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, this is precisely what Stendahl says about Luther himself. The Reformed view of justification is largely due, argues Stendahl, to Luther’s individual struggle with is own conscience:
In Protestant Christianity–which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and the piety of the Middle Ages–the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther’s struggle with his conscience (Stendahl, 79).
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 (and oft-overlooked) article, R. Barry Matlock answers these questions in the negative. 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 deep and biting 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 is arguing that NPP has (possibly) reinterpreted Paul in such a way that he seems to reflect the concerns of our modern cultural moment.
Put bluntly, Paul, according to 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 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 implication/application of justification).
If nothing else, Matlock has raised intriguing questions about the “objectivity” in the hermeneutics of the NPP. If he is right, then apparently the NPP is not as immune to cultural influences as it thinks.
Dave Bryars says
Another question to ask NPP proponents is whether or not it could be possible that ‘western individualism’ was born out of interpreting Paul’s theology rather than the other way around? Larry Seidentop certainly thinks so in his interesting book ‘Inventing the Individual’.
Thanks for all you do. You’re writing has been such a blessing to me.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Dave. Appreciate the kind word. And very interesting idea from Seidentop…
Glad this has been said! I know Barclay and Seifrid have made comments about that sort of thing too.
David Justin Matthews says
Well said. I have felt this way for a long time now, and it’s good to hear someone else articulate the same (although much better than I could!).
Same as trying to convince the tolerance crowd that they are hypocritical by not tolerating your opposing view. They can’t even apprehend the irony – or rather willfully suppress it. If you’re down with NPP you can’t admit that you could be biased in the slightest, else the foundation of you belief system crumbles.
Michael Teruel says
Well said, groovy. It is so ironic that those who are the most “tolerant” in our society are the ones that are incapable of seeing how they are the most intolerant of other views that do not comport with their “openness.” They’re all for anything and everything as long as it’s some amorphous blob that demands nothing and therefore leads nowhere. But let someone say anything like “there is such a thing as objective truth” and they fall all over themselves condemning that “intolerance.” Christianity rightly conceived declares that there is only one way, but at the same time the fact that it also declares that we’re all sinners makes it clear that we don’t have it all together. In fact, our flesh all too often gets in the way and we end up looking for the truth in the wrong places. But the fact that we have a perfect guide, the Bible, helps us steer away from the subjective emotions that plague so much of today’s academia. Thanks for an article that lays bare the amazing blindness that the NPP has.
So Michael when you write “we don’t have it all together. In fact, our flesh all too often gets in the way and we end up looking for the truth in the wrong places” does this not apply also to people who OPPOSE the new perspectives on Paul especially if the grounds on which they oppose the NPPs are not based on exegesis?
Without being concerned with individual sin, guilt and forgiveness you dont get real inward & outward change in accordance with a new creation. You cant put the cart before the horse.OT Israel & some NT churches tried to cut corners going for the outward but God would have none of that. And without conscience & self examination things usually go from bad to worse.
Just more Bible Buffet Setters, take what you like and leave the rest alone. In the end, I said in the end, it will be God that we face and then try telling Him how sin and forgiveness had nothing to do with our modern day culture. Try telling Him that the reason for which He suffered, died, and rose again was just for the old guard thinkers, or that it was a hoax in the first place. We will all die one day and then what? Surely the modern day thinkers don’t think that dying is out of style.
Better to see it like God says it in the Bible. It was not the message of the writers; instead it is the message of God and if the modern thinkers don’t know about the accuracy of prophecies in the Scriptures, things the writers could not have known, then they are not qualified to be discussing the Scriptures.
The teachings of Paul’s writings, as well as all the other writers, is applicable to today’s humans just as it has always been. The only NEW things in our culture are technologies; take the technologies away and we would continue to live. Humanity has not changed.
Ramona, is N.T.Wright saying that Paul’s writings are NOT “applicable to today’s humans”? I would understand that that is his main concern – that we learn to read Paul in the way he (Paul) intended.
I understand that there is rationale being applied between two different ideas. I thought to be responding to the idea that “things have changed, therefore, so has Paul’s intended communication.” My intention was to opine on the thought in opposition to the statement that Paul should be read differently today. Sorry for the confusion.
I did a series on justification in the early church. You’ll find the ‘new’ perspective is actually how the early church understood and applied Paul’s statements. Particularly Gen 15.6 in Romans 4. http://thescripturesays.org/2016/03/27/justification-in-the-early-church-16-the-early-perspective-on-justification/