Some folks are all excited about the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” these days. I’ve said before, it’s kind of old hat to me, as I first studied this in college, starting 27 years ago, when it was new; one of the texts we used at Atlantic Union College for NT epistles was Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles. I went on to read Sanders, Dunn, Wright, etc. N. T. Wright has some thoughts on the subject of this “new perspective,” written much more recently.
The issue is this: Paul needs to be read in the context of the question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church. When we do so, says Wright, we see that Justification is forensic language, a judicial verdict, and is an anticipation today of the decree of the final judgment. It is God’s declaration of the forgiveness of sins and inclusion in the covenant.
Wright notes that there has been some negative reaction to this from some folks in the Reformed camp. He finds this ironic:
The New Perspective launched by Sanders and taken up eagerly in many American contexts was always a reaction, not to Reformed readings of Paul, but to Lutheran ones and the broader protestantism and evangelicalism that went along for the Lutheran ride, particularly in its negative assessment of Judaism and its Law.
I suppose this is no big deal for me because I was taught this perspective on Paul by folks who did believe in a positive assessment of God’s law and who saw the judgment of God as “good news.” They knew by heart this verse:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. (Rev. 14:6ff).
Does this “new perspective” resolve differences between Protestants and Catholics? Well, some think this approach negates both sides of the debates of the 16th century. Some Protestants might believe that to be possible, and it may well weaken their own support for the positions of the Lutheran and Reformed Confessions, but Catholics are obliged to recognize Trent as authoritative regardless of the conclusions of Biblical scholars.
Looking just at the claims of the “New Perspective,” however, I still don’t see why it should render the traditional differences between Catholics and Protestants as irrelevant.
Let’s take that Wright article, for example. This perspective, in his estimate, emphasizes justification as a declaration–not, as Catholics have insisted, as a transforming infusion of grace. It says one is included in the covenant by faith in Jesus Christ alone–not a combination of faith and works. This seems to be just a restatement of traditional Protestant concerns.
On the other hand, if justification is not a basic part of the plan of salvation, but can be relativized as primarily related to first century debates between Jews and Gentiles, then that does support the Catholic position that justification is just one truth among many, and not the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae of the Reformers, not something to critique all the Church says or does.
My own perspective on this is that though justification was articulated in a particular context initially, it remains the declaration of the final judgment which we all, Jews and Gentiles, receive in anticipation in Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, a universal truth, and it does constitute the heart of the Gospel, and it must critique what we say and do.
(For a Catholic critique of the “New Perspective on Paul,” see Sungenis).