumes on Paul. This gives the NPP a kind of historical credibility because it is anchored in the actual world in which Jesus and Paul flourished. (Not to discount the Greco-Roman world.)
One of the complaints against the New Perspective is that it doesn’t take personal sin seriously. How would you respond? Do you feel that the NT stresses “personal” sin and the need of a “personal” savior as much as modern evangelicalism seems to?
Scot: This can be countered with this: the “old” perspective does not take corporate sin and systemic evil and ecclesiology seriously enough. In some sense the difference is not one of either-or but of emphasis.
Having made that point, and I’m not being snarky, it is simply not true that NPP scholars don’t expect personal sin and personal faith and personal salvation. Read Dunn’s big pumpkin-colored book on Paul or Wright’s many writings on Paul, and you can find the need for personal faith.
But remember this: the obsession with “Do you have personal faith?” is not a theme of the Reformers (they, after all, catechized into the faith rather than demanding personal decision), it was not even a theme of the Protestants until it got a kick start with Whitefield and then came into fuller bloom in the Great Awakening and then we find it in spades with Finney and Moody and Sunday and then Graham. It is, in other words, a distinctively Western, evangelical, revivalist obsession.
Yes, I believe in personal faith; and I have led dozens of students into personal faith in my years of teaching college students. I’m NPP. Therefore, there’s an empty box in this accusation. Of course, some NPP folks may well not emphasize this enough just as there are some old perspective folks and some apocalyptic folks who don’t emphasize it enough.
How about if we call a halt on this accusation until we produce evidence? And how about if we call people to personal and corporate faith and see sin as both personal and systemic? (Which is biblical to the core.)
Thank you for your time!
Scot McKnight is the author of numerous books, both academic and non-academic. His new release, The Hum of Angels (Waterbrook, 2017) delves into what the Bible actually says about angels in contrast to what many Christians believe about them. He has also co-authored the 2017 release Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science which deals with the “Christianity vs. evolution” dichotomy. Also the author of the highly-praised The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible as well as The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, McKnight runs a very sought-after blog, Jesus Creed, where he addresses sticky issues in Christianity, and is also a part of the Regeneration Project.