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"the new perspective on Paul"

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.

 

“Is the ‘New Perspective’ Heretical?” Michael F. Bird Responds

 

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.

Enjoy!

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.)

 

Is There “Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted?” An Assessment on Ron Citlau’s new release

hopeRon Citlau is a pastor, married to a woman, and is same-sex attracted. He cares for what the Bible says. He knows real struggles. And yet he knows real victory. All this and more is what Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted (Bethany House, 2017) is about.

God has not taken Citlau’s same-sex attraction away, though (he insists) he has become attracted to only one woman, and that’s the woman he has married. The book proves to be insightful as it is not a call to the sort of oversimplified “pray the gay away” notion. At the same time, is not a call for us to topple down what many Christians feel the Bible clearly says (and doesn’t say) about homosexuality. That said, in many ways the author provides legitimate critique of his own position on this matter.

Citlau doesn’t run away from the complexity of sexuality, but rather supplies a great perspective as one who personally knows the struggles of a same-sex attracted Christian. This book can serve as a corrective to the destructive and naive notion that God will zap away your sexuality, even though the author notes that he personally knows some who have witnessed profound changes made in their sexuality which they attribute to God.

I recommend Ron Citlau’s newest work to those on either side of this raging issue since it proves to be insightful, unique, and utterly-relevant. Even if you are not convinced that the Bible stands for heterosexual commitments, I would still encourage you to pick up a copy of Hope for the Same Attracted  and give it a shot. It’s one man’s story, and Ron Citlau is not a doctrinal watch dog but rather proves to provide a refreshingly balanced perspective spoken in a gentle voice.

 

Ron is the lead pastor of Calvary Church (near Chicago) and blogs here.

*I received my copy from Bethany House in exchange for an honest assessment.

Top Posts of 2020

#7 Daron George on the Black Experience in America and How the Church Should Respond (an interview)

In June of this year, I published an interview with my friend, Daron George, regarding the general Black experience in America and how the church can respond well. The interview, which immediately began making the rounds on social media, is quite sobering and I’m grateful for Daron’s voice during a time of unrest and blatant injustice. Daron’s answers showcases how hope and lament are never sworn enemies.

#6 Should Christians Read the Apocrypha? A Conversation with David deSilva

The sixth most popular post comes from an interview with respected scholar David deSilva about the apocrypha. For me personally, this interview has been most helpful in getting me realize the value of the apocrypha and the role it can play in helping God’s people to better understand God’s Word. DeSilva’s description of the apocrypha as having been the devotional of many Christians in the past is beneficial. The interview is from 2017.

#5 Is Paul Against Women in Leadership? A Conversation with Lucy Peppiatt

I spoke with author and Pauline scholar Lucy Peppiatt about misconceptions of egalitarianism (is egalitarianism “liberal” and a slippery slope?) and about if specific gender roles are rooted/imbedded within creation itself.

#4 Best Reads of 2019 was a post published in December of 2019 where I laid out my favorite releases of 2019.

#3 A Response to #ReOpenChurch By Michael J. Gorman consists of a short piece by scholar and author Michael Gorman, followed by an interview in which he lays his thoughts on how churches can respond to questions of reopening and better deal with division.

#2 “Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter?” Sharing God’s Truth In Troubled Times (Joe Hellerman)

This was a post by Dr. Joe Hellerman who is a leading expert on the context of the New Testament and also enjoys playing keys in a rock band in his spare time.

#1 “Is the ‘New Perspective’ Heretical?” Michael F. Bird Responds

In response to many leading Reformed leaders making many provocative claims about the New Perspective on Paul (such as it being dangerous to orthodoxy), I set out to ask scholars of different leanings about their own two cents. My interview with Michael Bird was one of many interviews conducted with scholars (see below and links are provided):

James Dunn on whether or not the New Perspective “muddies the waters”

Scot McKnight on whether or not the New Perspective diminishes the reality of personal sin (one of the critiques of the New Perspective)

Kent Yinger on understanding the New Perspective

Andrew Das on a “newer” perspective

B. J. Oropeza on if the New Perspective is a fading fad

See also here also for my conversation with Dr. Mark Nanos about Paul within Judaism in which he shares his thoughts on the New Perspective.

The Church, Technology, & Pastoring During COVID-19: Introducing Jay Kim

I had the great honor of asking Jay Kim a few questions about his latest book Analog Church (foreword by Scot McKnight) which I highly recommend. We talk about the nature and calling of the church, navigating through a hyper-technological and individualistic age, and the Church during COVID-19.

My questions are in bold.

 

 

You wrote a book about the value and importance of gathering together and maintaining the personal-ness of Christ in the midst of a such a technologically-driven and impersonal time. What was your initial thought process as the COVID-19 (and its implications for worship services) first began to unfold?

Like most pastors and church leaders, my initial thought process was to stay flexible and do whatever we could to continue serving our community. Honestly, back in early March when shelter-in-place orders were first put in place here in California, we thought it’d be a few weeks. We were hopeful we’d be back together in person by Easter at the latest. That has obviously not been the case, so we’re continuing to do our best to stay flexible and serve our community the best we can.

 

 

With face-to-face gathering banned, how have you and your church found ways to maintain a sense of community?

It’s been a tremendous challenge. But it’s also been really inspiring to see our community rally around one another in creative ways. Delivering food and groceries to the vulnerable, participating in local service projects while observing CDC and county health guidelines, phone calls to check in on those suffering through this in severe isolation, small groups on Zoom, making masks to donate to the county, etc. It’s been a surprisingly rich season of subversive kingdom creativity. I’m grateful for that.

 

In Analog Church you talk about the centrality that the Lord’s Table ought to play in our gatherings, and how more churches seem to be coming to this realization. You also mentioned that the personal act of communion cannot be replicated through technological means, that “you can’t eat and drink together online.” What is some advice you can offer to Christians who are forced to decide whether they should take the cup and bread virtually, or whether they should wait until we can safely begin gathering with fellow believers?

There’s a lot to be said here. And it’s been said from various perspectives in helpful ways. What I wrote in the book about the inability to eat and drink alone online was intended to make the point that ongoing fellowship around the table is, by design, an embodied experience. Every part of the journey matters. Standing, walking, holding, tasting, praying. The physicality of it, within the context of one’s local church community, is what constitutes the fullness of the sacrament. But in this time of online-only, at our church, we’ve made the decision to take communion during our online services. It’s not ideal and we can’t wait until the day we’re able to take the sacrament together again, in person. But for now, we’ve made this concession. We had long conversations about it but this is where we’ve landed. Wherever a church lands on the matter, I think the important thing is that the decision is made responsibly and theologically.

 

What is the problem with digitally-savvy churches or churches deeply desiring to stay relevant? Shouldn’t we want to reach the masses and reach the youth? Paul, after all, became “all things to all people…”

Simply put, relevance matters in as much as our message relating to the actual lives of actual people. But beyond that, what I’ve found is that most people—and emerging generations in particular—aren’t actually searching for “relevance.” In other words, they’re not desperate to find a church where the pastor dresses like them and the music sounds exactly like the music they listen to. They’re looking for transcendence — something totally other than what they experience in their digitally saturated, pop-culture laden, everyday lives. As far as Paul’s words, to become “all things to all people,” if you take his idea far enough, what you quickly realize is that our pursuit of cultural relevance actually doesn’t work. People are unique, with specific histories and nuances and depths. To become all things to all people demands more than caricaturing the latest and greatest in pop-culture. It demands much more in-depth work, learning people’s stories and leaning into those stories as much as possible.

 

 

 

You insist that at the center of all we do is discipleship: becoming more like Christ. Why does technology end up failing us in this regard? Can technology be a help in this regard?

Much to be said here, but in short, digital technology specifically values speed, choice, and individualism. Everything is always getting faster (speed), the options are vast and endless (choice), and our entire experience is customized to our personal preferences and personalities (individualism). When we’re not careful, these values can turn in on themselves and become not only counterproductive but also quite dangerous. Speed can make us impatient, choice can make us shallow, and individualism can make us isolated. When we find ourselves relying on these tools too much, and our reliance goes unchecked for too long, these values inevitably form us into an increasingly impatient, shallow, isolated people—and the danger here for followers of Jesus is that discipleship is actually a patient, deep, communal work. Awareness of the subtle, subversive, and dangerous ways our use of these technologies is forming us is step one. Implementing defined limits and parameters for use is step two. But if these limits can be implemented, then technology can obviously be helpful on a peripheral level; we’re seeing that with the way we’re able to stay at least pseudo-connected during Covid.

 

 

What has been the hardest thing for you during this pandemic?

The loss of embodied presence. Almost everyone I talk to expresses the same sadness and longing—that all of the digital online mediums at our disposal are helpful but ultimately unsatisfactory. Almost half a year now into Covid, as digital fatigue sets in, I think what I miss most is the ability to be near others as we worship and commune. Hearing voices sing together, listening, learning, leaning in together as we hear the Word preached, the shuffling of feet and the extending of hands as we take the bread and the cup together. I miss the chit chat and conversation in the lobby or courtyard, before and after, all the stuff of human experience that digital connections try but fail to replicate. Technology is doing a fine job keeping us pseudo-connected in this time but it’s shortcomings are also becoming abundantly clear.

 

In Analog Church, you hit on an important point when comparing how modern Christians read the Bible compared to how they have done so throughout Christian history. Can you expand upon that?

I explain much more thoroughly in the book, but in short, in the digital age we’ve all become “speed readers.” Think about Twitter, Facebook, and click-baity news headlines. They’re all intended to grab our attention quickly and give us catchy soundbites we can consume quickly, then move on to the next thing. If we’re not careful, this sort of constant consumption can have a dangerously adverse effect on our aptitude and ability to read slowly, to dive deep into long-format texts, to gain insight into the whole story and all of its nuance and complexity. When it comes to the Bible, this sort of slow, deep-dive reading is the only sort of reading that works. This dichotomy is something we have to reckon with. Having a life verse or reading a couple of short verses in the morning during a quick devotional time is good, but these are intended as supplemental approaches to Scripture; our primary approach must be one that immerses into the long, complex, beautiful narrative as a whole.

 

At one point, multi-site churches come up. It seems that regardless of denomination, this is becoming the norm. What do you find most concerning about multi-site churches and their prevalence in America?

I don’t have a problem with multi-site churches as a whole. I think it’s quite lazy to shallowly attack “big” churches simply because they’re big. What I try to do in the book is pinpoint one key element to the multi-site movement that I think is problematic — namely, the franchise-formula. When we take one “site” and basically copy-paste everything about that “site” onto another “site,” we’ve lost the ability to lean into the unique context of the actual community of people who call that particular geographic location home. Contextualizing the Gospel demands that we lean into the particulars, as much as possible, of the actual people who are gathering in an actual place to be the church together.

 

Weddings, funerals, baptisms, and so much more are now in a hiatus state. What advice do you have for pastors and leaders who are trying to minister to their congregations in such strange and unsure times and may be going through a loss of identity?

We’re certainly living through difficult times. For pastors and church leaders, our cultural moment is especially challenging because of the convergence of circumstances, both Covid-19 and the unrest over racial injustice and desire for reconciliation. If nothing else, I do hope that the book can give pastors and church leaders hope in the long view, that what’s quickest/fastest/most-convenient isn’t always (and isn’t usually) what’s best. “Slow and steady” has become grossly underrated in the digital age. But in times like these, slow and steady is exactly what we need. So that’s my advice—don’t give in to the temptation of speed; go slow and steady.

 

 

What do you wish or hope that churches will glean from Analog Church?

That discipleship to Jesus is everything. To learn the way of Jesus, to live as a student or apprentice of Jesus—this is what the Christian life comes down to. As Dallas Willard reminded us, “The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”

Thank you for your time!

 

Jay Kim serves as pastor of teaching and leadership at Vintage Faith Church (Santa Cruz, California). He also co-hosts the ReGeneration Podcast and serves on the core leadership team of the ReGeneration Project.

 

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