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"the new perspective on Paul"

“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.


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.

Philippians For Today: a Conversation with Joe Hellerman

I had the great honor of asking Dr. Joe Hellerman (PhD, University of California) a few questions about the letter to Philippians and its relevance for today. An authority on New Testament (NT) studies, Dr. Hellerman is the author of Philippians (B & H, 2015), a commentary in the Exegetical Guide to the New Testament series and a resource which I highly recommend.


Some have taken Paul’s “your citizenship is in heaven” to mean that we are to avoid earthly attachments, others seeing this as a call to avoid patriotism. What exactly is Paul getting at when writing this phrase? How would the Philippian believers have understood it?

I don’t find either option—avoiding earthly attachments or patriotism—as particularly helpful here, because Roman citizenship was different in at least two distinct ways from citizenship in a modern nation-state.

First, as Rome transitioned from a republic governed by a senate to a principate ruled by a single individual, citizenship was increasingly viewed as loyalty to a person—the emperor—rather than loyalty to the state.


Secondly, and perhaps even more important, Rome was an honor culture, highly stratified into numerous status groups. And Roman citizenship was a highly prized status marker. In fact the only status distinction more defining than that between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen was the social chasm between a freeborn person and a slave. Philippi was more culturally Roman, in this regard, than anywhere Paul ministered in the Greek East, and Roman citizenship was a prized honor: more than half of the gravestone inscriptions unearthed at the settlement boast that the deceased was a Roman citizen.

Paul’s attitude toward his own Roman citizenship best illuminates the meaning of the phrase “your citizenship is in heaven.” In Acts 16, Paul and Silas submitted to treatment—a beating and imprisonment—they could have completely avoided had they informed the magistrates of their citizenship at the beginning of the story. At a time when the emperor (Claudius) made pretending to be a Roman citizen a capital crime, Paul and Silas pretended not to be citizens in order to preserve a level playing field for all in Philippi—citizen or non-citizen, slave or free, man or woman—to respond to the Gospel.

I believe the Philippians would have heard all this as a profound challenge to the status-conscious, socially stratified, culture in the colony. And I also think they would have heard a subversive challenge to the authority of Caesar.

Finally, I think the Philippians would have found an explanation for Paul and Silas’s radically counter-cultural approach to status in the picture of Jesus (Philippians 2:6-11), who, like the missionaries, did not regard his social status as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6). More on this below!


In light of many biblical passages encouraging lament following a tragedy, what are we to make of Paul’s words to a suffering community to “rejoice always?”

This question, of course, goes far beyond the bounds of Philippians. We should note that the suffering in view in Philippians is suffering for the sake of the Gospel. But, with some qualification, I think we can apply what we learn from the letter to suffering in general.
As Christians, there is an important place for lament within the time-bound limits of our temporal existence. Even Paul anticipated the possibility of having “sorrow upon sorrow” over experiences this side of eternity. The beauty of God’s story, however, is that there is a broader, eternal perspective. And as I tell the folks in my congregation, because (and only because) God’s story has a happy ending, our story has a happy ending, as well. Paul kept his eyes on the prize (1:22; 3:11–14, 20–21). I think it’s fair to assume that Paul’s eternal outlook helped him to rejoice in adverse circumstances.

But Paul was not about to wait until that happy ending to live in God’s story. One of the keys to finding joy in life is to rejoice about the right things. Because Paul was so deeply embedded in God’s story of redemption in Christ, what caused Paul to rejoice more than anything was proclaiming the good news about Jesus. In God’s sovereignty, he discovered he could do that anywhere—even from a Roman prison. As a result, he could rejoice in the worst of circumstances (1:18).


Finally, I think we have some evidence in Philippians of the familiar truth (cf. Romans 5 and James 1) that we can find joy in our suffering because suffering brings us closer to God. Thus, in Philippians 3:8–10 Paul connects suffering with both “gaining” and “knowing” Christ this side of eternity.



The so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2 is commonly referenced as a proof-text of the preexistence of Christ. Is this all that’s going on, or is there more to the text?

It’s tough to know where to begin—or end!—my response this question, since I’ve written so much about these six verses (2:6-11). So, I’ll just offer a little teaser here.
Paul clearly and unequivocally refers to Christ’s pre-incarnate state (a better expression than “preexistence”) in Philippians 2:6, so I have no problem citing the text in support of this crucial doctrine. I don’t think this was Paul’s point, however. Nor do I think that ontological Christology, traditionally conceived was on Paul’s mind when he wrote 2:6-11, although I think one can make a secondary argument for the deity and humanity of Christ from the passage.

All this ought to be quite obvious. After all, Paul begins the passage by challenging the Philippians to be like Jesus (2:5). We can hardly share Jesus’ ontology—not his deity, at any rate. Careful study of the terms in the passage also calls into question the traditional approach. I am convinced, for example, that the NIV is wrong to translate morphe theou (literally “form of God”) as “very nature God” in 2:6. The expression refers simply to outward appearance, which was huge status issue in Roman antiquity.


What 2:6-11 is about, in my view, is how we are to use our social capital, or any privilege we might have, for that matter. Jesus, who was at the very top of the social pecking order of the universe (Paul’s point in v. 6), did not regard his position as the pre-incarnate Son of God as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6; NIV). Rather he “valued others above himself” (2:3). We are to do the same.

So, in the final analysis, Philippians 2:6-11 is about relationships among the people of God in the local church—not the deity and humanity of Christ. The “payoff” for the text has to do with ecclesiology, not Christology traditionally understood.


If you could condense Philippians into a sentence or two, what might that look like? What do you feel the main message of this letter is, in a nutshell?
Philippians is essentially a letter of gratitude occasioned by a gift sent from Philippi, in which Paul touches on a number of key issues related to the Christian life. As a result, I find it difficult to summarize the main theme of the letter in a sentence or two. The command in 2:5, read against the picture of Jesus in vv. 6–11, probably sums up Paul’s challenge to the Philippians as well as anything:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”


For the common layperson who wants to deepen his or her understanding of Philippians, where would you have them start? Any pointers?

Here is a challenge that can shed light not only on Philippians but on much of the epistolary literature in the NT:
Whenever you see a command or promise, or read the word “you,” read it as an address to a community (“you,” plural), rather than to an individual. Consistently applied, this will completely transform your understanding of Scripture and your view of the Christian life.

Let’s try it out on Philippians 4:19 — And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Notice what happens. Suddenly, every need of yours become the needs of the church, and the promise is given not to individual believers in isolation from one another but, rather, to a community that has sacrificially contributed to the ministry of the gospel (see 4:15–18).

Thank you for your time!



Having taught at Talbot for over a decade, Dr. Joe Hellerman is the author of When the Church was a Family as well as Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Dr. Hellerman currently teaches on the side, and enjoys playing keyboard in a classic rock band. He also serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in California.



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