New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

I find myself commenting a bit on this topic before I really feel ready to do so, but there are certain things I’d like to insert into the conversation that is being generated from Adrian Warnock’s blog, through the discussion of John Piper’s book The Future of Justification. (Some preliminary notes on the new perspectives may be found on my participatory Bible study blog, category New Perspectives on Paul. All these are just my notes as I journey through some of this interesting writing.)

Adrian has put a good deal of emphasis on what he sees as the gracious approach that John Piper has taken toward N. T. Wright’s work, and how accurately, in his view, Bishop Wright has been portrayed. I have no reason to believe that Piper is intending to be anything but gracious and accurate, and yet there are some things that bother me just a bit. (On these, see below.)

I’m going to outline the points here, but much of my reading on the new perspective has been from sources other than N. T. Wright, so I want to emphasize two things. First, I am in no way trying to characterize Wright’s views on this. I think those who really want to understand him should read what he has written. I linked to an excellent paper he wrote in my previous post on this topic, Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism (PDF). Second, I am myself exploring these ideas, and my training was primarily Old Testament, though I did a considerable amount of exegesis in Greek in school, and afterward. But even so I think I can perhaps help clarify a couple of things.

I started from Adrian’s post today, Legalism Versus Grace in First Century Judaism, in which he says:

Anyone who has read anything about the New Perspectives on Paul will realize that one of the key arguments is that we have misunderstood the Pharisees through the perspective of the Reformation. The first century Jews were never legalists, we are told. . . .

But there are a number of problems with this claim as well. First, it is not essential for the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) that one assume that there were no Jewish legalists, or that there were no legalistic Pharisees. The key position is that Judaism was and is not a legalistic religion, and that in it favor with God was based on grace. I can find any number of legalistic Christians, plenty of whom would fit as targets of some passages in Luke 18 (cited by Adrian later in the paragraph), but they do not make Christianity into a legalistic religion by nature.

Jesus can encounter dozens and hundreds of legalistic Pharisees, and yet the essential foundation of Pharisaism need not be legalistic, nor does it have to carry over into modern Judaism in a legalistic fashion. Just how far one goes on this issue is another matter, and one which I am studying. I definitely believe that the religion of the Mosaic covenant, Israelite religion, was founded on grace expressed through the covenant. That has been my position long before I read any NPP material.

I tend to see first century Judaism as both a bit more corrupted and also more fragmented, so that I find it questionable to make many generalizations about first century Judaism. One could make a few generalizations about groups. Having said that, the Pharisees were probably one of the less corrupt groups. I suspect that they often disputed with Jesus because they were able to connect more frequently, while still not agreeing with him.

But this whole debate illustrates one of the problems I’m seeing with the online critique. (And again I must emphasize that I have not read The Future of Justification, and thus am not commenting on Piper’s own work, but only on Adrian’s presentation of it on his blog.) This issue of legalistic Pharisees as opposed to the legalistic nature of Judaism (or not, as Wright would maintain), illustrates the major paradigm shift that Wright and others are making. They are not seeing justification as dealing with whether an individual is “saved” or not, but rather as proclaiming/acknowledging that person’s entry into God’s people as a group. It is an individualistic perspective that, in answer to the claim that a faith position is based on grace, points out individuals who are legalistic.

For the NPP, we have been reading Galatians and Romans from the wrong perspective, asking the wrong questions. This was drilled into me both as an undergraduate Biblical languages student and in seminary: The message of Galatians is that we are saved by grace through faith and not by the works of the law. Essentially, in that case, Galatians is written in opposition to legalism, and particularly Jewish legalism.

Since first reading a bit about the NPP, I have worked through Galatians twice in Greek, using two different commentaries that at least partake of portions of the NPP. Each time through has been a bit mind twisting. But as I teach at the most basic level of Bible study methods, your questions often determine your answers, so it is very important to ask the right questions. In the case of Galatians, in the seminary classroom, I asked the question “How can I be saved?” I found an answer there–not by the works of the law, but rather by faith.

The NPP suggests that Paul is answering a different question: How does one become a part of God’s people, i.e. how does one come under the covenant? Paul’s enemies say it is by becoming Jews, with the sign of circumcision; Paul says that incorporation takes place because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and through faith. We are looking here much less at individual salvation, and much more at the definition of community. Neither side believes that being part of the covenant people can be earned by works. The sign and the means of incorporation are different.

This is over-simplified, partially because I haven’t incorporated the vocabulary myself, but after two passes through the book of Galatians trying to answer those questions I think I begin to see how the categories work. If you really want to try to understand the NPP, one good exercise is to ditch the “how does an individual become righteous in God’s eyes?” question, and replace it with “how and why does a person come under God’s covenant?” Then read Galatians looking for the answer to that second question. I’m not saying give up your view ahead of time. Just tentatively ask yourself how the book would work if you were asking a different question.

Ironically, it looks to me like Piper might have erred in an attempt to be as gracious as possible. He attempts to read Wright as favorably as possible from his own perspective. In Adrian’s post John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?, he quotes Piper noting the areas in which Wright would agree with the reformed view, and then the single item on which he disagrees. From Piper’s point of view, making Wright agree in most senses with the reformed view appears gracious. But it looks to me like he is missing the point. It is not that Wright goes along with the standard view and then disagrees because he does not believe righteousness is imputed or imparted. Rather, he is defining righteousness in a different way, and therefore the declaration that one is righteous means something different. It is a paradigm shift in which almost all definitions are adjusted, not a minor alteration.

I think we need to understand the NPP, and particularly Wright’s view of all of this carefully as a whole. Picking it apart in a point by point comparison with the reformed view, or any other for that matter, will not work well, because Wright is shifting the categories. Justification doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to a traditional reformed theologian.

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