BEWARE OF 'THE NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAUL' (NPP)
For something like the last 15-20 years the traditional Protestant approach to Justification By Faith Alone as expounded by Martin Luther and many others has come under increasing attack, yet this new attack has mainly come from Protestants – especially Anglican Protestants; moreover, a few of these Anglicans have considered themselves to be “evangelical” in overall approach. Paradoxically these people have also attacked the Roman Catholic view of Justification. Their overall point is that Paul – in many of the famous New Testament comments on Justification..... was not really talking about Justification at all! Apparently, we have all been getting it wrong for around the last 300 years!!
'In a nutshell, the NPP suggests that the Judaism of Paul's day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit; that Paul's argument with the Judaizers was not about works-righteousness (a works righteousness view of salvation over against the Christian view of salvation by grace); that Paul's real concern was for the status of the Gentiles in the church; that justification is not so much about our relationship with God as it is about our relationship to our brothers and sisters in the church (and in particular, it's about the status of the Gentiles in the church and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the church); thus, that justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community, and what are its boundary markers, than it is about how a person stands before God.'
(J. Ligon Duncan, The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul)
So, first of all, exactly who are the protagonists?
They mostly come from a British Anglican base: E.P. Sanders (a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Religion at Duke University), James D.G. Dunn (a New Testament scholar based at Durham University) and N.T. Wright (Bishop of Durham and a truly prolific writer) are 'the main men' and it is especially Wright who has encouraged evangelicals to join the NPP party.
What does the NPP seek to accomplish?
The NPP want to tell us that:
Justification in the New Testament is not really a theological matter governing one's salvation (although probably 90% of the New Testament scholars of the last 200 years would disagree with this); it is much more about the church and who can be considered part of the church. It is, if you will, all about 'covenant community'.
Jesus, and later Paul, were wrong about the self-righteousness of the Jewish religious authorities of the First Century. They did not teach salvation by merit at all (having been a keen student of the Scriptures for 45 years it is obvious to me that neither Jesus or Paul would have claimed salvation by works was any official doctrine of first century religious Jews – rather, the way many of them actually behaved amounted to the teaching of this doctrine).
Paul's main argument with the Judaizers in Galatians, Romans and elsewhere was nothing to do with the doctrine of Justification in a works/grace context, Paul was only concerned about the status of Gentiles who were coming into the church (hmmm! - have the NPP men been reading the same New Testament as I have?)
Nothing Really New Here
I am afraid that I see in all of this yet another attempt to attack the glorious New Testament doctrine of Justification (that is, how we can be justified, or 'made right' with God). As I have stated so many times, the correct understanding of Justification stands right at the heart of the gospel message. This is why this most pivotal doctrine has come under almost continual attack from the other major religions, Catholic theology, the cults and sects, Liberal Protestantism and New Ageism - the NPP people are simply the latest group to attack this most vital of biblical teachings – nothing new here; but more worryingly there are evangelicals among these teachers and they are making a determined approach to bring Bible-believing evangelicals on board.
So what – in my opinion – truly lies at the heart of this new denial of the theology of Justification?
The wish to see ecumenical union between Roman Catholics and Protestants (obviously interpretations of 'Justification' have long been a cause of disagreement; the NPP says that both sides are wrong, just revise what Paul meant by Justification and a major stumblingblock to the ecunemical movement is removed – hey presto!)
The wish to defend Paul and the early church from the charge of anti-Semitism (this is entirely based on modern, post-holocaust liberal sensibilities, and to claim that this is simply an attempt to better understand Paul is disingenuous).
The wish to re-introduce, or re-invent, the doctrine of Justification as part of a modern social gospel making it very acceptable to liberals. The NPP people have been striving hard to encourage evangelicals to come on-board to this line of reasoning. I see all of this as firmly based on a desire to heal all inter-Anglican rifts and disagreements and to establish a new common ground somewhere between the current polarites of right-wing evangelicalism and left-wing liberalism – but far closer to the latter.
I do not doubt that some very sincere people are already involved in the NPP movement (as new people will continue to be in the future), but I call on all my fellow evangelicals to reject the NPP for sound biblical reasons: the true message of Justification must continue to be carefully upheld. Where the New Perspective on Paul gains a serious foothold, a door will be opened into a vague and uncertain world in which the Christian Gospel will ultimately become an impotent and meaningless message.
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
Read our newer, more comprehensive look at this subject:
MORE ON THE 'NEW PERSPECTIVE'
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