I had the great honor of asking New Testament scholar B. J. Oropeza (Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies, Azusa Pacific University) a few questions regarding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Dr. Oropeza is the author of a new commentary on 1 Corinthians (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and I am ever grateful that he could give up some of his time.
Many who are informed about the NPP seem to either outright reject it or embrace it wholeheartedly. What is your own attitude towards the New Perspective?
B. J. I think the New Perspective on Paul is an extremely valuable contribution to biblical and theological scholarship. When I was still a graduate student, I enjoyed very much studying the Reformation and its theology; in fact, Luther was my favorite theologian. Then I learned about the New Perspective. I never really considered it a “threat” to what I previously learned. For me the final arbitrator of what I believed was not dogma or systematic theology but a deep, exegetical study of Scripture (something I’m sure Luther himself would have been proud of!). Since E. P. Sanders and James Dunn explored Scripture and what Paul argues in Romans and Galatians, I was open to their attempt to connect the dots between what the apostle argues and evidence from Second Temple Jewish literature. I resonated right away with E. P. Sanders’s notion of “staying in” salvation since my own studies in Scripture already helped me recognize Paul’s repeated warnings to his churches along such lines. Now of course, some might say that the New Perspective and Reformation theology cannot be reconciled, but I am of the persuasion that they don’t need to be in order to embrace what is good about both. Currently, I find myself to be in the via media, and I’m discovering that quite a few others more-or-less fit into my camp. At the same time, I believe we should be open to new ideas if they pass the rigors of a thorough exegetical and hermeneutical understanding of Scripture. I myself hope to continue modifying and developing new ways of how we think about Paul and the New Perspective.
There are some prominent Christian leaders who 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?
B. J. I could think of at least two reasons for the backlash. One of them is implied by your second question: it is because the New Perspective has gained a growing following that there is such a strong reaction against it. For example, N. T. Wright’s persuasive prose in many of his publications has won and is still winning quite a following. Another reaction against the NPP has to do with Christian leaders wanting to hold onto cherished dogmas rather than consider that some of those dogmas might be incorrect. For instance, many churches and laity often assume that Paul teaches faith is opposed to “works,” but popular advocates for the New Perspective explicate the notion of “works” in a more refined manner. Paul is speaking against “works of the Law” rather than “good works” as such. Good works, incidentally, should not be considered adversarial to faith.
One reason why the NPP continues to gain adherents is that Wright, Dunn, Garlington, and others make strong cases for their positions based on careful exegesis of Scripture. Ultimately, if sola scriptura is to be maintained, Scripture has the ability and authority to show the even dogma could be wrong.
You mentioned the “grace vs works” debate. Looking at much of what is produced by our churches (our worship songs, sermons, and how the gospel is generally presented in evangelism/missions), a dichotomy of “grace vs works” is assumed. Some worry then that if the NPP is true, it would require a complete overhaul of evangelicalism. How would you respond to this concern?
B. J. Some sectors of Protestantism would be affected by this more than others. In any case, ultimately, all Christians have to ask themselves if what they believe and teach is biblically sound. If our dogma tells us that good works are against faith and grace, then what do we do when Paul writes about “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), the “work of faith” (1 Thess 1:3), do not receive God’s grace in vain (2 Cor 6:1), and that we all will be judged according to our deeds (2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6, 16)? And I might add that this is just Paul, not James 2:14-26, or Matthew 25:31-45, or Revelation 2:18-23, or the author of Hebrews, etc., etc. If anyone wants to see just how pervasive and important moral behavior is for Christians in the NT, and how they might be held accountable to divine judgment if their lifestyle does not match their confession, I recommend my three volume set subtitled, Apostasy in the New Testament Communities (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011, 2012). In particular, volume 2, Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of Paul, addresses such issues in the Pauline Corpus. Maybe it would be a good thing for some overhauls. After all, if overhauls produce events like the Great Awakening, then such overhauls are not exactly bad things! At any rate, Wright and Dunn have said repeatedly that they are not attempting to overthrow justification as understood by Protestants and evangelicals. What they are doing instead is attempting to refine doctrines related to soteriology in accordance with Scripture. I would consider that a good thing, and that’s why I have attempted to do the same thing in some of my own works.
There seems to be the sentiment among some informed about this conversation that the New Perspective is simply a trend and one that is quickly losing traction. How would you respond? Is the NPP simply a fading fad? Has it had its day?
B. J. Forty years has been quite a long day! What is new in scholarship sometimes takes a number of years to find its way to the practical levels of ministers and laity. Among scholars, the NPP feels a bit older than it probably does for ministers who have just heard about it since after the turn of millennium or later. I’m not quite sure it’s fading yet, though nothing can stay new forever. Recently some scholars engage with the NPP as well as other scholarly positions, and they have something different and fresh to say, such as John Barclay and Francis Watson, both from Durham University where Wright and Dunn used to be (and where I was fortunate enough to have the latter as a doctoral supervisor). Recently also, some other scholars use the NPP as a point of departure, such as those who claim a “Post-New Perspective” or “Paul within Judaism” perspective. Personally, I don’t agree with these views, but they do compete against the NPP. Regarding what is recent in the New Perspective, I remember just back in 2011, Kent Yinger’s The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, sold like hotcakes at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual conference, and a few years after that, Wright came out with his massive tome, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which currently has already sparked the publication of a thick monograph evaluating it by Michael Bird, et al, entitled God and the Faithfulness of Paul. Currently also, Sanders just came out with a hefty volume on Paul last year, and Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective attempts to reconcile old and new perspectives. Interest in the NPP, then, is definitely still alive, though the future challenge will be if the NPP could maintain the prominence of its voice amidst a number of competing positions on Paul.
Thank you for your time!
B. J. Oropeza (Ph.D., University of Durham, England) is the author of numerous books and articles including, Exploring Second Corinthians; Exploring Intertextuality: Diverse Strategies for New Testament Interpretation of Texts; Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn. A Festschrift for his 70th Birthday (Forewords by N. T. Wright & Richard Hays); Paul and Apostasy: Eschatology, Perseverance and Falling Away in the Corinthian Congregation, and articles in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Theology. On the lighter side of things, he has written The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture (Foreword by Stan Lee) and is currently working on a socio-rhetorical commentary on Romans.