The New Perspective on Paul

After my review yesterday of Piper’s new book, I thought it might be at least mildly interesting to some readers to get a 30,000 foot view of what the book’s about. I intentionally didn’t go far into this in the review, because even more than the arguments on the issue at hand I was struck by Piper’s book as an example of theology done well. But over the next few days I’ll take up some of the high points of the book and try to boil them down (not because my readers are dumb, of course, but because you might not have the time or interest to plow into this all that heavily).

The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a theological movement that basically has to do with Paul’s doctrine of justification. A more elaborate explanation is here, but in essence the NPP argues that since the Reformation (1500’s) Christians have largely misunderstood the Judaism Paul came out of, and therefore misunderstood Paul’s reaction to it. The historical view is that Judaism in Paul’s day had become a works-based religion: many (not all) Jews had the idea that they gained God’s favor by keeping the Law. Paul’s response was to teach justification by faith, i.e. that faith in Christ, not observance of the Torah, was the means by which a person could be justified, declared righteous, in God’s sight.

The NPP argues that this is incorrect. Actually, the typical Jew would have said that they kept the Law as a sign of gratitude for God’s having chosen them. Judaism, then, was a grace-based religion, just like Paul’s. So the traditional view would have Paul saying to Jews, “You think you can be justified by works, but you can actually only be justified by faith.” The NPP doesn’t think this is right, because they don’t think first-century Jews believed they could be justified by works in the first place.

If, then, Paul’s doctrine of justification was not a response to a works-based system, that changes what his doctrine of justification actually was. This means that NPP advocates, including N. T. Wright, have a different understanding of justification than the traditional Protestant view. Which is where we’ll pick up next time.


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