Nothing new about it
by Bea Edwards
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Analyzing the New Perspective on Paul has certainly been a paradox, a confusing yet ultimately enlightening ride. Approaching this topic I was naïve to the notion that there were interpretations of Paul’s writings in contradiction to the plain, simple, apostolic guided, contextual meaning of his inspired words. The doctrine of justification is once again being challenged, now under the guise of the New Perspective on Paul; however it is far from new. It’s just another assault using modern firepower.
The New Perspective is really nothing new, simply a different twist on works righteousness, which has been at odds with the Christian church and its foundational doctrines and apostolic teachings since the times of the heretical philosophy of Semi-pelagianism.
James Buchanan wrote in the early 1900’s “When old truths are attacked with new weapons-, they must be vindicated by new defenses, adapted to meet the most recent forms of error; and this is pre-eminently the case, at the present day, with the cardinal doctrine of justification” (Buchanan Kindle location 141).
If a carpenter if off plum even one 1/32 of an inch, the floor stud he is installing will not match up with its contiguous ceiling member, and ends up crooked, potentially creating a weak structure. Or “suppose you were to take off from an airport at the equator, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but your course was off by just one degree. By the time you returned to the same longitude, how far off course would you be? A few miles? A hundred miles? The answer might surprise you. An error of only one degree would put you almost 500 miles (800 km) off course, or one hour of flight for a jet. 1 A clear deviation.
Close to 500 years ago – in April of 1521- Martin Luther spoke these momentous words at the Diet of Worms –
‘Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience.’2
Timothy Wengert asserts that it is “somewhat disingenuous to call this perspective ‘new’ since the church father Jerome had already argued that when Paul used the term law in Romans and Galatians, he only meant the ceremonial law. He goes on to say that the notion that this was a new perspective or that the reformers were ignorant of it is not only misleading but obscures the fact that in their exegetical works they argued against it” (Wengert 89).
EP Sanders and the ‘Sanders Revolution,’ as it was known, began in 1977 with his work Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and another of his works, Paul the Law and the Jewish People. His main assertions were that no Jews (according to his studies of second temple Judaism -BC 40 to about AD 200 some* Rabbinical writings) believed in works righteousness. It stipulated it was always grace by which they were called into the covenant; however they remained in the covenant through works. *some-- as only those rabbinical writings which verified his position.
Sanders claimed that because of this Paul couldn’t have been fighting against the Judaizers works righteousness, because it simply didn’t exist. He and his NP followers thought that the reformers got it wrong- Paul was really fighting about how one stayed in the covenant relationship, or as Allman put it, “one way Sanders and his followers view it-is that in Judaism ‘getting in’ is by grace ‘staying in’ is by works” (Allman 53).
“Covenantal Nomism,” the term coined by Sanders is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and the covenant requires the proper response of man, his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression. In other places Sanders writes that what is wrong in Judaism is that it is not Christianity” (Stoychev 33).
I would say that NP scholars contend that the reason ‘we’ of the reformed tradition have it wrong, is that we are reading it through ‘Luther tinted glasses’ rather than through a second temple lens. I say how arrogant for these men to think they have a new revelation beyond the reformed traditions that have held for over 500 years and revising what the reformers based their interpretation on, which were the apostolic teachings.
[2Co 11:3-4 NASB] 3 But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.
James Dunn proposed that what Paul was really talking about when he fought against works of the law, were the ethnic boundary markers: circumcision, Sabbath keeping and food restrictions, being the major indicators. “He states that the law thus became a basic expression of Israel’s distinctiveness as the people specially chosen by God to be his people. In sociological terms the law functioned as an “identity marker and boundary reinforcing Israel’s sense of distinctiveness” (Allman 62). The first century Jewish problem according to Paul and what he was against was the belief that you had to be a Jew to be a Christian.
Now NT Wright could be considered the poster child and is certainly the trend setter for the New Perspective movement. His brilliance is difficult to argue against. The way he disputes that the reformation was incorrect, is a challenge to debate. However again I reiterate how egotistical to think that church fathers and 500 plus years of reformed theology, and most especially the doctrine of justification, is wrong. Not only that but as Allman suggests “that with the next generation of seminary-trained pastors, NP ideas may filter into the church” (51), endangering first the tried and true doctrine of justification and subsequently permeating all other doctrines.
John Piper summarizes it so well.
In the New Testament, justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side.
At that moment you are declared and constituted just, even though you’re ungodly. Romans 4:4 talks about the justification of the ungodly, and Romans 3: 28 says that “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
So that’s the general gist of the doctrine, and I regard it as a matter of life and death. Luther regarded it as the doctrine the whole church hangs on. It’s the moment and means by which we pass from being under the enmity of God to being under the favor of God, from being utterly unrighteous and damnable to being counted righteous in Christ by God so that he’s our father and he’s totally for us.3
It is exactly what the reformers were against! The Roman Catholic doctrine of works righteousness.
EP Sanders with his works Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, led the debate in 1977/83, followed by James Dunn with The New Perspective of Paul in 2005 and in his World Biblical commentary Romans 1-8 in 1988, and finally NT Wright in his two commentaries for Romans, The New Interpreters Bible 2002 and in His Paul for Everyone series.
Westerholm asserts that ‘Tom Wright must be reckoned among the first to espouse the NP’ (179) however as Heen mentions the New Perspective “is not really so new” (264) prompting NT Wright to recently coin the phrase a Fresh Perspective on Paul.
Kristal Stendahl in the 1960’s “set the tone of the New Perspective discussion by questioning the adequacy of Luther’s Augustinian influenced reading, claiming that justification and the criterion for the really true gospel was hammered out by Paul for the very specific and limited purpose of defending Gentile converts rights of full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel. In his articles Paul among the Jews and Gentiles and The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, Stendahl also contrasts Paul’s robust conscience with Luther’s introspective guilt and plays off Paul’s focus on the church and the Jewish people against Luther’s focus on Salvation of the individual. Stendahl asserts that because of this ‘Luther in error, re-contextualized Paul into the theological and anthropological categories of late and medieval Germany” (Heen 265).
So the ‘Fresh New Perspective on Paul’ that these men espouse, comprise the foundations of this heretical teaching, and is simply the same old works righteousness which was fought against first by Paul against the Judaizers, then Luther against the Roman Catholic church, and is the doctrine of the Biblical understanding of justification by faith alone.
Although the following is quite long it covers six relevant tenants followed by the New Perspective camp. I attempted to condense its most important points to the following list from this simple yet thorough sermon by Arden Hodgins.
1.”Proponents of the new perspective assert that the kind of Judaism that Paul was dealing with in his epistles was not a religion of legalism or of works, but of grace. They would contend that First century Jews of which Paul identified with, and was also called Second Temple Judaism… was a religion of grace. They say we misunderstand Paul when he is battling these people in his epistles… it’s not a law versus grace controversy at all…It was a religion of works...they were holding to a salvation by works scheme…and Paul constantly was contrasting faith works- grace works.”
Jesus continually battled against the works righteousness of the Pharisees. He called them white washed tombs. It was all about what they did and how they appeared…There was no grace when they brought the woman caught in adultery before Him-and where was that man who obviously had to be involved and also caught in the act? The Pharisees even held a bias against who they were pointing their judgmental fingers at.
The error of works righteousness was also highlighted in this parable- [Luk 18:10-14 ESV] 10 \"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: \'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.\' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, \'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!\' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.\"
2. “Proponents of the NP claim that the problem that Paul is addressing is not legalism –not salvation by works, but rather Jewish nationalism, or Jewish exclusivism. What they say is that the real problem Paul was dealing with in Romans and Galatians and elsewhere, was not so much that justification is by grace and not by works but rather that justification can be received even by Gentiles apart from mosaic ceremonial laws…or this is entirely what Paul was speaking of, he (Paul) is not talking about justification by grace apart from the moral law, but apart from the Jewish ceremonial laws.”
Paul simply cannot be misunderstood-nor do I believe he left it an option, as hammered out in [Rom 3:21 ESV] 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— [Rom 3:20, 28 ESV] 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. ... 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
3. “NP proponents also claim that the ‘works of the law’ referred to in Paul’s epistle do not refer to all works, but only refer to distinctly Jewish works. When Paul says ‘by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified’ we (reformed believers) believe he means any law, any rule any moral requirement, we can’t be justified through our own merit, but the people of the NP say that Paul is referring only to the distinctly Jewish issues and ceremonial law. In other words, by the Jewish Mosaic ceremonial law shall no flesh be justified, leaving open the possibility that someone could be justified by the keeping the moral law.”
Same old works based righteousness with a new perspective.
4. They also claim that Paul’s references to the righteousness of God and the righteousness credited us, is not referring to the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, those two expressions in Romans - [Rom 1:17 ESV] 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, \"The righteous shall live by faith,\" and in Romans in Ch. 5- Christ’s righteousness credited to us –they believed God’s covenant grace or faithfulness to us, the righteousness attributed to us, is our own covenant faithfulness. When we are covenantally faithful in response to His grace, that is our righteousness. God says we are righteous because we are faithful.”
Arden claims that this should be a “stink in our nostrils,”-I say Amen.
5. NPP supporters define faith to mean faithfulness…believing obedience… Faith that is counted onto us as righteous, is so because it enables us to do the works that will form the basis of our justification. They are redefining faith. Faith no longer means the empty receiving hands…but a meritorious work of righteousness. What justifies you is the same thing that justified Abraham. His faithfulness to God. So gentiles by their faithfulness to God, in response to God’s grace –get in.”
It is a subtle difference, but a blatant error and works righteousness with new skin. It’s looking to ourselves and what we do and continue to do rather than what Jesus did and is continually doing, which was becoming sin for us and is advocating on our behalf at the right hand of God.
6. Lastly the NP camp assert that the whole idea of imputation is suspect and justification has nothing to do with it. (Are they kidding?)They don’t have a problem with imputed sin, we have all sinned, we are all guilty - it’s a fact. They also don’t have a problem with a Godly person (although there is no such a one-[Rom 3:10 ESV] 10 as it is written: \"None is righteous, no, not one ;) they don’t have a problem with the idea that a Godly person should stand before the Judge and God crediting them righteousness, because they are righteous. What they don’t believe in is what is called reverse imputation. They don’t believe that God would look at an ungodly person and based on nothing in that ungodly person, pronounce that person righteous. Or that God would look at His perfectly Holy Son Jesus, who did no wrong, and impute iniquity to Him. They don’t think that that is a Biblical concept at all. However we see it all over the New Testament-especially [2Co 5:21 ESV] 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ It’s our hope it’s the Gospel.”
In examining how Sanders, Dunn, and Wright reinterpret Romans 3:21-26, Adam Szabados reveals that “God’s passing over sin would seem not to be a problem for God‘s faithfulness, but an expression of it” (10). He goes on to clarify that “in his opinion NP interpreters have not been able to convincingly demonstrate that in the back of Paul’s mind a narrower (Jewish) theme is more dominant than the universal problem of human sin” (11).
Not all aspects of the NP movement are bad. Heen affirms that ‘New Testament study is clearly both livelier and more precise because of these discussions. There has been a stimulated interest in historical study of Luther, and finally a heightened awareness of anti-Judaism is now apparent in certain strains of New Testament exegesis” (267). All paradigms must now be viewed with a healthy skepticism that ultimately allows interpreters to examine Paul’s epistles with freshness not available before.”4
Scripture is flawless in its narrative regarding how Jesus regarded the upholders of the Jewish law system. He called them out on numerous occasions, but I think the most extraordinary example was in [Mat 23:27-28 ESV] 27 \"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people\'s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
To say that the first century Jews were not legalists, contradicts our very Lord and Saviors words.
“The lex semper accusat of the Reformation is not about guilt or about the search for a gracious God. It’s about how God approaches the world, from beyond itself, both to attack sin experienced archetypically as idolatry and stunningly to offer it the grace of reconciliation experienced as a new creation. Justification is more a full bellied concept than the descriptors forensic or imputed suggests to most people. Its focus is not about little me and my guilt but the restoration of a creation alienated from its Creator through deep seated and often hidden sinfulness” (Heen 285).
The law always accuses our consciences as law breakers. Although we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, we still break His law daily in word, deed, and our very motivations.
Westerholm emphasizes that “recognition of human waywardness marks the fulfillment of the law’s very purpose. The law is misused, not when it is thought to demand deeds as a condition for life, but when the reality of sin and guilt it exposes is denied” (222). He adds that we “do not fail partially, merely lacking the strength to fully carry out God’s law; rather, we are in outright rebellion against God” (223).
In closing I wish to share how Westerholm accentuates the entire principle in one profound yet simple sentence. “And when, at the last, we (both Jew and Gentiles*) are judged by works (Rom 2:13), it is the works of Christ, made ours through faith, that will gain God’s approval (225). *The promise became Flesh through the Jewish nation of Israel, but the church, as the body of Christ, includes all believers.
Allman, James E. \"Gaining Perspective On The New Perspective On Paul.\" Bibliotheca Sacra 170.677 (2013): 51-68. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Buchanan, James. The doctrine of Justification. Titus Books. 2013. Kindle Edition.
\"Is the New Perspective on Paul biblical?\" Got Questions Ministries, n.d. Web. 15, April 2015
Heen, Erik M. \"A Lutheran Response To The New Perspective On Paul.\" Lutheran Quarterly 24.3 (2010): 263-291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Stoychev, Theodor. \"Is There A New Perspective On St Paul\'s Theology?.\" Journal Of European Baptist Studies 11.3 (2011): 31-50. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Wengert, Timothy J. \"The \"New\" Perspectives On Paul At The 2012 Luther Congress In Helsinki.\" Lutheran Quarterly 27.1 (2013): 89-91. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul. Eerdmans Publishing. Grand Rapids. 2004.
Sabados, Adam. http://divinity.szabadosadam.hu/album/2010/09/paul-paper.pdf April 20, 2015.
Sermon Audio. Hudgins,Arden. April 18, 2015. http://www.sermonaudio.com/playpopup.asp?SID=76111240551
1 http://www.irrefutablesuccess.com/2010/04/one-degree-off-course/ April 16, 2015.
2 http://www.christian-history.org/diet-of-worms.html April 16, 2015.
3 Desiring God. John Piper. April 16, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/interview-with-john-piper-about-the-future-of-justification-a-response-to-n-t-wright
4 Current Concerns in Pauline Research-https://blackboard9.moody.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_17706_1&content_id=_517562_1
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