Is the New Perspective on Paul a Product of the West’s Cultural Moment

Is the New Perspective on Paul a Product of the West’s Cultural Moment May 26, 2019

Over at Canon Fodder, Michael Kruger asks: Is the New Perspective on Paul a Product of Our Current Cultural Moment?

Kruger wonders if the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) – with its denial by some proponents that Paul was not interested in the problem of individual sin and guilt, but with nationalism and ethnocentrism – is a somewhat culturally contingent view developed in the post-holocaust era. In which case, the NPP is less driven by historical exegesis than it is with communitarian projects like racial reconciliation and finding a Pauline platform for responsible Jewish-Christian relations. I’d add too that the NPP developed in the 1990s in light of the shadow of violent acts of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans. So, is the NPP shaped by certain ethnic issues or oriented towards certain religious matters? Undoubtedly! Is that a bad thing or does it explain away the NPP’s insights? Certainly not!

I think it was I. Howard Marshall who said that many NPP proponents are correct in what they affirm, but sometimes wrong in what they deny.

Yes, it is wrong to think of Judaism as an incipient form of medieval catholicsm with its synergistic sacramental view of salvation. You only have to read 1QH, Philo’s discussion of Deuteronomy 9, and m.Sanh. 10.1 to observe that many forms of Judaism had not lost sight of the concept of God’s grace. However, the perceived role of the law and human agency in salvation was widely “variegated” (D.A. Carson) and there were different “perfections” of grace in Judaism (John Barclay). Moreover, Judaism could become nomistic under certain conditions: (1) Eschatology – When there is a focus on the necessary conditions for entering the age to come; (2) Proselytism – When there is a debate about rites of entry for outsiders; and (3) Sectarianism – When there is debate over whose view of the covenant/law avails before God.

That said, there are some absolutely essential insights gained from the NPP which are much needed in churches.

First, if you want to get excited about the doctrine of imputation, remember, the first thing imputed to believers in Romans is not Jesus’s active obedience, rather, it is covenant membership, being regarded as a righteous Jew before God (Rom 2.26): “Meanwhile, if uncircumcised people keep the law’s requirements, their uncircumcision will be regarded as circumcision, won’t it?” (NTE). Paul is hinting at the argument that he’ll unpack later, namely, that God imputes circumcision to Gentiles, i.e., membership in Israel’s chosenness.

Second, whenever I’m assailed by some enthusiastically reformed seminary student with a beef against the NPP, I always ask them a couple of questions.

(a) “Hey son, please complete this sentence from Rom 3:28-29: For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or  …. Or what?” I ask him? “Or the Catholics win? Or we become proponents of work salvation? What is the opposite of justification by faith for Paul?” After baffled looks, I tell him, well, the answer is: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too!” The opposite of justification by faith is not legalism, rather, it is ethnocentric nomism, the belief that God has limited his grace to one particular ethnic group, the belief that one must become a Jew in order to become a Christian. 

(b) “Tell me my uber-reformed friend, exactly why was Jesus cursed on the cross?” They ordinarily answer in terms of personal individual soteriology, so that I/we can be saved, so that I/we can have eternal life, and so that I/we can go to heaven. Then I ask him, “That’s fine, but what does Paul say is the reason why Jesus was cursed on the cross?” The answer is Gal 3:14: “ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Paul’s answer is a redemptive-historical-pneumatological-corporate-multi-ethnic-ecclesiology.

Boom! At this point, the young man looks at me if he has just received a revelation from St. Nicholas of Wright himself and his whole soteriological edifice has just crumbled before his eyes.

Third, I point out that Paul’s arguments in Galatians and Romans are a theological manifesto for the unity of ethnically diverse churches. This is the point of Rom 10.9-11 and Gal 3.28. Paul says there is “no distinction” between Jew and Gentile in the economies of condemnation and justification. Therefore, they should welcome one another just as the Messiah welcomed them (Rom 15:1)! Justification by faith cannot then be abstracted from Paul’s doctrine of election and the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ to bring the Gentiles into the family of Abraham.

Ultimately Justification by faith is not a subsidiary crater, it is Paul’s weapon to argue for the unity of a church of Jews and Gentiles against those who would divide them, segregate them, or assign some to a second-tier status. In which case, I would go so far as to say that justification by faith, with its corollary of fellowship by faith across ethnic and racial divides, is a necessary and non-negotiable element of gospel and is therefore crucial for all churches who aspire to live lives worthy of the gospel.

Let me say too, that many friends of mine within the PCA have informed me of the pro-segregational past behind that denomination’s history. While the NPP has a certain cultural moment, perhaps so too does its criticism among those who belong to denominations which have a history of bad race relations and are reluctant to see it as a denial of justification by faith.

Just to be clear, I’m not taking a dig at Mike Kruger or RTS concerning racism – me genoito – I’m very sure Mike would be with me on this topic even if he might parse a few of the above propositions differently.  My point is that the NPP should be partially embraced by the PCA because the NPP, in what it rightly affirms, is a great theological resource for confronting the racial problems that have plagued southern Presbyterianism. As I’ve argued elsewhere:

To practice any form of ethnic or racial exclusion means that one either does not understand or does not believe in justification by faith. Let me be clear. The denial of ethic privilege and racial superiority is not merely an implication of justification by faith; rather, it is a core element of the doctrine. They are mutually exclusive because justification constitutes a church of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Greek and Barbarian, White and Black, African and Arab. Churches and Christians that practice racial segregation even for pragmatic reasons deny the biblical teaching and the application of the doctrine of justification to the koinonia of the church. Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age. If we see justification as a comprehensive doctrine that affects the salvation of sinners and the corporate life of the church, then we will finally understand why it is that Paul insists that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4.6) and why there is one loaf at the table of the Lord as we who are many partake of one loaf (1 Cor. 10.17). Justification by faith is our shield against any merit based legalism and the basis for the unity of the church comprised of the multi-ethnic people of God. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the great letter of justification by faith, includes a timeless exhortation to Jews and Gentiles at its pinnacle: ‘Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and mutual encouragement’ (Rom. 14.19) – that is what justification by faith looks like when it is worked out in the local church.

For a great resource on this, see Scot McKnight and Joe Modica, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective.

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