What is the New Perspective on Paul (one more time)?

What is the New Perspective on Paul (one more time)? November 15, 2013

From Jens Schröter, in his newly translated book, From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon (Baylor, 2013, p. 134):

The following points can be named as its [NPP’s] most important insights:

(1) Paul’s thinking should not be understood as an answer to individual plights of conscience but as a salvation-historical orientation and revolves around the question of the status of the Gentiles in the people of God.

(2) The picture  of Judaism as a religion of “works righteousness” is a negative foil for the interpretation of Pauline theology that in no way does justice to ancient Judaism and therefore [this old way of reading Paul] also distorts the stance of Paul toward the Judaism of his time.

(3) Paul does not fundamentally polemicize against the doing of good works but criticizes Israel’s appeal to identity markers that demarcate it from other peoples and ground its status as the chosen people.

To be clear, then, the old perspective does see Paul focusing on the problem of individual salvation, almost exclusively; the old saw and continues to see Judaism as a works righteousness religion and that this principle of self-striving is at work in the human condition; the old sees good works as self-justification and rarely connects them to Israel’s chosen status.

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  • Ted M. Gossard

    Helpful post. I am supposing this gets to the heart of it. I wonder how the sense of conscience and an emphasis on individual salvation developed over the centuries, and how that would be in contrast to the times of Jesus and Paul. I am supposing Second Temple Judaism would come into play. The Old Perspective seems to take for granted a reading steeped in its time, but perhaps foreign to the biblical text.

    One time someone asked me about the passage of the tax collector and sinner, whether or not self-righteousness over works was the main point. I said one could be proud because of their status as God’s people and what they do out of that. It seems to me like many today who know the issue are set in stone. What kind of mediating point might occur to help break the impasse?

  • RJS4DQ

    As you’ve been posting on Wright’s new book I’ve been listening to Acts and the letters of Paul (several times) on my commute.

    There are questions that are worth discussion, but overall this framing of Paul with a salvation-historical orientation looking at the people of God seems almost self-evident when large chunks are taken in context. With very few exceptions the proof texts for an orientation toward individual salvation are taken out of context. Perhaps the most obvious is “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

  • In my forthcoming book, “Living the Full Bible,” in twenty chapters, I trace twenty themes through the whole Bible, showing the unity of God’s purposes from beginning to end. This approach strongly supports the new perspective on Paul.

    While individual salvation has its place in the full picture and sacrificial atonement is a necessary component in our salvation, reducing the gospel to those two points misses the big points that God’s reign must be realized in our transformation back into the children of God we were created to be, and that the entirety of creation must be restored to God’s perfect purposes. No lesser message makes sense of the whole Bible nor especially of Paul’s Letters.

    How else are we to make sense of passages such as:

    Romans 8:

    19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

    Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

    Multiple convincing examples of this point can be given from the majority of Paul’s Letters. He was focused on the big picture, of which individual salvation is a small, but necessary part. The individual salvation piece of the puzzle makes sense only when it is properly placed within the big picture.

  • Norman

    I think his point #2 over simplifies the discussion. It seems an unbiased reading of Rom 5-8 and Galatians is pretty clear on what Paul considered to be the problem with Mosaic Judaism. I think he is ignoring Paul’s elephant in the room.

  • KentonS

    Oh, for a nickel for every time someone quoted that verse at me. Funny how they never quoted the very next verse!

  • Phil Miller

    Well, I don’t know what an unbiased reading is, but it seems to me that Paul’s problem wasn’t really with Judaism, but rather specific Jewish Christians. I’m not saying that Paul would say that it was OK for someone to simply remain a practicing Jew as if Christ never came, but rather, Paul saw Christ’s work as the logical endpoint of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

    Even before I ever heard of the concept of the NPP, I remember being in Bible studies where we were discussing Galations, and it seemed that eventually someone would ask something like, “so is Law bad then?”. It’s pretty obvious that Paul goes out of his way to say that it isn’t. But much of modern Evangelical theology seems to want to convince people that the Law is our enemy.

  • I remain uncomfortable with terms like “identity markers” (Dunn) and “ethnic Judaism” (Wright). They sound awfully reductionistic. I doubt that either non-Christian Jews or Christian Jews (as opposed to Jewish Christians [Martyn]) would have appreciated this way of describing the differences between themselves and Paul.

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not sure what you mean by “reductionistic” in this context. Regarding Wright’s term, he talks about in the new book. All he means by the term “ethnic” is that Jews saw themselves as a unique people group compared to the surrounding non-Jewish people. What about that makes you uncomfortable?

  • Mike H.

    Where do I get your book, John?

  • RJS4DQ

    Or the preceeding verses.

    But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

    This is still a bit out of context – one needs to read the whole argument, but is getting better. I just didn’t think it appropriate to paste a few chapters into the comment. The argument is contrasting Jews and Gentiles not Philos or Helena and Dave or Mary.

  • KentonS

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  • It just went to a printer to get 500 offset copies for me to sell personally, mostly in Northwest Arkansas, although I will be mailing a few out. They should be ready by near the end of the month. But, if you can wait just a little longer, I will be arranging for print-on-demand and e-books to be marketed through Amazon and other online retailers. Thanks for asking.

  • Norman


    What I mean by an unbiased reading is biased itself:) This discussion regarding Paul’s problem with the Mosaic Law is complex and is not really about doing good or what is right. However it is about the desire to justify one’s efforts through Law Code as practiced by the majority of Judaism in Paul’s day and going back to the origins of Adam’s fall in the Garden.

    When someone makes this kind of statement I get the indication they are saying that the majority Mosaic Law practice should be left intact somehow. I think Paul would turn over in his grave if he thought Christians were attempting to remain faithful to the majority practice of Judaism of his day.

    “(2) The picture of Judaism as a religion of “works righteousness” is a negative foil for the interpretation of Pauline theology that in no way does justice to ancient Judaism and therefore [this old way of reading Paul] also distorts the stance of Paul toward the Judaism of his time”

    I realize trying to discern this discussion is like splitting the proverbial baby in two and yet Paul appears to dogmatically make the case the Mosaic Judaism as it was being practiced had to go in order to uphold Christ and the Law of the Spirit. I think more clarity is needed when presenting such a contrasting issue as #2 above as it’s simply not a concept that is explainable in a sentence or two.

  • D. Foster


    I’m trying to understand what you feel #2 is missing out. Personally, I think that statement is pretty dead on.

    Speaking to the broader issue (not to your comment above), I’m less concerned about labels and more concerned about painting the correct picture.

    From my own studies, this is how it all looks to me.

    1) Paul and his churches were being confronted by many Jews (Christ-centered and non-Christ centered alike) who believed that to remain faithful to God, you had to express that faithfulness through “works of Torah.”

    2) These Jews (e.g. Pharisees) generally believed that God’s blessings were withheld because of the unfaithfulness of God’s people to the Torah through the above “works.”

    3) These Jews did NOT believe they could COMPEL God’s blessing by doing “works of Torah” and racking up a massive credit that God eventually has to pay. That’s the basic idea lying behind the idea of “works-based righteousness” that taints the old perspective’s erroneous conception of Judaism.

    4) Paul’s beef with the prevailing Jewish mindset is that the goal of Torah has been (and continues to be) realized in the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus and the Church, and that faithfulness to God must NOW be expressed through works of “faith” (pistis), not Torah.

    5) Paul does pit “faith” in Jesus against “works” of the Law, but the word pistis entails an active fidelity to God that is every bit as much a “work” as those of the Law.

    I feel like that’s basically what the NPP is trying to get across. What do you think? Would you agree or disagree with that?


  • Ted M. Gossard

    That is exactly what I was thinking, RJS4DQ, when I was reflecting more on this, this morning. Verses here and there seem to support the Old Perspective. One has to look at the big picture, and then it is the New Perspective, I think, that seems, as you say, “almost self-evident.”

  • gingoro

    I would agree. My guess is that ancient Judaism at its best was not in essence a works based religion but that the folk version tended towards works and pretending to a righteousness that one did not really measure up to. In that respect they resemble much of modern Christianity which usually in theory is grace based but so often we revert to a works based righteousness and pretend to be more upright that we really are. I certainly find myself doing that.
    When I read N T Wright at times I get the impression that the works are works in order to belong to the covenant people which in turn are redeemed by God’s grace and covenant. As I see it this still has a large works component.
    On the other hand I think we have painted too black an image of the Judaism of Jesus and Paul’s time and that we need to correct our viewpoint.

    Scot I think it is useful and important to open up some of these old topics to further discussion. I read the Blue Parakeet last summer and I remember there were issues that I wanted clarification on or wanted to comment on. I at least work my way thro some of the books you review but it takes me a long time as I need to think about what is being said to see if I agree or not.

  • Norman


    Let me illustrate from supposedly a Hebrew perspective regarding the limitation of Judaism as seen from within an early Jewish Christian perspective. As you look at Hebrews we see that indeed there was a definitive contrast being made between the Old Mosaic Covenant given at Mt. Sinai and the one Christ is instituting. It seems to me that many today want to gloss over that overarching theme that the old covenant wasn’t really that bad and so we have been too hard on Mosaic Judaism. Well I can embrace that idea to a degree but if we go too far we negate what Paul and the NT writers including this Hebrew writer are saying about the need to overhaul and change the system. They are pitting two systems against each other and I don’t see how we can get around that well established theme found throughout the NT. Read carefully this section here below which reflects the same theme of Moses fading away because it’s lacking in something essential that Christ imparts.

    Heb 8:6-9 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (7) For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (8) For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (9) not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. … 13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

    Trying to say that “works righteousness” should not be a “negative foil” just does not make sense to me in the overriding context of the NT themes presented. It’s like we are being asked to check our brains at the door and somehow conclude that Judaism was not the problem that it was seemingly made out to be. If that were so then the Jewish temple practice of yearly sacrifices and law keeping should have avoided the need for Christ and His once and for all sacrifice. After all Judaism would justify you each year under their system. I think the problem was and still is that many Jews then and Christians now don’t understand what Paul says regarding walking via the flesh contrasted walking via the Spirit.

    Christ instituted a brand new paradigm shift but the seeds of it were imbedded within Judaism from its inception and I believe Paul and the Hebrew letter presents the case that the Law was just a temporary guardian until Messiah. Paul had to deal with many of the same arguments that we are seeing today where people called him on his “grace” initiative saying that it was not enough. It has always been a hard concept for us to get our minds around and I think that is why it’s sometimes easier for us to revert to the old make a list and try to keep it form of justification.

    Derek what you present is substantially true but those concepts were not the practiced Judaism as a whole. I think Christ and the Apostles were attempting to radically change the way things had been done and they looked to the OT to illustrate that indeed a change was always called for.

    In conclusion you will never hear me deride anyone who tries to do right by saying that if smacks of law keeping. Law keeping as I define it is rule keeping without faith and creating Icons of achievements to hang ones hat on for egocentric purposes. Pure religion is loving God and our neighbor through faith.

    Again this discussion is so very deep that it’s almost a shame to try to discuss it in our limited venue here. Everyone is generally right to a degree and so it’s a nuanced conversation that we have to be careful in not being too dogmatic. Who are we to judge God’s servants? 🙂


  • I never understood the claim that the OT was all about works righteousness that the Israelites were supposed to find out that they couldn’t do, given Deut 30:11-14.

    “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

    Oops! So much for any theology predicated upon Torah law being ‘too hard’. Or am I missing something?

  • Are you quoting Don Garlington?

  • FYI. Here’s a breakdown of the Jewish law.

    Love, Honor

    Actions (‘Works of law’);
    Circumcision, Festivals and holidays, Purity and Washings, Worship and Sacrifice

    Idolatry and Foreign Worship, Murder and Violence, Sexual immorality, Stealing,
    False Witness, Covet, Food laws,

    Conditional laws
    Firstborn (if children), Property, Land and Servants (if property and servants), Punishment and Restitution (if crime committed), Social Justice and the Poor (if you are not poor and see the poor), Vows (if you make a vow), Trumpets (if your at war or special date), Clothing

    The primary issue I have with the OPP on ‘works-righteousness’ is that it neglects to consider omissional sin. James says “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (Jas 4.17). The ‘works of law’ were commands in the law the Jews must do. If they didnt do them they would sin. Doing the works of law for the Jews therefore was not about earning merit, rather about avoiding sin.

    Consequently when the Gentiles believed in Jesus and claimed to be worshippers of God. The Jews had a go at them because they thought they were sinning by not doing these works of law. Read Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Paul counters by arguing you cant tell who is righteous by these observable actions, rather by belief in Christ.

  • I’ve never heard of Don Garlington. I came across John Piper Responds to Don Garlington on the Imputation of Righteousness, and from reading the first few paragraphs, it sounds like I might like Garlington! I’ve always had issues with imputation, because (as far as I understand) it implies that God wouldn’t love us if Jesus’ righteousness weren’t imputed to us, and yet God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to mention Is 43:4 calling Israel “precious in my eyes”.

    I’ve started seeing God as offering us two ways to live: by the law of ‘deserve’ or the law of ‘grace’. When God says he will “judge each according to his ways”, I see the ‘his’ as the other person, not God. As James says, mercy is shown only to he who shows mercy. The law of grace doesn’t require imputation, because God wants to treat us according to it and not the law of ‘deserve’. God wanting to operate by the law of grace is all over the OT when you know to look for it. Going back to ‘deserve’ is something he only does when all else fails and he’s given people e.g. 400 years to try and sort things out.

    Given what I’ve said, do you suggest one or two of Garlington’s books?

  • This seems like a difficult criticism to maintain, though; adding sins of omission doesn’t seem to convert OPP → NPP. More than that is almost certainly required.

  • You might like him, I don’t know. Knock yourself out;

    Garlington is NPP. Judaism, works of law, justification, etc.
    Speaks in terms of union with Christ (incorporated into the righteousness of Christ) over imputation. Hence the article you read. So he’s a Calvinist-NPP hybrid. He thinks obedience is important in the Christian life. One of his early books was ‘the obedience of faith’ or something like that.

    Be encouraged mate. God loves everyone. Always will love everyone. Because love is part of his immutable character in the same way his justice is.

  • Yeah I agree. The sins of omission issue will not in itself move one from OPP to NPP. Its just a one issue to bear in mind.

    My point is that the OPP understands these ‘works’ as a merit issue. “One is not good enough until you have earned the right to be accepted. That’s why the Jews did these works, so they could earn their way into heaven” (Straw man alert)

    In contrast I see the commands of the law are primarily a sin issue. If you don’t do them you sin.

    The Reformed keep using ‘works’ language to reassure people they don’t have to do this or that, its all been accomplished by Christ. But I don’t see the Jews understanding ‘works of law’ that way. There are some works where if you don’t do them you sin by omission. The more you sin the more your ‘salvation’ is suspect.

  • Cool, thanks! I’ve been meaning to get into NPP. Heh, I like that the NPP has been described as a Copernican revolution. I’ve been thinking lately that a lot of Christian theology (excluding possibly the EOC, which seems to have had its head screwed on straighter than the RCC since it e.g. translated the Bible into vulgar languages) has been ‘stuck’, kind of like how many pre-quantum revolution physicists in the 19th century said that physics was done except for some janitorial work.

  • Phil Miller

    Trying to say that “works righteousness” should not be a “negative foil” just does not make sense to me in the overriding context of the NT themes presented. It’s like we are being asked to check our brains at the door and somehow conclude that Judaism was not the problem that it was seemingly made out to be.

    I’m late to replying to this, but I just read this comment now. I guess I would say that I don’t see that it’s too hard to say that the covenant with Israel was good, wasn’t a negative, and wasn’t a works-based religion, but that the covenant that God offers with Christ to all people is better, and, well, the only way now. If we say something is obsolete because of something new, we aren’t necessarily saying that the thing being made obsolete was bad. It actually could have been very good and necessary. It’s just that it served it’s purpose and trying to hold onto something that is obsolete will just lead to pain and frustration.

  • Norman

    Phil what you are saying is what Paul says in Romans 7 when he says the Law was good but unfortunately as Paul further lays out Man cannot live under the Law because of our inherent human nature that can’t live up to it. That is what Hebrews is all about also in that the old mosaic system was found inadequate and thus cannot continue and was fading away. It’s such a clear message but sometimes we tend to proof text our ideas out of the overriding story line that seems quite clear. As I have stated else where this discussion id one of the deeper ones we will encounter biblically speaking and our sound bite responses are inadequate to do it justice.
    Including mine 🙂