New/Old Perspective on Justification 2

So what is the “new perspective” on Paul, and thus also the “new perspective on justification”? If you listen to its critics, who (again) are mostly Reformed/Lutheran-leaning evangelicals, you would think it is Pelagianism or some kind of works-righteousness Christian progressivism.

The single-most important factor in perceiving the polemics at work here is that the new perspective (from now on NPP: New Perspective on Paul) folks believe they are beating the evangelicals (in Reformed thinking) at their own game: namely, they think they are being even more biblical. Thus, the NPP ultimately is an attempt to be reformed and always reforming. The problem, of course, is that the NPP at times denies or at least contests fundamental views of the Reformation. Which means some think it is actually a “new” Reformation, which it isn’t. When it comes to theology, and this is not the primary issue at work in NPP thinking, the NPP offers a greater precision to the Reformation.

Thanks to the fine efforts of James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, we now have a new volume that sketches the NPP on justification in a whole chp; the book is Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books). The chp is written also with Steven Enderlein and it is a breathtaking sketch … buy the book just for this chp!

If you had to define the New Perspective, what would you talk about?

Here’s where the NPP has to begin, and until this is appreciated we get into fuzzy thinking:

1. The NPP is first and foremost a “new perspective” on Judaism. To wit, Judaism was not a works-oriented religion. This is where Ed Sanders’ 1977 book was so important: he argued Judaism was “covenant nomism.” One got into the covenant not by works but by election; one maintained one’s relationship to the covenant by works. But Judaism was not a works religion. One can argue that the “old” perspective almost needs that as its foil: for the old perspective the human condition is about striving to please God by efforts. The old perspective thus says Paul was all about showing that merit isn’t the way; faith is the way. The Law is not the way; Christ is.

2. The NPP is not a monolith: there is no such thing as the “new perspective on justification.” Neither is the NPP a kind of theology, as if it can be compared to Reformed or to Lutheran theology. The NPP is an attempt to understand Paul, in his context, in the context of a fresh/new perspective on Judaism. What that means for theology is for the theologians to discern. The NPP scholars are not primarily theologians but historians and New Testament scholars.

If you get these two points you will have some solid footings to understand what’s going on. Many who critique the NPP don’t get these two points right.

The authors trace three precursors: Krister Stendahl, Ernst Käsemann, and Markus Barth.

Then the three principal NPP scholars: Ed Sanders, Jimmy Dunn (and I heard Jimmy Dunn’s original Manson Memorial lecture that became the “new perspective” expression), and NT Wright. They agree on Judaism; they differ from that point on. Sanders doesn’t get into the Reformation stuff; Dunn and Wright more or less agree with the main lines of thinking of the Reformation; they are seeking to make that view more historical. If Luther or Calvin were wrong, therefore, that’s OK.

It needs to be seen that the NPP does de-center justification and sees it as a polemical theme that strives to show that Jews and Gentiles are in the one people of God, the church, and that they are both so on the basis of faith and grace and not by works (those Jewish badges of practice).

Sanders, again: a new perspective on Judaism. Not a works religion. A covenant religion that calls its elect members to follow the Torah. Romans 9-11 is the essence of Romans. (That’s actually a very big idea.)

Dunn saw “works of the Law” not as human efforts to please God but as practices (circumcision, food laws, etc) that divided Jews from Gentiles in the Church and that were used to establish the superiority of the elect people of Israel. They are ethnic badges.

Wright follows Sanders on law and is with Dunn on works of the law. Furthermore, he sees justification as forensic/declarative, not transformative, and it tells someone they are already in the people of God. Justification doesn’t make someone a Christian; it declares they already are.


1. NPP tends to de-center justification by faith.

2. NPP, esp Sanders, does not recognize enough that Judaism was variegated and not just covenant nomism. There was more legalism than is often admitted. (DA Carson, J Piper, Mark Seifrid, Simon Gathercole, Tom Schreiner, Andrew Das).

There are five flash points today:

1. Paul’s attitude toward Judaism.

2. The role of works in final justification/judgment

3. Justification/righteousness in the OT

4. Justifying righteousness: imputation, transformation, or incorporation?

5. The meaning of pistis Christou: “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ [himself]”?

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  • Super helpful for a beginning M.Div student like me… Thanks!

  • Paul W

    Nice summary indeed.

    Perhaps an additional “flash point” might regard how NPP folks speak of covenant over/against how old perspective (particularly the confessionally reformed) speak of covenant.

  • angusj

    My layman’s understanding of NPP is that Justification was for Paul much more about ecclesiology and less about soteriology. Paul’s counter argument to the many Jews who were insisting that Gentiles Christians adopt Jewish markers of faith (circumcision, or Sabbath, or food laws), was that confessing ‘faith’ in Jesus as the risen Messiah should be the sole marker of being Christian – and hence the basis of united (Jewish and Gentile Christian) worship and community.

  • Robert

    I’m sure you’re right in saying that there was at least some legalism in Judaism; it’s a human tendency which we also find in the church, and there’s often a tension between the ‘official’ understanding of faith and the popular one. Looking at Paul, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, just as we have people who seem to think you get into God’s good books by sitting on the right pew (theirs), and believing the right list of doctrines, they had people who thought you got there by following rules of behaviour.

    Paul atacks the latter, includes the Gentiles, brought in by grace through faith rather than by grace through the Covenant, but I wonder what he’d have had to say about the former error if he’d been alive today!

    When Paul denies justification by works, he means ‘the works of the Law’, obedience to the 613 commandments of Moses. Problems arise because that was extended to all human activity by the Gentile church, leaving us with an exaggerated view of our own depravity, and because justification was disconnected from sanctification and, all too often, made the be-all and end-all of salvation.

  • Chris Donato

    But Robert (and this I think is under appreciated), it seems pretty clear what St. Paul would say to the medieval cardinal who, like the covenantal nomists before him, demanded that the people jump through all the exclusionary hoops erected by Rome in order to find reconciliation with God–“who has bewitched you, foolish Galatians!”

    Justification is free, and a result of the faithfulness (covenantal obedience) of God’s Messiah.

  • Chris Donato

    I misread you Robert–sorry about that. Perhaps he’d restate Romans 2? “I’m not talking about natural law, silly!”

  • Bill Caulfield

    Scott, Wright’s principal advance is how life in the Spirit influences the future judgment, I.e., the “whole life lived” as Christian.

  • Tim

    Thanks for this helpful overview. One minor correction – “Paul Enderlein” should be “Steve(n) Enderlein.”

  • Matt Edwards

    Thanks Scot! Great topic!

    If I had to define the NPP, it would be a framing of Paul’s thoughts based on Ed Sanders’ revelations about first century Judaism. It’s an attempt to recapture the first-century Pharisee Paul away from those who would make him a sixteenth-century Roman Catholic.

    The biggest development to me is that we can’t see “faith in/of Jesus Christ” as the opposite of “good deeds.” When Paul criticized “works of the law,” he wasn’t criticizing “doing good things.” He had something else in mind (which varies from one npp to another).

  • Rick

    I appreciate the effort of those, such as Michael Bird, who see value, and problems, in both. Therefore it is not an “either/or” issue to them.

  • Kenton


    1. NPP tends to de-center justification by faith.

    Is that really a criticism? I think that’s to its credit. The church in the age after the reformation has been a little too content to sit on its butt and not do the things Jesus calls us to (save telling other people about the centrality of justification by faith). Perhaps the NPP is the kick in the pants the church needs?

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim, thanks for that. Sorry to Steven.

    Kenton, that is a criticism mentioned in the book.

  • DRT

    As I speak with people I increasingly want to make a statement as to the extent of NPP thinking since many church goers are ignorant of it. I hear you saying that it is NT Scholars and historians, but would it be safe to say nearly all acedemics that are not calvinist, or something similar?

    I want to be able to tell people who won’t read a book that I am not making this stuff up.

  • whoschad

    Thanks for the overview!

    In regards to your number 4: Justifying righteousness: imputation, transformation, or incorporation?

    Do you see these in any way corresponding with the Reformed, Wesleyan and Catholic understanding of righteousness: Imputed, Imparted, and Infused? Or is this something entirely different?

  • IMO, NPP is critiquing what fallen humans tend to do with Luther and Calvin, rather than what the Reformation itself understood. Luther or Calvin (or Paul) would never have settled for a dead faith (sans works). But, one doesn’t do works to stay in the covenant, one does works because one is in the covenant. If NPP is saing the former, than Paul would curse it. In other words, our theology doesn’t need a new perspective, but our fallen nature needs better recognition.

    I often agree with the NPP folks on their reading of Judaism as more covenant than works oriented… I just don’t think that has the theological implications they think it does (even if the Reformers made a mistake on their read of Judaism).

  • Dana Ames

    on the term “Justifying righteousness”:

    Have you ever tried to come up with one English concept that will do duty for the “dik-” words? What we now have when translating is one word with an AS root (recht) and another with a Latin root (justi), and consequently the one Greek idea having effectively evolved into two substantially different concepts in English, and therefore different -though still somewhat related- definitions. This which frustrates me to no end and I have commented about it previously. I know there are shades of meaning to deal with, but I think the “definition gap” in terms of actual usage has widened. As far as I’m concerned, this need not be one word only; it could be something like “the faithfulness God recognizes”. Of course it would have to be rassled into smoother English.

    I think what Wright does with the idea of God “making right” is conceptually what I’m talking about, but he still otherwise uses both words a lot.

    What do you think?


  • Kenton

    Steve #15-

    I think the NPP is saying the latter, and the traditionalists curse it because it smacks of works-based righteousness. (I think that’s what you mean by what we fallen humans tend to do with Luther and Calvin.)

    For that reason, we need a new perspective, and it needs the ability to deconstruct Eph 2 that Luther used without getting works-phobic. The NPP fits the bill. “Works” in v.8 is then about kosher, sabbath and circumcision and it contrasts with “good works” in v. 10. (And ties in nicely with the following verses that otherwise seemed like a rabbit trail in the old perspective.)

  • Michael

    I would absolutely concur with this assessment. What is remarkable is that we live in a culture “permeated” with “rewards, earned and achieved love,” all based in a culture awash in “measuring up” from the time a child sets foot on the big yellow bus, parents grading assessing her/him, reward him/her, “love and affection held or given,” all based on achieving certain goals, in the name of getting a job, preparing for the future and ultimately sealing a person’s fate in their capacity to ever grasp the magnitude of a gracious God. Because of this “backwash” which is “spiritual formation” at its worst, we continue to peddle a form of “justification” that has us being bashed by an angry god (ie. Father/Mother) We read this into the N.T. and the Hebrew people with this “works righteousness” stuff that misses the entire point. Our continual use of terms such as “unmerited” grace or “unconditional” love absolutely does a disservice to the core character of a God who loves absolutely and extends grace recklessly. Thanks Scot

  • davey

    I read Paul as saying “the law says do the whole law (not just the markers) and you’ll be saved, and if you don’t do the whole law you won’t be saved”. He says salvation is through Jesus, not doing the (whole) law. This looks to me to be contrary to the New Perspective.

  • Dana Ames

    we have to understand what Paul’s Jewish hearers would have understood when the heard “salvation”. N.T. Wright has elucidated that, among other things. The NPP is all about taking Paul’s – and Jesus’! – Jewishness very seriously.


  • davey

    Dana, what you say is too cryptic for me, sorry! Which Jews do you mean? What sort of Jew was Jesus? What sort of Jew was Paul? There were elect Jews and non-elect Jews. Paul said to Jews: Whoever does the works (obviously meaning not just the markers) of the law will live by them, but the just will live by faith, and the law is not of faith; a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly; both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin; it is not the chldren of the flesh who are children of God; concerning Israel … only a remnant of them will be saved; the person who does the law will be saved by it; etc

  • Dana Ames

    too many questions!

    The idea of “elect Jews” and “non-elect Jews” is not one with which I am familiar. Let’s go to something more basic.

    It’s a matter of definitions. Write down what you mean when you think of the word “salvation”. That’s a definition. Not sure about the other NPP scholars, but Wright would contend that the Medieval/Reformation Western definition of “salvation” is not the same definition the first century Jews, particularly the Judean Pharisaic Jews, would have understood when they thought of the concept of “salvation”. They would have defined it in other ways than “the process by which one goes to heaven after one dies.”

    Does that make more sense?


  • davey

    Dana, I feel you are not addressing the issue, which is about law, not about what anyone might mean by salvation.

    As for there being elect and non elect Jews: eg Romans 11.7.

  • Dana Ames


    In your comment #19 above, you said you read Paul as saying “the law says do the whole law (not just the markers) and you’ll be saved, and if you don’t do the whole law you won’t be saved,” and that “salvation is through Jesus”. You are coming at things through an understanding of “law”, and I’m saying one has to first back up and understand what is meant by “saved/salvation”, in order to *then* talk about the law.

    You’re right when you say your understanding of this is contrary to the NPP. The NPP folks are saying that Paul and the other 1st century Jews didn’t look at the law as the things they had to do in order to “get right with God”/”saved”. Rather, they say that the Jews performed the tenets of the law in order to *maintain* their status as the true people of the true God, over against all the other peoples. The Jews already believed they were “right with God” simply by virtue of being Jews. So in the NPP view, the law was for something else.

    [Of course, there was disagreement among the various factions of the Jews over which of them was “the most right with God” 😉 ]

    So the NPP folks are proposing, because of looking at scripture and the Jewish and other writings of the first century, a different understanding of the meaning of the idea of “salvation” and “works of the law” and other related concepts – different “definitions”. Wright says that Paul’s problems were different than Luther’s problems.

    You may not agree with the NPP; that’s ok. All I’m saying is that if one is going to critique, one must have a clear understanding of what one is critiquing. It might not be possible for me to explain even this little bit of it so that you are satisfied that you understand, but if you’re interested, you should find someone who can.


  • davey

    Dana, my understanding is that the prophets, Jesus and the later Paul kept telling the Jews who resisted it that the law and salvation did not function in the way the NPP view as you portray it also propagates. It was faith that was required, not keeping some part or whole of the law. Jews were not said to be not among the saved simply because they refused to give up the view that only those keeping the ethnic markers of the law might be saved.

    (There is surely little point in a forum such as this to assertions that relevant study and understanding are lacking, arguments need to be advanced.)