The New Perspective(s) on Paul Begin with EP Sanders

The New Perspective(s) on Paul Begin with EP Sanders November 6, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 6.23.34 AMIn the mid to late 90s I began to hear traditional, mostly the Reformed with hints of Lutheranism Christian leaders begin to accuse the “new perspective” of weaknesses and in the criticism I was hearing descriptions of what “new perspective on Pau” (NPP) theologians believed — as if the NPP had a systematic theology worked out. I was not a Pauline specialist so some of the discussions were about the most recent statement by one or more NPP scholars. What I did register as questions to not a few accusers was this: Who are you talking about? (Dunn? Wright? Sanders? who?) Have you read them? Have you read the Jewish sources? And Why do you think any of these NT specialists — and clearly not all that excited about systematics — to have a “systematic” theology that you can accuse?

Here is a noteworthy reminder: If you want to know what a NPP theologian thinks, read EP Sanders, JDG Dunn or NT Wright and pay attention to what that person actually says. Don’t ask the so-called critics of the NPP; first read what the scholars say themselves. This is the second noteworthy reminder: These three scholars, while they agree at a substantive level on Judaism itself, do not agree on how to frame Paul (even if there are some significant overlaps in their understanding of Paul’s theology) with just as many substantive overlaps with the old perspective people themselves! If you are in a library right now, just grab Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle and along with it Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, compare the Table of Contents, and notice that these two framings of Paul’s theology are not remotely similar. My third noteworthy observation: the old perspective (OPP) framed Paul through a Lutheran-Reformed set of categories and meanings and the OPP criticisms tend to say the NPP is not Lutheran or Reformed. Which says nothing about which framing is the most consistent with the apostle Paul. The more important issue is what Paul meant in his Jewish context.

Before we move on here is the final noteworthy observation: the NPP is formed on the basis of a revised understanding of Judaism that undercuts the old perspective’s view of Judaism, and that old perspective’s view of Judaism formed the rhetorical opposition to some very important ideas for the OPP’s view of what Paul was saying.  My illustration: when Reformed pastor-theologian Tim Keller compares “performance” vs. “grace” he is trading in an older view of Judaism that the NPP scholars all agree was a stereotype, a dangerous stereotype, a theologically-shaped stereotype, and one that gave rise to a specific kind of Reformed/Lutheran reading of Paul. If that view of Judaism is inaccurate, then our understanding of Paul must shift. That in essence is the whole of the NPP’s center. How one then frames Paul’s theology leads to significant differences between NPP scholars.

Today I want to look at one of the major architects of the so-called NPP: NT Wright.  But I want to look at his own sketch of the NPP and “life after EP Sanders.” (Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

It all begins with EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. (There were predecessors, but the defining moment was Sanders’ 1977 book — before him were GF Moore and K Stendahl, not to ignore WD Davies, EP Sanders’ teacher.)

Big points: Judaism was not a works-based religion and did not advocate works righteousness (therefore Paul could not have been saying the Judaizers were a works-based righteousness religion); Judaism was covenant nomism, that is, God’s grace, election and covenant were first and the law (nomos, nomism) was given for the covenant member to know how to live. It was about maintenance of life in the covenant not about entrance into the covenant. This undercuts the all-too-common view of Judaism found among major NT scholars (from Luther on but especially found in major German thinkers — Sanders was concerned with Weber, Strack-Billerbeck, Jeremias and Bultmann). That undercutting calls for a new way of reading Paul, which Sanders did through “participationist eschatology” (an updating and revisioning of A. Schweitzer’s “Christ mysticism.”)

Wright probes five reasons why Sanders’ work was such a defining moment: (1) it was the culmination of a chorus of scholars who were unhappy with how people talked about Judaism; (2) it brought into clarity that Paul was a Jewish not a Hellenistic thinker; (3) Sanders’ Paul resonated in important ways with a Reformed view of Paul! Grace, Torah as a good thing to be obeyed. (4) It resonated with some important fresh exegetical studies of Pauline texts. (5) Sanders was part of the fresh American university scholarship about religions and religious studies that stood over against confessional and theological orientations. Thus, it brought a relativist agenda into the Pauline scholarship world.

As Wright continues: Sanders reminded scholarship that 1st Century Judaism was not Pelagianism or early Medieval Catholicism. In particular, Wright wraps his mind around a big feature of Sanders that Wright has extended but that shaped the appeal of Sanders:

But the great strength of Sanders’s proposal, greater indeed I think than he even realized, was to see that the entire structure of rabbinic halakah, the classified Taw’ took place within a larger context still: the context (Sanders did not explore this, but it is important) of a story, the story of a people. It was the story of God’s redemption of Israel, based on God’s election and ultimately on God’s love and grace. God loves; God chooses; God redeems; God gives Torah. Only then does Israel obey, within that context and for that reason. There was always a danger in reducing this story, as Sanders understandably did, to a formula, namely ‘covenantal nomism’; though, as formulae go, that one seems to be sharp and clear, pointing back beyond itself to the narrative which is its own bottom-line reality. I would greatly prefer something like ‘covenantal narrative’, and to this, too, we shall return (70-71).

He digs in how Sanders thought of the religious context in Judaism:

But for Sanders the framework is everything; and in principle I think he is right. Certainly his point is proved over against the old caricatures in which it could be assumed that ‘the Jews’, lock, stock and barrel, were automatically and inalienably investing in a degenerate, dehumanizing and ineffective form of ‘religion’, doing their best to lift themselves out of the mud by their own hair and lurching from pride (when they thought they were being successful) to despair (when they realized they were just as stuck as they had been before). One can read many, many pages in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, in the Scrolls, in Philo and in Josephus – not to mention the rabbis – without coming upon anything remotely like this (72).

This is Wright’s most important critique of Sanders:

Sanders’s great strength is that he really knows the rabbis. His great weakness is that he really knows the rabbis, and reads their largely dehistoricized, de-storied world back into the other Judaisms of the first century, r He makes the case that has to be made, that they lived within an implicit covenantal framework. But he sees neither the essentially narrative quality of that framework nor the fact that Paul himself shared it. What is more, I suspect that part of the gut-level reaction to Sanders on the part of the so-called ‘old perspective’ is a worldview-level reaction to the very idea of a narrative world, any narrative world at all except that of the narrative of the individual sinner needing to find personal salvation (75).

Sanders famously thought Paul moved from solution to plight — not plight to solution. This raises what will become, in substantivally different forms, the apocalyptic Paul approach to reading everything anew in light of the Christ event. This solution, Wright observes, misses the historical plane of Israel’s own dilemma vs. a soteriological plane that focuses on individual salvation.

The NPP begins with Sanders, but it spawned not a New Perspective but instead New Perspectives on Paul. Our next post will investigate various framings of Paul on the basis of a revised view of Judaism.

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