Someone recently asked my thoughts on the “New Perspective on Paul.” I have to chuckle whenever I hear the phrase, “New Perspective.” We were reading Krister Stendahl’s “Paul among Jews and Gentiles” in New Testament courses at Atlantic Union College nearly 30 years ago! (And Sanders, and Wright, and Dunn …)
I haven’t written anything on this, but here are some quick thoughts. Basically the issue comes down to this: What’s the context Paul was addressing in the two books where he discusses justification? He’s addressing problems within the church between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The presenting problem is clearly laid out in both Galatians and in Acts—on what basis were Gentiles to be accepted into the Christian community? Did they have to become Jews first, and accept the Torah, or were they to be justified (accepted into the covenant) on the basis of faith alone (apart from Torah observance)? And related to this is the question of whether Jews had to give up the Torah when they came to believe in Jesus? Paul didn’t—he was in the temple to offer sacrifice when he was arrested the last time.
Some feel that reading Romans and Galatians in their proper first century context somehow threatens the Reformation message of justification by faith. I don’t think it does. I just think we need to understand the Reformation presentation as a form of homiletical application within their context, or as systematic theology, not as exegesis. There is still plenty of Biblical basis on which to criticize Catholic teaching on merit, satisfaction, indulgences, etc. We just have to understand that those weren’t Paul’s issues. This doesn’t mean they aren’t important!
Now please note. My observation is really about methodology. Do I agree with all the conclusions that may have been drawn by various individuals who may be associated with the “New Perspective”? Not at all (it’s been a while since I read these authors, so I can’t give some specifics right now). But whatever wrong conclusions they may have drawn does not diminish from the fact that they have the right exegetical starting point.