The "New Perspective on Paul"
Reading the New Testament letters from another point of view
Note: I want to do occasional posts summarizing interpretative approaches to the bible that are different from the "standard" American protestant ones, at least partly because I think it's a useful task to understand the different ways a text can be interpreted and I'd like to convince myself I understand them well enough to at least summarize them broadly. If you think I've dramatically misrepresented a point of view, please let me know!
One of the central, although I think often overstated, problems Evangelical Christians need to grapple with is the question of "correct" biblical interpretation. As an Evangelical, I believe that there exist both absolute morality and absolute truth, both of which can be approximated by carefully interpreting the bible.
Sometimes this isn't too hard. A cursory reading of the New Testament can tell you that Jesus is God, and then you should love your neighbor and forgive wrongdoing. You should give to the poor, and pray, and worship God, and Jesus died and rose on the third day. This much is, if you trust the bible, uncontroversial.
But sometimes, and I'm sure anybody who has done extended bible study can attest to this, it's more difficult. There are passages that are unclear, or that seem clear but wrong, and you can't figure out why anybody would have written this in the first place, let alone given it a spot in the bible. And the sort of interpretations you get, and the lessons you draw out, start to come not from a plain, unbiased view of the text (as if such a thing existed), but from your own personal theological views, and what you're pretty sure other parts of the bible say, and soon enough you're just reading what you already believed back into the text and not learning anything from it.
For this reason I think it's valuable to learn other interpretative schemes for reading biblical texts - there's no such thing as an "unbiased" interpretation, but I think it's worthwhile to understand to what extent one's own views are shared by other readers, if only to restrain some of the more speculative readings one might give a text. I'd like to summarize these here as I come across them - as much to force myself to understand them as anything else.
In this post I want to sketch the difference between the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) and what we might call the "Lutheran Perspective on Paul" (LPP). (I feel like "Old Perspective on Paul" is unfairly loaded.) We will see that the two perspectives differ primarily on how they answer three (closely-linked) questions:
What was the role of the law in first-century Judaism?
What exactly is Paul critiquing about "works of the Law"?
What does Paul mean when he says we are "justified by faith"?
The first is primarily a historical query, but we will see that it has extremely significant consequences for how we answer the other two questions. We'll explore the first two by seeing how the two perspectives read (in broad terms) the Paul's letter to the Galatians, and leave the last for maybe a future post or maybe never.
E.P. Sanders says that “the best way to comprehend Galatians is to read it out aloud, shouting in an angry voice at the appropriate points,” and I am somewhat surprised to report that this does indeed make it much more comprehensible. It might be helpful to do so, or at least skim Galatians 3-4, before reading the rest of this post, because the primary question at stake is not whether the things each perspective says about God are true (they are for both sides, at least in broad strokes), but which perspective describe what Paul is talking about when he discusses the law. This affects how certain passages speak to us, and ultimately certain theological questions (NPP advocates typically view judgement day differently from LPP authors, although this is part of the "justification" question we're not going to discuss in this post.)
The key topic of Galatians is how Gentiles (people not of Jewish descent) should fit into newly-formed Christian communities. (Recall that at this point Christianity was still very much a form of Judaism.) Paul's opponents, sometimes called Judaizers, were preaching that to join a Christian community, Gentile converts would have to keep the entire Jewish law, which contains not only the sorts of universal moral laws we might expect them to have otherwise kept, but also specifically Jewish things like dietary restrictions (keep kosher!), rules about keeping the sabbath/Shabbat, and a circumcision requirement for men.
(It's important to note that in the specific circumstances the letter is addressing, the Jewish religious leaders held much of the the institutional privileges and power. We should read Paul's critique of Judaism closer to how we might read critiques of Christianity or white men today than how we would read a critique of Judaism in modern America.)
The Galatians, it appears, were led astray by the Judaizers, apparently out of fear of persecution or fear that Christ's sacrifice was not sufficient for their salvation. (Paul mentions, and denounces, both reasons.) The essential theme of Paul's argument is that Christians are not bound by the law, and in particular should not be circumcised (if they weren't already) or avoid Gentiles, or celebrate traditional Jewish holidays if they didn't already. Rather, he says, the true way to attain God's blessings is through faith.
This book, along with e.g. the beginning of Romans, forms the basis for Lutheran Perspective on Paul (LPP). (I'm not well-versed enough in the Reformation to say to what extent these views actually were Luther's, but they're at least a common caricature of his views and reasonably common in Protestantism today.)
In this view, Paul is primarily writing about legalism, and the idea that a person can earn God's grace through their good works. The Jewish people of the day, according to the LPP, believed that they became part of the people of God (and so achieve success, or gain wealth, or get into heaven, etc.) by being perfectly righteous - that is, by keeping the Jewish law perfectly.
Paul's gospel is then written in contrast to this. Nobody could keep the law perfectly, because nobody was perfect. God, wanting people to go to heaven for obvious reasons, solved this by sending his son Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, and then died on the cross - his sacrifice fulfilling the demands of the law and lets imperfect people into heaven regardless of their actions. The key to salvation, then, is not by "works of the law" - that is, good deeds, but by "faith" - that is, believing in Jesus.
Thus, the problem with the Judaizers is that they are teaching the Galatians that they can acheive God's grace on their own merits instead of relying on faith in God. This counters (in the LPP's view) the entire point of Christ's mission and negates the whole point of Jesus's sacrifice! Paul's view of the law is therefore primarily an encouragement - salvation isn't by works and so we don't need to feel guilty about our inability to live perfect laws because we are covered by God's grace and forgiveness.
The difficult question the LPP faces with Galatians is the Paul spends much of the last chapter of the letter exhorting the Galatians to do good. This is accompanied by warnings that their salvation may be at stake if they're trapped in the life of the flesh (essentially, gratifying their own desires over those of God), which certainly sounds a lot like keeping a law. There are various resolutions and explanations to this, but I consider it a weak point for the interpretation.
The New Perspective on Paul (NPP), refers primarily to critiques by scholars like N.T. Wright and E.P. Sanders of the LPP. They do not always agree with each other (when do bible scholars ever?), so we'll have to limit ourselves to generalities. You can see here for a more detailed (and properly footnoted) account, I'm basing my account primarily on Wright's much-too-long book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
A key assumption the LPP makes is that Judaism around Jesus' time was primarily a legalistic religion. It's certainly easy to read some of the gospel texts that way (has anybody done a study on Jesus and the Pharisees from a NPP perspective?), and the anti-semitism pervading a lot of European history has done a lot to reinforce the "Christianity is about grace but Judaism is about legalism" worldview. (If you don't believe me, compare how you think about the New Testament with how you think about the Old Testament.)
The NPP argues that this is an unfair caricature of Jewish beliefs at the time. NPP advocates don't seem to agree on what exactly Jewish belief looked like (most likely it was too complicated and diverse to summarize nicely), but the basic idea seems to be that being born Jewish made you a part of the "people of God", and that following the law was either a way of showing that or a way of staying on "good behavior" as a person of God. Thus Judaism was not primarily a "works-righteousness" religion, but an ethnicity-based religion. (Again, there were a lot of sects of Judaism at the time, so it's more complicated than this. Also, the category "religion" isn't quite applicable to how supernatural beliefs worked at the time.)
The question surrounding the "works of the law", then, is not whether one can earn one's way into heaven, but who the people of God are. The NPP views the Judaizers as teaching that the Jewish people were God's only true people, and that a Gentile seeking to follow Jesus must first become a part of Jewish culture. The "works of the law" are not just any works done to please God, but specifically Jewish identity markers - things like circumcision, celebrating festivals like Passover, keeping kosher, and so on.
A perhaps-helpful partial analogy can be found in past missionary outreach attempts made by many primarily white churches. The gospel of Christ is preached, often accompanied by conservative white identity markers - things like not drinking or smoking, no dancing during church, wearing clothes considered modest in one's own home country, and so on. These things are not inherently bad (they're just cultural values and mores), but to insist on them against the culture of those one is preaching to becomes a form of cultural imperialism. By bundling them with the gospel, one is teaching that God's grace comes only with white culture and thus denying the more important truth that God has come to save all peoples!
(This, of course, also partially obscures the point, in that Second Temple Jewish values were deeply intertwined the a law given by God, a situation Paul is at great pains to explain.)
The message of Galatians, according to the NPP, is thus that the people of God are those who trust and follow him, rather than simply a matter of which culture one is a part of. Paul's theology of the law is then both an encouragement and a challenge: an encouragement to outgroups that one need not give up one's cultural identity to follow Jesus (although certainly parts of it will be transformed and redeemed), but also a challenge to ingroups to avoid declaring one's own identity an essential part of God's word. This is very compatible with the biggest problem the LPP had with Galatians, since keeping the moral parts of the law is a reasonable request if Paul's critique was aimed only at the boundaries created by Jewish identity markers.
The challenge for NPP advocates in reading Galatians is that Paul seems to think following parts of the Torah puts the Galatians' salvation in question. This makes sense in the LPP, where the "works of the law" were a sign of self-righteousness and trying to earn one's way to heaven, which presumably implies a lack of faith or trust in God. In the NPP however, it's confusing that following cultural values somebody else has set for you would be a salvation issue. Once again, there are various arguments and interpretations explaining this, but I consider it a weak point.
There are, of course, further differences between the perspectives, and this is necessarily oversimplified to fit in a blog post. One major debate is over the meaning of "justification" when Paul says e.g. that we are justified by faith, but I don't understand the NPP position on this well enough to write about it. Maybe at some point I will, or maybe not. We'll see.
I think it's important to note that both perspectives have value. NT Wright, one of the leading NPP advocates, notes that:
These contrasts [between grace and legalism] are indeed present as resonances, and later theologians were not wrong to draw out such implications. But the point at which those extra meanings took over and became central, displacing the actual argument Paul was mounting, was the point at which the exegetes ceased to listen to him and began to listen instead to the echo of their own voices bouncing off parts of his text. -Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pg. 863
In other words, the point of the new perspective is not that the old perspective's views were false. The question is not whether God is indeed legalistic or whether indeed we should all adopt Jewish dietary restrictions. It's not as though Galatians is the only part of the bible talking about ethnic identity, or about God forgiving sinners through faith. Both of these themes still exist regardless of which "perspective" is correct, and they both still contain important lessons for Christian believers. The question is one of emphasis, and of which beliefs form the crux of Paul's argument and which are merely sidenotes. Thus, even as we work together to decide the best way to read Paul's "law" passages, we can rest assured that the brunt of our theology is not resting on our interpretation of a few shaky passages.