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New Perspective on Paul

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Artist's depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas). Most scholars think Paul actually dictated his letters to a secretary.

"New Perspective" redirects here. For the song by Panic! at the Disco, see New Perspective (song).

The "New Perspective on Paul" is a significant shift in the way many scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul. Since the Reformation, orthodox studies of Paul's writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views (the "old perspective") that are said to ascribe negative attributes associated with sixteenth century Roman Catholicism to first century Judaism. The "new perspective" is an attempt to lift Paul's letters out of this framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first century Judaism, taken on its own terms. (Within this article, "the old perspective" refers specifically to Reformed and Lutheran traditions, especially the views descended from John Calvin and Martin Luther.)


In 1963 the Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl published a paper arguing that the typical Lutheran view of the Apostle Paul’s theology did not fit with statements in Paul’s writings, and in fact was based more on mistaken assumptions about Paul’s beliefs than careful interpretation of his writings.[1] In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[2] In this work he performed an extensive study of Jewish literature and an analysis of Paul's writings in which he argued that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul were fundamentally incorrect. Sanders continued to publish books and articles in this field, and was soon joined by the scholar James D. G. Dunn. In 1982 Dunn labelled the movement "The New Perspective on Paul".[3] The work of these writers inspired a large number of scholars to study, discuss, and debate the relevant issues. Many books and articles dealing with the issues raised have since been published. The Anglican Bishop and theologian N. T. Wright has written a large number of works aimed at popularising the new perspective outside of academia.[4]

The new perspective movement is closely connected with a surge of recent scholarly interest in studying the Bible in the context of other ancient texts, and the use of social-scientific methods to understand ancient culture. Scholars affiliated with The Context Group as well as many others in the field, have called for various reinterpretations of biblical texts based on their studies of the ancient world.

Main Ideas

It is often noted that the singular title "the new perspective" gives an unjustified impression of unity. It is a field of study in which many scholars are actively pursuing research and continuously revising their own theories in light of new evidence, and who do not necessarily agree with each other on any given issue. It has been suggested by many that the plural title "the new perspectives" may therefore be more accurate. In 2003, N. T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, commented that "there are probably almost as many ‘new perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them."[5] There are certain trends and commonalities within the movement, but what is held in common is the belief that the "old perspective" (the Lutheran and Reformed interpretations of Paul and Judaism) is fundamentally incorrect. The following are some of the issues being widely discussed.

Works of the Law

Paul's letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of "works of the law". The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by "works of the law" is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The old perspective interprets this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God's standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works.

By contrast, new perspective scholars see Paul as talking about "badges of covenant membership" or criticizing Gentile believers who had begun to rely on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship.[6][7] It is argued that in Paul's time, Israelites were being faced with a choice of whether to continue to follow their ancestral customs, the Torah ('the ancestral customs'), or to follow the Roman Empire's trend to adopt Greek customs (Hellenization, see also Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Circumcision in the Bible). This is comparable with Westernization and the decision faced by modern individuals such as American Indians to follow their native culture or to adopt Western customs and lifestyle, see also Cultural imperialism. The new perspective view is that Paul's writings discuss the comparative merits of following ancient Israelite or ancient Greek customs. Paul is interpreted as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs make a person better off before God. Paul identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days. [8]

Human Effort and Good Works

Due to their interpretation of the phrase "works of the law", old perspective theologians see Paul's rhetoric as being against human effort to earn righteousness. This is often cited by Lutheran and Reformed theologians as a central feature of the Christian religion, and the concepts of grace alone and faith alone are of great importance within the creeds of these denominations.

New perspective interpretations of Paul tend to result in Paul having nothing negative to say about the idea of human effort or good works, and saying many positive things about both. New perspective scholars point to the many statements in Paul's writings that specify the criteria of final judgment as being the works of the individual.

"Final Judgment According to Works... was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works." (N. T. Wright)[9]

New perspective scholars tend to place a higher value on the importance of good works than the old perspective does, taking the view that they causally contribute to the salvation of the individual.

Old perspective advocates often see this as being "salvation by works" and as a bad thing, contradicting what they see as being fundamental tenets of Christianity. Yet new perspective scholars often respond that their views are not so different. For in the old perspective, God graciously empowers the individual to the faith which leads to salvation and also to good works. While in the new perspective, God graciously empowers individuals to the faith and good works which lead to salvation. It is argued that because the idea of God's gracious initiative and empowerment is retained, the subsequent change in the relationship of faith and works in salvation is not so important.

Faith, or Faithfulness

An ongoing debate related to the new perspective has been over Paul's use of the Greek word pistis (belief, faith, faithfulness). Old perspective writers have typically interpreted this word as meaning a belief in God and Christ, and trust in Christ for salvation with faith that he will save you. This interpretation is based on several passages from the Christian Bible, notably Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Interestingly, E. P. Sanders, a major figure in the development of the "new perspective of Paul", himself notes that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional (or "old") perspective.[10]

By contrast, many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship.[11][12][13][14] As such, the word could be almost synomymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to his master). Far from being equivalent to 'lack of human effort', the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need to "faithfully" obey God's commands is quite different to one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that he will do everything for us.

Another related issue is the pistis Christou ('faith of Christ') debate. Paul several times uses this phrase at key points in his writings and it is linguistically ambiguous as to whether it refers to our faith in Christ ("objective genitive"), or Christ's own faithfulness to God ("subjective genitive"), or even our faith/faithfulness to God like that which Christ had ("adjectival genitive"). There is wide disagreement within the academic community over which of these is the best rendering. The NET Bible translation became the first mainstream English Bible translation to use a subjective genitive translation of this phrase.[15]

Grace, or Favor

Old perspective writers have generally translated the Greek word charis as "grace" and understood it to refer to the idea that there is a lack of human effort in salvation because God is the controlling factor. However those who study ancient Greek culture have pointed out that "favor" is a better translation, as the word refers normally to 'doing a favor'. In ancient societies there was the expectation that such favors be repaid, and this semi-formal system of favors acted like loans.[16] Therefore, it is argued that when Paul speaks of how God did us a 'favor' by sending Jesus, he is saying that God took the initiative, but is not implying a lack of human effort in salvation, and is in fact implying that Christians have an obligation to repay the favor God has done for them. Some argue that this view then undermines the initial 'favor' - of sending Jesus - by saying that, despite his incarnation, life and death, Christians still have, as before, to earn their way to heaven. However, others note this is the horns of a false dilemma (all grace versus all works). Many new perspective proponents that see "charis" as "favor" do not teach that Christians earn their way to heaven outside of the death of Christ. Forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ is still necessary to salvation. But, that forgiveness demands effort on the part of the individual (cf. Paul in Phil. 3:12-16). [1]

The Atonement

For old perspective writers the atonement theory of Penal Substitution and the belief in the "finished work" of Christ have been central. New perspective writers have regularly questioned whether this view is really of such central importance in Paul's writings. Generally new perspective writers have argued that other theories of the atonement are more central to Paul's thinking, but there has been minimal agreement among them as to what Paul's real view of the atonement might be.

The following is a broad sample of different views advocated by various scholars. E. P. Sanders argued that Paul's central idea was that we mystically spiritually participate in the risen Christ and that all Paul's judicial language was subordinate to the participationary language.[2] N. T. Wright has argued that Paul sees Israel as representative of humanity and taking onto itself the sinfulness of humanity through history. Christ in turn, as Messiah is representative of Israel and so focuses the sins of Israel on himself on the cross. Wright's view is thus a "historicized" form of Penal Substitution.[17] Chris VanLandingham has argued that Paul sees Christ as having defeated the Devil and as teaching humans how God wants them to live and setting them an example.[18] David Brondos has argued that Paul sees Jesus as just a part in a wider narrative in which the Church is working to transform lives of individuals and the world, and that Paul's participationary language should be understood in an ethical sense (humans living Christ-like lives) rather than mystically as Sanders thought.[19] Pilch and Malina take the view that Paul holds to the Satisfaction theory of atonement.[20] Stephen Finlan holds that Paul uses numerous different metaphors to describe the atonement but that he fundamentally sees Christ as a martyr and holds that humans are to be divinely transformed into the image of God through Christ (Theosis).[21]

Criticism and Rhetoric

The new perspective has been an extremely controversial subject and has drawn strong arguments and recriminations from boths sides of the debate.

In 2003 Steve Chalke, after being influenced by new perspective writers, published a book targeted at a popular audience which made comments highly critical of Penal Substitution.[22] This caused an extensive and ongoing controversy among evangelicals in England, with a strong backlash from lay-people and advocates of the Reformed tradition.

Both sides of the debate attempt to claim the higher, and more accurate, view of scripture. New perspective advocates claim that old perspective supporters are too influenced by tradition, and therefore fail to take a 'natural' reading of the Bible; while old perspectivists claim that new perspective advocates are too intrigued by certain interpretations of context and history, which then lead to a biased hermeneutical approach to the text:

- New perspective advocates[who?] feel that old perspective supporters are ignoring the Bible and historical evidence, preferring to remain faithful to their traditions and creeds rather than seriously deal with what the Bible has to say. They often believe that the opposition are not arguing based on the merits of the issues but simply because they have made up their minds in advance. New perspective advocates argue that old perspective interpreters start out with large numbers of incorrect and arbitrary theological and psychological assumptions which they bring to the table with them and which guide their biblical exegesis. New perspective advocates argue the origins of these assumptions are to be found in the psychologies of Augustine and Martin Luther rather than being the result of real evidence.

- Old perspective advocates[who?] feel that the new perspective seriously undermines or threatens the foundations of Christianity. It teaches things which are not in accordance with the creeds and confessions that have a central role in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. They contend it is teaching "another gospel", and fundamentally misportraying Paul and Christianity to the detriment of the faith of many.

The new perspective has been heavily criticized by conservative scholars in the Reformed tradition, arguing that it undermines the traditional, individualistic, Augustinian interpretation of election and does not faithfully reflect the teachings of their founding theologian, John Calvin (as N. T. Wright had asserted). It has been the subject of fierce debate between evangelicals in recent years, mainly due to N. T. Wright's increasing popularity in evangelical circles. Critics include John Piper,[23] Sinclair Ferguson, C. W. Powell,[24] Mark Seifrid, Don Carson,[25] Ligon Duncan,[26] and Barry D. Smith of Atlantic Baptist University, who has claimed that the New Perspective's challenge to the traditional view of Jewish faith practice as legalistic is misplaced.[27].

Catholic and Orthodox reactions

The new perspective has, by and large, been an internal debate among Protestant scholars. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writers have generally responded favorably to new perspective ideas, seeing both a greater commonality with their own beliefs and seeing strong similarities with the views of many of the early Church Fathers. Passages in the works of many early Church Fathers show that new perspective interpretations were widely held among them. [28]

One of the many exceptions is the great and influential Augustine of Hippo. While most in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox schools would see him as espousing a view of grace and justification in keeping with this new perspective, Augustine is often blamed by many new perspective writers for introducing incorrect ideas and assumptions into Christianity that led to the "old" perspective of Luther and Calvin.

It should be mentioned that Augustine of Hippo's writings were not well known in the Eastern Orthodox Church until the 19th century. He is viewed primarily as an exemplar of Christian piety rather than an important thinker on theological matters because his writings contain many errors according to Orthodox theology. He is believed to have been mistaken on a great many things, but his most enduring errors are those concerning predestination and those views which later fueled the filioque heresy. [29]

The increased importance new perspective writers have given to good works in salvation has created strong common ground with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Historic Protestantism has never denied the place of good and faithful works, but has always excluded them from justification, which Protestants argue is through faith alone, and in which good deeds are of no account, either within or without God's grace. This has, since the Reformation, been a line of distinction between Protestantism (both Reformed and Lutheran) and other Christian communions.


  1. Krister Stendahl, 'The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West' in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 199-215. Republished in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Augsburg Fortress Publishers) 1976.
  2. 2.0 2.1 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977)
  3. The New Perspective on Paul by James D. G. Dunn
  4. For example, N. T. Wright, "What Saint Paul Really Said" Eerdmans 1997
  5. N. T. Wright, New Perspectives.
  6. N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans part one (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 35-41. Cited in Wax, Trevin K. N. T. Wright & The New Perspective on Paul, 5.
  7. Eisenbaum, Pamela (Winter 2004). "A Remedy for Having Been Born of Woman: Jesus, Gentiles, and Genealogy in Romans". Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (4): 671–702. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  8. Dunn, James D. 'The New Perspective on Paul', 104, 2005.
  9. New Perspectives on Paul, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25–28, August 2003, by N. T. Wright
  10. Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, p. 167, notes "Sanders has conceded to me that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional view."
  11. Douglas A. Campbell, "The Quest For Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy", 2005, pp 178-207
  12. David M. Hay, ‘Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul’ JBL 18, 1989, pp 461-76
  13. Howard, The 'Faith of Christ', ExpTim 85, 1974, 214
  14. Pilch and Malina, "Handbook of Biblical Social Values", 1998, pg 72-75
  15. Romans 3:22 in the NET Bible
  16. David A.deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 2000, pg 117
  17. N. T. Wright, "Jesus and the Victory of God"
  18. Chris VanLandingham, "Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul", Hendrickson 2006
  19. David Brondos, "Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption", Fortress Press, 2006
  20. Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, "Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul" Ausgburg Fortress 2006
  21. Stephen Finlan, "Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine" Liturgical Press 2005
  22. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan, 2003)
  23. John Piper, Interview with Piper on Wright, October 11, 2007.
  24. C. W. Powell, Was There Legalism in First Century Judaism
  25. D. A. Carson Don Carson on the New Perspective, mp3 file of lecture
  26. J. Ligon Duncan, The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.
  27. Barry D. Smith, The Tension Between God as Righteous Judge and as Merciful in Early Judaism.
  28. Irenaeus, "Against Heresy" 4:13-16. Ambrosiaster, "Commentary on Romans". Pelagius, "Commentary on Romans". Origen "Commentary on Romans". Justin Martyr, "Dialogue" Ch 10-11. Clement of Alexandria, "Stromata" 6:6. Ignatius, "Magnesians" 8. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Catechetical Lectures" 4:33.
  29. Fr. Seraphim of Platina, "The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church." p. 65


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