Ever since Krister Stendahl’s seminal essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” one of the foundational arguments for the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) has been that the traditional protestant/reformed view of justification is largely due to the cultural influence of “the West” and its emphasis on individualism and subjectivism.
Paul is not really concerned with individual sin, guilt and forgiveness (we are told). Reformed folks are simply reading that issue into the text due to their cultural situation. Indeed, according to Stendahl, the Reformed view of justification is largely due to Luther’s individual struggle with his own conscience.
In place of the reformed view of justification, NPP advocates have suggested that Paul is really working on a more corporate/community level. Paul’s struggle is not over how a sinner stands before a holy God, but his struggle is how to unify Jew and Gentile into one community.
Thus justification, it is argued, is really about overcoming ethnocentrism and nationalism.
So convinced are the NPP advocates of their correction of reformed/protestant readings of Paul that they use the entire issue as a lesson of how hermeneutics can be affected by cultural contexts. And apparently NPP folks are the ones that finally see Paul clearly without being clouded by their cultural situation:
Luther read Paul and the situation confronting Paul through the grid of his own experience…Now, however, in the light of Sanders’ contribution the scales have fallen from many eyes (James, Dunn, Partings of the Ways, 14).
But is this really the case? Is it true that NPP folks have somehow been able to do what reformed folks have not, namely throw off the shackles of cultural influence and see the real Paul? Are they able to rise above their cultural circumstances and engage only in objective exegesis (whatever that might be)?
In a fascinating article published last week in the Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim (RTS Charlotte grad!) has answered this question in the negative. The NPP has not won the day, argues Swaim, because it is the best explanation of the evidence. Rather, it has won the day because it fits best with our current cultural context:
My own suspicion is that the New Perspective achieved popularity mainly because young Protestant ministers would rather talk about inclusion and breaking barriers than about the guilt of sin and the pointlessness of trying to erase it by a regimen of good deeds.
And Swaim is not the first to notice this fact. In an oft-overlooked academic article, R. Barry Matlock made the same point over 20 years ago. His article, “Almost Cultural Studies? Reflections on the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul” (in Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies, ed. J. Cheryl Exum and Stephen D. Moore, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, 433-459) argues that the NPP is actually a product of its own cultural moment.
In other words, according to Matlock, there is a rich irony in the NPP. While chiding reformed folks for being culturally bound, the NPP folks themselves seem influenced by their own cultural and theological climate. Here I highlight several examples offered by Matlock:
1. The NPP focus on community. If Luther was influenced by an overly introspective culture, Matlock argues that NPP may be influenced by the opposite. He states, “We moderns are not typically concerned so much about sin and guilt and forgiveness as we are about notions of community” (439). Anecdotally, I see this play out all the time in the seminary world. Millennials are less concerned about personal piety and much more concerned about community, their place in it, and making sure others are included. This is why many modern Christians are less concerned about their personal sin and more concerned about corporate sin–and thus want to see more Christian social action, racial reconciliation, etc.
2. The NPP focus on Jewish-Christian relations. A big part of NPP is seeing Jews and Christians together in the same fold. But, again, Matlock points out that this is quite fitting for our cultural situation: “We need hardly mention how our renewed interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue, standing where we stand in time, exerts its own influence over the new perspective debate” (439). In other words, the NPP fits quite well into a post-holocaust world where there is a desire for harmony between Christians and Jews.
3. The NPP focus on Judaism as a grace-oriented religion. One of the hallmarks of the NPP is the insistence that first-century Judaism was not legalistic but was grace-oriented. While that sounds charitable and agreeable on the surface, Matlock points out that reading first-century Judaism this way reveals a commitment to “a certain covert Protestantism” (444). Put differently, NPP advocates are basically working on the (unacknowledged) assumption that any religion worth its salt has to be grace-driven. But, he argues, this is a Protestant concern. Thus, NPP folks are reading Judaism through the lens of their own Protestant understanding of grace. In fact, in another irony, Matlock points out how some Jewish scholars view this aspect of the NPP not as an olive branch but instead as condescending and offensive. They view it as an attempt to make Judaism more like Christianity!
In sum, Matlock, like Swaim, is arguing that NPP has reinterpreted Paul in such a way that he seems to reflect the concerns of our modern cultural moment.
Put bluntly, Paul, according to some NPP advocates, sounds like a liberal protestant. He downplays personal sin and guilt, emphasizes social action, and does it all with a dab of grace.
To be clear, Matlock is not suggesting (nor am I) that Christians should be unconcerned about community, or social issues, or positive relations between races, or positive relations between Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, Christians ought to be for these things (rightly conceived) because the Bible is for these things.
The question he is asking is simply whether Paul primarily has these things in mind when he uses the term “justification” (though these issues can be an important implication/application of justification).
If nothing else, Swaim and Matlock have raised intriguing questions about the “objectivity” in the hermeneutics of the NPP. If they are right, then apparently the NPP is not as immune to cultural influences as it thinks.
“Millennials are less concerned about personal piety and much more concerned about community, their place in it, and making sure others are included.”
I wonder if one reason for this new-found concern is that it allows one to avoid the unpleasant confrontation with one’s own sin? I’ve noticed that lack of concern about personal piety is often accompanied by a lifestyle of open sin (e.g., couples living together out of wedlock, illegal drug use, etc.). One way to avoid focusing on one’s own faults is to focus instead on the faults of others.
Timothy Daugaard says
Yes. I sometimes feel like a fish out of water, because many friends my own age are much more concerned about inclusion than they are about being genuinely dissatisfied with their current state of sanctification and thirsting for more personal intimacy with God and his holiness and glory.
John Bowling says
“In other words, the NPP fits quite well into a post-holocaust world where there is a desire for harmony between Christians and Jews.”
N. T. Wright acknowledges this in several places and how it has motivated a lot of New Testament and Pauline studies. I definitely see (what seems to me like) a reluctance in Wright to cast things in terms of sin and guilt, but he does wind up acknowledging these things in the end.
In the end, while I think you’re right about why the NPP has become so popular so quickly, we shouldn’t rely on this as though it shows the NPP is wrong.
Seth Stiles says
As a theologically trained pastor with a sociology background, I can say this is an excellent example of discernment in regard to the influence of culture, assumptions and agenda on such a key issue. The concern the NPP has about Luther’s influence on our reading of Paul seems so attractive and possible. But, the point made here is just as likely. Let’s all remember that. (I will add that many american evangelicals probably need to think more covenantally, but that the NPP needs to think more individually. This shows we all tend toward pendulum swings in thinking….ha!)
This presents a great way forward for advocates of the “Old Persepctive.” As a proponent of the NPP, at least in its reevaluation of second temple Judaism, I find this argument pretty damning. Time to start distinguishing between the NPP’s valid insights from its manifestations of popular liberal culture.
Two wrongs never make a right. We must still labour for the objective truth that Paul passes in his writings. In my own assessment, that truth is found somewhere between the Old Perspective and the New Perspective’s arguments. Despite the resistance of the Old Perspective the social function of the
law and its demands cannot be easily expunged from the occasional Paul’s writing. Have not found an author from either side of the divide who doesn’t acknowledge the occasional nature of Pauline letters. But on the other hand, the New perspective’s emphasis that God’s
righteousness means his “covenant faithfulness” is reductionist. It doesn’t seriously take its creational aspects. Therefore, a either or approach is unhelpful. That Paul’s doctrine of righteousness serves only an occasional-social function is reductionistic, but so is a soteriological only approach that treats the ecclesiological import of the doctrine as peripheral.
While we are students of our own cultural context, we must learn to be exegetically astute. I come from a world where community isn’t the big thing like it is in the west. Yet, I find some of NT Wright’s writings the best in terms of addressing my own cultural issues. If both Matlock and Swaim’s argument is right, then it is not right here, but only where they sit. What do we do with objectivity then? Have we all become postmodern exegetes?
Brad Broadhead says
Kevin Bywater says
The NPP is not monolithic, of course. And this is important to note as some of Sanders’s observations, as well as Dunn’s and Wright’s developments, are warranted and comfortably augment traditional Reformed views. Others of their promotions do not.
Second Temple Judaism also was not monolithic, and this is important lest we fall prey to stereotyping and the scholarly cherry picking of texts. I still cannot fathom why critics of NPP depend so much on the flagrant misreading of The Testament of Abraham, for example. Gosh, just read the book and you’ll see that it doesn’t promote sinless Abraham, as so many Reformed scholars have asserted.
Finally, God forbid, we would conflate Second Temple Judaism with old covenant religion. Abraham, Moses, Deborah, David, Esther are our forefathers and foremothers in grace and faith. They are, in many ways, exemplars for Christians, as the writer of Hebrews informs us.
Darren R Paulson says
Soooooo, I can’t help but sense kind of a veiled criticism here re: the recent emphasis by many prominent theologians/churches toward racial reconciliation and social reflection/activism.
(I’m surprised the buzzword ‘cultural marxism’ was left out.)
I don’t think NPP “guys” are soft on sin. NT Wright, for example, makes it abundantly clear that we have a “sin issue.” Our idolatry — which results in sin — has left us separated from God. Jesus releases us from bondage to sin and re-creates us, if you will, so that we can now reflect the image of God as always intended.
I don’t agree with the idea that NPP theologians de-emphasize the need for a person to be reconciled to God.
John Bowling says
Whether or not Wright is “soft” on sin would depend on what you mean by that. The term would seem to suggest that one does not favor serious punishments or condemnation of sin. I don’t see much grounds for arriving at the conclusion that Wright does not take sin seriously in that sense or that he is “soft” on it.
However, there is little doubt that Wright’s emphasis–or his framework–in soteriology is not on sin as an internal (me) problem but as an external (social order) problem. Wright’s typical framing of our soteriological predicament is captured in the first few lines of his book Simply Christian:
“It is as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.” (p. 3)
This is clearly external in its focus. In fact, everything Wright says here would be perfectly compatible with me and you having no internal problem at all. There is no reason to see ourselves as part of the problem in the image Wright is painting. And this sort of framework is repeated throughout the book and in other places in Wright’s writings.
Of course Wright does eventually get to sin as an internal problem (p. 8, “ourselves being put to rights”). If he didn’t then one wouldn’t merely complain that Wright is “soft on sin” but that he is heretical! The criticism is one of focus or emphasis. . . and lest you bemoan this sort of criticism as being “slippery” I would remind you that Wright’s entire project for the last 40 years has been one of trying to correct emphases.
David Ricci says
I like the fact you speak of “emphases.” A lot of weight should be assigned to this word. The two Covenants/Testaments, or whatever, place enormous emphasis on personal sin and personal righteousness. Of course, things don’t normally occur outside of a community with a group identity, but without individuals, there is no community. Community is not an concrete reality without individuals. Luther had better part of the argument, for sure. For all of his well-know mistakes, some grand, he rocked the world for Jesus Christ and it is still rocking. Some scholars, moving them aside from the facts they point out and then synthesize, stand quite loose with Jesus. If a given thinker, writer or reader, has any reverence for the Scriptures and Jesus, figure the rest out.
Very interesting. I have an Orthodox Jewish friend who classifies himself as a Pharisee. He opened my eyes to just how little Christians today understand the distinction between Christian grace and legalism by telling me, “Every time I see you guys eating bacon, I can’t understand why you’re not also ok with homosexuality.”
For a Pharisee in Jesus’ time, a law is a law is a law. The distinction between ceremonial laws, purity laws, and moral laws do not exist for the Jewish mind. Fidelity to all law is everything. In my opinion, the grace that NPP folk would like to atrribute to early Judaism is, on the whole, an invention of ecumenically minded Protestantism. It does not exist in any native form of Judaism itself.
Adam wrote, “For a Pharisee in Jesus’ time, a law is a law is a law. The distinction between ceremonial laws, purity laws, and moral laws do not exist for the Jewish mind.””
Just out of curiosity, neither you nor your friend lived in Jesus’ time, how do you know what a Pharisee thought about the law back then? Do we have surviving writings of Pharisees from that period?
Suppose we know the Pharisees’ conception of the law, is it sufficient to make a generalization about “the Jewish mind”? What about the Essenes and Sadducces? Is the Jewish mind the same 3,000 years ago, 2,000 years ago and today?
Paul Sloan says
Thanks for this, Dr. Kruger. As many have said, you seem to describe the NPP as a monolith when in reality it’s made up of scholars from very different cultures from one another who actually reach very different conclusions from one another. Stendahl makes the cultural point (it’s not about introspection), while Sanders makes a textual-historical point (look, all these Jewish texts emphasize grace and they assume God’s election through the covenant). Dunn (who thinks Sanders misreads Paul badly at spots) actually argues for traditional renderings (say, in the pistis christou debate), and actually argues for “justification by faith alone” in an early piece on Paul and the Law, and Dunn accuses NTW of having basically abandoned the NPP in his (NTW’s) later work. And, in my estimation, basically none of what you’ve said applies to NTW, who in the end agrees with many traditional and Reformed conclusions (with the exception of “imputation of righteousness,” – except his point there is that you *are imputed the things you need, namely Christ’s death and resurrection). NTW emphasizes sin, the need for personal forgiveness, God’s grace, etc. And of course he’s written extensively on the hermeneutical spiral and constantly acknowledges his own cultural location, and he actually critiques scholars who eschew claims that Paul had critiques of his generation of Jews based on “post-Holocaust” sensibilities. Thus I suppose I’m struggling to see how what you’ve said applies to much more than *portions of Sanders and Dunn…? But of course my struggle may be based on your use of the label NPP without mentioning actual scholars. Appreciate your work and insights all considered.
Lois Tverberg says
I’ve written several books about the Jewish context of Christianity and most of my readers are conservative evangelicals. Certainly liberals have embraced the NPP and given it their own spin, but interest in the NT and Paul in their original Jewish context is much broader than this. Liberalism is most certainly not the origin of the trend, and it does not shape the scholarly work going on either.
Kenneth Bent says
One of the best encapsulations of the new perspective I have read! Thank you Dr. Kruger!
Jon Paul says
He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? Acts 16:30… And they said to him “Sir, that’s not the right question” NPP 101