Some Thoughts on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP)

The Apostle PaulThis brief essay is a response to the following articles:

The New Perspective on Paul by James D. G. Dunn

Romans: God’s Good News for the World (pp. 24-31) by John R. Stott

What is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP)?

Proponents of the NPP begin by arguing that a new perspective on Paul is necessary because Pauline theology has been misunderstood at least since the Reformation in that the Reformers and their heirs have interpreted Paul in light of the milieu of medieval Roman Catholicism and not of the milieu of first century Judaism.  They point out that rabbinic Jewish scholars have long noted that the religion of the Jews which Paul describes and rejects is a gross caricature of actual first century rabbinic Jewish religion.  Having listened to their criticisms they offer an alternative understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification and his term “works of the law.”  Accordingly, NPP advocates argue that Judaism was not a religion of justification before God by works, but rather it taught alongside Christianity that justification is by faith, therefore the instrument of faith could not be Paul’s concern in distinguishing Christianity from Judaism.  Instead, Dunn for example (contra Sanders) reads Paul as drawing a distinction between “law” and “works of the law” and says that the Jews viewed their customs of circumcision, Sabbath, and food/purity laws (i.e., the “works of the law”) as badges or boundary markers that set them apart nationally, racially, covenantally, favorably, and salvifically, from the rest of the nations.  The NPP argues that these covenant badges of membership of God’s chosen people had been abrogated in the progress of redemptive history at the coming of Christ, and that the old “works of the law” must be set aside because, as racial and national boundary markers, they (contrary to the gospel) separate Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus.  As such, Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith should be understood as a description of who is within the covenantal boundaries of the family of faith.  “Faith” (in a sense) is the new badge that identifies one’s membership in the community of faith, as opposed to the distinctly Jewish signs of circumcision, Sabbath observation, and adherence to ritual food/purity laws. Additionally, faith is an appropriate badge because it is not according to the law (read: “works of the law”) and therefore can open up a direct path for the Gentile (who does not have the law) to Christ.  Furthermore, the term “justification by faith” in the NPP does not speak of forgiveness of sins or imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers; it just means Jewish and Gentile Christians are identified by faith and not external Jewish signs/works of the law.

Continue reading here.

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