Justification and the New Perspective on Paul


You may have noticed a recent trend in the direction this blog is going. Namely, one away from expositing Christian philosophy and towards book reviews. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I had to do the last two reviews anyway for a class and felt like sharing
  2. This one and the next one lined up expand the discussion started in the review of Piper’s book

I’ll probably just in general start posting more book review since they both start discussion and can be useful in helping me digest what I read and helping you the reader to find interesting books to pursue yourself.

For the book at hand, we are examining Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspective on Paul. While Piper’s book was specifically a critique and response to N.T. Wright’s writings on Paul, this book is an overview of the major proponents in the stream of thought leading up to Wright, which was dubbed the New Perspective on Paul (NPP from here on) by one leading scholar and adherent, J.D.G. Dunn (as Waters claims, Dunn credits Wright however, as pointed out in Wright’s new book). As such, the book provides a rather thorough overview of NT studies prior to the emergence of a differening perspective on Paul as well as the views of the two probably most well known names, E.P. Sanders and the aforementioned Dunn. It then situates Wright as the one who brought the perspective to the church at large (since before it had mainly been an academic discussion) before offering a chapter of critique and then a chapter showing just what is at stake to, in the author’s concern, Reformed Christianity. Depending on where you locate yourself along a Reformed theology continuum, some of the last chapter may be of little interest, however the rest of the book is vital to anyone who wishes to both be theologically grounded and also to offer an informed response to the movement.

Chapter 1 offers the historical backdrop, starting with the Reformers understanding of Biblical interpretation which laid the foundation for an exegesis of Paul that was both grammatically and historically ground and yet also sensitive to the insights and reflections of past interpreters (pg. 3). Then later, enter F.C. Baur and the subsequent rise of a historical critical interpretation. This is much due to the post-Enlightenment philosophical starting point of epistemological doubt (thanks to Descartes of course), and eventually was followed by the rise of liberal theology. Waters also comments on the history of religions school and its influence on biblical interpretation. It would be hard to condense here much more than Waters has already condensed in the first couple of chapters in his book, but we’ll look briefly at chapter two before moving on.

In chapter 2, enter Rudolf Bultmann, the giant of 20th century biblical studies. Bultmann followed the history of religions school and felt that the thought world of the NT was to be found in its broader religious environment, specifically and intermingling of Jewish and Hellenistic thought (pg. 15).  Also in chapter 2, W.D. Davies is introduced in dissent to Bultmann. While Bultmann had placed Paul’s thought contra Judaism, Davies argued for continuity. Davies followed Schwietzer in arguing the key to Paul’s thought as being from Jewish not Hellenistic sources. Lastly there is mention of Ernst Kasemann whose distinction was to see justification in corporate rather than individual terms (Bultmann held the latter).

In chapter 3 we find the complete pardigmatic shift in reading Paul in the writings of Krister Stendahl. So far we may be treading largely in names unknown to most readers. I’m not stranger to Bultmann or Baur, but even as a seminary student, I’m not thoroughly familiar with Davies, Kasemann, or Stendahl. One could rightly wonder at this point what this has to do with the current understanding of the debate, but like many debates, this one springs from an academic context and understanding how the debate was born will help one to understand some of the unspoken assumptions scholars like NT Wright are making when they are simultaneously claiming to just be letting Paul speak for himself.

As a short summary, here is how Stendahl set the stage (from pgs 32,33):

  • Paul was never concerned with a change of religions (i.e. Judaism to Christianity) and therefore had no soteriological concern objections to the Judaistic scheme of things
  • Paul never had a tormented conscience (like Augustine and Luther did)
  • Pauline thought is fundamentally concerned with the Jew/Gentile question
  • Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is a polemical doctrine and does not occupy the center of his thought
  • Paul’s doctrine of justification is ecclesiological not soteriological
  • Paul reasons from solution to plight (as in if the Messiah has come, then the world is sinful)

This is probably a severe oversimplification, but just as an aside, none of the above bullet points jive with a traditional understanding of Paul like what one would find in most Reformed theology today, or either in Luther or Calvin (or the apostolic fathers for that matter, who are generally absent in this kind of discussion). Rather than make a long complicated review, I’ll try to split it into manageable segments and so this is good place to do so. We’ve seen all to briefly a sort of historical background of the thought in NT interpretation prior to the entrance of E.P. Sanders who we’ll pick up with in the next part, along with Dunn and Wright, before offering a critique of the movement as a whole. This post on its own may not prove too helpful, but taken along with the rest it should prove to be illuminating both of this particular book as well as the thought of the NPP itself as well as the ramifications of following it.

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!

2 thoughts on “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul”

Want To Add Your Thoughts?