I had the great honor of asking Dr. Kent Yinger (Retired Professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary of Georgefox) a few questions regarding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Dr. Yinger is the author of The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, a very helpful book on the topic at hand. My questions are in bold.
To those who hear the phrase thrown around but don’t quite understand what it’s getting at, how would you describe the NPP in a nutshell, or in layman’s terms?
Kent: The NPP is a return to Paul’s own self-understanding, and, thus, is not really anything “new.” It believes the Christian movement fairly quickly lost touch with the thoroughgoing Jewishness of the apostle and the Jesus movement; not surprising, since within a century or two it became a Gentile movement with little living connection to its Jewish roots. The NPP differs from tradition Pauline interpretation in a number of ways, including: 1) The Judaism of Jesus and Paul was not a religion of legalistic self-righteousness, but was rooted in grace and faith(fullness) (cf. E. P. Sanders). Thus, 2) Paul was not opposed to, or rejecting Judaism. Instead, 3) he was convinced the God of Israel had in Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the age to come and the new covenant with Israel and the nations. 4) Paul’s chief disagreement with other Jews was whether Jews and Gentiles are to be considered part of the end-time people of God via circumcised membership in Israel (“works of the law”) or by adherence to messiah Jesus (“faith in Christ”; see Gal 2).
Can you describe your journey in embracing the New Perspective and any “ah ha” moment or moments? What was the general response from fellow Christians, if any?
Kent: My PhD work at the Univ. of Sheffield (U.K.) examined the relationship between justification by faith and judgment according to deeds, both of which Paul upheld, but which most felt to be in tension or even contradiction. In the course of this study I read Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and saw in his view of Judaism the way forward (though Sanders himself did not quite see things this way). Jews did not see these two convictions as in tension; maybe the same was true for Paul. (See my Paul, Judaism and Judgment according to Deeds, 1999). This was truly an “ah ha” moment, since it upended my previous view of Judaism as a religion of legalism. If Paul’s view of justification by faith was not rebutting a supposed Jewish view of salvation by works, then what was he trying to do?
Are there aspects of the New Perspective that you reject? Are there aspects of the Old Perspective that you value?
Kent: Since there are actually many “New Perspectives,” as you might suspect, there are aspects of these Perspectives I share, and others with which I disagree. For the core on which we all agree, see my The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction. As to areas of disagreement: 1) Some stress “ethnocentrism” as that which Paul opposed in Judaism (e.g., Dunn). If by that Dunn means simply that Jews believed the covenant gave them a privileged status, I think he’s right (see Rom 2). But if by that, he believes Judaism had become an essentially inward and xenophobic movement, I don’t see this as a major problem in Paul’s writings. 2) Most NPP folks think Paul at some point found something “wrong” with Judaism. I think Paul’s answer to the question, “What’s wrong with Judaism?” would be “Nothing, unless they refuse to listen to the God who has now spoken in Jesus.” 3) Some NPP folks can sound downright anti-reformational (e.g., D. Campbell). While I disagree with some reformational stances, I still value highly things like: 1) we are saved by God’s grace through faith not by earning our way into God’s favor (“sola fide,” even though I don’t think this is what Paul was talking about); 2) the Bible is open to all to interpret and is our final arbiter in faith and doctrine (“sola scriptura”).
Some Christian leaders are publicly and loudly denouncing the New Perspective as heretical. Why do you feel backlash against the NPP has been so strong?
Kent: On the more popular level this has usually been due to misunderstanding in my experience. For instance, when I say “works of the law [Gk erga nomou]” in Paul refers not to human works in general, but to Jewish badges of identity (circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, etc.), this is heard as re-introducing human effort/works into salvation by the back door, and as losing the heartbeat of the reformation gospel. In most of what I read from opponents of the NPP, it is this fear of re-introducing human works into salvation that drives the opposition.
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?
Kent: I tried to address this briefly in my The NPP: An Introduction. The main difference will be in how we interpret a whole host of key passages, such as Rom 2, Rom 7, Phil 3, 1 Cor 3, etc. A second difference will be in how we perceive Judaism (i.e., more positively), both ancient and modern. A third difference will be a heightened attention to holiness, i.e., to human good deeds.
Some worry that if the NPP is true it would require a complete overhaul of evangelicalism. Others fear that it could reverse the hard work of the Reformation. How would you respond to such concerns?
Kent: I addressed this more broadly above. I consider myself firmly, though critically, reformational-evangelical; this remains my own spiritual identity. A key problem here is that the Reformation was never intended to be a “finished product,” but semper reformanda (always reforming). One of the widely acknowledged bits of unfinished business was the relationship between human and divine agents. Who does what in human salvation, and how much? Is salvation all of God (monergism) or is there some human element (synergism)? In many ways, the NPP debate is reigniting this old bit of unfinished business. See my “Reformation Redivivus: Synergism and the New Perspective,” Journal of Theological Interpretation, 3 no 1 Spr 2009, p 89-106. Available online at the Digital Commons of George Fox Univ.: https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu
Thank you for the chance to interact.
Kent L. Yinger
Thank you, Dr. Yinger, for your time!
An authority on New Testament context, Dr. Yinger’s particular interests include Pauline theology (especially soteriology), Christology, New Testament Greek and lexicography, exegesis and hermeneutics, and missions. The author of Paul, Judaism, and Judgment According to Deeds, Yinger is Retired Professor at Portland Seminary of Georgefox University.
Adjunct Professor of New Testament Studies at Georgefox University.