The New Perspective on Paul – Part 3

Today we resume our series on the New Perspective on Paul. The third basic premise is this:

Paul’s problem with Judaism and the Mosaic Law is not legalism, but something else.

In the so-called traditional Reformation understanding of Paul, his problem with Judaism and the Mosaic Law is that it was used as a means of earning favor before God. But in light of the NPP’s contention that first-century Judaism was not legalistic, they conclude that Paul’s problem with the Mosaic Law and Judaism must rest somewhere else. But that is where the agreement ends, for in determining what that “something else” is the various NPP advocates part ways. E.P. Sanders, for example, argues that

What is wrong with the law, and thus with Judaism, is that it does not provide for God’s ultimate purpose, that of saving the entire world through faith in Christ, and without the privilege accorded to the Jews through the promises, the covenants, and the law (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 155)

In other words, the problem is simply that “Judaism is not Christianity.” James D.G. Dunn takes a different view:

The classic Protestant understanding of justification … has missed or downplayed what was probably the most important aspect of the doctrine for Paul himself … the fundamental critique of Israel’s tendency to nationalist presumption, not to say racial pride.” (“The Justice of God,” 14)

So for Dunn the issue is the fact that the Mosaic Law excludes non-Jews from its righteousness.


1. The work of NPP scholars has forced a necessary reevaluation of the complex issue of Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law. Although none of the NPP proposals are satisfactory, they have brought necessary correction to overly simplistic presentations of Paul’s problem with the Mosaic Law.

2. Paul’s “problem” with the Mosaic Law in my view is multi-faceted; it involves at least the following components. (a) The Law was not given to provide life but rather to reveal and confine sin. Thus any attempt to use the Law to experience eschatological life is doomed to fail (Gal 3:19-22). (b) The Law’s requirement of perfection (Gal 3:10-12) and man’s inability to achieve that results in a curse. (c) The Law was given to serve the Abrahamic promise until Christ the promised seed came; once he came the Law was set aside as the means by which God’s people interact with Him (Gal 3:15-18).

8 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul – Part 3”

  1. this is great….thanks matt.

    i’m working through “the future of justification” (piper) right now. this morning i just read a helpful section by him where he lays out that ethnocentric pride and moral legalism stem from the same source ultimately…self righteous pride.

    i echo sinclair ferguson’s perspective when he says the new perspective should cause all of us to realize the old perspective of paul is not taught clearly enough!

  2. hey matt,

    I wanted to throw links up on my blog pointing to your posts NPP. They are simple and helpful. How many more do you have? I wanted them to all be complete before I put them up.


  3. Matt,

    I like this blog. Good discussions. I am glad that you are still chewing on NPP. I enjoyed our conversations couple of years ago in Orlando.

    Here are some thoughts that might stimulate further discussion. How does the OT concept of SEDEQ come into play in Galatians?

    Two quotes that might shed some light:

    “Ancient Israel did not in fact measure a line of conduct or an act by an ideal norm, but by the specific relationship in which the partner had at the time to prove himself true. Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term SDQ.” [Gerhard von Rad, OT Theology, vol.1, p.371]

    “Righteousness is in the OT the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, whether that relationship be with men or with God.” [Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Righteousness of God, in IDB 4:80]

    How much did the understanding of righteousness as a relational concept shape Paul’s thinking, especially in Galatians 3:10-14?

  4. Regarding the place of the Mosaic Law within the mind of Paul: It appears, at least in part, a large part of Paul’s eschatalogical framework of the New Covenant deems the Mosaic Law obsolete as a result of the promised Holy Spirit’s role in the community of faith.

    First, if the moral law was, in some sense, an expression of the character of God, then the indwelling leadership of the Holy Spirit within the life of the believer/community would empower them to obey those demands in ways not previously possible; thus, giving them the ability to reflect God’s image into the world.

    Secondly, (this is where I feel the NPP does bring something valuable to the table)the ceremonial law is eliminated as a means of defining the people of God and is replaced by “faith in Jesus”. Though I would be more comfortable placing the emphasis on the indwelling of the Spirit rather than “faith in Jesus”(I say this because the gift of the Spirit is God’s authenticating “badge” that sets the true believer off from others who hold to some type of verbal/cognitive/formulaic “faith in Jesus” that is not approved by God Himself; thus, not accompanied by the gift of the Spirit).

    In other words, when asked “Who is in the kingdom?”, Paul would answer, “All who are indwelt by the Spirit as the result of their faith in Jesus.” The Spirit, therefore, is the “badge” that sets them apart in society (previous role of the ceremonial law) and empowers them to live in restored, Edenic relationship this side of the New Earth (previous role of the moral law). And “faith in Jesus” is what grants access to this “badge”.

    I would love to know your thoughts on this. Especially if I am off-base.

  5. Bacho,

    Good of you to check in; hope all is well with you and your family.

    I do not think that righteousness can be reduced to a relational concept. Righteousness is defined by God’s character, and God is righteous when he acts in accordance with his own character. These actions are often in the context of various relationships, including the covenant, but cannot be limited to such. Seifrid is particularly good at demonstrating that righteousness is a creational concept, not strictly covenantal (see his “Christ our Righteousness”).

    For Paul I think righteousness is clearly related to covenant but not limited to it.

  6. N8,

    I think you are on target, as least as far as Galatians is concerned. In fact, 5:13-26 supports your argument in that I think Paul is claiming that the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer fulfills the Law.

  7. I don’t know… why not just follow the noahide laws.

    It’s a lot less damned work than creating a whole new set of malarky we have to deal with in order to basically end up following the noahide laws.

    Are you trying to suggest that Christianity and other spinoff religions are merely the result of jealousy?

    Could be.

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