The Problem with Old Half-Truths about the New Perspective

The Problem with Old Half-Truths about the New Perspective May 29, 2019

Michael Kruger’s recent post reminds us of problems that occur when we speak in half-truths. In his article, he suggests that the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) is a product of our current cultural milieu. He says,

My own suspicion is that the New Perspective achieved popularity mainly because young Protestant ministers would rather talk about inclusion and breaking barriers than about the guilt of sin and the pointlessness of trying to erase it by a regimen of good deeds.

While admittedly speculative, Kruger’s remarks can easily mislead readers and perpetuate misinformation about the NPP. Fortunately, Michael Bird offers a fantastic response pushing back on Kruger’s comments. Bird response is balanced, and his use of Scripture is far less speculative.

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In this post, I want to add a few additional reflections concerning our responsibility to first understand and then fairly represent perspectives with which we disagree.

Half-Truths Have Consequences

With any theological idea, we will not be able to capture the full spectrum of individual views. However, we ought to capture the most significant contours and note critical ambiguities. When we do no accurately reflect others’ views, we commit errors of varying degrees of seriousness. For example, we might …

1.    We misrepresent, even distort, others’ viewpoint

When doing research for Saving God’s Face, I was continually shocked and grieved by the frequency that conservative scholars misrepresented people like N. T. Wright. Time and again, I heard him correcting the record, “Some people say I believe…., but in fact….” Perpetually misrepresenting people is ungracious.

(This is not a personal remark directed at Kruger specifically. I am unfamiliar with his writing and background work related to the NPP.)

In reality, the New Perspective is so broad a movement that many people agree the term has limited use. The NPP espoused by E. P. Sanders is quite different from that of Dunn, whose own work differs significantly from Wright. Each of them contrasts in important ways from a mediated version of the NPP (e.g., Michael Bird, me, others).

To lump people together as one group throws everyone under the bus.

2.    We make people unteachable

As a result of caricatures, many readers begin to assume they should be wary of anyone who seems to affirm the New Perspective or aspects of it. They then start to think they have little to learn from such teachers. Consequently, perpetuating half-truths sabotages humility. And humility teaches us by contrast that we can learn something from anyone.

3.    We undermine biblical truth

Inevitably, we alter biblical truth. I agree with Bird (citing Howard Marshall) that “many NPP proponents are correct in what they affirm, but sometimes wrong in what they deny.” The same could be said of those in the traditional camp, i.e., the “Old Perspective on Paul” (OPP).

Traditionalists take pride in affirming biblical truth. Wonderful! But there is nothing to celebrate when we deny or obscure truth with silence. We ought to seek all truth in the Bible. Let’s not settle for only parts of the truth.

Being content with partial truths sets us on a trajectory. Telling only half the story invariably leads to imbalances in our teaching and understanding. Soon, we can unwittingly distort biblical revelation by emphasizing minor points in a passage at the expense of more significant or central ideas.

4.    We forfeit application

Finally, we lose the opportunity to apply Scripture’s teachings. After all, different ideas and emphases lead to diverse types of responses or applications. Much of what is taught by the NPP will more directly encourage us to take the church seriously and challenge us to overcome group-centrism.

Other potential benefits are lost, especially in many non-Western contexts. Even in the West, not all people are struggling with the same things the church has wrestled with in the past. For instance, countless people do not ask, “How will a holy God accept me?” Rather, their biggest problems include ethnocentrism and nationalism. In non-Western settings, collective identity is a prominent concern.

Contextualization Counters Half-Truths

Humility requires us to make a confession: all theology is a product of culture. Hence, all theology is contextualized.

This does NOT imply that all theological truth is relativistic and subject to the whims of cultural mores. No, I simply mean that our cultural context will shape the questions we ask, the emphases we highlight, the metaphors we use, and the ideas we overlook.

Rather than say the NPP is a by-product of the West’s “cultural moment,” I suggest we see things from a different angle.

Might it be that the contemporary Western context has simply given people a fresh lens? Whatever its flaws, could it be that this lens prepares people to see what is already there? Is it not possible that the NPP is something of a corrective to a cultural by-product stemming from Medieval Europe and Reformation?

I think this possibility is worth considering.


NOTE: In Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, I interact with the New Perspective on Paul. It explains how particular insights from the NPP contribute to a more robust understanding of Scripture and improves our ability to minister around the world.

Check it out and take advantage of the discount for those who pre-order it. Click here for a video introduction.

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