The New Perspective on Paul

A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul

by Mark M. Mattison

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Depending upon one’s point of view, the current state of Pauline studies is either exciting or alarming. Traditional interpretations of Paul’s letters are being examined afresh with increasing frequency as scholars diligently work to reconstruct Paul’s historical context. The fact that these studies may not corroborate traditional Reformed interpretations can be used to discount the growing consensus or to reconsider contemporary approaches to soteriology.

Of what might such a reconsideration consist? One of the primary features of the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification is an emphasis on the plight of the individual before God, an individual quest for piety apart from concrete social structures. As John Howard Yoder put it in his classic, The Politics of Jesus:

In line with the personal appeal which has been so central in Protestant faith since Luther, even more since Pietism, and especially since the merging of Protestant existentialism with modern secular personalism — and even more especially since Freud and Jung imposed upon everyone in our culture the vision of man as a self-centered reacting organism — it has seemed quite evident that the primary message of Jesus was a call most properly perceived by an individual, asking the hearer for something that can be done most genuinely by an individual standing alone. Whether this something that he can do standing alone be a rare heroic ethical performance like loving one’s enemies, or a response more accessible to the common man, like sorrow for his sins, it is a response each individual can make only for himself. It has nothing to do with the structures of society.1

Consequently, a historical reappraisal of Paul’s doctrine of justification could help not only to provide a more solid basis for bringing faith to bear on social issues, but also to strengthen the continued development of ecumenical dialogue.

The key questions involve Paul’s view(s) of the law and the meaning of the controversy in which Paul was engaged. Paul strongly argued that we are “justified by faith in Christ (or “the faith of Christ”) and not by doing the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16b). Since the time of Martin Luther, this has been understood as an indictment of legalistic efforts to merit favor before God. In fact Judaism in general has come to be construed as the very antithesis of Christianity. Judaism is earthly, carnal, proud; Christianity is heavenly, spiritual, humble. It is a tragic irony that all of Judaism has come to be viewed in terms of the worst vices of the sixteenth-century institutionalized church.

When Judaism is thus cast in the role of the medieval church, Paul’s protests become veryLutheran and traditional Protestant theology is reinforced in all its particulars, along with its limitations. In hermeneutical terms, then, the historical context of Paul’s debate lies at the very heart of the doctrine of justification in the church.

Obviously an in-depth analysis of the Pauline corpus and its place in the context of first-century Judaism would take us far beyond the scope of this brief article. We can, however, quickly survey the topography of Paul’s thought in context, particularly as it has emerged through the efforts of recent scholarship, and note some salient points which may be used as the basis of a refurbished soteriology.

Judaism as Legalistic: The Making and Breaking of a Paradigm

Traditional Protestant soteriology, focused as it is on the plight of the conscience-smitten individual before a holy God, must be carved out of the rock of human pretentiousness in order to be cogent. Thus it is no accident that the Reformers interpreted the burning issues of Paul’s day in light of their struggle against legalism. “The Reformers’ interpretation of Paul,” writes Krister Stendahl, “rests onan analogism when Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety. The Law, the Torah, with its specific requirements of circumcision and food restrictions becomes a general principle of ‘legalism’ in religious matters.”2

This caricature of Judaism was buttressed by such scholars as Ferdinand Weber, who arranged a systematic presentation of rabbinic literature.3 Weber’s book provided a wealth of Jewish source material neatly arranged to show Judaism as a religion of legalism. Emil Schürer, Wilhelm Bousset, and others were deeply influenced by Weber’s work.4These scholars in turn have been immensely influential. Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, relied on Schürer and Bousset for his understanding of first-century Judaism.5

Weber’s interpretation of Judaism did not go unchallenged, however. The Jewish theologian Claude G. Montefiore6pointed out that Weber had not approached rabbinic literature with sufficient sensitivity to its nature and diversity. Weber had imposed a systematic grid on the rabbinic literature and wrested passages out of context. The law in Judaism was not a burden which produced self-righteousness. On the contrary, the law was itself a gift from a merciful and forgiving God.

A second challenge came from a non-Jewish scholar, George Foot Moore.7 Moore’s treatment of Weber was even more devastating than Montefiore’s. Moore clearly demonstrated that Weber had little firsthand knowledge of rabbinic literature and in fact took most of his quotations from earlier Christian works against Judaism. He demonstrated Schürer’s and Bousset’s reliance on Weber and, like Montefiore, pointed out that rabbinic Judaism was not a religion of legalism.

This point was not sufficiently driven home, however, until the publication in 1977 of E. P. Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. A New Testament scholar with a good grasp of rabbinic literature, Sanders drove the final and most powerful nail into the coffin of the traditional Christian caricature of Judaism. Sanders’ extensive treatment of the Tannaitic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha was designed, like the efforts of Montefiore and Moore, to describe and define Palestinian Judaism on its own terms, not as the mirror reflection of Christianity. Unlike Montefiore and Moore, Sanders has been immensely successful in convincing New Testament scholars. Sanders has coined a now well-known phrase to describe the character of first-century Palestinian Judaism: “covenantal nomism.” The meaning of “covenantal nomism” is that human obedience is not construed as the means of entering into God’s covenant. That cannot be earned; inclusion within the covenant body is by the grace of God. Rather, obedience is the means of maintaining one’s status within the covenant. And with its emphasis on divine grace and forgiveness, Judaism was never a religion of legalism.

Krister Stendahl: Paul’s “Robust Conscience”

The more we consider Paul’s writing in this context the less we see the acute psychological dilemma characteristic of the Augustinian-Lutheran interpretation as a whole. Krister Stendahl masterfully explores this in his ground-breaking essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Paul was certainly aware of his own shortcomings, but, Stendahl asks, “does he ever intimate that he is aware of any sins of his own which would trouble his conscience? It is actually easier to find statements to the contrary. The tone inActs 23:1, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day’ (cf. 24:16), prevails also throughout his letters.”8Far from being “simultaneously a sinner and a saint” (simul iustus et peccator), Paul testifies of his clear conscience: “Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity” (2 Cor. 1:12a). He was aware that he had not yet “arrived” (Phil. 3:12-14), that he still struggled with the flesh, yet he was confident of the value of his performance (1 Cor. 9:27). He looked forward to a day when “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10), and he anticipated a favorable verdict (v. 11). He acknowledged that his clear conscience did not necessarily ensure this verdict (1 Cor. 4:4), but he was confident nevertheless. These are hardly the convictions of someone who intends to rest entirely on the merits of an alien righteousness imputed to his or her account.

It may be countered that Paul considered himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9a; cp. Eph. 3:8) and in fact chief of sinners (cp. 1 Tim. 1:15). But this is not the paradigmatic expression of humility and contrition, as if every Christian should regard herself more sinful than the next. Paul’s chief sin was that he had violently persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9b; cp. 1 Tim. 1:13-16). This confession is obviously concrete and historical — not subjective, existential, and universally comparable to every person’s experience. At any rate Paul had put all of that behind him and made up for his sordid past (1 Cor. 15:10); he did not languish in guilt. From what we know of his extant writings, he did not seem to experience the unrelenting introspection which became so characteristic of Western humankind after Augustine. Nor, many historians agree, could he have in his time and culture.9

All of this would seem to be at loggerheads with Romans 7, where Paul writes that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v. 19). Is this not the despairing cry (whether pre-conversion or post-conversion) of a person smitten by a remoresful conscience? Stendahl reminds us that this passage is part of a larger argument about the law. In defending the holiness of the law Paul assigns guilt to Sin and the Flesh. But Paul does not simply identify the egō with Sin and Flesh. Verse 19 does not lead directly into verse 24 as a cry of despair, but into verse 20 which on the contrary exonerates the egō and blames the principle of Sin. Paul’s simple observation that a person often does what he or she knows is wrong serves to preserve the holiness and goodness of the Law. Stendahl writes:

Paul happened to express this supporting argument so well that what to him and his contemporaries was a common sense observation appeared to later interpreters to be a most penetrating insight into the nature of sin. This could happen easily once the problem about the nature and intention of God’s Law was not any more as relevant a problem in the sense in which Paul grappled with it. The question about the Law became the incidental framework around the golden truth of Pauline anthropology. This is what happens when one approaches Paul with the Western question of an introspective conscience. This Western interpretation reaches its climax when it appears that even, or especially, the will of man is the center of depravation. And yet, in Rom. 7 Paul had said about that will: “The will (to do the good) is there…” (v. 18).10

The growing consensus about the nature of first-century Palestinian Judaism and the agreement that Judaism was never a religion of “legalism” has generally been followed by the observation that whatever else Paul was protesting, he was not protesting self-righteous11 efforts to merit favor before God. Nor was Paul grappling with the Western question of the introspective conscience.

The tide of opinion has clearly turned against the Lutheran-Weberian interpretation of the role and function of the law within Judaism. Protestants can no longer assume that Paul was up against a legalistic Judaism which taught that salvation was to be “merited” or “earned” by self-reliance. Nor were Paul’s opponents against faith, grace, and forgiveness. The sticking-point of the Judaizing controversy must be located elsewhere.

If Paul was not protesting against legalism in Galatians and Romans, what is it he was up against? If Jews and Judaizing Christians also believed in faith and grace, to what did Paul object? These questions have proven more difficult for scholars. Montefiore suggested that Paul was contending not with the Palestinian Judaism which would evolve into rabbinic Judaism but with a colder, more pessimistic Hellenized Judaism of the diaspora in which God was more remote and less forgiving.12However, subsequent scholarship has not vindicated this thesis. Most scholars today agree that though there were differences between Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Judaism, the differences were not as great as Montefiore’s suggestion would demand.


E.P. Sanders: “Transfer Terminology”

Other solutions are even less convincing. For some, like Heikki Räisänen,13 Paul’s criticisms of the law are not only inaccurate but contradictory as well. They are to be understood not as representing a carefully formulated doctrine but as expedient arguments derived from his conviction that Christ is Savior of the world. Similarly, E. P. Sanders concluded that Paul worked backward from solution to plight rather than from plight to solution. If salvation comes to all, both Jews and Gentiles, through Christ, then it cannot come through the law.

This approach certainly places more emphasis on the nature of the Judaizing conflict as a Jew/Gentile issue rather than a philosophical debate about human nature and divine sovereignty. Sanders writes, for instance:

The dispute in Galatians is not about “doing” as such. Neither of the opposing factions saw the requirement of “doing” to be a denial of faith. When Paul makes requirements of his converts, he does not think that he has denied faith, and there is no reason to think that Jewish Christians who specified different requirements denied faith. The supposed conflict between “doing” as such and “faith” as such is simply not present in Galatians. What was at stake was not a way of life summarized by the word “trust” versus a mode of life summarized by “requirements,” but whether or not the requirement for membership in the Israel of God would result in there being “neither Jew nor Greek.” …There was no dispute over the necessity to trust God and have faith in Christ. The dispute was about whether or not one had to be Jewish.14

For Sanders the language of justification is “transfer terminology.” To be justified is to enter into the covenant people. The distinction between “getting in” and “staying in” is important in this regard. The debate between “faith” and “law,” he writes, is a debate about entry requirements, not about life subsequent to conversion. The law is excluded as an entry requirement into the body of those who will be saved; entrance must be by faith apart from the law. Once Gentiles are “in,” however, they must behave appropriately and fulfill the law in order to retain their status. Elements of the law which create social distinctions between Jews and Gentiles — circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws — also have to be discarded, even though Paul never sought a rational explanation for such a selective use of the law.

Thus in Sanders’ view Paul’s letters do not provide a consistent view of the law. Paul’s central conviction — the universal aspects of christology and soteriology, and Christian behavior — led Paul to give different answers about the law, depending on the question. “When the topic changes, what he says about the law also changes.”15 When the topic is entrance requirements, the law is excluded. When the topic is behavior, the law is to be fulfilled. The arguments to which Paul is driven to defend these answers are construed as less consistent yet.

James D.G. Dunn: “The Works of the Law”

At this point the corrective work of James D. G. Dunn becomes critical to fully appreciating Sanders’ reconstruction of Palestinian Judaism and making good sense of Paul at the same time.16It was in fact Dunn who coined the term “the new perspective on Paul” in his landmark 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture.17

Dunn demonstrates that the language of justification is not just “transfer terminology.” There are ongoing and future elements of justification as well as the initial act of acceptance. “‘To be justified’ in Paul cannot, therefore, be treated simply as an entry or initiation formula; nor is it possible to draw a clear line of distinction between Paul’s usage and the typically Jewish covenant usage. Already, as we may observe, Paul appears a good deal less idiosyncratic and arbitrary than Sanders alleges.”18

Also unlike Sanders, Dunn provides a coherent framework for both Paul’s positive statements about the law and his negative statements. It was not the law itself which Paul criticized, but rather its misuse as a social barrier. This misuse of the law is what Paul means by the term “the works of the law”:

‘Works of law’, ‘works of the law’ are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges:they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God’s people;…in other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls ‘covenantal nomism.’ And what he denies is that God’s justification depends on ‘covenantal nomism,’ that God’s grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant.19

The “badges” or “works” particularly at issue were those of circumcision and food laws, not simply human efforts to do good. The ramifications of this observation for traditional Protestantism are far-reaching:

More important for Reformation exegesis is the corollary that ‘works of the law’ do not mean ‘good works’ in general, ‘good works’ in the sense disparaged by the heirs of Luther, works in the sense of achievement….In short, once again Paul seems much less a man of sixteenth-century Europe and much more firmly in touch with the reality of first-century Judaism than many have thought.20

Dunn also emphasizes the ramifications for the traditional dichotomy between faith and works:

We should not let our grasp of Paul’s reasoning slip back into the old distinction between faith and works in general, between faith and ‘good works’. Paul is not arguing here for a concept of faith which is totally passive because it fears to become a ‘work’. It is the demand for a particular work as the necessary expression of faith which he denies.21


N.T. Wright: “The Righteousness of God”

More recently, N.T. Wright has made a significant contribution in his little book, What Saint PaulReally Said.22Wright’s focus is the gospel and the doctrine of justification. With incisive clarity he demonstrates that the core of Paul’s gospel was not justification by faith, but the death and resurrection of Christ and his exaltation as Lord.23 The proclamation of the gospel was the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the Messiah who fulfilled Israel’s expectations. Romans 1:3,4, not 1:16,17, is the core of Paul’s message to the Romans, contrary to traditional thinking.24Justification is not the center of Paul’s thought, but an outworking of it:

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other.25

Wright brings us to this point by showing what “justification” would have meant in Paul’s Jewish context, bound up as it was in law-court terminology, eschatology, and God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant.

Specifically, Wright explodes the myth that the pre-Christian Saul was a pious, proto-Pelagian moralist seeking to earn his individual passage into heaven. Wright capitalizes on Paul’s autobiographical confessions to paint rather a picture of a zealous Jewish nationalist whose driving concern was to cleanse Israel of Gentiles as well as Jews who had lax attitudes toward the Torah. Running the risk of anachronism, Wright points to a contemporary version of the pre-Christian Saul: Yigal Amir, the zealous Torah-loyal Jew who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for exchanging Israel’s land for peace. Wright writes:

Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say, ‘going to heaven when they died’. (They believed in the resurrection, in which God would raise them all to share in the life of the promised renewed Israel and renewed world; but that is very different from the normal Western vision of ‘heaven’.) They were interested in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel.26

When Saul became a Christian, Wright contends, he maintained the Jewish shape of his doctrine, but filled it with new content. The zeal of Saul the Pharisee was now the zeal of Paul the Apostle; God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness) with regard to the covenant people was indeed fulfilled, in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Wright maintains that as a Christian, Paul continued to challenge paganism by taking the moral high ground of the creational monotheist. The doctrine of justification was not what Paul preached to the Gentiles as the main thrust of his gospel message; it was rather “the thing his converts most needed to know in order to be assured that they really were part of God’s people”27 after they had responded to the gospel message.

Even while taking the gospel to the Gentiles, however, Paul continued to criticize Judaism “from within” even as he had as a zealous Pharisee. But whereas his mission before was to root out those with lax attitudes toward the Torah, now his mission was to demonstrate that God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness) has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.

At this point Wright carefully documents Paul’s use of the controversial phrase “God’s righteousness” and draws out the implications of his meaning against the background of a Jewish concept of justification. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of the party who is “justified” cannot be confused because the term bears different connotations for the judge than for the plaintiff or defendant. The judge is “righteous” if his or her judgment is fair and impartial; the plaintiff or defendant is “righteous” if the judge rules in his or her favor. Hence:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favor. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works.28

However, Wright makes the important observation that even with the forensic metaphor, Paul’s theology is not so much about the courtroom as it is about God’s love.29

Wright then goes on to flesh out the doctrine of justification in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. The “works of the law” are not proto-Pelagian efforts to earn salvation, but rather “sabbath [keeping], food-laws, circumcision.”30Considering the controversy in Galatia, Wright writes:

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God….The problem he addresses is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God:are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? Circumcision is not a ‘moral’ issue; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds. Nor can we simply treat it as a religious ritual, then designate all religious ritual as crypto-Pelagian good works, and so smuggle Pelagius into Galatia as the arch-opponent after all. First-century thought, both Jewish and Christian, simply doesn’t work like that….

[T]he polemic against the Torah in Galatians simply will not work if we ‘translate’ it into polemic either against straightforward self-help moralism or against the more subtle snare of ‘legalism’, as some have suggested. The passages about the law only work — and by ‘work’ I mean they will only make full sense in their contexts, which is what counts in the last analysis — when we take them as references to the Jewish law, the Torah, seen as the national charter of the Jewish race.31

The debate about justification, then, “wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”32

Translating the doctrine of justification into contemporary terms, Wright notes with irony that this doctrine, which was principally concerned with unity and acceptance in the body of Christ regardless of social barriers, has been one of the most divisive doctrines in the history of Christianity, particularly between Catholics and Protestants who have traditionally interpreted it as a question of precisely how salvation is to be attained.33

He also draws out the social implications of a gospel in which Jesus is proclaimed as Lord over all things (including “politics”34) and which will not allow for a rugged individualism. “The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community. If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning, at the centre of your theology, you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism.”35 Hence Wright dismantles the artificial distinctions between spiritual piety and social concern.


Given the increasingly fragmenting state of biblical studies today it should come as no surprise that some Pauline scholars are not interested in synthesizing their findings with contemporary theology.Stowers writes, for instance: “If I challenge the historical accuracy of some standard interpretations of the letter [Romans], it does not mean that I intend to denigrate the contributions of its great commentators. But my purposes as a historian of early Christian literature differ from the purposes of the theologians and churchmen.”36 But those of us who want our theology to be at the same time cogent and biblical cannot settle for this approach. Instead we must ask how Paul’s original meaning, in its historical context, can be appropriated by contemporary theology. In so doing we affirm that New Testament theology is very much alive and a tenable undertaking in the twenty-first century; that the canon of Scripture has continuing relevance as an authoritative guide in matters of Christian faith.

The Judaizing conflict and Paul’s doctrine of justification which grew out of it continues to be relevant to our day. But we must recognize the relevance in analogy. Applying Paul’s polemic against Judaizing to any and all “good works” is not a correct appropriation of Paul’s teaching. True as it is that no one can “earn” salvation before God, that was not Paul’s point, and applying his language that way often involves unintended consequences.37

It is a hermeneutical truism that a New Testament text must be understood and appreciated in its context before it can be applied to that of the interpreter. Romans has been preserved for the benefit of the church, but it was written to first-century Christians living in Rome. The unity of the church at that time was threatened by ethnic and social conflict. The issues then at hand — circumcision, holy days, meat sacrificed to pagan idols — are no longer issues in the church. It must be asked, then, whether comparable issues currently exist. Our answer must be in the affirmative. We no longer fight over circumcision but we do fight over worship styles and a host of other issues. Even today Christianity is confused with culture and many are unable to distinguish between the substantial and the supplemental. Paul speaks to all of this by affirming that all cultural and ethnic groups stand before God on an equal footing and that we are not justified on the basis of peripheral issues. In this light, the Pauline doctrine of justification has less to do with the individual quest for righteousness and more to do with the sociological makeup of the community of faith.

Having said that, it is important to emphasize what such a contemporary doctrine should not entail. First, such a doctrine should not be construed as one of legalism, burdening Christians with lists of arbitrary requirements and detailed standards of conduct and enforcing compliance with the threat of hell. It is in this way that the message of the Reformation may be fully appreciated in the church today. For all of his exegetical oversights and doctrinal overreaction, Martin Luther’s protests against penance, indulgences, and other abuses were entirely justified. Good Christians with troubled consciences may seek reassurance in Luther’s message of the acceptance of individuals before God apart from the extra-biblical demands of ecclesiastical hierarchies.38 In short, a socially responsible doctrine of justification must not be characterized by the concept of “earning” God’s favor. Just because Paul was not up against that idea does not mean that it is acceptable.39

Second, we cannot reconsider the Christian doctrine of justification without grappling with the meaning of “righteousness.” We have already argued that righteousness is not simply the imputed merit of another. But our criticism of traditional approaches must go beyond that. Dunn argues against the Greek view that righteousness is an impersonal, abstract standard, a measuring-stick or a balancing scale. Righteousness in Scriptural terms, he argues, grows out of covenant relationship.40We forgive because we have been forgiven (Matt. 18:21-35); “we love because” God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

That is the meaning of a socially responsible and ecumenical doctrine of justification by faith.


John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1972, pp. 135,136.

“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in The Writings of St. Paul, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.), 1972, p. 426.

Cf. Frank Thielman, Paul & The Law (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 1994, p. 25; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1977, p. 33.

Thielman, Paul, p. 26; Sanders, Judaism, p. 33.

Thielman, Paul, p. 26; Sanders, Judaism, pp. 39,42-47.

Thielman, Paul, p. 27.

Thielman, Paul, p. 28; Sanders, Judaism, pp. 33,34.

Stendahl, “Paul,” p. 429.

Cf. Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans(New Haven & London: Yale University Press), 1994, p. 6: “The more one learns and understands about the world of the Roman empire and the Jews in the Greek East, the more difficult it becomes to imagine the Paul known from modern scholarship in that world. The Paul of traditional theological scholarship seems to have dropped directly out of heaven.”

10 Stendahl, “Paul,” p. 432. I would hasten to add that rather than start with the highly figurative Romans 7 I would prefer to take the clearer and less enigmatic Philippians 3 as my control text for interpreting Paul’s experience with the law and work into Romans 7 and other passages from there. When we take Philippians 3 as our starting point, a much different picture emerges.

11 The phrases “a righteousness of my own” (Phil. 3:9) and “their own righteousness” (Rom. 10:3) refer not to self-righteousness but the particular righteousness of Israel in contrast to the Gentile nations. Cf. James D.G. Dunn, Romans (Word Biblical Commentary 38; Dallas, TX: Word Publishing), 1988, 2.587,595; N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?,(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1997, p. 124.

12 Thielman, Paul, pp. 31-33.

13 Thielman, Paul, pp. 37-39.

14 Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1983, p. 159. Similarly, George Howard writes about “the belief that Paul’s concern is with a dichotomy between works and faith. Works supposedly imply a system of merit in which a man is justified by keeping the law. Faith, on the other hand, supposedly excludes works by definition and belongs to a system of grace. Faith and works are considered to be opposite ways to righteousness and are in fact incompatible. As one has so clearly put it: ‘The whole matter is now on a different plane – believing instead of achieving’….But the coexistence of works of law and faith in Christ in Jewish Christianity suggests that the two are not absolutely incompatible from the standpoint of early Christianity. To argue that the law was done away because it demanded the impossible task of legal purity, and that to accept circumcision was to assume the obligation of this impossible task and to nullify the effects of faith in Christ is out of harmony with the facts. If Jewish Christianity practised the law while accepting faith in Christ Jesus as the way to salvation, how can it be said that the early church, including Paul, considered the two as mutually exclusive principles of life?” (Paul: Crisis in Galatia[Cambridge University Press], 1979, second edition 1990, pp. 51,52.)

15 Sanders, Paul, p. 143.

16 Cf. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990; Romans;The Epistle to the Galatians (Black’s New Testament Commentary;Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1993.

17 Reprinted as chapter 7 of Jesus, Paul, and the Law.

18 Jesus, p. 190.

19 Ibid., p. 194.

20 Ibid., pp. 194, 195.

21 Ibid., p. 198. Not surprisingly, Dunn has been criticized on this point, most notably by Stephen Westerholm (Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids,MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.], 1988) who focuses onRomans 4:1-5 with a view to preserving the traditional distinction between faith and “works” as human effort generally. Dunn’s response is that inRomans 4:1-5 Paul still has covenantal nomism in view (in keeping with the context) and that Paul’s play on words need not imply that his opponents believed in “payment-earning work” (Jesus,pp. 238,239; Romans1.228,229). For another treatment of Romans 4 from the new perspective, seeAbraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe).

22 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1997.

23 Ibid., pp. 45,88,113,114,151.

24 Ibid., pp. 52-54,126.

25 Ibid., pp. 132,133.

26 Ibid., pp. 32,33.

27 Ibid., p. 94.

28 Ibid., p. 98.

29 Ibid., p. 110.

30 Ibid., p. 132.

31 Ibid., pp. 120-122.

32 Ibid., p. 119.

33 Ibid., pp. 158,159.

34 Ibid., pp. 153-157,164.

35 Ibid., pp. 157,158.

36 Romans, p. 4.

37 Cf. Wright’s statement that the “popular view of ‘justification by faith’, though not entirely misleading, does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul’s doctrine, and indeed distorts it at various points….Briefly and baldly put, if you start with the popular view of justification, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel [i.e., Jesus’ death and resurrection]; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well”(Paul, p. 113).

38 Cf. James D.G. Dunn and Alan M. Suggate, The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1993, p. 8.

39 Cf. Wright, Paul, p. 116.

40 Cf. Dunn, Galatians,pp. 134-135; Dunn and Suggate, Justice, pp. 32ff.

7 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul

  1. Interesting article – a long winded (I should talk!) way of saying faith without works is dead perhaps and that the Law is good?

    I present for your perusal a prime example of how little people really know about what Paul said – how they misinterpret his sayings to their own destruction, according to Peter, who had a few tongue lashings from Paul in his time.

    15. Faithful is that Manifestation and deserving is He to be received, that Jesus Christ came to the universe to bring back to Life sinners, of whom I am a prime example.

    Now, was Paul saying he was the worst sinner or that he was a prime example of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ? If you are burdened with a sin consciousness, which Paul was too until he got over it, somewhere between Roms 7 and 8, then you might conclude that he was saying that he was the biggest sinner. But being that the subject here is not Paul but the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, then I would feel relatively safe in my heart assurance that he was in fact saying that he was a prime example of God’s saving grace and the revelation is sure.

    There are many sayings of Paul which have been “flipped” in translation – eg “Is your body the temple of God or is the Temple of God your Body?” Depends whether you see it from the earthly or the heavenly.

    The Body of Christ is an eternal reality, not an earthly shadow.

    Do they give out doctorates for misunderstanding the Bible? Seems so…but that is the beautiful thing about scripture, you can build your own (part of the) tower to the heavens and even get a big old congregation and tell everyone about Jesus and reap (anagram of rape) their tithes and offerings and still be so much solidly a part of Babylon it would make your head spin if you only but knew it. But hey, that’s our family for ya! What a crazy bunch of malfeasant miscreant masons.

    Speaking of witch, when I was shown the Tower to the Heavens about 11yrs ago, Creflo Dollar was at the tenth level. A few years later I heard that the last level was being built, the Hebrews Roots movement…yes indeed folks, the last level of the tower to the heavens is also the foundation of the self same tower, Babylonian Talmudism and historical Judaism – the religions Jesus came to destroy – the works of the devil and the synagogue of Satan.

    The faith of Jesus was not Judaism, it was Christianity, and so too was the true faith of those who sought His appearing, they were actually Christians – Abraham was a Christian – they were all followers of Christ – Moses followed Christ – all the MEN OF GOD FOLLOWED CHRIST AND WERE CHRISTIANS. You were created as works of righteousness, in CHRIST, so that you might walk in it, from before the foundations of the world. In Christ there is neither…and all things are in Him. Hello!

    Redemption is the unbroken CHRIST thread from the Head of Creation to Consummation thereof.

    Remember, Jesus was an unlearned one who confuted and confounded the Pharisees – a Chippie from Nazareth who knew how to nail people and to hammer home a point. The only PHD he needed was a POST HOLE DIGGER! Come on guys, academics like this are as useless as tits on a bull, they are just leaches with lessons. They should get a real job – like maybe as a Chippies mate. Theologians are like bankers and other parasites who feed off the faith of others. Most of he world’s problems come down to two things, the love of money (and usury) and false doctrines of devils (and the traditions of men). Note well who Jesus used the whip on – the money changers and the Pharisees – the self same serpent serving bunch who still suck the life out of the simple ones and impress them with their eloquence and their (assumed) authority…

    I evoked a laugh once upon a time on this site by quoting what God told me He thought of theology – He showed me microbes in a Petrie dish looking back up a microscope at the eye at the other end, trying to figure it out.” Guess what? YOU WON’T! Or as one microbe said to the other, “You know, I just cannot work it out” and the other one said, “Let it slide…”

  2. Sorry Ian – you started off making perfect sense – and then…

    to claim that Jesus, Moses, Abraham et al were Christians is just so bloody laughable – unless you are referring to something other than what we call Christians in this day and age?

    If you are saying they looked forward to Christ (without knowing him or being able to name that to which they looked forward to) then yea, I would agree with you. In that sense, in my mind, Gandhi was a Christian!

  3. I evoked a laugh once upon a time on this site by quoting what God told me He thought of theology – He showed me microbes in a Petrie dish looking back up a microscope at the eye at the other end, trying to figure it out.” Guess what? YOU WON’T! Or as one microbe said to the other, “You know, I just cannot work it out” and the other one said, “Let it slide…”

    That is so true!

    And yet here we all are claiming we know what the mind of God is and what we consider will be done at the end of the ages!

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