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The Benefits of the New Paul Perspective to Reformed Christianity – Going to Damascus

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The Benefits of the New Paul Perspective to Reformed Christianity

The critiques, arguments and authors of the New Paul Perspective largely receive a bad reputation in Reformed/Evangelical circles. In my experience, those who are unfamiliar with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective (NPP) instinctively dismiss it wholesale because of rumors or assumptions they have heard from others. On the other hand, those who understand the NPP arguments and authors to a greater extent might interact with the arguments, but only to point out the weaknesses of them. While I agree with my Reformed Evangelical commitments and tradition, I believe that both of these interacts with the NPP fail to do justice to the arguments being made. Despite the weaknesses of the NPP, when we better understand the critiques and arguments of its proponents we are actually able to embrace the benefits it has to offer the Reformed faith. Specifically, we will find that the NPP allows us to more faithfully understand the context in which we read God’s Word, our understanding of Covenant Theology is strengthened, and the scope of God’s salvation is expanded. For the scope of this essay, I will briefly summarize the writings of Krister Stendahl, James Dunn and N.T. Wright, and then turn to my own reflections.[1]

In his essay The Apostle Paul and the Instrospective Conscience of the West, Krister Stendahl popularizes the notion that the Apostle Paul may not have been as concerned with an introspective burden of conscience as Western Audiences assume. He argues that “the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the life of Luther’s struggle with conscience.”[2] Western Christians then – in particular, those in the Protestant tradition – have read into Paul a burden from sin and guilt that the Apostle did not originally have. On the contrary, Stendahl argues that Paul actually had a very guilt-free conscience in regard to his participation in covenant law as a Jew.[3] Paul was originally concerned with how Gentiles could be included in the messianic community, but he is now read as principally being concerned with man’s assurance of individual salvation.[4] What was in focus for Paul’s theology then was not a burden of introspective conscience, but an insufficiency in the law now that the Holy Spirit has come.[5] The problem of the law – which was originally meant to be a “digression” in Stendhal’s view – is now read as the main filter for understanding Pauline thought.

Scholar James D.G. Dunn picks up Stendahl’s line of argumentation and even takes it one step further. Dunn contends that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans.”[6] The problem, in Dunn’s view, is not necessarily the emphasis of justification by faith but what this emphasis is set in contrast to. The Western Reformed emphasis of reading Christianity as a religion of “salvation by grace” in contrast to a Judaism as a religion of “salvation by works” is entirely false, according to Dunn. Instead, he argues “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace – that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel to be their God and they his people.”[7] Therefore, Reformed Evangelicals not only read Paul poorly and in the inappropriate context, but they miss the emphasis of his writing. Agreeing with Stendahl, Dunn believes that Paul was not talking about an individual’s salvation but instead was focused primarily on entrance into and maintenance of status within the covenant community.

N.T. Wright is the most prevalent popularizer of the NPP today, and his work is largely built on and is congruent with the work of both Stendahl and Dunn. Much of Wright’s work is principally focused on the ideas of righteousness and justification in Paul. Wright distinctly retells the history of Israel from a very covenantal focused framework. Israel, as a nation, was given the task of undoing the effects of Adam’s sin. Since they were unable to do so, Christ as the true Israel not only took on the curse but fulfilled the role the nation of Israel was always supposed to perform. In this framework, the terms “justification” and “righteousness” take on a very covenantal flavor. They are no longer associated with one’s moral standing before God, but instead are primarily associated with one’s standing within the covenant community. To be justified then is to have membership in the people of God.[8]

Many Reformed Evangelicals have responded to the claims of Stendahl and Dunn, such as Cornelius P. Venema, John Piper and R.C. Sproul. More recently, Stephen Westerholm has done a sufficient and thorough job of responding to the claims of Stendahl, Dunn and Wright in his book Justification Reconsidered. Westerholm rightly argues that even if the Jewish religion had some concept of grace, it clearly wasn’t to the same extent that Paul believed was now present in Christianity. Further, humanity’s predicament – original sin and the fall – must actually be worse than the Jewish people originally thought. As Westerholm concludes, “Human beings, must not, after all, be capable of the modicum obedience required by the covenant…Along such lines, we may well imagine Paul’s thinking developed.”[9]

The work of these Reformed and Evangelical leaders such as Westerholm is to be much appreciated. However, what I find missing in much of their writing is what we can learn and benefit from the arguments and critiques made by the NPP. The reality is, there are multiple benefits and ways the NPP can enhance our Reformed Theology. The first benefit I find from the NPP is the way in which it enhances our understanding of Paul’s context. Most Evangelical and Reformed circles deliver the gospel by declaring Paul’s message as a religion of grace contrasted to a religion of works. However, Stendahl and Dunn convincingly argue that the Jewish religion did have an understanding of grace behind God’s free choice of Israel to be his covenant people. While it may not be the same level and degree of grace that Christianity proclaims is actually necessary to receive from God in Jesus Christ, nevertheless we should no longer continue to caricaturize the Jewish religion in a false light. Faithful Bible teachers and preachers – as well as every day Christians – should desire to be honest and fair about how we understand and label people, even if it is people in antiquity.

Secondly, the fact that the Jewish religion understood God’s election of the nation of Israel to be motivated by his grace actually supports and strengthens a Reformed Covenant Theology and Soteriology. The fact of the matter is that God’s election has always been motivated by his grace. Whether it was because he loved Israel simply because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7) or because God predestines sinners to salvation (Acts 13:48), God has always operated and has been motivated out of his grace toward his people. This was true in the Old Covenant, and it is true in the New Covenant as well. By pointing out God’s grace toward Israel under the Old Covenant, Stendahl and Dunn can actually be cited to support many foundational Reformed convictions.

Third and finally, the view that Paul is merely concerned with entrance into the messianic community rather than the salvation of individual sinners is certainly an extreme reaction to the individualistic readings of Western Protestant culture. Nevertheless, this overreaction is a reminder to us that when we preach the gospel, we should remind people that they are being saved as individuals into a corporate body – the church. All who confess the name of Christ will be saved individually (Romans 10:9). At the same time, God loves and redeems the church as the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). We are saved individually and we are saved corporately. God the Father knows his children by name (John 10:14-15, Revelation 20:15) and he knows and loves all of his people by name (Isaiah 43:1). We should not be afraid to correct our own blind spots in our theologies and gospel proclamation. The NPP emphasis on entrance into and status within the covenant community is a good reminder and corrective for how Reformed Evangelicals understand their soteriology.

In our fight for orthodoxy and commitment to the grace of God we have received in Jesus Christ, we should not be afraid to listen to critiques and other views from outside our theological camp. While I have many disagreements with the consensus of the NPP, many of their arguments have shown me a view and angle on Scripture that I would not have otherwise considered. By wrestling with, digesting, and sorting through their arguments I believe my commitments to and understanding of Reformed Theology are stronger, not weaker. When we reject arguments from those outside of our theological camp entirely, we show ourselves to be closeminded and unwilling to acknowledge our own blind spots and weaknesses. In dialoging with the NPP further, Reformed Evangelicals could not only show themselves to be better at listening, but our faith and understanding of God’s grace would be strengthened.


[1] The scope of this application paper necessarily assumes that the audience has some familiarity with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective as well as the responses from Reformed Evangelicals.

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (July, 1963): 200.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 206.

[5] Ibid., 213.

[6] James D.G. Dunn in Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1991), 300.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 51-58.

[9] Ibid., 33.

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One Response to :
The Benefits of the New Paul Perspective to Reformed Christianity

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