New Perspective on Paul

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Rey asked in a comment on this post what the New Perspective on Paul is, and I decided my response was worth a whole post.

It's a three-stage thing. It started with E.P.Sanders in the 1970s, who argued that people have too harshly criticized first-century Judaism as legalistic and works-based salvation. He described the view not as earning a place in the covenant by works but as getting in the covenant by grace and staying in by works. There's general agreement now that he selectively picked evidence to support that, and the Jewish picture in the first-century was not monolithic. At the same time it's also not clear that this notion filtered down to the average person anyway. Still, there were people who said what he described the whole of first-century Judaism as believing, and it was significant enough that you have to be aware of that as you read Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees and Paul's description of his past and the Jews in Galatians, Romans, and Philippians.

Stage two was James Dunn, largely in the 1980s. His Romans commentary (Word Biblical Commentary) is a key location for much of this work, but he's got a few monographs on this general perspective as well. His chief addition to Sanders had to do with interpreting Paul's use of the term that we translate in English as "works of the law". Since the Reformation, most Protestants have taken this term to refer to actions done to earn salvation in accordance with the Torah. Dunn says the works of the law in Romans are not simply doing what the Torah says. It's about the distinctive markers of the Hebrew people in the Torah, not the whole of the law.For Dunn, Paul is saying that you don't become a Christian by becoming a Jew, so relying on Jewish identity markers is contrary to the gospel. It's not about reliance on works.

A number of scholars have considered this too reductionistic, because one of the things Paul talks about is those who disobey the law as the Gentiles do. So whatever the works of the law that can't save are, it's got to be more than just ethnic identity markers. Those who try to obey the law aren't necessarily saved, but neither are those who break the law, because disobedience to the law is grounds for judgment.

The third tier of the New Perspective comes from N.T. Wright. Wright doesn't accept everything in Sanders and Dunn, but he accepts some of it. Generally, he accepts their portrait of first-century Judaism but rejects their picture of what drove Paul. His contribution seems to me to be primarily in criticizing the standard Protestant interpretation of justification as imputed righteousness. In his view, the atonement is very much a legal matter, but it's legal vindication first and foremost. He doesn't deny imputation, but he doesn't see it as central. There's also reconciliation, but that's a result of the vindication before God. See this lecture for Wright's own account of his general views.

I think the jury is still out on Wright, partly because so many reactionary types misunderstand him, as he makes pretty clear in the paper I just linked to. I'm much more amenable to him than to Sanders or Dunn. I think they both go way too far, though even Wright thinks that. I suspect Wright steers too far from imputation in order to emphasize some things Protestants have ignored, but I think he's probably right to complain that these things get ignored. Douglas Moo and John Stott are the only Romans commentaries in my list by traditionalists on this issue, I believe, that deal with this issue strongly. Joseph Fitzmyer and Leon Morris completely ignore it as if it's a brief fad not worth their time. See Mark Heath's comments on these two authors' takes on this stuff: Moo on the New Perspective; Stott on the New Perspective.

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Around the web from Theology and Biblical Studies on June 12, 2005 3:22 PM

Here's a few things that have caught my attention on the internet lately: I discovered that there is a Yahoo! group exclusively for discussing the theology of Jürgen Moltmann (here) which needless to say I have joined. Through this I came acros... Read More


I just posted a link to three lectures by D. A. Carson on New Perspectivism. I picked them up from Real Clear Theology.

Yes, I was going to put that in my next roundup. I probably still will. I found them at Adrian Warnock's blog. I think Carson's stuff on this is among the best, and it actually goes back to his dissertation, so he's been interacting with Sanders and co. from the very beginning of his academic career.

Good stuff all around. Thanks for the post Jeremy and the article. Wright's vindication before God notion has some merit, I gotta say. His argumentation with Call > Justified >...glorified was pretty cool especially when he reminds us of the Corinthian believers being reminded of their calling. Personally I even felt almost comfortable with his sort-of-step away from imputation. Imputing the righteousness of Christ onto men always seemed a bit off to me.

For your readers who may (or may not) know about this new perspective stuff, I would definitely suggest reading Wright's paper in its entirety before listening to the Carson sessions. The paper is excellent and raises some good questions but Carson's look at things gives dimension to these concepts and reflects the flaws. Good stuff.


I would like to direct your readers to the following lecture on the theology of N. T. Wright. Using extensive quotes from his own writings, it is shown that Wright has departed far from the doctrines of the gospel and of the Christian faith. I read the essay/lecture posted above by Wright and it is apparent that the face he puts on for the general public is quite different from his academic writings. That is the subtle nature of this kind of deception. Luther once said that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. It is easy to see that once Wright jettisoned the biblical doctrine of justification that many other doctrines have fallen by the way as well. For example, Wright denies the existence of Satan, demons, and hell. He calls personal sins "petty" and "trivial". Salvation is not salvation from these 'petty' and 'trivial' personal sins but from national rebellion against God. He denies the doctrine of imputation which is the very heart of the gospel itself. And the list goes on. He also states in his writings that if Jesus came to merely teach us, that He would be just a big "yawn-maker". One wonders how Mr. Wright knows anything about Jesus at all if not through the biblical account of Jesus' teachings. I will stop there and hope that some will listen to the lecture and be able to rightly discern the pernicious nature of Wright's teachings.

Kind regards,

Given that he spefically denies some of those charges, I'm rather skeptical without seeing it myself. He pretty clearly doesn't deny imputation, so I know you're wrong on that. I've seen him affirm it in his academic writings. He just doesn't think it's the most crucial element of justification. I'd guess that his use of the terms 'petty' and 'trivial' is not to say that the sins are petty and trivial but to say that those who care only or mostly about personal sin to the exclusion of larger scale sin are being petty and trivial. Salvation is on a much larger scale than just individual restoration with God. I don't think of that as trivial, but in comparison with the restoration of the entire universe it is myopic to focus as we have since the Reformation on mere individualism. If Jesus came merely to teach us, that wouldn't exactly be all that significant. Wright is criticizing those who think of Jesus as merely a moral teacher, and he's right to do so. He's distancing himself from those who have been most revisionist on the atonement when he says things like that. I haven't seen any statements on hell, angels, and demons, so I can't comment on that, but given the inaccuracy of other things here I'll doubt it until I see it.

NT Wright:

"If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom."

Aside from the crude example, how is this NOT a denial of imputation?

Personally, I don't think that imputation is the issue as much as alien righteousness. There is also debate surrounding the views of Luther himself and whether his view is the same as the traditional imputation view. If one holds to alien righteousness, then I think they are well within reformation theology.

Does anybody know if Wright has moved from his views as expressed in Climax of the Covenant? Because he says some things there that are very problematic!

Just from that quote, without the context, I can't be sure, but it seems to me that he's saying that imputation is not a forensic concept. If you're going to be talking about the legal aspects of the atonement, you shouldn't be talking about imputation. I agree with him if that's all he means. Imputation isn't a legal aspect of the atonement.

I realize that this language does sound that way you're taking it, but I trust a friend of mine who has wrestled with Wright in great detail for a long time. He says he really thinks people are misreading Wright, and since Wright says the same thing it's going to take more than just an ambiguous quote to convince me that Wright is lying about his views or deceiving himself or some such thing.

I've discovered that he's not a very careful writer in terms of being precise in formulating his views. He often seems to be saying something that sounds radical and heterodox, and then you read further and realize he isn't saying that at all. There's a section in The Climax of the Covenant that just seems to be reducing the resurrection to spiritual benefits we already have, as liberal theology has done for years now. Then at the end of the chapter you discover he doesn't mean that, and a few years later he puts out a huge book defending the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. The fault seems to me to be in his presentation, which means it's hard to get a handle on what he's really thinking. That's a good reason to give him the benefit of the doubt in terms of what his views are.

I've looked around a bit to find what he says about heaven and hell. He seems to me to defend the biblical view that you don't just go to heaven or hell when you die but will later be resurrected to be judged, and the afterlife the Bible mostly speaks of is after that judgment. That's a far cry from not believing in heaven or hell. He's not precise in saying this (see here), but that's as radical as it seems to me to be. He seems to believe in Satan here.

I've had a chance to look around a bit more. I've discovered that imputation is synonymous with the legal declaration rather than the contrasting infusion of righteousness that I somehow had come to think it was (I don't know how I didn't think about the Latin root, which would have clued me in), so I need to look over some of this stuff again. Given that, though, I think it's worth looking at the things that struck me as so strange until I figured this out:

According to Mark Horne, N.T. Wright does deny that some of the prooftexts for imputation really are about that, and he says a lot of Reformed people have confused that sort of point with the very different claim that there's no imputation. As a philosopher and a blogger, I sympathize very much with the complaint of uncareful readers taking someone to be saying something very different from what it in fact said. I've had it happen to me many times on this blog. Wright has a specialized view of what the term 'the righteousness of God' means in Romans, and it's not what the Reformed doctrine of imputation refers to. That doesn't mean he doesn't agree that Christ's righteousness is legally bestowed on us. He just doesn't think those passages are about that. Rich Lusk says similar things. Both give clear quotes from Wright showing that he believes in imputation.

Now when you go back to look at the quote you give, it makes perfect sense given what these two say. Wright makes it clear that the righteousness of God the Father, as he thinks Paul talks about it, is not what is imputed to us. Since God is the judge, the legal proceedings don't involve the judge transferring the judge's righteousness to us, legally speaking. What the legal proceedings involve is the judge treating us as if the sacrifice has been paid, because it has, just not by our dying. It isn't God insofar as he is judge who has imputed his own righteousness. It's God insofar as he is judge who has imputed Christ's righteousness insofar as he is the sacrifice. That's the traditional doctrine of imputation. I don't see any denial of that in the quote you give.

For a more general perspective on where I'm coming from here, you can read Jollyblogger's post on Wright. I'm a bit hesitant to join him in thinking individual salvation is a mere means to an end, but I agree with him that contemporary evangelicalism has bought into the American lie that individual salvation is God's sole goal in salvation, as if the restoration of all reality and the covenant community as a whole are of little value in themselves. The corporate elements of salvation are too easily ignored by reading individualism into the text (e.g. the light of the world that we (the Greek has a plural pronoun for 'you') are is something that we collectively are, but summer camps and Sunday schools teach kids that each one of us is a whole light). I say this as a minor disagreement with his wording at the end. The main thrust of his post and how it suggests we look at heresy claims in general and this one in particular just seems to me to be exactly right.

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