Did The Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective


I was barely into my four years at Dallas Seminary when John Piper published The Future of Justification. For better or worse, that was my introduction to both the New Perspective on Paul and N. T. Wright. I say that because context is important and initially, my understanding of Wright was filtered through Piper and mostly as a rebuttal. I would eventually read most all of Wright’s work on Paul for myself and come to slightly different conclusions than Piper did.

In reading Wright, you often run across the implication that Paul has been misread since the Reformation. In part, this is because we got Judaism wrong and then wrongly correlated it to medieval Catholicism. Actually, it’s not really an implication, Wright more or less says this from time to time, I’m just not running the quotes to ground for you. This again suggests that context is important, since Paul is invariably understood against the background of Second Temple Judaism.

When E. P. Sanders went back and read many of the Second Temple Judaism documents and published his study Paul and Palestinian Judaism, it set the stage for a re-reading of Paul that birthed what is now called the New Perspective. The questions that emerged were first, whether Sanders got the first century context right when it came to the Jewish religion, and second whether the medieval context was similar. Context, is after all, king.

If you’re interested in sorting all this out, you will probably be interested in reading Aaron O’Kelley’s Did The Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective. Because this is a doctoral dissertation (from SBTS), his thesis is stated boldly right off the bat:

This study will argue that the new perspective’s hermeneutical presupposition generated by Sanders’ view of Second Temple Judaism is a non sequitur; as such, it does not overturn the Reformation paradigm for interpreting Paul’s doctrine of justification. The hermeneutical presupposition does not follow specifically because Sanders’ argument has no bearing on the categories that defined the concepts of grace, merit, and justification in the Reformation debates (2).

Ultimately, O’Kelley will suggest that rather a “new perspective” on Paul, we need to further refine the old one in light of recent research (3). To validate that, O’Kelley spends the opening chapter outlining the New Perspective’s understanding of justification and Sanders contribution in the aforementioned work. With the current context set, O’Kelley delves into the medieval one in chapter 2. Here, he explores grace and merit in theological discussion prior to the Reformation. He then spends a chapter unpacking 3 prominent Reformer’s understandings of justification (Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin) before a follow up chapter on the post-Reformation developments. The latter solidified, but did not diverge drastically from the Reformation understanding. In the final chapter, O’Kelley summarizes his observations and then adds some exegetical observations on three key texts: Galatians 3:10-14, Romans 9:30-10:13, and Philippians 3:2-11.

A big upshot of reading O’Kelley’s book is that you should takeaway a much clearer understanding of the theological climate in which the Reformation doctrine of justification emerged. Once you have that, you are apt to say as O’Kelley does that “the fact that first-century Jews might be better described as ‘covenantal nomists’ rather than ‘legalists’ has no bearing on the categories that gave shape to the historic Protestant doctrine of justification” (121). Granting Sanders argument (and it is not without its critics), Paul is not reacting to legalism and neither are the Reformers since neither first-century Jews or medieval Catholics were purely legalistic (or fully Pelagian for that matter). While there are similarities between the two, “nothing that Sanders has argued necessarily implies that the Reformation reading of Paul cannot be sustained” (121).

All of this is to say, if we need to re-read Paul, it is not because the Reformers misread him. O’Kelley does a fine job of arguing as much. There is probably more work to be done in Paul’s first century context to understand him better, but an essential revision of a new perspective entirely is not necessary. I’ve appreciated insights I’ve drawn from Wright and others, but often they offer them with the hubris of insinuating that the majority of gifted exegetes drastically misread Paul. Ironically, in Wright’s case at least, he practices a reading of the Reformers (particularly Calvin) that is not well acquainted with the historical context, yet chides old perspective advocates for doing the same thing with Paul. In the end, both could use a bigger dose of context, but in different ways. Without it, the interpreter is quite likely to set himself up as king instead.

Aaron O’Kelley, Did The Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, October, 2014. 188 pp. Paperback, $23.00.

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Thanks to Wipf & Stock for the review copy!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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