The New Perspective on Paul, Anti-Semitism, and Anti-Catholicism

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The so-called New Perspective on Paul, spearheaded by E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, is
sometimes seen (and I think this is part of the motivation for some of its proponents) as a more Jewish-friendly view than the traditional understanding of Paul. On the traditional view, the prevailing mindset among the Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees of Paul's day was a theology of works-earned salvation. On the New Perspective, the Jews held a view more like the contemporary Roman Catholic view. People enter the covenant by God's grace but remain in it by works. I've wondered sometimes if some of the idea behind the NPP is to try to make the New Testament more friendly to Jews in this politically-correct age. If the view we attribute to the Jews of Paul's day (at least a notable portion of certain sorts of their leaders and those they
taught), then we don't seem as down on the Jews. Given the history of negative attitudes toward the Jews from the Christian-influenced world, anyone with a shred of respect for Judaism should at least like the idea of distancing Christianity from Anti-Semitism.

I don't happen to think the arguments for the NPP are remotely convincing, and for that reason I do wonder if some who want to be tolerant of Jews are engaging in wishful thinking in adopting the NPP. I don't see the need, because I don't think the traditional view is even close to anti-Semitic. Paul was in the tradition of the prophets, culminating in Jesus himself, in his self-criticism of his own Judaism. The internal critique found in Hosea or Jeremiah certainly wouldn't be seen by most Jews as anti-Semitic, and there's nothing that Paul does that's any different, even on the traditional view. But I'm not the only one who has wondered if some of the motivation for the NPP is a desire to abandon a view that's often been portrayed as anti-Jewish. Even if that's not true, there certainly are NPP proponents who offer that as a plus for their view.

There's a deep irony in all this, though, a double irony in fact. The very act of adopting the NPP, even if motivated by the a desire to think highly of the Jews of Paul's day, ends up leading to an unintended consequence while not really achieving the intended result to begin with. First, changing their view of the view Paul is condemning doesn't change the fact that he condemns it. It doesn't soften Paul's harsh language against the Galatians in calling them heretics and thinking it would be better to emasculate themselves than let circumcision do whatever it is (which is a matter of debate here) that they saw circumcision as doing. It doesn't make the Jews of Paul's day suddenly become orthodox Christian thinkers in Paul's mind. The Christians who were accepting the Jewish theses that the Galatians were playing around with would still be heretics in Paul's mind, no matter who wins the debate about what those theses happened to be. So the tolerance motivating the NPP doesn't lead to a tolerant conclusion on either the traditional view or the NPP. There's a theological view that gets rejected here, and revising our view of what that view is doesn't change the fact that Paul considers it s heresy.

Second, there's an unintended consequence. As I said at the beginning of this post, the view that the NPP attributes to the Galatians is pretty much the official Roman Catholic position. The view most people in the traditional approach attribute to the Roman Catholic position is actually a misrepresentation of official Catholic teaching but is common enough among Catholics who misunderstand the teaching of their church. I grew up in a very Catholic area, and it's obvious to me that many Catholics do hold the Galatian heresy to the extent that they have any beliefs on the matter at all (and many I knew didn't). But the official teaching of Roman Catholicism is not the Galatian heresy but rather a view very much like the view the NPP thinks Jews of Paul's day held.

The result is that, in extending so much tolerance toward the Jews of Paul's day, the NPP ends up closing the only door to separating Roman Catholicism from the Galatian heresy. Someone who holds the traditional view on what Paul was responding to can distinguish between that view (which Paul calls heresy) and the Roman Catholic view (even if many who hold the traditional view fail to do this). But someone holding the NPP seems to me to have to say that Roman Catholics are heretics. I wonder if the tolerance that NPP proponents are so motivated by can extend to Roman Catholicism. There's at least an internal tension within some who hold the NPP between one key motivation and one logical implication of the view.


It seems that you are making the following statements, but correct me if I misunderstood you:

Traditional view: Caricatured Catholic position = Galatian heresy
NPP view: Actual Catholic position = Galatian heresy

I thought that NPP was supposed to SUPPORT the actual Catholic position? N.T. Wright says that the differences between Catholics and Protestants would be diminished if Protestants would simply understand what (in Wright's view) Paul actually meant about justification. In other words, both NPP and Catholics take a via media between Protestants on the one hand and the Galatian heretics (who could be called proper Pelagians) on the other.

So on the NPP view:

Paul = Jewish = Semi-Pelagian = actual RCC, where:
Grace -> Faith + Works -> Justification

Galatian heresy = Pelagian = caricatured RCC, where:
Faith + Works -> Justification

Traditional Protestantism, where:
Grace -> Faith -> Justification + Works

I may have misrepresented NPP here, but this is the best sense I can make of them.

My understanding is that the NPP attributes covenantal nomism to the Pharisees that Paul is criticizing and that covenantal nomism is the actual Catholic position. If that's wrong, I'd like a more specific nailing down of the details of where it's wrong.

Follow this link:

You will notice that, according to Wright (p. 13 of the PDF file), the Galatian heresy was not a vertical issue (that is, how do I get a right standing with God?) but rather horizontal (that is, with whom do I as a Christian share table-fellowship?).

This is what has confused me about Wright. For him, justification/righteousness can have many meanings:

1) It refers to a person being identified as a Christian by other people (whether inside or outside the church). In this regard, it is by faith alone, and not by conformity to Jewish laws like circumcision (so the contrast here is not with God's law in general, but with Jewish ceremonial codes in particular)
2) It refers to our being declared righteous before God at the end of history in the final judgment, which is based on works (although these works are wrought by God himself).
3) It refers to the righteousness of God himself, in the sense that he is faithful to his covenant promises.

(You will notice that in none of these senses is faith contrasted with God's law in a general sense, nor is Christ's righteousness ever imputed to the believer. That's where I as a Calvinist have problems with Wright.)

The Galatian heresy apparently has to do with (1) above, in the sense that Galatian believers were requiring circumcision for fellowship. (After reconsideration, I think I was wrong that NPP equates the Galatian heresy with Pelagianism, because Pelagianism is about our status before God, not other people.)

My understanding of all this is that NPP endorses covenantal nomism, but that is not the Galatian heresy that Paul criticizes (quite the opposite, Paul would endorse covenantal nomism). You may also follow this link:

Here, Doug Wilson argues that, according to NPP, Paul affirmed the covenant nomism of Judaism (you get in by grace, you stay in by obedience), and that the soteriology of Judaism was essentially correct. So NPP sees a continuity of the soteriology of Judaism, Paul's Christianity, and RCC. At least, as far as I can tell.

There's a lot to say about Wright that's not central to my point here, but I'm going to say it anyway. I can never get Wright, and he's not my paradigm case. It sounds like Wright thinks Sanders and Dunn wrongly reduce both Paul's position and the Galatians' position to horizontal issues. He insists that the gospel includes the vertical. He has a brilliant paragraph explaining what imputation in a law court is (the court has found in your favor, not that its judgment means you are morally good). But then he goes on to say that nothing in scripture promotes the very imputation he just affirmed, denying imputation in a way that makes me think he doesn't get the traditional view to begin with.

As for judgment by works, there's plenty of room within the traditional view for different views on this. I don't think it's a departure from the traditional view to take Schreiner's view, for instance, whereby there are two kinds of final judgment. Schreiner insists that our salvation causally depends on our judgment by God as righteous in a legal sense, which depends purely on imputation, but God also does judge us to be righteous insofar as Christ's righteousness has actually been worked out in us. The difference between the Reformed version of this in Schreiner and the Catholic version of it is that the Catholic version considers this enough grounds for saying that we earn or deserve our salvation because of our good works, even if we don't earn or deserve the grace that these good works came by. The metaphysics is the same, at least if the Catholic view involves the Augustinian insistence on divine sovereignty over the whole process (which not all Catholics hold). The difference is how the words 'earn' and 'deserve' are used, not over what actually takes place.

There's also the problem of different uses of language. When Wright says we're justified by something, he doesn't mean we're justified by it. He means something before justification is by means of that. So he'll be saying something that sounds like a denial of the traditional view when it's only at odds with how the traditional view uses the term 'justification'. It's silent on actual justification, since that's not what Wright thinks 'justification' refers to.

So I'm not convinced that Wright's view is anywhere near as reductionist as Sanders and Dunn's, and thus I think he's a lot closer to the traditional view than even he admits.

But I think you've misunderstood my original claim, and I'm not sure my previous comment helped clarify that. I'm not saying that the covenantal nomism approach of the NPP leads the NPP to reject the Catholic view as heresy. I'm saying that their refusal to accept the distinction the traditional view can make does not give them the ability to distinguish between the Roman Catholic view (as correctly construed) and the Galatian heretics' view (as correctly construed). So they're robbing those who rightly understand the text of the ability to avoid anti-Catholicism of a sort that I think accurately recognizes the possibility of a Catholic position that's not as far off from Reformation thinking as the position Luther and Calvin were rejecting is. They thus try to rehabilitate the Jews of Paul's day while confirming Protestants' misinterpretations of Catholicism. I think that point stands despite all the things the NPP might say positively about a position similar to Roman Catholicism.

"I've wondered sometimes if some of the idea behind the NPP is to try to make the New Testament more friendly to Jews in this politically-correct age."

I tend to think that IF this is the case, it is an extremely minor and peripheral one that is only a kind of point or motivation to an absurdly small number of those who are interested in the NPP such as to make this idea the exception to the rule. The purposes and motivations for the NPP are many and none of them really have anything to do with being more friendly to Judaism. Sure, it aims to correct the negative, anti-semitic biases of the past which were not only accepted, but encouraged. The point of that is not so we are more friendly toward Judaism, but to serve as a check and balance against letting personal prejudice influence and control scholarship. We may still say negative things about Judaism—or even positive things—but if we are going to say them, we should say them because it is the actual case, not because we are predisposed to view Judaism in one way or another. One actual motivation and point of the NPP is to disassociate how we view Judaism from the evolutionary theory of religion in the past that we now know to be highly incorrect and deeply tied to that religious prejudice. It is NOT the case that Judaism began as some wonderful form of religion and decayed over time into a horrible, legalistic, works-righteousness at the time of Christ—just as it is untrue that Christianity began as some wonderful form of religion and decayed over time into a horrible, works-righteous religion and if we can somehow take Christianity back to the beginning, everything will be glorious again. These are caricatures of reality. And since the NPP is only interested in affirming the historical truth, so it is certainly motivated to do away with these errors.

"So the tolerance motivating the NPP . . . I wonder if the tolerance that NPP proponents are so motivated by . . ."

This is really only a straw man than a reality of the perspective or of virtually the entire body of people who actually hold it. I don't know anyone whose reason for holding the NPP is because of Jewish tolerance or associated remotely with it.

"I don't happen to think the arguments for the NPP are remotely convincing..."

If you're so misled as to think tolerance is any point of or argument for the NPP, no wonder.

Well, maybe you should read some N.T. Wright:

Lots of those who joined the Sanders bandwaggon, not least in America, did so because they shared his post-Holocaust re-evaluation of Christian-Jewish relations, and the implicit relativism which that engendered. I have spent considerable energy arguing against this position, and explaining that Paul’s critique of Israel is not based on, or productive of, anti-Judaism as such, still less anti-semitism, but involves a far more delicately balanced and nuanced theology which cannot be reduced to such slogans.

He's not exactly an NPP-opponent straw-manning the NPP, and he hardly wants to make the NPP look bad, so why would he offer a straw man? He sees something he finds unfortunate and wants to correct the problem. I suggest you try redirecting your uncharitable sarcasm toward the source instead of toward those who take him to be a reputable scholar whose judgments on people he's seen as his allies are probably reliable.

Your accusation is that I make the following fallacious inference:

1. Someone is partly motivated by opposition to anti-Semitism.
2. Therefore, the only reasons the person has are said opposition to anti-Semitism.

Now I did say 1 (as did Wright). I didn't say 2. A pretty obvious piece of evidence against 2 is that I said I wasn't convinced by the NPP arguments, especially considering the following legitimate inference:

3. I say I'm not convinced by the NPP's arguments.
4. Therefore, I believe the NPP has arguments.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as claiming that what you've offered against me is a straw man. I suspect it's just unhelpful and uncharitable sarcasm. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's very far from a straw man to say that the traditional approach considers Judaism to have been a "wonderful form of religion and decayed over time into a horrible, legalistic, works-righteousness at the time of Christ" or Christianity to be "some wonderful form of religion and decayed over time into a horrible, works-righteous religion". The traditional approach has never denied the biblical data of a pretty terrible response from the Hebrew people almost from the very beginning under Moses, with similar evidence from the NT about problems in the Christian church. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in Luther or Calvin that suggests anything like the above and quite a lot that insists on the opposite. So it's probably best to deal with the straw in your own eye before trying to think about (real or imagined) straws in someone else's.

I used to be Reformed (graduated from Westminster Seminary in 2003) and I'm now a Catholic. I can sympathize with some of the things you're saying about Catholicism and the New Perspective.

For my take on it all, see this post entitled: "Does N.T. Wright's Theology lead to Catholicism?"

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