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Kent Yinger on the New Perspective on Paul (interview)

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.

Enjoy!

 

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.

 

Andrew Das on a “Newer Perspective” on Paul (an interview)

I had the great honor of conducting an interview with greatly-respected Pauline expert Dr. Anrew Das of Elmhurst College (see here for his new web-page). For anyone even remotely interested in the New Perspective debate, Dr. Das offers insightful answers to a few of my questions which are in bold (NPP=New Perspective on Paul.)

 

In academic circles you are well established as a critic of the New Perspective. Are there any aspects of the NPP that you embrace and/or appreciate?

 

Andrew: When we talk about the NPP, we really have to distinguish between E. P. Sanders’ “new perspective on Judaism,” and James D. G. Dunn’s (and others’) “new perspective on Paul.” Sanders demonstrated that Second Temple Judaism was not, on the whole, a religion of works righteousness. Most critics of the NPP are not willing to grant that. Recently, John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift sorted through the varieties of grace in Second Temple Judaism. Barclay’s work is an advancement over vol. 1 of D. A. Carson et al’s Justification and Variegated Nomism that demonstrated different Jewish “takes” on grace.

In some sectors of Second Temple Judaism one does indeed find the legalistic perspective that one must earn one’s way to heaven by a strict obedience of the Law. This was the point I made in the second chapter of my Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Hendrickson, 2001). At a distance from Palestine or in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, some Jews might adopt a view that one must obey God’s Law perfectly for a place in the world to come. The first chapter of that book demonstrated that Jews held in tension rigorous, perfect obedience with God’s grace in the very Jewish documents that Sanders himself analyzed. One cannot then begin with Paul opposing Jewish legalism in his day, as had been the case in the “old” perspective. I don’t see a single Pauline text that requires that view of Second Temple Judaism. In that sense, I am in agreement with a nuanced version of the new perspective on Second Temple Judaism—and yet there is a robust tension between the strict requirement of the Law’s demand and the provision of grace and mercy in the face of failure.

It is a different matter for me when we look at James D. G. Dunn’s original proposal. Initially, he worded his point of view that by “works of the Law” Paul means the boundary-marking aspects that distinguish Jew from gentile, i.e., circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws. He later modified his formulation to account for his critics: the “works of the Law” refer to all that the Law requires, but primarily those aspects of the Law that distinguish one community from another. I do think that his view shifts the center of gravity in Paul’s teaching about the Law from a works-grace opposition, as traditionalists held, to a focus, instead, on the Law’s ethnic boundary markers for God’s people. My problem with this is that I can find no document that limits the “works of the Law” to boundary markers and that does not include other aspects of the Law, such as its moral strictures. I see this in the Qumran document 4QMMT, one of Dunn’s favorite texts, but also in Paul, e.g., Galatians 3:10 with its omitted premise that can be taken for granted. Nothing in this verse points to boundary markers. Of course, Paul assumes, no one perfectly obeys all that is in the Book of the Law. I advanced the interpretation of Galatians 3:10 in a volume published by the Society of Biblical Literature in 2012: “Galatians 3:10: A ‘Newer Perspective’ on an Omitted Premise” in Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul, edited by Christopher W. Skinner and Kelly R. Iverson (pages 203-23).

 

I also revisited Romans 4:4-5 as another passage that resists the “new perspective on Paul.” These verses really do contrast the works due their wages and the free gift of God’s grace. Such passages simply will not conform to the new perspective reading. See my “Paul and Works of Obedience in Second Temple Judaism: Romans 4:4-5 as a ‘New Perspective’ Case Study, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71 (2009): 795-812. This article documents the contortions of new perspective advocates to try to fit Romans 4:4-5 into their interpretive schemes.

Concerning the ‘Newer Perspective’ that you advocate for, how does it differ from both the Old and New Perspective?

 

Andrew: Since I believe that Sanders is basically right about his overall view of Second Temple Judaism, that aspect of the “new perspective” needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, stubborn texts resist the “new perspective on Paul.” In Paul, the Law, and the Covenant I advocated a “newer perspective” on Paul and the Law, one that accounts for the strengths of both readings. The key is in an element that Dunn used to highlight regularly in his writings from the 80s and early 90s. Others followed him on this point: no Jew would have had an issue with perfect obedience of the Law because God chose the Jewish people as his own (election), he made a covenant with them (covenant), and he provided animal sacrifices at the Temple to atone for their failures (sacrifice). Chapters 3-5 in Paul, the Law, and the Covenant addressed each of these means of grace, if you will, in Second Temple Judaism. Paul has reconceptualized them in relation to Christ’s saving work. In other words, animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. Christ is the Paschal Lamb or the mercy seat on Atonement Day. Animal sacrifices are dispensed with. God’s election is enjoyed in Christ and not on the basis of Jewish identity apart from Christ. Then in my most recent book, Paul and the Stories of Israel (Fortress, 2016), I offer an extended further critique of Paul as not being a particularly covenantal thinker, at least in terms of the “old” covenant of Judaism. All that avails is a “new” covenant in Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the prophets. So, yes, there is indeed a problem with obeying Moses’s Law. There is simply no viable locus for God’s mercy and grace apart from Christ. That sunders the Law from its gracious framework with Judaism (drawing on Sanders’ way of conceptualizing it). Obeying God’s Law is indeed a problem and is impossible apart from Christ.

 

What is your sentiment when it comes to the strong/harsh reaction some Christian leaders espouse towards the New Perspective? Do you agree or disagree with those who maintain that it is a heretical position to hold?

 

Andrew: It is valuable to delve into Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism or John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift for an introduction to the literature of Paul’s Jewish peers and to dispense with the view that Judaism was a legalistic worldview with busy Jews trying to earn their way into heaven on the scales of God’s judgment. We need to read the Jewish sources on their own terms. It is also true, as Dunn, Wright, and others have pointed out, that there is an intensely ethnic dimension to Paul’s reasoning. At my conservative Lutheran seminary years ago, the course concluded with Romans 8 and completely ignored the place of Israel in Romans 9-11. The course also passed over “to the Jew first and the Greek” language in the early chapters of Romans. As Dunn likes to stress, Galatians does indeed posit a central situation where Peter was withdrawing from a table with gentiles. Dunn and others are right to say that one can’t overlook the importance of these passages. Paul is arguing for the inclusion of the gentiles into God’s saving plan in Christ. Nevertheless, we have to recognize where the older, traditional interpretations still have the better of it, as in Galatians 3:10 or Romans 4:4-5. The “new perspective,” contrary to Dunn’s intention, can deprioritize works-grace dynamics that many saw as central to Paul’s thinking prior to the “new perspective.”

 

 

My “newer perspective” recognizes that this is really a matter of “both-and,” and we have to keep the horse before the cart. It is because God saves through Jesus and not through Moses’s Law and its impossible demand that it is not necessary for gentiles to obey God’s Law to enjoy God’s favor. As a consequence, the boundary marking features are not necessary for them.

 

What, if anything, is at stake in this debate? What weight does this bear on Christian living?

 

Andrew: Dunn has rightly stressed (with others) that Paul uses nomos for the Mosaic Law through Galatians and Romans. When we recognize that, Paul offers a positive view of the Mosaic Law in Romans 8:2 and 13:8-10 and in Galatians 5:13-14 and 6:2. Again, see my Galatians commentary (Concordia, 2014) for discussion of the Galatians passages. As for the Romans texts, I sketched out a positive view of the Law in Paul and the Jews (Hendrickson, 2003). The upshot is that Christ has taken hold of the Law. It still functions as a norm for Christian behavior. Thus Paul can quote the Law when he is admonishing Christians in 1 Corinthians, but Paul has deprioritized it and subordinated it to our life in Christ and His Spirit. As I argued in the Galatians commentary, those in Christ do not set out any longer to do the Law. They nevertheless fulfill its requirements by their Christ-like, Spirit-led behavior.

 

While many react strongly against it, there are more and more churches that seem to embrace some aspects of the NPP. Why do you think aspects of the New Perspective are gaining so much traction in some circles?

 

Andrew: As churches and people embrace the NPP, some of this, I think, is because it has been around so long and many leading New Testament scholars have embraced some form of it. It has filtered down from the academy over the years. The danger is when people adopt a view just because it is different or “new.” They are better served to try to work through some of the arguments involved. I tried to provide a road map on “Paul and the Law” in an essay in Mark D. Given’s Paul Unbound (Hendrickson, 2009) This is a good introductory essay for those who want to try to understand where the key “pressure points” are in the debate and for some of the back and forth. Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Eerdmans 2004) remains a nice survey of the different positions from a more traditional perspective. Magnus Zetterholm’s Approaches to Paul (Fortress, 2009) takes things beyond the old-new divide to more recent, potentially radical readings of Paul. It helps to get varying perspectives as one works through the argumentation.

Thank you for your time!

 

Professor and Assistant Dean of the Faculty for Assessment and Accreditation at Elmhurst College (Department of Religious Studies), Dr. Andrew Das has been listed among the twenty-five leading Pauline theorists in the last century in Perspectives Old and New on Paul. The author of Solving the Romans Debate (Fortress, 2007), Galatians (Concordia Academic, 2014), and co-editor of (and contributor to) The Forgotten God: Perspectives in Biblical Theology, Dr. Das is currently researching the key women and their leadership in Paul’s letters.

Dr. Das is also on the Translation Oversight Committee of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB; released in 2017), having received graduate degrees from Yale University and Union Theological Seminary (VA). Dr. Das also did doctoral work at Duke University, and teaches in biblical studies and Second Temple Judaism.

 

The New Perspective: a Fading Fad? B. J. Oropeza Responds

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 TextsJesus 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 Congregationand 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.

Does the ‘New Perspective’ Diminish “Personal” Sin? Scot McKnight Responds

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.

“Does the ‘New Perspective’ muddy the waters?” James Dunn Responds

 

I had the absolute honor of asking influential theologian and NT scholar James  D. G. Dunn (Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, University of Durham) a few questions regarding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I thought it was fitting to reach out to Dunn, being that he’s the the very man credited for coining the phrase “New Perspective.”

 

Could you describe a little about your journey to embracing the NPP, and any defining moments?

James: You will probably be aware that I have devoted a whole book to explaining/expounding The New Perspective on Paul (Mohr Siebeck, 2005; Eerdmans revised 2008). The first essay in that collection, ‘The New Perspective on Paul: whence, what, whither’, goes to considerable length pointing out that Paul’s reference to ‘the works of the law’ was not a dismissal of the law, as usually understood in Reformed circles, but focused particularly, as Gal. 2.1-16 makes clear, on circumcision and food laws – that is, on the insistence of (most) Jewish Christians at the time that Gentile believers had to observe these laws if they were to be accepted (by Jewish Christians) into their fellowships.

To those who hear the phrase thrown around but don’t quite understand what it’s getting at, how would you describe the NPP? Is it in fact “new?”

James: The NPP was an attempt to explain how the issue of ‘works of the law’ emerged originally. It was because Paul saw his commission as to take the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, as well as to Jews. The problem was that most of his fellow Jewish missionaries saw conversion to Christ as the new way in which Gentiles became proselytes;  how else, they might understandably ask, are Gentiles to become members of the people of God?   For Paul such insistence on Gentiles coming to faith by becoming or as including becoming proselytes was to distort and undermine the primacy of faith in Christ.
The view argued for in my original essay was ‘new’ insofar as the traditional Reformed view saw Paul as attacking the law as a whole and failed to recognize the particular focus and thrust of his argument, not least in Gal. 2 – not against ‘works of the law’ in general, but works of the law as focused on the issue of Gentiles having to become proselytes (being circumcized and observing the food laws).


 
There are some Christian leaders who have showcased concern over the NPP in that it muddies the waters, or that its implications threaten orthodox Christianity (how we have thought about grace and Paul for two millennia). What’s your response? Is there any merit to such concerns?

James: I have to confess to some unclarity as to how ‘the NPP muddies the water’. Nor do I see how ‘its implications threaten orthodox Christianity’. Have they read the published items I refer to in the first paragraph? And what’s this about how ‘orthodox Christianity thought about grace and Paul for two millennia’? What on earth was the Reformation about half a millennium ago?

What, if anything, is at stake in this debate? What difference does it make for the average layperson on whether or not the NPP can hold its weight?

James: I suspect that the gospel itself is at stake, in a somewhat similar way to its being at stake in Gal. 2. In other words, it is entirely easy for particular traditions/forms of worship/theological statements to become in effect as important as justification by faith (alone), so that becoming and being Christian becomes a lot more complex to such an extent that the only essential thing (God’s acceptance through faith) is lost to sight and becomes obscured. If we don’t understand Paul’s affirmation in Gal. 2.16 in its historical context and what he was reacting to, then we are in danger of losing what Paul clearly thought was the heart of the gospel.

If we don’t understand Paul’s affirmation in Gal. 2.16 in its historical context and what he was reacting to, then we are in danger of losing what Paul clearly thought was the heart of the gospel. -Dunn

 

For those who want to study this further but are new to the conversation, where would you have them start? Any recommended resources?

James: Would it be too much to suggest that those who are interested in the issues could read the book mentioned in the first paragraph. I took great pains to set it all out as clearly as I could and am rather disappointed if critics have not at least made an attempt to follow out the issues and arguments laid out there. If there are responses to or criticisms of these arguments/expositions, I would be glad to respond to them. But I don’t want just to repeat myself when (I hope) I have already laid it out as clearly as I can.

Thank you for your time!

 

James D. G. Dunn is a prolific author, having contributed to some 180 articles published in academic journals, and having authored over twenty-two books, editing six. Currently working on Jesus according to…(which will include chapters on each of the NT writings as well as a final chapter with brief contributions by members of his local church), his most recent publications are the three volumes of Christianity in the Making, The Oral Gospel Tradition, Who was Jesus and Why Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection? He is well known for his writings on Paul, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as well as the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the first century. Dunn has also given numerous invited lectures at various universities, colleges, and seminaries in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and is a licensed minister of The Church of Scotland and a Methodist local preacher.

 

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