What if everything we know about the teachings of the Apostle Paul is wrong?
This is the idea put forth by proponents of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”, which I will refer to as the NPP from here on out. I recently read a book by Kent L. Yinger simply titled The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction. Yinger’s book is not the first on the subject, but it does effectively trace origins of the NPP from the late 1970’s to today, with all its developments, offshoots, and revisions. The NPP is an idea that took the theological world by storm when it was introduced.
The NPP was popularized by a theologian named E.P. Sanders in his 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The publication was written to counter many of the assumptions made by Martin Luther and his contemporaries during the Protestant Reformation. To better understand the NPP, it will help to first define the traditional perspective of Paul, as taught by Martin Luther and many churches (including Xenos) today.
In Luther’s day, the Catholic church ruled the religious scene. The common teaching was essentially that salvation could be earned by your good deeds and pious achievement. Giving to the Catholic church, attending mass, etc., were all means by which salvation could be achieved. You could even pay ‘Indulgences’ in order to release a deceased loved one from suffering in Purgatory and send them straight to Heaven. Luther, a Catholic monk of the Augustinian order, eventually had an epiphany while reading Paul’s letters in the New Testament, namely Romans and Galatians. He came to realize that Paul was teaching a salvation not by merit, but by the free gift of God. Only by having faith in Jesus Christ as savior could one be saved – and it was not possible to achieve this by your works. Luther would famously nail his “95 Theses” to the door of the Church in Wittenberg in 1517 that listed his complaints with the Catholic church and its teachings, which would eventually lead to his excommunication. Thus, the Protestant Reformation was born – based in large part to Luther’s perspective on Paul.
The NPP is a challenge to this foundational understanding of Paul’s teachings in books like Romans and Galatians. In his 1977 book, Sanders argued that Paul could not have been contrasting grace vs. merit for salvation. This faulty understanding, he argued, is the result of looking at the writings of Paul through the lens of modern civilization. When we understand what Judaism of the 1st century actually taught, then we will see what Paul is trying to counter in his Epistles.
According to Sanders, 1st century Judaism was far from its portrayal today. It did not teach that salvation could be earned by good works; instead, it held the conviction that only by God’s grace are Jews saved. Good works are only a result of God’s divine election of his Jewish people, and not necessary for salvation. Sanders would popularize the term “Covenantal Nomism” to describe the actual teachings of Judaism in that day:
“Covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgressions.” -Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism
So what does this mean? It means when we read verses like Galatians 2:16, which says “By the Works of the Law, no flesh will be justified,” we should not take it to mean you can’t earn your salvation through your good deeds. What it means instead is people aren’t justified just because they are a Jew. NPP proponents say this is what Paul means by “Works of the Law” – identifying as a Jew and doing Jewish customs like circumcision. We would re-read the verse to say “By being Jewish, no flesh will be justified.” It is now through Christ alone that we are justified, not by being Jewish. The idea here is that Paul is defending his work with the Gentiles since he was constantly hounded by the “Judaizers” who sought to undo his work by telling new converts they had to adopt Jewish customs (to identify with the Jewish race) in order to be saved. As Yinger puts it:
“Where Paul differed fundamentally from his Jewish tradition was not over the role of grace, faith, and obedience in salvation, but whether salvation was tied to being Jewish or not.” -Yinger, Pg. 22
Why does this matter? It means when we are doing a teaching series through Romans or Galatians and reach sections that talk about no one being justified by the works of the law, we are taking it out of context when we say Paul is teaching against works righteousness. NPP proponents will agree that works can never make you saved, but they would say this was commonly understood by the Jewish people and the Pharisees. Paul is not teaching this because there is no need to. It also means Paul is not answering the question “How do I get saved?” He is instead answering “Who is considered God’s people?” The answer is Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews anymore.
I have serious misgivings about this “New Perspective”, and I’m not alone. Famed theologian D.A. Carson is also against the NPP. He points out that Sanders and company are making a huge assumption – that “Covenantal Nomism” (The idea that Jews are saved by God alone and work out that salvation through the law) was commonly understood by first century Jews. There is no good reason to make this assumption. The consensus on how to be saved in that day is most clearly evident in the writings of Josephus, an ancient Jewish author. Josephus makes it clear what Jews thought back then – that God’s grace is only given to those who deserve it. Clearly this is in opposition to what Paul is writing, and it would make sense that Paul would want to counter this faulty thinking by promoting a salvation that does not come by good deeds.
A good understanding of scripture also helps counter this new perspective. Take Romans 4 for example: Paul here brings up King David who writes “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven.” Paul is bringing this up to say we rejoice in accepting forgiveness for sins, not earning God’s acceptance. NPP proponents struggle with passages like these.
To conclude, I would say there are some helpful aspects to the NPP. NPP proponents hold interpreting scripture in light of context and historicity in high regard, something modern day Christians can forget to do when preparing sermons or reading scripture. It also does an excellent job of helping us to understand salvation as the Old Testament teaches. It is true that salvation was never earned by works, even before Christ. It was always on the basis of faith in God. Reading books like Galatians and Romans, we can fall victim to the idea that salvation indeed was through works before Christ, but now all is changed with Christ’s death on the cross. This was never the case, and the NPP helps remind us that God’s plan for salvation always involved faith in him, which is in stark contrast to the other world religions.
Having said that, I will also add that there are good things to say for just about every faulty theology or movement that ever arose. For example, D.A. Carson points out that there are some good elements to the Emergent Church movement, but there are also good elements to correct doctrine and you don’t have to take the bad with it. Better just to stick with correct doctrine and leave the pollution out.
If this subject interests you, I encourage you to check out D.A. Carson’s full commentary against the NPP below: