The New Perspective on Paul

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.

Jesus the Divine Servant: Suffering, Substitution, Exaltation

Before taking Theology of the New Testament with Dr. Thomas Schreiner, I was familiar with the concept of the servant of the Lord. But my understanding was sketchy: it lacked cohesive structure. After I heard Dr. Schreiner’s lecture on this topic and studied the section in his book that deals with it, I grasped the overall framework, thoroughly enough, at least, to give a summary here. As part of Christology, the study of Jesus as the servant of the Lord compels me to stand in awe–and worship. I’ve framed this topic in answer to three key questions: (1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?” (2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as the Isaiah’s servant of the Lord? (3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

(1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?”

In order to understand Jesus as the servant of the Lord, we must investigate this term in Old Testament context, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy. In some passages, Isaiah clearly uses “servant” as a referent for the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4). But in other passages, Isaiah uses “servant” to refer to something distinct from Israel: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6). In this passage the servant must be distinct from Israel becomes he redeems Israel and brings salvation to other nations. We see this distinction also in Isaiah 42 where the servant is commissioned to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7). Thus, this “servant” in Isaiah cannot refer to Israel exclusively.

As we read Isaiah’s famous passage on the suffering servant (52:13-53:12), we see even more clearly the features of this servant. He will be exalted (52:13) yet marred beyond recognition (14). He will bear Israel’s sorrows and stand as substitute for the punishment of their sins (53:4-5). Somehow his life will extend beyond the “grave,” for he will “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (53:9-10). Thus, we see not only that this distinct servant redeems Israel, but also how he redeems Israel—by vicarious suffering.

We find it clear that by “servant,” Isaiah could mean either the nation of Israel or a person who is distinct from Israel. But this question lingers: “If this individual is not the nation of Israel, how are the two related?” Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue when it says that the servant “was numbered with the transgressors.” If we understand “the transgressors” to mean individual Israelites, then the servant is a part of Israel, yet distinct from it. Dr. Schreiner suggests that the servant (distinct from Israel) serves as a representative of Israel. As Israel’s representative, the servant “is both Israel and transcends Israel” (New Testament Theology, 264).

(2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as Isaiah’s servant of the Lord?

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not explicitly link Jesus to Isaiah’s suffering servant. But they drop enough clues to lead us to this conclusion. In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 when he states his mission for coming into the world: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words “serve,” “ransom” and “many” provide links to Isaiah 52:12 (“servant”), 53:5 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), and 10-11 (“many”).

John’s gospel forges an even stronger connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Isaiah’s servant. His theme of Jesus being “lifted up”(John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) hearkens back to Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” We sense that John was immersed in the words and ideas of Isaiah, with his theme of people’s failure to believe and hardening their hearts (John 12:40, cf. Isaiah 52:15, 53:1).

(3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

From Isaiah and the gospel writers, we understand that Jesus’ identity as the divine servant points to his role of sacrificial substitute for humankind (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:5). Whereas Israel failed to perfectly serve the Lord, Jesus steps in as Israel’s perfect representative and bears the punishment for her failures (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’s vicarious service and suffering becomes the pathway to his exaltation (John 12:32-36). Consistent with God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the benefits of the servant’s (Jesus’) exaltation extend beyond the borders of Israel, bringing the offer of salvation to all nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:5-7; John 12:20-23).

Eschatological Tension and Practical Christian Living

In his New Testament TheologyThomas Schreiner emphasizes the already/not yet feature of eschatology which is pervasive throughout the New Testament. This perspective on eschatology essentially sees us living in an age in which God’s promises are inaugurated, but not consummated. Christ’s resurrection, as the fulfillment of Old Testament anticipation, has “started the engine,” and the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that we are in motion. But we have not arrived at our final destination, in terms of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. Once you identify this tension, it’s hard not to see it in nearly every New Testament author.

In a lecture for his New Testament Theology class, Dr. Schreiner demonstrates this eschatological tension in the Pauline epistles. For example, Romans 8:15 indicates that “we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (a present possession), yet in Romans 8:23 we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” According to Ephesians 2:8, those who have faith in Christ “have been saved,” but 1 Thessalonians tells us to don “for a helmet the hope of salvation,” arguably a reference to a future event. Even in justification, which we tend to think to be exclusively “already,” there is eschatological tension. Paul could say in Romans 5:1 that “we have been justified by faith,” and yet in Galatians 5:5 that “we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” This is not to say that those who believe in Christ are not fully righteous, or that justification is a process aided by human effort. It is to say, rather, that our righteousness has not reached its culmination in an eschatological sense. The world does not recognize God’s verdict about us. Even our own consciences do not always recognize God’s verdict about us (2 Peter 1:9). But there is coming a time when our justification will be consummated.

We see this tension also in Paul’s imperatives and indicatives. When Paul exhorts his readers, he grounds those exhortations in doctrinal truths, specifically related to the person of Christ. He tells his readers, in essence, “This is who you are in Christ, so here is how you should live.” But we often see the imperative and indicative overlapping, or in tension. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, Paul urges the Christians to “cleanse out the old leaven [permeating sin]” and in the same breath tells them that they are “really unleavened.” They are already pure, yet they are not yet pure. Colossians 3:9 indicates that Christians have already “put off the old self,” but in its sister passage, Paul exhorts his readers “to put off your old self” (Ephesians 4:22). Is Paul being contradictory? Or rather do we see that truth about who are already are compels what we must become? Here is eschatological tension practically applied.

Keeping in tension the “already” and “not yet” aspects of these doctrines has important implications for practical Christian living. Overemphasizing the “already” can lead to moral laxity. On the other hand, overemphasizing the “not yet” can lead to frustrating perfectionism. With regard to politics, veering too sharply toward the “not yet” can lead a person to shun any sort of civil involvement. On the other hand, an imbalance toward the “already” can give someone the drive to “fix” the world through political and/or moral reform, and bring heaven to earth. As New Testament Christians, we live between eschatological inauguration and consummation. We are certain that Christ’s death and resurrection has secured our redemption. We enjoy eternal life now. But we also realize, with deep longing, that the fullness of all these promises is yet to come.