The New Perspective on Paul – Part 1

One of the most important developments in NT scholarship within the past 30 years is the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). For approximately the first 20 years, discussion of this scholarly development was limited to the academy, but within the past ten years elements of the NPP have begun to infiltrate the church as well.

It is always dangerous to attempt to summarize complex scholarly discussions in a short genre like a blogpost. But the volume of literature associated with the subject is so immense that many who want to understand face the daunting task of knowing where to even begin.

What I propose to do here is a series of posts on various aspects of the NPP. I will begin today with the first summary point:

1. First-century Judaism was not a legalistic, merit-based system by which a Jew earned favor before God by obedience to the Law, but was rather predicated on God’s gracious election of Israel.

Although he was not the first to argue this, the landmark work was E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). The book was slightly misnamed, in that Sanders spends over 400 pages on Palestinian Judaism and only 100 pages on Paul. His goal was to compare the “pattern of religion” found in Palestinian Judaism (200 B.C. – 200 A.D.) and that of Paul. By “pattern of religion” Sanders means “how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function” or put another way “how getting in and staying in are understood” (17).

From his survey of the Jewish material, Sanders concludes that the pattern of religion can be best described as covenantal nomism, which he defines as

the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing the means of atonement for transgression (75).

The pattern/structure of covenantal nomism is this:

(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement, and God’s mercy belong to the group that will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement. (422)

The punchline for Sanders is that one “gets in” by God’s grace in election and “stays in” through obedience to the Law, including the provisions for atonement. When he compares this to Paul, he finds a similar pattern, only oriented around Christ instead of the Law. (As influential as Sander’s reading of Judaism has been, far fewer have followed his reading of Paul).

Within a short time other scholars began to latch on to covenantal nomism as the definitive framework to understand first century Judaism. Today it is the reigning paradigm in NT studies, though there remains a remnant still unpersuaded.

Brief Response:

1. While Sanders has helpfully corrected a dangerous and simplistic view of first-century Judaism, his alternative covenantal nomism is reductionistic. For all the criticism that D.A. Carson has received for the polemical tone of his concluding chapter in Justification and Variegated Nomism (vol. 1), the fact remains that first-century Judaism displayed a variety of ways to understand the relationship between grace and works, getting in and staying, covenant and law, etc. (thus the term “variegated nomism”).

2. Carson is also right to note that there is often a gap between what people claim to believe in terms of “getting in” and “staying in” and how the actions of those very same people betray at a practical level a much different belief. A modern day example would be certain strains of fundamentalism that claim to believe that salvation is by grace through faith but by their actions betray a legalistic effort to earn God’s favor. Is it really that hard to believe that a similar phenomenon existed in Paul’s day?

3. We need to be extremely cautious about thinking that we have a better understanding of first-century Judaism almost 2,000 years removed than Paul did as one who grew up in it. I am all for taking historical background and context seriously, but I get very nervous when we take a hypothetical reconstruction of that historical context that then force us to override the plain sense of the text.

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