The New Perspective on Paul rests on a set of historical and theological conclusions, none more important than arguing that Judaism per se was not “late” Judaism and was not a works-righteousness religion. Many Christian scholars were awakened by the Holocaust and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls to re-engage the core themes of Judaism. This important historical conclusion has survived the scrutiny of most scholars though at times some have argued at least a few Jewish texts evince works righteousness.
But another conclusion — from EP Sanders to the present — has been that the Reformation badly mishandled Paul and Judaism and led to a disastrous understanding of both. While a reversal on this will not affect the basis structure of the New Perspective, it will clearly force some serious revisions.
Did they get Paul wrong?
Stephen Chester, professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, offers in his new book, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives, what may well be one of the most challenging books on Pauline interpretation in the last decade or more. It is hard to dispute the significance of E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism), James D.G. Dunn (The Theology of Paul the Apostle), D. Campbell (The Deliverance of God), N.T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God), and John Barclay (Paul and the Gift), but Chester’s book ranks alongside these books as must-read perspectives.
The last generation of Anglophone Pauline scholarship has suffered from a severe handicap. Several influential interpreters of Paul, although indebted to Protestant interpretation more than they realized, have rhetorically positioned themselves against “Lutheran” or “Reformation” exegesis of Paul on the basis of a paper-thin understanding of what they thought they opposed [EP Sanders, NT Wright]. In a discipline proud of its historical scholarship, this is a dispiriting phenomenon, and it has led to a swathe of misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and false antitheses. A counterblast from those committed to Reformation interpretations as the last word in Pauline exegesis has hardly helped, since it has reinforced the impression that one is either wholly “for” or wholly “against” Reformation readings of Paul [DA Carson, M Seifrid], and that no third way, of receptive but critical dialogue, is either desirable or possible.
Hours of futile disputes and reams or pages caricaturing the Reformers could have been avoided if Pauline scholars had known this material. From now on, if such caricatures persist there will be a simple reply: “read Chester before you speak or write on this again.”
Chester is highly critical of some aspects of the Reformation tradition, especially its propensity to caricature Judaism, but he refuses a polarizing mentality, and finds much in Luther and Calvin that could help us through our current exegetical problems.
Here is the stereotype of Reformation exegesis that concerns Chester, and these are words from Chester:
[The Reformers] were those ultimately responsible for the misrepresentation of Judaism as a crude religion of works-righteousness, for erroneous portrayals of Paul in his former life as a Pharisee struggling with inability to obey the law and a guilty conscience, and for a narrowly forensic understanding of Paul’s teaching on justification that reduces it to a cold contractual legal fiction. 3
The NPP did represent a significant and salutary step forward in the portrayal of Second Temple Judaism. The shadow of the Reformers’ accusations of work-righteousness against the medieval church, and the analogy they drew between Paul’s opponents and their own, had indeed helped to distort later scholarly accounts of Judaism. 3