More on the 'New Perspective'

A Consideration and Critique of 'The New Perspective on Paul' (NPP) Movement

ARTICLE QUOTE: "The movement was rooted in theological liberalism and Sanders' book soon garnered predictable support from many men who did not believe the Bible to be divinely inspired and believed that it should be given consideration simply as a fascinating but plainly anachronistic philosophical set of propositions, most of which could now be rejected with impunity by sophisticates who now knew far better."

It all started in 1977 with the publication of E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

The book came from a background of a widespread perceived need to rehabilitate the Jewish people following the great evil of the Holocaust. Soul searchings could be found almost everywhere: had not Christians themselves occasionally been anti-semitic? Was not even Martin Luther scathing in some of his comments about the Jewish people? Was the New Testament itself not anti-semitic in places? This last assertion, of course, was plainly ludicrous but we speak of a climate in which many intellectuals were busily at work in improving the curriculum vitae of the Jewish people and nation.

"Are we seriously asked to believe that Paul the Apostle, this canny, sensitive but theologically astute man, somehow misused, misapplied or somewhat carelessly used the vital group of 'dikaiosune' (justification) words? In effect, this is what Sanders, Dunn and Wright (plus their disciples) expect us to believe. It just does not hold water!"

Theologically, the movement was rooted in theological liberalism and Sanders' book soon garnered predictable support from many men who did not believe the Bible to be divinely inspired and believed that it should be given consideration simply as a fascinating but plainly anachronistic philosophical set of propositions, most of which could now be rejected with impunity by sophisticates who now knew far better. Certainly both Sanders and J.D.G. Dunn reject the Pauline authorship of many of Paul's epistles, and both repudiate the concept of the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture.

Sanders, and others who would follow, claimed several things (which we must attempt to 'pin down' later), but were especially critical of the belief that the religious Jews of the New Testament period were legalistic. Sanders' only partly blamed the New Testament itself for this, the real problem, he believed, was caused by its interpreters of the Protestant Reformation, but probably especially Martin Luther. Sanders' wrote,

"Our analysis of Rabbinic and other Palestinian Jewish literature did not reveal the kind of religion best characterized as legalistic works-righteousness. But more important for the present point is the observation that in any case that charge is not the heart of Paul's critique..." (p 550).

Who Are The Main Protagonists?

The'NPP' or 'new perspective' teaching has now spread quite widely and is even now upheld in all the usual liberal seminaries, but the three main NPP men are E.P. Sanders (who wrote the original 1977 book), James Dunn, and N.T. Wright, and it is the latter who is now seen as the real 'heavyweight' of the movement. Actually for a long time Wright, who is a British Anglican bishop, was critical of many of the 'NPP' arguments but now appears to have staunchly joined the party. Certainly, in the past, N.T. Wright has won some evangelical favour by defending the historicity of Christ against the amazing liberal excesses of the Jesus Seminar, so he has previously been seen as at least loosely supportive of evangelical theology. Now, however, Wright's support for the NPP movement is causing many to call his 'evangelicalism' into very serious question. Certainly his attack on Protestantism's traditional view of Justification by Faith Alone has been little short of scathing and it appears to have opened a door for closer Anglican/Roman Catholic understanding. In fact an 'ecumenical spirit' is strong within the 'New Perspective' and many would claim that - at base and root - the movement was only ever motivated by post-holocaust sensibilites, coupled with a desire for closer Anglican - Roman Catholic understanding.

The Main Arguments

So - to stand back a little now - what is this 'NPP' thing really all about?

The NPP writers (who, by the way, freely disagree among themselves on many points), overall, consider the Protestant Reformation perspective on Paul to be wrong. They perceive the Reformers to have been largely arguing against a legalistic Jewish culture which sought to earn its salvation through works (this has been asserted in several places by NPP writers which calls their understanding of Luther and Calvin into serious question). Supporters of the NPP argue that in his occasional comments about the Jews of his day, Paul has been completely misread. They contend he was actually combating Jews who were boasting because they were God's people, the "elect" or the "chosen ones." Their "works," so to speak, were done to show they were God's covenant people and not to earn their salvation. The reformers (the usual allegation goes) then applied these same principles of Legalism to Roman Catholicism but, again, they often did so erroneously. The NPP has made many claims but probably rests on three overall points which we need to identify here a little more precisely because they need to be carefully evaluated. So the three primary lines of attack of the 'New Perspective' people are these:

Argument One. The first century AD Jewish religious community was not legalistic - Second Temple Judaism clearly taught a religion of grace. It was Sanders' who coined the term,"covenantal nomism." Sanders argued that this is the "pattern of religion" found in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. For Sanders, when Jews spoke of obeying commandments, or of the required strict obedience, it was because they were "keeping the covenant," rather than out of legalism. (the 'NPP' writers here show an interesting inability to differentiate between official doctrine and actual everyday practice and behaviour. The New Testament writers were surely better placed than 20th century 'NPP' writers to be the best witnesses and evaluators of actual practice!).

Argument Two. The Reformers got the substance of the Gospel wrong because of misunderstanding Paul on the subject of Justification. When Paul wrote of 'justification' he was not mainly referring to sinners becoming 'right' before God on an individual basis. Justification was not about exoneration before God at all, it was only concerned with the acceptance of Gentiles into the 'covenant community.' Justification - for Paul - was all about 'covenant community' status. To quote how Cornelis Venema has characterized the NPP viewpoint, Justification is not, one might say, about soteriology (salvation) but about ecclesiology (the church). Yes, it remains judicial, that is, as a declaration in a court of law, but the meaning changes (to be frank, this NPP allegation is easily countered - more later).

Argument Three. In many of his statements apparently against the Jews, often referring to 'the circumcision,' Paul was only opposing a faction of the Jews who were teaching Jewish Exclusivism. These Jews taught that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to attain salvation. Paul's concern was purely with the Judaizers who would quickly reject Gentiles from their 'covenant community' if they were not sufficiently obedient (up to this point this is not entirely incorrect). But the problem areas were things like circumcision, tithing, the feast days and the eating of 'unclean' meats, it was all about these 'boundary markers.' Moreover when Paul uses the term 'works of the law' he is not referring to the entire Old Covenant (as established theology has always insisted), rather, he is confining himself to those 'boundary' areas, the suggestion is that “works of the law” ought to be understood as the Law of Moses only as it operated socially (Sabbath, unclean meats etc.), therefore an area of possible Jewish/Gentile social exclusion/division. Moreover in his 'works of the law' statements, Paul is not painting any contrast with justification (as in the later Protestant concept) at all (again, this argument can be overturned, about which more later).

A Critique of the Main Thrusts of Argument

1. Legalism

In contrast to the 'NPP' belief that second temple Judaism consistently taught salvation by grace, several documents from the time of Paul are in existence which certainly seem to show that that some Jews believed obedience to the law would be rewarded on the final day with salvation: "The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord." (Psalms of Solomon, c. 50 B.C.). "Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works." (2 Baruch, c. A.D. 100). A little research will uncover a number of examples like this. Paul's understanding of justification makes much better sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Romans 3:20). Paul was far better placed to be aware of legalism among certain Jews and his knowledge of Pharisee doctrine (as an ex-Pharisee himself) would surely make him particularly well-equipped to judge this matter!
Surely one may note indications of great naivety when NPP writers check official Judaistic teaching of the time of Paul, find that 'salvation by grace' is the official 'line' and thereafter entirely reject any view which challenges this! Is this not an inevitable result of coming to ones 'research' with an already-decided agenda and 'road-map'?

It has also been claimed that the Reformers were wrong to see Pelagianism as the main problem within late medieval Catholicism ('Pelagianism' - a purely works and merit-based approach to Christianity, named after 5th century British monk 'Pelagius'), but it seems clear that the NPP people have seriously misread the reformers here: the latter were fully aware that Catholicism's failings were not quite that simple. Actually Roman Catholicism taught then - and continues to teach - salvation by grace. The reformers were well aware of official Catholic doctrine yet believed that the net effect of certain written doctrines and much actual practice amounted to a works-based approach to God and they wanted to a return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. As an ex-Roman Catholic stated to me a long time ago, whatever the Church's official doctrines may say, actual Catholic practice tends to encourage a works-based view of salvation.

2. Justification

According to the 'NPP' the sinner becomes initially accepted into God's 'covenant community' (that is, the church) by faith; but he or she then remains within it by good works; this is actually very close to the Roman Catholic model. Also for the NPP writers the term 'righteousness' means something totally different from the view which Protestant confessions have always accepted. A sinner, for N.T. Wright, is "righteous" when he is in the membership of the covenant. Obviously Luther's explanation is then necessarily attacked. Luther understood righteousness to mean that a person is in a right personal relationship with God through the imputation to him of Christ's righteousness. To lack this righteousness, Luther taught, is to be under the wrath and curse of God. This is what Luther found terrifying until he got a clear understanding of the Gospel way of salvation. A very careful, step-by-step and painstaking consideration of the relevant verses, especially in Romans, tends to support Luther's model much more than the NPP model, although the latter is not totally devoid of occasional insights. Furthermore, the usual NPP inference (and sometimes assertion) that Paul the Apostle apparently misused, misunderstood, or at least carelessly employed the 'dikaiosune' (justification-related) group of Greek words must be considered ludicrous in the extreme! Paul's intelligence and grasp of theological essentials is very plain and manifest at numerous points within the New Testament, something nobody has ever questioned, and yet it is seriously suggested that this canny, sensitive but theologically astute man nevertheless misused or misapplied the vital group of 'dikaiosune' (justification) words - moreover, that this carelessness later led to multiple thousands (not a few) completely misunderstanding his writings. In effect, this is what Sanders, Dunn and Wright (plus their disciples) expect us to believe. It just does not hold water! Wright seems to willingly make the simple complicated here just in order to establish a point. After all, we can all look up the meaning of 'justify,' 'justified,' and 'justification' in any good dictionary.

The phrase in Romans 8:33, "God is the justifier," is Paul's answer to the question of whether it is possible for anyone to bring a charge against God's elect. The biblical doctrine of justification says that sinners can be miraculously reckoned righteous before God. This happens for all who believe and accept Christ and has nothing to do with observance of the law. This is how Paul uses the doctrine of justification by faith. The 'new perspective' is not entirely wrong in its observation that Paul partly uses justification to argue that Gentile Christians need not take on the yoke of the law (Galatians) and that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should live in harmony (Romans 14-15), but we must not allow these valid points to take over an entire biblical doctrine which has a much bigger purpose and dimension. The blinkered approach of the NPP here as they seek to establish certain points is sometimes quite astonishing.

As Lee Gatiss says of Professor J.D.G. Dunn's 'NPP' claims,

"The historical and doctrinal conclusions which he comes to ...should be handled with great care. His indictment of Luther and 'all subsequent Protestants' for misunderstanding Paul’s theology of justification has been demonstrated to rely on second-hand evidence and (in places) fallacious logic and exegetical technique. Some of his ideas are not as new as the name 'new perspective' would suggest. So therefore there is no need to hesitate on Dunn’s account in preaching the gospel of justification as we have received it."
(From 'Justified Hesitation? J.D.G. Dunn and The Protestant Doctrine of Justification' which is available in full here.

3. Works of the Law

Most NPP writers (not all of them) further insist that the term "works of the law" is a Pauline expression which only refers to 'boundary markers' like circumcision and the feast days. 'New Perspective,' or not, this view is actually very old and was probably first suggested by Pelagius who is now considered a heretic; the same view was later picked up by various legalistic cults and sects and, in a somewhat different form, is generally embraced within Armstrongism. But we have to ask whether Paul primarily considers such matters as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws when he uses the phrase "works of the law"? The view of most biblical scholars of the last 200 years, is that Paul focuses on observance of the law in its entirety in his use of this expression, and a careful checking of the context of the relevant passages backs them up. Notice Galatians 3:10,

'All who rely on observing the law ('works of the law' KJV) are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."'

But now continue reading the whole section to see what law or what part of the law Paul is referring to! In verse 17 Paul makes it plain that he is referring to the law "introduced 430 years later" - that is, 430 years after the time of Abraham, at the place of Mount Sinai. That is a reference to the Old Covenant and, almost always, Paul uses the word 'law' (Gk: 'nomos') to refer to the Old Covenant package. A careful reading of the entirety of Galatians 3 will remove any doubts on this matter. It is especially needful to check verses 17-29. Verse 19, for example, states the following:

'What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.' (Galatians 3:19, NIV throughout).

So it is very obvious that Paul refers to the entire Old Covenant package in his remarks on the law in Galatians 3. In fact all seasoned and experienced Bible commentators know that to break the Law down into bits is never a New Testament practice - this is simply what theologians and Christian writers have sometimes done; yet despite this well-accepted rule, the NPP writers do teach that Paul's use of 'works of the law' only selectively refers to certain points of the Law - this is done simply to make one of their highly questionable points. But 'works of the law' simply means 'doing the law'—the law in its entirety. Therefore the issue at stake with 'works of the law' is not so much Jewish identity and Jewish exclusivism as the ability of Israelites as human beings to obey the entire law. Again, if we check the entire context this is the most obvious reading. Further, Paul states,

' the works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20, NASB quoted here).

So this text clearly illustrates that Paul does not employ the term 'works of the law' in the narrow and restricted sense which the NPP people encourage us to believe - he refers to the entire Law - as delivered at Mount Sinai; for we would get very little "knowledge of sin" solely through the more periphery "boundary markers," neither would the claim be made that these peripheral areas could ever lead to justification "in His sight."

As Gatiss rightly points out,
"...if 'works of the law' really does refer to works which separate Jew from Gentile then why does he (Paul) only highlight ceremonial aspects of the Law? Why not the moral and ethical precepts of the Law, such as those which forbade homosexuality for example? Jews and Gentiles were certainly distinct as regards their accepted sexual ethics." (from earlier quoted article).


During the last thirty years, but especially the last fifteen, the NPP movement has effectively molded and developed a polarisation of views on its expressed agenda, indeed, a polarisation which, its protagonists have claimed to have never wanted; this is largely because several originally interesting lines of thought have been taken much too far. The writings of both Dunn and Wright are certainly not without various interesting lines of thought and occasional insights; for example, Wright is correct when he writes of the need to get back to a less individualistic and more corporate approach to the gospel proclamation. There is no doubt that Protestantism has over-emphasized the individual and personal application of the Gospel proclamation at the expense of the society-impacting divine warning. Secondly, the 'NPP' has indeed provided certain insights on 'justification' which might otherwise have been lost, however, too much is then made of this and the challenge to the Protestant reading of justification is ultimately based on insufficient evidence and sometimes rather weak argument. Moreover, seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can also lead to a serious reduction in the importance of sin. Paul's vital and primary concern here is surely how sinners can be made righteous - but this most vital aspect almost disappears from the NPP model of justification. This must be considered a grievous diminution of what is most vital in order to establish a point of far more dubious merit!

A careful consideration and evaluation of all the presented evidence shows that the traditional view of justification is still the strongest and the most supported by the most natural and logical reading of the relevant Scriptures. Unfortunately many interesting insights offered by people like N.T. Wright are now effectively lost because these theories went too far in attacking the vital doctrine of Justification by Faith; this has inevitably led to a certain polarisation and to an equally inevitable evangelical 'closing of the door' against some of these writers.

Finally, there can be no doubt that the original 'NPP' background and foundation of wanting to rehabilitate the popular view of first century AD Jewish religious practice is highly suspicious. While these men were, of course, undoubtedly sincere in feeling such sensibilities, we have to ask whether such motivations should ever be the springboard for a new theological consideration of Pauline teaching! Surely we should only attempt for a better understanding of Paul without carrying any such possibly prejudicial preferential agenda. An ecumenical spirit towards Roman Catholicism has also increasingly pervaded some of the available material on this subject. Again, we have to question the possible imposition of any such foreign influences in searching for a better understanding of the writings of Paul the Apostle.

Robin A. Brace, Easter, 2008.

Academic Bibliography

(An 'academic bibliography' is not a list of 'recommended books,' rather, it is a list of books which have been thoroughly consulted, especially regarding their main argumentative thrusts and conclusions. Several more could be added to this list, but this probably suffices).

Dunn, D.G. James, The New Perspective on Paul. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2007 revised edition.
Kim, Seyoon, Paul and the New Perspective. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2001.
Sanders, E.P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Publishers. 1977.
Sanders, E.P., Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Press. 1985.
Sanders, E.P., Jesus and Judaism. Minneapolis, Augsburg Foretress Publishers. 1987.
Waters, Guy Prentiss. Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul. Philipsburg, NJ., P and R Publishing. 2004.
Wells, David F., By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Wheaton, Ill., Crossway Books. 2007.
Wenham, David. Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1995.
Wright, N.T., What Saint Paul Really Said. Oxford, Lion. 1997.
Wright, N.T., Paul in Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Publishing. 2006.