While taking Tom Schreiner’s class “Theology of the New Testament” and reading his excellent book New Testament Theology, I have given some thought to the “New Perspective on Paul.” In trying to wrap my mind around the New Perspective, I’ve done my best to distill its main tenets here and give what I believe is a proper response to it.
The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is a label that covers a variety of attempts to better understand the writings of the Apostle Paul. Perhaps the theme that unifies these new perspectives is the notion that the Reformers fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s writings. The Reformers’ “old perspective” held that Paul was speaking against legalism–attempting to gain a right standing with God by adhering to the law. This new perspective (as represented by James Dunn) claims that Paul does not speak against works-based salvation, but against Jewish exclusivism that stressed the need for specific identifiers such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and the purity laws. Paul was concerned that this ethnocentrism excluded non-Jews, who did not wear the badges of Jewish identity.
Much of the debate hinges on what is meant by “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans. The new perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean those external badges of Judaism. The traditional perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean “those actions or deeds required by the law” (Schreiner, 527).
Dr. Schreiner and other New Testament scholars find the new perspective unsatisfactory. Paul was not arguing that the Jews were excluding the Gentiles based on their failure to wear the external badges of Judaism. Rather, he is arguing that both Jews and non-Jews are guilty because they have failed to perfectly uphold God’s moral law. No one keeps everything the law requires; therefore all are guilty before God. It is difficult to maintain that Paul’s references to the law always meant those external badges of Jewish identity.
We can learn some things from the new perspective on Paul. For example, E. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism chastens the idea that Judaism was solely about legalism. But the danger of the new perspective appears to be that it weakens Paul’s polemic against works-based righteousness. The glory of the Gospel is that it offers us that which we cannot gain by working for it. In offering the “alien” righteousness of Christ, the Gospel both slays our pride and gives us the only righteousness God will accept.