Critiquing the New Paul Perspective[s]: Simon Gathercole’s Offering

I am not going to re-rehearse what is involved in the New Paul Perspective[s] controversy (if you are unfamiliar here is a link to wikipedia’s explanation of it, which I haven’t read, but it’s what I found for quick reference); it’s most popular advocate today is N.T. Wright. Another younger biblical scholar, Simon Gathercole, has offered critique of the NPP; here is a synopsis of some of the things he finds faulty about it:

1. We need to go back to E. P. Sanders and his insistence that Judaism in Paul’s day did not think in terms of salvation as something earned or gained by obedience to the law. Now it is certainly the case that Protestant scholarship had previously exaggerated this fact, but it is not wrong either. Documents from around the time of Paul state that some Jews believed obedience to the law was rewarded on the final day with salvation: “The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord” (Psalms of Solomon, c. 50 B.C.). “Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works” (2 Baruch, c. A.D. 100). There are a number of examples like this. Paul’s understanding of justification makes sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Rom. 3:20). Many of Paul’s contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God.

For Paul on the other hand, salvation was impossible without the earth-shattering events of the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost. I mentioned previously that for Sanders, observance of the law was merely how people stayed in the covenant that God had already established. But obedience for Paul was no mere formality. It took mighty acts of God to make it possible.

2. Does Paul think primarily of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws when he uses the phrase “works of the law”? My own view, and that of a number of other scholars, is that Paul focuses on observance of the law as a whole. Works of the law simply means doing the law—the law in its entirety. So the issue at stake with works of the law is not so much Jewish identity as the ability of Israelites as human beings to obey the entire law. We shall return to this point later.

3. Criticism of “individualistic” readings of Paul can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some new perspective scholars want to guard against individualistic understandings of justification. Seeing faith to be transcultural, available to both Jew and Gentile, these scholars shift the emphasis from personal conversion toward the larger canvas of God’s dealings in salvation history. But we cannot escape the dimensions of conversion and personal faith in Paul. These are vitally important: The church is not a lump of humanity, but an assembly of individuals. Faith according to Paul is exercised by individuals (e.g. Rom. 4:5; 12:3; Gal. 2:20), and is also a feature of churches (e.g. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:4). Individual and corporate faith are not at odds with one another.

4. A further tendency of the new perspective is to confuse the content of justification with its applications. It is true to say that justification by faith is about including Gentiles into the people of God. But it is essential to see that the core meaning of justification by faith is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God. Then we can speak of the scope of justification, which is for all who believe, from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Unfortunately, in some hands, the emphasis on inclusion as a primary component of justification can have two further effects.

5. Seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can lead to a downplaying of sin. This approach to justification can lose sight of Paul’s vital concern for how sinners can be made righteous. One leading New Testament scholar has described his view of justification as God building an extra room in his house for Gentiles. But this view neglects the fact that Israelites as well as Gentiles are sinners and need to be justified.

6. Since the emphasis in some discussions of justification is on inclusion, tolerance, and ecumenism, there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of doctrinal clarity. One recent commentary on Romans emphasizes mutual acceptance as the key to the book. It is revealing that the commentator then regards Romans 16:17-20 as a later interpolation, because the passage emphasizes teaching doctrine and staying away from heretics. Paul insists, however, that unity and doctrine are not mutually exclusive. True unity comes not at the expense of doctrine, but precisely around the central truths of the gospel.

Once again, it needs to be remembered that the new perspective does not put forward a single, united front. As a result, these criticisms will not all apply to one person at the same time. They are, however, tendencies to keep an eye out for when studying the new perspective. [full article here.]

If I had more time I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts on this, but Gathercole will have to suffice for now. I will say that I don’t think that the NPP and the more classical approach have to be placed in competition with each other (neither does Gathercole if you read the full article I have linked).

Gathercole has a fuller treatment of which his linked article is only a synopsis (I read it probably five years ago now); the full treatment is Gathercole’s book: Where Is Boasting: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1—5.

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2 thoughts on “Critiquing the New Paul Perspective[s]: Simon Gathercole’s Offering

  1. I agree that one doesn’t need to set up a false dilemma. One can take advantage of the insights of the NPP folks without jettisoning the insights of the Reformers and others. Thanks, Bobby.

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