Justification: The New Perspective on Paul View

March 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

[This is part of the Justification: Five Views mini-series]

Two weeks ago, thanks to IVP Academic, we started our journey through Justification: Five Views with the Roman Catholic view. Last week we moved to the Luther Deification view. Today, we turn to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) view of justification. Though it would have been excellent if this chapter were written by N. T. Wright (who coined the term and popularized it), having it written by James Dunn is just as good. This isn’t to diminish Dunn’s scholarly work, but he and Wright don’t agree on all things NPP, and I imagine many people would have loved to see Wright both defend his account of justification in summary form and be the respondent to the other views in this book at well. However, that is not the case, and James Dunn’s take on the New Perspective on Paul is what takes center stage in this chapter.

Dunn starts right off the bat with the claim the NPP isn’t really “new”:

The “new perspective” on Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is not really “new.” It is a perspective that Paul himself defended, as we shall see, an integral part of Paul’s own perspective on the subject. It highlights a dimension of Paul’s teaching that Paul himself regard as central to his own understanding of justification (176).

Dunn then explains that the reason it is generally called “new” is that the “dimension of Paul’s teaching” it is highlighting have “never before been given such attention.” He goes on to explain:

It also follows that the “new perspective” should not be defined or regarded as an alternative to the “old perspective.” The “new perspective” does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the “old perspective.” It does not regard the “new perspective” as hostile or antithetical to the “old perspective” (176).

Now, while some may disagree with this “perspective,” that is generally what I found to be true in my own reading of N. T. Wright. Not everything per se was compatible the kind of traditional Reformed account of justification offered by Mike Horton in this same book (or in his recent systematic theology). However, with the right kind of epistemological framework, I think that many of the aspects that the New Perspective on Paul brings to the table can be integrated into a sound theology of justification.

One area of contention in this discussion is the place and understanding of Judaism. Dunn starts right off by affirming that the New Perspective on Paul is dependent on a “new perspective” on Judaism (177). This is the first of four points that his essay is built around. The other three are:

  • Understanding the significance of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles as the  context for his teaching on justification
  • The distinction between justification by faith in Jesus Christ and justification by works of the law
  • Taking the whole gospel of Paul into account (i.e. not reducing the gospel to “justification by faith”)

After surveying the work of E. P. Sanders on Judaism, Dunn says that there is more continuity between Paul and Second Temple Judaism than previously thought (183). This naturally leads to the second point and discussing the character of Paul’s mission outside Judaism. Essentially, Dunn is highlighting that the letters that most clearly spell out justification by faith (Romans, Galatians) are also the letters most clearly concerned with uniting Jews and Gentiles together in Christ (189). From there, the natural question is how to relate works of the law (and what exactly “law” is) into the discussion. Dunn doesn’t reduce “works of the law” to merely boundary markers like keeping the Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws, but he comes close. He affirms that “works of the law” in wider contexts refers to keeping the law generally, but when Paul uses it in reference to Jews and Gentile relations, it refers to boundary markers. This might be hard to sustain, but it is certainly key to understanding Dunn’s position.

Finally, Dunn closes out by attempting to demonstrate Paul’s gospel expands beyond simply justification by faith (though it certainly includes it). I am generally in agreement with this kind of move, though I might not agree with Dunn in all the particulars. I do however agree with Dunn that we should keep in mind that Paul simultaneously affirmed the forensic imagery (law court verdicts and the like) related to justification as well as the relational-focused imagery of union with Christ. I’ve argued for a similar position even here on the blog.

As far as the responses go, Mike Horton is not particularly enthusiastic (to put it mildly). He is enthusiastic to maintain a sharp distinction between law and gospel and attempts to do so by grounding the idea in the nature of biblical covenants. In my view (and others who know more about biblical covenants than Horton) this is unsuccessful (and I explain why here) and doesn’t really deal with the exegetical issues, so much as say “we can’t interpret things that way because we have to maintain this distinction.”

Although Horton’s response is more or less a full-on critique, Michael Bird is more complementary (as are the other respondents) and agrees with Dunn that the old and new perspectives are not antithetical (207). He agrees as well over against Horton that Paul’s critique of the law shouldn’t be pressed into a sharp law vs. gospel distinction (210, which I would also agree to), but sees more Dunn trying to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and downplay the issues that there were with keeping the law.

The response from Rafferty and Karkkainen didn’t really raise any points I want to consider on here, so I’ll just conclude by saying this chapter is a very clear, condensed exposition of the New Perspective on Paul’s understanding of justification. It is explained by one of its foremost scholars and it does much to add to the discussion as well as attempt to build bridges between old and new perspectives. It still remains a distinct view, and as Bird’s response shows, it may have much in agreement with a progressive Reformed view (which is my own) but it cannot be incorporated as a whole without creating cognitive dissonance.


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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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