New Perspective on Paul

The New Perspective on Paul, also called New Perspectivism (hereafter NPP) is a system of thought in New Testament scholarship that seeks to reinterpret the Apostle Paul and his letters. In brief, the NPP is a reaction to the Reformation perspective on Paul (i.e. the traditional interpretation of him).

The Reformation perspective understands Paul to be arguing against a legalistic Jewish culture that seeks to earn their salvation through works. However, supporters of the NPP argue that Paul has been misread. They contend he was actually combating Jews who were boasting because they were God's people, the "elect" or the "chosen ones." Their "works," so to speak, were done to show they were God's covenant people and not to earn their salvation. According to the NPP, the result is a Judaism that affirmed sola gratia (grace alone). Presently, effects of the NPP are primarily seen in the academic world of New Testament scholars, particularly those who focus their attention on Pauline studies and the study of first century Judaism. However, ramifications of the NPP directly affect the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith (Sola Fide).



Varying authors since the early 1900's have brought up the charge that Paul was misread by those in the tradition of Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers. Yet, it wasn't until E.P. Sanders' 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, that scholars began to pay much attention to the issue. In his book Sanders argues that the Judaism of Paul's day has been wrongly criticized as a religion of "works-salvation" by those in the Protestant tradition. He set out "to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevelant in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship" (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, xii.). Its adherents call for a rethinking of Paul and a greater understanding of him in light of what the NPP claims are the true beliefs of first century Judaism. The more popular scholars associated with the NPP are E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. Dunn was the first to coin the term "The New Perspective" in a 1983 Manson Memorial Lecture, The New Perspective on Paul and the Law.

Central beliefs to the NPP

Although not every NPP scholar agrees on every point, the following may serve as a general outline of core beliefs that remain fundamental to the NPP claim(s).

Grace in first-century Judaism

A fundamental premise in the NPP is that Judaism was actually a religion of grace. Sander's puts it clearly:

"On the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism - grace and works - Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism... Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works'...God saves by grace, but... within the framework established by grace he rewards good deeds and punishes transgression." (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 543) N.T. Wright adds that, "we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism," (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 32). However, Stephen Westerholm adds caution to such a quickly drawn conclusion:

"While one may enthusiastically endorse the 'new perspective' dictum that first-century Judaism was a religion of grace and acknowledge that it represents an important corrective of earlier caricatures, it is hardly pedantic to point out that more precision is needed before such a statement can illuminate a discussion of the 'Lutheran' Paul. Pelagius and Augustine - to take but the most obvious examples - both believed in human dependence on divine grace, but they construed that dependence very differently" (Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, pp. 261-262). Thus, as Westerholm points out, although first century Judaism may have believed in grace, it becomes even more important to establish why they believed in grace and how this effected their view of salvation. Those from the NPP seem quick to jump to the conclusion that first-century Judaism was in agreement with the same understanding of grace found within the NT and Paul's theology. Again, as Westerholm notes above, this "grace" can be understood very differently.

Pattern of religion: Covenantal Nomism

E.P. Sanders is known for coining the term "covenantal nomism." This term is essential to the NPP view, as Sanders argues that this is the "pattern of religion" found in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. The term, as defined by Sanders, means:

"Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one's place in God's plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression." (E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 75) The understanding among first-century Palestinian Jews of the structure and pattern of the law as functioning in redemptive history is important because, as argues by both sides of the debate, it has vast implications for one's interpretation of how Paul interacted with his fellow Jews. If covenantal nomism was operating as the primary category under which Jews understood the Law, then when Jews spoke of obeying commandments, or when they required strict obedience of themselves and fellow Jews, it was because they were "keeping the covenant," rather than out of legalism.

Sanders says that, "one's place in God's plan is established on the basis of the covenant." Therefore, as long as a Jew kept their covenant with God, he remained part of God's people. How does one keep the covenant? Sander's tells us "the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments." All of Judaism's talk about "obedience" is thus in the context of "covenantal nomism" and not legalism. As a result, Judaism is then not concerned with "how to have a right relationship with God" but with "how to remain his covenant people." This has sometimes been compared to the issue of "keeping" or "losing one's salvation."

The pre-Christian Saul

Proponents of New Perspectivism usually argue that Paul, before conversion, was more of a zealout for his nation (Israel) and their special place in God's plan than a devout Jew who was trying to earn his salvation. This is important, because if true, this means that Paul was not fighting legalism and that much Protestant Pauline scholarship following upon Luther has been wrong.

Advocates of the NPP say that it was not their works that helped them attain salvation, but it was their "nationalistic boundary markers" (i.e. circumcision, food laws, sabbath, etc.) that kept them within the people of God. Thus, the works, along with the boundary markers were used to keep themselves within the boundary of God's people. Paul was not fighting legalism, but was instead fighting the works and national pride that separated the Jews from the Gentiles. This is the background that Paul was exposed to prior to his conversion. In essence, after Paul's conversion he was changed, but he was still a Jew. Everything he knew as "Saul," the Pharisee, did not just go away. It was radically changed due to his encounter with Jesus.

What Paul finds wrong with Judaism

Supporters of the NPP vary in what they believe Paul found wrong with Judaism. Sanders writes in his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977),

Our analysis of Rabbinic and other Palestinian Jewish literature did not reveal the kind of religion best characterized as legalistic works-righteousness. But more important for the present point is the observation that in any case that charge is not the heart of Paul's critique... Doing the law, in short, is wrong only because it is not faith. In itself obedience to the law is a good thing... and is faulted only when it seems to threaten exclusiveness of salvation by faith in Christ. (p. 550) Sanders later sums it up that "this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity," (p. 552). Others, like N.T. Wright, believe that "national righteousness" is the problem. He says that,

If we ask how it is that Israel has missed her vocation, Paul's answer is that she is guilty not of "legalism" or "works-righteousness" but of what I call "national righteousness," the belief that fleshly Jewish decent guarantees membership of God's true covenant people," (The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith, p. 65). Dunn agrees with this idea, stating that "Paul was reacting primarily against the exclusivism that he himself had previously fought to maintain," ("Paul's Theology," in The Face of New Testament Studies, p. 336). Having briefly outlined the NPP's understanding of Paul's negative reaction to Judaism, it appears difficult to understand NPP proponents reasonings. Westerholm thus asks the pressing question, "If Judaism preached good Protestant doctrine after all, then what could Paul possibly have found wrong with it?" (Perspectives Old and New on Paul, p. 250).

Other issues

The title "other issues" is not meant to imply that these topics are outside the scheme or core of the ensuing debate on Paul. However, some of the following issues tend to divide NPP proponents in that not all of them agree on what is meant, for example, by "works of the law." Some issues, however, are more generally accepted such as "boundary markers."

Works of the Law

"The key questions involve Paul's view(s) of the law and the meaning of the controversy in which Paul was engaged. Paul strongly argued that we are "justified by faith in Christ (or "the faith of Christ") and not by doing the works of the law" (Gal. 2:16b). Since the time of Martin Luther, this has been understood as an indictment of legalistic efforts to merit favor before God." [1]

James Dunn explains that,

"'Works of law', 'works of the law' are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God's favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God's people; other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls 'covenantal nomism.' And what he denies is that God's justification depends on 'covenantal nomism,' that God's grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant." [2] Dunn notes elsewhere that these "badges" can also be called boundary markers (see below). Futhermore, at the tenth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference (2003), N.T. Wright explained his agreements and disagreements with James Dunn.

"... when Jimmy Dunn added his stones to the growing pile I found myself in both agreement and disagreement with him. His proposal about the meaning of ‘works of the law’ in Paul – that they are not the moral works through which one gains merit but the works through which the Jew is defined over against the pagan – I regard as exactly right. It has proved itself again and again in the detailed exegesis; attempts to deny it have in my view failed. But Dunn, like Sanders (and like some other New Perspetive writers such as John Ziesler) has not, I think, got to the heart of Paul. Again, much of my writing on Paul over the last twenty years at least has been in at least implicit dialogue with him, and I find his exposition of justification itself less than satisfying. For one thing, he never understands what I take to be Paul’s fundamental covenant theology; for another, his typically protestant anti-sacramentalism leads him to miss the point of Romans 6." [3]

Boundary Markers

Boundary markers are observances such as circumcision, food laws, the sabbath etc. that separated the Jews from the Gentiles. One could distinguish who was a Jew or Gentile by seeing who followed these laws. Specifically, this set up the boundaries of identifying who were and were not God's people. It is proposed within the New Perspective that Paul came to do away with these "boundary markers" so that Jew and Gentile would be unified and so that the Abrahamic covenant could be actualized (Gen 12:2-3, where all nations are blessed). Thus, it is argued, when Paul criticized the Jews for adhering to "works of the law," he was referring to these "boundary markers" rather than a system of works-righteousness, as is presumed in the traditional understanding of Paul's arguments.

The righteousness of God

Proponents of New Perspectivism argue that the righteousness of God, spoken of by Paul in Romans, is refering to God's faithfulness rather than the positive imputation of Christ's righteousness.

"If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favor. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge's righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works." - N.T. Wright

Faith vs. works

NPP advocates argue that the traditional dichotomy of faith and works isn't present in Paul. Rather present is a dichotomy of "covenant badges" like circumcision and distinctively Jewish practices vs. the all-inclusive instrument of faith (which allow Gentiles into this convenant).

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Boasting in Jewish culture

Simon Gathercole has written a solid book, Where is Boasting? (2002), which deals with the theme of "boasting" in second-temple Judaism and Romans 1-5. Having actually studied under James Dunn, Gathercole's book critiques the NPP and shows that "obedience, as well as election, is the basis of Israel's confidence before God," (p. 194). This is important in that it establishes that election is not the sole basis of Israel's confidence. Furthermore, Gathercole concludes that because Jewish confidence is placed in both their election and obedience, "boasting in God cannot be glossed as 'boasting in Torah'... there is room only for a boast through Christ," (p. 261). In other words, the very thought that Paul was fighting was a boasting in the Torah, or the Law that made Israel a distinct nation. He goes on to deepen his point,

Paul affirms a crucial component, then, to true boasting. To pose the question from the other side, What is it in the Jewish boast that Paul excludes? We have seen in our exegesis of Romans 2:17-24 and 2:25-29 that Paul does not accept the Jewish boast "in God" (2:17) at face value. The problem with the boast is that the [Jew] has an unrepentant heart, and, though he calls himself a Jew (2:17), he is actually not a Jew in his heart (2:25-29). The boast in God is undercut chiefly by the fact that the [Jew] sins against the Torah even as he claims it as the basis for his confidence (2:23). The boast of the Jew, then, is for Paul something very different from the boast of the Christians in Romans 5:1-11 (p. 261).

N.T. Wright

As stated above, NPP proponents agree on some things, however not all see things the same way. N.T. Wright has been the most outspoken regarding the redefinition of the doctrine of justification, imputed righteousness, and the idea of "exile" within first century Judaism. Anyone wishing to understand the New Perspective should understand and be familiar with his writings as he is the most widely read of any NPP writer.


According to Wright, justification isn't merely an initial means by which someone is right with God, but rather a mark of who already is. He notes,

"[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by 'the gospel'. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But 'the gospel' is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ....Let us be quite clear. 'The gospel' is the announcement of Jesus' lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. 'Justification' is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other." [4] Another quote by Wright is worth reading:

"In theology, therefore, justification is not the means whereby it becomes possible to declare someone in the right. It is simply that declaration itself. It is not how someone becomes a Christian, but simply the declaration that someone is a Christian. It is not the exercise of mercy, but the just declaration concerning one who has already received mercy. This is a crucial distinction, without which it is impossible to understand the biblical material." [5] Thus, justification has more to do with Jewish-Gentile issues rather than one's status before God. The result is that those who push for the NPP understand themselves dealing with Judaism on its own grounds rather than through the lens of the Catholic-Protestant debates of the 16th century. They see themselves taking a historical approach to the issue and criticize opponents as reading their view of justification into the text in the same way Luther did.

Denial of imputed righteousness

N.T. Wright reinterprets texts classically used as prooftexts for imputed righteousness. He understands 2 Corinthians 5:21, for example, to refer to God's covenant faithfulness. While many still profess agreement with the substance of the doctrine of imputed righteousness, the classic (or traditional) interpretations of texts relating to imputation have more or less been removed (see also N.T. Wright's Becoming the Righteousness of God PDF). Wright also states,

"Is there then no 'reckoning of righteousness' in, for instance, Romans 5:14-21? Yes, there is; but my case is that this is not God's own righteousness, or Christ's own righteousness, that is reckoned to God's redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of 'covenant member', and/or 'justified sinner', which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with 'the obedience of faith'." - Rutherford House Conference 2003 [6] (pdf, p. 8) Wright does not believe God's righteousness is anything that he can give or that can be transfered to a believer. The believer is simply declared righteous because he is now a covenant member.

Still in Exile?

Wright thinks that the many of the Jews of Jesus' day regarded Israel as 'still in exile' and that Messiah's coming would deliver the captives, release God's people from exile, and restore God's kingdom from foreign domination; it would in fact be the right ordering of God over the foreign nations through Israel. In line with this understanding, Wright regards much of Jesus' action as an enactment of this part of the "salvation story." Moreover, in this story the political nature comes out strongly. By consequence, Wright tends to deemphasize, though he does not deny, the personal nature of salvation in Christ. This understanding and emphasis often clashes with the evangelical historic reformed faith which has consistently held the focus of Jesus' message to be 'personal forgiveness of sin by vicarious sacrificial atonement of Jesus as Passover Lamb'.

Other criticism(s)

Justification and Variegated Nomism

Justification and Variegated Nomism is a two-volume work, the first being published in 2001, the second in 2004, which deals with the claims of the NPP. The title of this work is not intended to be intimidating. Basically, the two-volume work deals with the doctrine of justification and variegated (varying) nomism (Greek for law) in Second-Temple Judaism (ca. 515 BC - 70 AD) and the thought of the Apostle Paul. In other words, scholars sought to better understand the varying views of justification and the law is second-temple judaism and Pauline thought. The two-volume series is edited by D.A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid.

In the first volume, subtitled "The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism," Carson notes that they "divided up the literature of Second Temple Judaism and invited distinguished specialists to look at it afresh, asking fundamental questions about the pattern of relationships between God and human beings, about righteousness and salvation and eschatology and grace and works and faith and law," (v-vi). Thus, the first volume focuses on the same literature that Sander's Paul and Palestinian Judaism did, showing that his "covenantal nomism" is not the sole "pattern of religion."

Carson also states in the preface to the second volume, subtitled "The Paradoxes of Paul," that the book tries "to look at the exegetical and theological arguments advanced by the new perspective in its treatment of Paul, undertaking fresh exegesis of most of the relevant texts while interacting with the dominant voices," (v-vi).

This two-volume set is the most solid and well-reasoned response to New Perspective proponents. Although considered more advanced reading, the entire work is broken into separate articles which enables interested readers to read one article at a time rather than being required to take in and understand the entire 1,100 page text.


Further reading



See also