The New Perspective on Paul is a development that has taken place over the last few decades in biblical studies, regarding the background and context against which the New Testament, and the writings of the Apostle Paul in particular, should be interpreted. It has become recently controversial, but is mostly attacked on the grounds of the implications it may have for Reformed doctrine, not on the soundness of the biblical scholarship that created it. Most biblical scholars acknowledge the legitimacy of at least some aspects of the New Perspective, and even a modest acceptance of the New Perspective can illuminate why the doctrine of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers took the shape that it did.
What happened, in a nutshell, was this: both Augustine in his day and the Reformers in theirs were responding to challenges (Pelagius and the medieval Catholic church, respectively) that undercut the necessity of God’s grace in human salvation. Pelagius maintained that it was possible, at least in principle, for any human being to live entirely without sin and thus never need God’s forgiveness and the atoning work of Christ. The medieval Catholic church had built up a system of meritorious works by which a person could attain salvation; penance and indulgences were merely a part of that system. What Luther thought he had found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, was an inspired and forceful argument against precisely these challenges. Paul argues stridently that justification is by faith and not by the “works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5). Luther and the Reformers after him applied the term “works of the Law” to any legal system by which a person might be supposed to earn salvation. They read into Paul’s writings their own struggle with a legalistic system, and thereby missed what the New Perspective sees as the actual struggle Paul was dealing with: the resistance of Jews to the full inclusion of the Gentiles as the covenant people of God. Since the church had long since been predominantly Gentile, this aspect of Paul’s argument was easy to overlook. Where Paul was concerned to evangelize the Gentiles without requiring from them Torah observance (i.e., the “works of the Law”), the Reformers were concerned to establish a relationship between the believer and God based entirely on God’s grace without any contributing “work” from the human end at all.
Having begun in this direction, both Augustine and the Reformers were concerned to eliminate the possibility of any sort of syncretism–that is, of any human action that could contribute to that person’s salvation, Eventually, they concluded that even the exercise of faith could not bring a person into the covenant community, lest that exercise be considered a “work” on which the individual could “boast.” (This despite the fact that Jesus has no problem whatever in construing faith as a “work”: John 6:27-29.) To be sure, faith was hailed as the means by which an individual appropriated the salvation made available by God’s grace; but faith could only be exercised by someone who had been chosen by God’s unconditional election, and would inevitably be exercised once God regenerated the unbeliever and applied irresistable grace; in other words, faith was something of a byproduct of the election process.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the Reformers were wrong in recognizing and emphasizing Paul’s assertion that justification is by grace and through faith. However, Paul doesn’t treat this assertion as anything new–it’s at least as old as Abraham. What the New Perspective does is reopen our eyes to the actual issues within first century Judaism to which Paul was responding, which in turn allows us to reexamine the passages that have been historically regarded as crucial to Reformed doctrine.
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[Update: The links given in this post to the author’s website are broke, but they still bring you to the author’s site.]