THE NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAUL: WRIGHT IS WRONG

THE NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAUL: WRIGHT IS WRONG
JACK COTTRELL — 2ND EDITION – JUNE 2016

I begin with this caveat: I am not an expert on this subject. I am pursuing it because it is one of the most significant CHALLENGES to traditional theology, and because it is being taught by one of the most respected and influential Biblical scholars of our day: Nicholas Thomas (N.T., Tom) Wright, who is sometimes credited with coining the expression,“New Perspective on Paul” [NPP] (Justification, 28).

[Most quotes here are from Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP 2009). Some are from Guy P. Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul (P&R 2004); some are from Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Eerdmans 2013); some are from Jason Byassee, “Surprised by Wright,” Christianity Today, 4/14, 37-43.]

I have three points: One, a summary of the NPP in general; Two, a summary of Wright’s view in general; Three, my main criticisms of the NPP, especially Wright’s version of it.

I. THE NEW PERSPECTIVE IN GENERAL.

A. Old Versus New. The heading here implies there is an OLD perspective on Paul, identified as the one everyone held up to about 1961. It is associated mainly with Martin Luther and Protestantism. It is said that this approach assumes “that the central question of all is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ or (Luther’s way of putting it), ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ or, ‘How can I enter a right relationship with God?’” (Wright, 23). I.e., Paul’s focus is on personal salvation from sin, via justification by faith in Christ’s substitutionary atonement, rather than by good works. In writing about this he was opposing legalism or works-salvation, mainly as it was held by the Jews of his day. Thus says the “old perspective.”

But around 1961, certain NT scholars began to conclude that this whole understanding of Paul is ENTIRELY WRONG. (Main representatives of this “new perspective” include Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and Wright.) The idea that Paul’s main concern was personal salvation is a complete misreading of his letters, they say. Such a subject was “foreign to the apostle” (Wright, 42), or “relatively minor” (says Waters [23] of Stendahl). “Wright’s is a newer tradition, the NPP offering a corrective to the ruling Protestant one” (Byassee, 43).

Why did the older writers get this so wrong? Because they did not take into account Paul’s JEWISHNESS. They ignored his Jewish heritage, and the Rabbinic traditions that shaped his ideas. They did not have access to, or neglected, the many extrabiblical Jewish writings that Paul was probably steeped in. I.e., the old perspective “has de-Judaized Paul. It has snatched him out of the context where he lived, where he made sense, out of his God-given theological context” (Wright 196-97). The new perspective “has lodged a sustained protest against just this de-Judaizing” (ibid., 196).

B. So how can we interpret Paul aright? At last, some 1900 years after Paul and after 1900 years of misunderstanding him, someone has finally seen the light! Now we know, thanks to the NPP, that to understand Paul we must dig deep into these extrabiblical Jewish writings from the intertestamental era (called the era of second-temple Judaism, c. 515 B.C. to A.D. 70).

Wright says that when he read first-century Jewish writings like Josephus, he realized “that most Jews of the time were not sitting around discussing how to go to heaven, and swapping views on the finer points of synergism and sanctification. … For the most part they were not engaged in the debates on which our own traditions have concentrated. … The worry about the afterlife, and the precise qualifications for it, which have so characterized Western Christianity, … do not loom so large in the literature of Paul’s contemporaries” (55-56). “They were not … understanding themselves as living in a narrative which said, ‘All humans are sinful and will go to hell; maybe God will be gracious and let us go to heaven instead and dwell with him; how will that come about?’” (ibid., 59). Also, we learn that when the Jews thought about salvation at all, they were actually NOT legalistic; they were not poster-children for works-righteousness (Waters, 38; Wright, 243). This is just a “gross caricature” (Wright, 97).

C. Now, as Wright himself asks (59), “What on earth has all this to do with Pauline theology?” Just this: when we familiarize ourselves with the Jewish writings of that day, and see how the Jews themselves were thinking, we will know how Paul (Saul of Tarsus) was thinking! We will know what issues and questions were on Paul’s mind as he wrote his letters. “Once we grasp the essentially Jewish categories of thought with which Paul is working, many problems in a de-Judaized systematic theology are transcended” (Wright, 106). The implication is that “Paul’s teachings are deeply Jewish” (Byassee, 41). In most cases “we are to assume continuity between Paul and Judaism” (Waters, 61).

D. The main theme. So what WAS the main theme that permeated the Jewish writings and thus dominated Paul’s theology? It was not a concern about personal salvation. That would have been too self-centered, too individualistic. “Inward-looking soteriologies” is a much too limited theme (Wright, 23-25). The Jews were concerned rather with the state of the WORLD, and with the role of their NATION of Israel in the world. God had made promises to Abraham that he would save the world through his family. God was going to save the world THROUGH THE JEWS! When and how was he going to accomplish this? “The tide which was carrying all Israel along in the time of Jesus and Paul was the tide of hope, hope that Israel’s God would act once more and this time do it properly, that the promises made to Abraham and his family would at last come true, that the visions of the prophets who foretold a coming restoration would find their ultimate fulfillment” (Wright, 57).

This was their passion, and Paul shared it! The foundation and framework of all of Paul’s thought is the fact that God has a single plan to save the world THROUGH THE JEWS! The Jews are the answer to the world’s problem, as God promised Abraham in Genesis 12, 15. “It is central to Paul . . . that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (Wright, 35).

E. Of course, Paul is a Christian; so this leads him to approach this subject with two special issues. First, where does JESUS fit into this picture? What does Jesus have to do with God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world? [Note: Wright loves hyphenation.] Second, where do the GENTILES fit into the picture? Everything in Paul revolves around this latter point.

F. Let us be clear about this: the NPP is not just a slight adjustment or footnote to traditional Pauline theology. It is a revolution, a Copernican revolution, a paradigm shift. It requires a reinterpretation of the central doctrines of the Bible and Christianity. In a sense we have to start all over, and come to new understandings of things like Israel, covenants, law, works of law, righteousness, atonement, faith, and justification.

II. N. T. WRIGHT’S VERSION OF THE NEW PERSPECTIVE.

A. The problem is Genesis 3 & 11. “The whole world had been cursed through Adam and Eve,” which introduced sin, and “through the human pride which led to Babel,” which brought “the fracturing of humanity” (99, 118). [Quotes in this section (II.) are from Wright’s Justification.]

B. The one key idea that ties the whole Biblical narrative together is this: God determined to save (remake) the world through the one nation of Israel, beginning with Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15, 17 God made a solemn covenant with Abraham to that effect. [Note: Wright loves italics.] In that pact with Abraham, “God launched a rescue operation, the single plan, through Israel, to save the world” (200). In that covenant we have “God’s single plan, through Abraham and his family to bless the whole world” (67). “Paul’s view of God’s purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight” (94).

Everything thus depends on Israel, Abraham’s family. This is God’s single plan, his only plan. This is God’s “plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (94). “In Scripture, in second-temple Jewish literature, and in Paul himself, . . . God’s way of putting the world right is precisely through his covenant with Israel. … God’s single plan to put the world to rights is his plan to do so through Israel” (65). “God has made a plan to save the world; Israel is the linchpin of this plan” (68). In this plan Israel is “playing the crucial, linchpin role” (244). “The point of the covenant always was that God would bless the whole world through Abraham’s family” (67). Thus it is Israel’s job to fix or remake the world, including the creation of a single, world-wide people of God.

C. There is a problem, however: Israel has failed to keep its side of the covenant. “God has made a plan to save the world; Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful” (68). “Israel has failed to deliver on the divine vocation” (196). “Israel has been faithless to that commission” (67). “The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was the ‘through-Israel’ bit: Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the ‘obedience’ which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed” (104-105).

D. What saves the day, though, is the righteousness of God. Now, we must be sure to define “righteousness” properly. It means covenant faithfulness, i.e., faithfulness to one’s covenant promises (64-65). “God’s righteousness is his unswerving commitment to be faithful to that covenant—including the promise … that Abraham would inherit the world” (66-67). “God will be true to his single plan” (199). “God’s righteousness’ … can only mean God’s faithfulness to his single plan” (201). It means “God’s faithfulness to the covenant, to the single plan through Israel for the whole world” (203). “The belief that God is, and will be, faithful to his covenant is absolutely foundational both for Israel’s hope of rescue and, out beyond that, for the hope of a restored creation.” This is exactly what the “righteousness of God” is: “God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, to the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (179).

E. But how will God be able to save the world through Israel, if Israel has failed to keep the covenant? Here is where the Messiah enters: God sends the Messiah as a FAITHFUL, REPRESENTATIVE ISRAELITE who will do what Israel as such was supposed to do but failed to do. “What is now required … is a faithful Israelite” (68) who can be a substitute for—act in the stead of—the unfaithful nation as a whole. “The Messiah is able to be the substitute because he is the representative” (106).

Thus in his righteousness, “God has accomplished this Israel-shaped world-redeeming plan through the faithfulness of the Messiah” (203). “’The faithfulness of the Messiah’ is a shorthand way of saying that in Jesus, as Israel’s representative … , God has accomplished what he always said he would” (207). “God always intended that his purposes would be accomplished through faithful Israel. That has now happened—but in the single person of Israel’s faithful representative” (135). God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, and “it is because of this covenant that God deals with sins through the faithful, obedient death of Jesus the Messiah” (67). “The task of the Messiah … was to offer to God the ‘obedience’ which Israel should have offered but did not” (104).

F. Paul understood, accepted, and taught all of this, but this still leaves the question: how do the Gentiles fit into this picture? How can they be brought into the one unified family that Israel (or Jesus in the place of Israel) was chosen by God to bring about? The answer is that they can enter the one family of God by entering into union with someone who is already a part of that family, namely, Jesus the Messiah. By believing in Jesus they are “justified”—which is defined as “being counted as part of the covenant community.”

It is important to see that this is a new and very different definition of “justification.” It is rightly understood as being granted the status of righteousness by a judge, but the “righteousness” itself is completely redefined. Rather than referring to one’s salvation status before God, it is now taken to mean “in good standing in the community,” or counted as a part of “the single family which God promised to Abraham” (213-214), or “reckoned by God to be a true member of his family” (116). This happens through faith, and not by keeping the Torah (law) of the Jews.

As Wright sees it, this is the error in the Jews’ thinking that Paul was opposing: they were attempting to exclude the Gentiles from this Abrahamic family by declaring that keeping the Torah (especially circumcision, the Sabbath, and food laws) was the sign of community membership. But Paul said NO! He was not opposing an imagined “works-righteousness” old-perspectivites take the Jews to be guilty of. His point was that today anyone, including Gentiles, can enter into the Messiah “through baptism and faith” and be “in him” as a result. Thus Jesus fulfills “the goal of God’s Israel-plan” because he is “the whole people of God in himself” (104). Torah-keeping now consists of faith (211), thus eliminating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Thus “God’s purpose in establishing the covenant with Abraham—to create a worldwide family whose sins were forgiven—is thereby accomplished, with the one and only badge of faith” (223).

G. In summary: “God’s purpose in calling Abraham was to bless the whole world, to call out a people from Gentiles as well as Jews. This purpose has now been accomplished through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and all who believe in him constitute this fulfilled-family-of-Abraham” (118).

III. WHAT’S WRONG WITH WRIGHT AND THE NEW PERSPECTIVE?

A. In this last section I will explain why I believe Wright and the New Perspective on Paul in general are a theological disaster. We begin with the NPP’s fundamental error: JUDEOCENTRISM. This term has other connotations, but I am using it literally. Everything about the NPP’s Biblical “story” of salvation has the wrong center: Israel (Abraham, the Jews), rather than Jesus Christ. Everything about God’s saving plan revolves around Israel. God determines to save “through Israel.” When a problem arises with this plan, Jesus is sent to “fix it.” Note: Jesus is not sent to fix the sin problem as such; Israel is assigned that task. Jesus is sent to fix a secondary problem, one that arises with Israel. This means that Jesus is only indirectly our Savior. The Savior is Israel, with the aid of Jesus. This is completely BACKWARDS! Christ did not come to serve and aid Israel’s purpose; rather, Israel was called upon to serve and aid CHRIST’S purpose!

If Israel was God’s original agent for saving the world, and if Christ came only to do what Israel failed to do, the clear implication is that, theoretically, the Jews as such COULD HAVE SAVED THE WORLD if only they had been true to their covenant. There would have been no need for Jesus. How would it have been possible for the Jews as a nation to solve the world’s sin problem? Wright hints that this would have been done through faithful proclamation of God to the world: “Israel was in the privileged position of being called by the Creator God to the crucial, and never-to-be-rescinded, task of bringing his healing message to the world. … Israel has been charged with shining God’s light into the world, and has instead provided a good deal of darkness” (198). This presupposes a very shallow understanding of the nature of the sin problem.

A major source of this false Judeocentrism is a wrong understanding of the covenant God made with Abraham. As in modern “covenant theology” in general, the NPP sees the covenant with Abraham as perpetual and never-ending. This is the way certain promises made to Abraham are interpreted, e.g., “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3); “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). This covenant-promise is taken to mean that the nation of Israel itself will play the role of Savior, through a methodology that is not made clear.

This is NOT THE POINT, though. Paul in Galatians 3:16 specifies that the ONE “seed” of Abraham who is the source of blessing to the earth is Abraham’s one descendant, JESUS CHRIST. Abraham’s (and Israel’s) mission and purpose were not to fix the sin problem, but to be the “forefathers according to the flesh” (see Rom. 4:1) who would bring the true Savior into the world. THIS was the purpose and privilege of the Israelites: to be the ones “from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 9:5).

In Acts 13 Paul specifies that the coming of Jesus is THE fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham. “God has fulfilled” the “promise made to the fathers” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) when he “raised up Jesus” (13:32-33). God’s covenant to bless all nations THROUGH ISRAEL was completely fulfilled when that nation produced the Messiah. The incarnation and redemptive work of Jesus, the one seed of Abraham, IS the fulfillment of that covenant. At the same time Jesus has established a NEW covenant, which is patterned after the Abrahamic covenant but is not identical with it. The New Covenant is not simply a reconstitution of, or continuation of, the covenant with Abraham.

Other aspects of Pauline (Biblical) thought are distorted by this Judeocentrism. E.g., “the righteousness of God” is reduced to “faithfulness to covenant promises.” “Justification” is reduced to “membership in the covenant community.” “Law” and “works of law” are always taken to mean the Jewish Torah. Wright says that for Paul “the law” “always means ‘the Jewish Law, the Torah’” (116). None of these definitions is accurate.

B. The NPP’s most critical error: the ATONEMENT is made powerless. Remember: in the NPP the atoning work of Christ draws its meaning from God’s covenant purpose for Israel. Christ does what he does because Israel failed in its intended task. Jesus thus came as a SUBSTITUTE—not for sinners as such, but for the faithless covenant people of Israel. The result is ambiguity as to exactly what Jesus was doing on the cross. One way of explaining it: he was doing what Israel was supposed to have done but in fact did not do. Thus Jesus was taking over their role, stepping into their shoes [sandals?], and thus fulfilling their positive purpose of restoring wholeness to the world. “Jesus has done what Israel was called to do” (Wright, 203-204).

Another way the NPP explains it (and something very different) is seen in light of the covenant curse (Deut. 27-30) that Israel brought upon itself by not keeping its side of the covenant. Thus Jesus steps into Israel’s shoes [sandals?] in a different sense, and takes upon himself the punishment that the Abrahamic covenant (via Moses) directs against covenant-breakers. In “this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death . . . , he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves” (Wright, 105). That God is righteous “includes his duty to punish sin in line with the covenant provisions in Deuteronomy 27-29.” The faithful God “must punish his faithless covenant people” (Wright, 67-68).

So why, according to Wright, did the Messiah become a curse for us? Paul is NOT thinking—“so that we might be freed from sin and share fellowship with God to all eternity” [the old perspective], but “so that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles.” This was necessary because the law-breaking of the Jews “looked as if it would prevent the Abrahamic promises from getting out to the nations, and thus prevent the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world from coming to pass. … If Israel were to stay under that curse [Deut. 27-30] forever … then the promises would never be released into the wider world.” Thus “the Messiah became a curse for us … and thereby making a way through the curse and out the other side” (Wright, 124-125). “God’s promises to Abraham were stuck in the Deuteronomic curse, and could not go forward in history to their fulfillment; the Messiah came and bore the covenantal curse in himself, so that the new covenant blessings might flow out at last to the world” (Wright, 136).

These are two very different things, and it is not clear where the emphasis lies.

Either way, however, the atoning work of Christ is robbed of its universal and eternal power. The cross is necessary NOT because of the sin of the world as such, but because the Jews messed up their covenant task. “It is because of this covenant [Gen. 15] that God deals with sins through the faithful, obedient death of Jesus the Messiah” (Wright, 67). The “obedience” of Christ is NOT his unique, one-of-a-kind obedience to the eternal plan of the God of salvation, but his stand-in obedience actually owed to God by Israel under the terms of the Abrahamic covenant. “The task of the Messiah … was to offer to God the ‘obedience’ which Israel should have offered but did not” (Wright, 104). Exactly HOW this truncated, finite work of the Messiah accomplishes salvation for the world is not (cannot be?) explained.

C. The NPP’s FORMAL error: the SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE is denied. The Protestant Reformers identified the sufficiency of Scripture as one of its major attributes. This is true because of its divine origin (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But the question of the Bible’s origin and nature affects not only its sufficiency, but also its clarity: How much “stuff” from outside the Bible do we really need in order to be able to understand it aright? As Waters (192) says, “At stake … is the very nature of revelation and its interpretation.”

The NPP leaves us with the impression that we can never really understand what Paul is getting at if we are not experts in the Rabbinic literature of his time. It sees Paul’s writing as being imbedded in its Jewish context so deeply that we are dependent on the latter for interpreting it correctly. I.e., “proponents of the NPP tell us that Paul will be understood only if Second Temple Judaism is rightly understood. But only a community of scholars … can competently access and read these Second Temple texts” (Waters, 155-156). And even then, it took Christendom 1900 years to produce an academic elite capable of putting it all together!

I believe this approach to Scripture in general and to Paul is contrary to the Holy Spirit’s controlling role in the production of the Bible (i.e., the “inspiration” of Scripture). I agree with Waters (154): “The NPP operates with the mistaken principle that the interpretation of Paul is to be controlled by a scholarly reconstruction of Judaism.” He says, “As Christians, we may raise objections against such a proposal by appealing to the biblical principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture” (155).

This is not to say that understanding the Jewish context is irrelevant. But maybe we should also take into account the fact that there is a divine purpose behind the very existence of the Bible as a whole. This means that any part of the Bible transcends its immediate context and is intended to endure and to be read and understood by people in all ages and cultures. As important as first-century culture may be for understanding the NT writings, the more important context for understanding Paul (e.g.) is “all Scripture,” seen as God-breathed by the same God as a unity intended for his people in all times and places. So (says the NPP) the Jews of Paul’s day were not primarily concerned with personal salvation. SO WHAT? Paul was not writing just from his Jewish background and for the Jews of his day, but for the church of all ages.

I have to agree in general with Byassee, 42: “If we deem Wright correct, we as Western Christians will indeed have to redo much of our accepted thinking on atonement, justification, salvation, and church. Wright’s opponents ask, wisely: Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

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THE NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAUL: WRIGHT IS WRONG — 23 Comments

  1. One other comment and scripture reference. From Paul! I Cor 9:27. Paul is concerned about his own disqualification from the spiritual race (9:24). “Lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (NASB). Paul says, “I.” He doesn’t say “We.” The New Testament “covenant community” is a sum of more than its parts (the body benefits greatly from its members). But each of its parts has individual value, individual potential, individual responsibility, and individual risk). So we have a Pauline studies historian / theologian (NT Wright) who is minimizing individual salvation / souls. Yet Paul himself is concerned about his own individual salvation, as he says of himself “after I have preached to others” (v. 27). Paul is acknowledging that he is a church (body) leader, but that fact is no guarantee of his own individual salvation. Paul is stating that each person will stand before God, including himself. He doesn’t get a free pass because he is an apostle / church leader. He has to be forgiven by God, just like everyone else. What can NT Wright do with this passage? How does NT Wright reconcile the words of Paul with NT Wright’s Pauline theology? Biblical theology is very hard. Humility is in order. One of the first rules of any type of hermeneutics or theology is, “If I am positing or it is self-evident that there is self-contradiction of the biblical author, maybe I (the 2000-years-later interpreter) am misreading one or more of the passages.”

    • A belated thanks to you, Brother Carswell, for your very thoughtful comments on the N. T. Wright phenomenon. I appreciate your analysis. JC

  2. I am very late to this discussion. My apologies. My first concern with NT Wright is the obsession and veneration of Paul and Pauline studies. First, as Dr. Cottrell states, PAUL states that all scripture is God-breathed. Even Paul venerates all scripture, equally. And there are other major sources (than Paul) in the New Testament and in the Bible. In the New Testament we have Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, John, and Peter. All of these sources are key sources of NT revelation (and theology).

    Secondly I have a few minor points as opposed to Dr. Cottrell’s major points regarding the nature of revelation, hermeneutics, and Christology. But they are specific points that seem so completely obvious to me, from scripture (Acts, authored by Luke, not Paul). Peter is the preacher at the first church service. Peter (and the rest of the apostles) are the human founders of the church (with the outpouring and blessing of the Spirit). Peter preached a lengthy and theological sermon at Pentecost. And what did Peter say (in the presence of ALL of the other apostles)? Acts 2:23: “this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the …” (NASB). Jesus the Redeemer was in the plan from the very beginning. Philosophically (stepping away from individual theological passages from the bible), God fore-knew that some would free-will choose to follow him and some would free-will not. God fore-knew that all would be sinful. Before Israel, before Abraham, before Adam’s sin, even before Creation, God had a plan, a plan for Jesus Christ as Redeemer of the world (including Gentiles). Going back to Acts 2, Peter is speaking to a crowd, but he calls the crowd “Israel” or identifies the crowd with “Israel” multiple times. Verse 36: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ…” Verse 37 begins the response to Peter’s sermon on the part of the Pentecost crowd. “What shall we do?” Peter says “repent,” “be baptized,” “for the forgiveness of your sins,” “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off…” (excerpts from Acts 2:38-39). NT Wright’s minimization of individual salvation is ridiculous given this passage of scripture. Nations aren’t baptized. Individuals are baptized. The minimization of individual sin cannot be reconciled with Acts 2:38 (the forgiveness of sins). Acts 2:41 says, “about three thousand souls” were added to the church that first day. These are individuals. These are real individuals who were really saved “THAT DAY.” Their sins were forgiven. Salvation is the forgiveness of sins and the receipt of the Holy Spirit, per Peter.

    The focus on individuals and souls in the New Testament is not at the expense of the “covenant community.” The “covenant community” in the New Testament is made up of individuals who have submitted themselves to the Lordship of Christ. Even Paul routinely speaks of “members of the body” and “the body of Christ.” They are not in opposition / contradiction to each other. Paul says they feed / help each other. Members help the body. The body helps members. So for NT Wright to minimize conversion (personal salvation and repentance from sin), is not to elevate the covenant community (in reality), but to minimize personal salvation, and ultimately the covenant community (indirectly), because the covenant community is made up of the fellowship of those who are personally, individually saved. The scripture elevates the individual and the assembly. Denigrating the individual salvation as presented in scripture, helps neither the individual, nor the assembly (in practice).

    None of what I say should be construed as an attack on Paul or Pauline theology. All scripture is inspired. Each scripture has something valuable to offer. And if we agree with Dr. Cottrell that scripture is God-inspired, then any harmony issues are our issues, not scriptural issues. Does Paul contradict Peter? No.

    It is the task of systematic theologians to attempt to harmonize passages we find difficult because of our own limitations (not the limitations of scripture). On the other hand, it is the task of biblical theologians to do exegesis and to find the major themes and purposes behind each work of scripture. NT Wright is a biblical theologian. But he has taken his biblical theology and has started making systematic theology statements. His biblical theology is un-orthodox, leading to unorthodox systematic theology implications. And he hasn’t considered the systematic theological consequences of what he is advocating.

    I, by nature, think systematically. I am a decent lay systematic theologian, having some understanding of logic and philosophy. I am very analytical. But when I graduated with a BA from Cincinnati Bible College, I didn’t follow up with a Master in Systematic Theology. I studied Biblical Theology (MA). I wasn’t very good at Greek, exegesis, or literature. For me Biblical Theology is harder, yet it’s primary. It’s not primary in the sense that it is more important. It’s is primary in that it comes before systematic theology chronologically. It has to be done right or Systematic Theology can’t be done right. I struggle with Biblical Theology. I want to learn it more so I can do Systematic Theology better.

    But in the Academy, often, these two disciplines attack each other. I saw it firsthand, occasionally among professors, though usually among students who were lining up career tracks. For anybody in this discussion that knows Cincinnati Christian Seminary (formerly CBC&S), there were two professors that stood out to me, positively, on this discipline divide. Dr. Weatherly is a biblical theologian (now at JU) who strongly valued the work of Dr. Cottrell and systematic theology as a discipline. Dr. Pressley is a systematic theologian (now at a church in NC), who strongly valued the work of biblical theologians.

    Biblical theology has a prima facie case. The biblical books are books. They have a beginning and an end. They have a purpose(s). They are coherent. But the average seeker or Jesus follower has questions. Look at all of the questions that Jews asked of Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether the question was asked by a Pharisee (religious ruler), a common Jew, or a Samaritan (the woman at the well). Every single question that was asked of Jesus while he was here on this earth was a systematic theology question (no one asked Jesus, “What are the major themes of the book of Genesis?”). Every question was, “What about this controversy?” or, “Jesus, tell me the truth on this topic…” Sometimes Jesus undercut the question / questioner, but it was never the idea of asking topical questions. It was always the presuppositions or the character of the questioner. Jesus loved to answer most topical (systematic theology) questions. Jesus answered most questions (and all of the questions were Systematic Theology questions). The discipline is legitimate. Systematic theologians do great work.

    And Biblical Theology is also legitimate. When early NT churches received the various Gospels, the Acts, the various epistles, or the Revelation, for the first time, they listened in whole and they tried to understand (in the original language and according to the author’s and their historico-cultural context). Biblical theologians do great work.

    But all too often each discipline acts in willful ignorance or in defiance of the other. We need both.

    In his original post, Dr. Cottrell states very openly, “This is not my specialty.” But he is outlining the major Systematic Theology concerns with NT Wright’s novel Biblical Theology. And NT Wright is not being humble when he steps out of his discipline. He is saying, “The whole Western church has everything wrong.” Maybe, probably, Wright is overreaching.

    Plus I think I’ve demonstrated that NT Wright’s focus on Pauline studies, can lead to a Pauline primacy, which is unbiblical and counterproductive to the truth and the work of the church. Systematic theologians, by definition, managed the forest (which almost all questions / problems to address come from). Biblical theologians focus on the trees. It’s their job; it’s their role. But they (including NT Wright) must have enough understanding of the orthodoxies of the faith to not undercut the faith.

  3. While it is historically accurate to say that Saul/Paul was a product of 1st century Judaism, the fact that he was converted speaks heavily to his departure from that way of thinking. He also referred to himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. Amazingly in his writing Paul references OT scripture, yes, but also the literature, athletics, politics, and military of the Roman empire and/or Greek culture. Beyond that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Let us be careful not to overwork the cultural and historical aspect of our research.

  4. Respectfully, I see several methodological problems with your response.

    1. Although you summarize the New Perspective, you don’t seem to be tracking all the conversations that Wright is part of here. The Davies > Sanders > Wright “school” is ‘re-judaizing” Paul in response to German NT scholarship of the 19th and early 20th century, which de-judaized Paul. Bultmann is the towering example, but aside from a few exceptions (e.g., Schlatter, perhaps Schweitzer but I don’t remember him as well), German NT scholars grossly minimized the Jewish background of all the NT, including Jesus, which facilitated the rise of Nazism and anti-semitism.

    In other words: if Davies > Sanders > Wright swing the pendulum too far in one direction (“Judeocentrism”), it’s because it swung drastically and disastrously in the other direction for a very long time.

    2. You seem offended by the idea that the New Perspective thinks it has corrected something that theologians have been getting wrong since nearly New Testament times. That’s the kind of claim that the reformers made against Catholicism. It’s also the kind of claim that restorationists frequently make. It is hardly unprecedented.

    3. You seem offended by Wright’s attempt to redefine classical theological terms, away from the understanding given them during the Reformation: e.g., the words related to DIKAIOS. This is the entirety of your point C, and it is anachronism run amok. (E.g., your complaint about relying on literature outside of the New Testament.)

    The center of Wright’s attempt to redefine the meaning of these terms, which you do NOT summarize and certainly do not refute, is careful exegetical work and literary-historical work that shows that the world of Paul did not use these terms (e.g. the DIKAIOS word group) to mean what later theological formulations say that they meant. For example, Wright claims that a careful literary-historical survey shows that “justification” in Paul’s world was never used to refer to imputed righteousness.

    (Similarly, Wright and others have noted that the post-enlightenment West is much more individualistic than Paul or Paul’s readers; this is a given in modern New Testament scholarship. This is at the heart of the New Perspective’s critique of much of reformed theology as nothing more than individual soteriology, something you note near the beginning of your post but do not refute nor [apparently] appreciate.)

    If the biblical witness is the basis of and standard for our theology, and if literary-historical work shows that a concept we are using cannot (or even likely did not) mean to the biblical writers what we say that it means in our theology, then we are wrong and need to correct our formulations, no matter how inconvenient or universal our error.

    4. You are fundamentally misreading Wright on the relationship between the roles of Israel and Jesus.

    You say: “If Israel was God’s original agent for saving the world, and if Christ came only to do what Israel failed to do, the clear implication is that, theoretically, the Jews as such COULD HAVE SAVED THE WORLD if only they had been true to their covenant. There would have been no need for Jesus.”

    You do not produce a quote to support this, only a “clear implication.” I believe your “clear” inference is a misreading of Wright, which you fall into because he is doing narrative theology (describing God’s plan in narrative sequence) and you are reading it as systematic theology.

    “First Israel, then Jesus” is the order of events. Even if Israel had been faithful, Messiah would have come, but his coming would have looked very different, as would his road to the cross.

    But that’s like asking if Jesus failed because Israel rejected him as Messiah, leading to Gentiles and Jews together in the church. God’s purpose is not frustrated.

    • As I indicated when I wrote and posted the piece on N. T. Wright, I am not an expert on the New Perspective on Paul. Some of my readers have been kind enough to substantiate and reinforce that fact, and I thank them for educating me.
      I will not try to respond in detail to every complaint directed against my NPP post; I will make only two main points. FIRST OF ALL: my analysis of Wright and the NPP was limited to what he wrote about this in his book on justification (as I so indicated). I assumed that in this book he would be dealing with the essence of the subject, and that whatever he said here would be consistent with his other writings. As for my analysis of his material, I do maintain that my explanation of Wright’s views and claims (as made in the book) is fair, accurate, and honest. I do also maintain that his views on this subject are wrong, i.e., they do not represent a correct understanding of the Bible. I understand that Wright’s fans will disagree with this latter point.
      My SECOND MAIN POINT is much more serious, i.e, that the whole phenomenon of the NPP is based on a seriously faulty view of the nature of the Bible. The issue here is not how many years passed between the writing of the NT documents and the NPP’s alleged enlightenment as to their meaning, whether it be ten or a hundred or nineteen hundred. The issue is whether or not there was a divine power at work in the minds of the human authors of those original documents, including those of Paul. What kind of book is the Bible?
      I made this point in my original posting, and I emphasize it again: the NPP presupposes that the Bible is a one-dimensional book. I.e., it has a human dimension only. Specifically, everything in Paul’s writings owes its origin and meaning to Paul’s human background, experiences, and understanding. It is assumed that his mind was steeped in the second-temple rabbinic culture and writings, and that his concepts and terminology must necessarily be determined by that background and must be addressing that culture. This assumption is what gives the NPP its sense of legitimacy.
      We can follow this approach only if we reject the Bible’s own testimony to itself, including the testimony of Paul himself. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that his message was not from man but from God (Gal. 1:11-17). He consciously wrote and spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-16; 7:40). He knew that his words were not the word men but the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). We must choose whether we will accept or reject this testimony, and we must decide to what extent this divine influence affects the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. How we respond will determine whether or not we feel dependent upon the rabbinical writings to understand Paul’s vocabulary and message.
      If we accept the Holy Spirit’s role in the production of the NT Scriptures, then we should understand that the human authors were not writing just for their first-century Greek or Jewish audiences; they were writing for the church universal in all times and cultures to come. If God wants us to understand that Christ’s death was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, we don’t have to discover the monocultural meaning of that term in long-lost rabbinic writings. If he wants us to understand that our justification is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we don’t have to know how the rabbis used that term. Their understanding of such things was not inspired; Paul’s writing about them was.

  5. Pingback: Against Cottrell’s Rebuttal of Wright | theophiluspunk

  6. Jack, I found one thing surprising in your critique: that the new covenant is not the covenant of Abraham. When Paul says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29), is he not saying that in Christ what God promised to Abraham has found its fulfillment? If you want to call it the Messianic promise God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that would preserve the Christocentrism you and I believe to be essential, while also retaining the continuity with Abraham.

    • I’m sorry, Steve, but your comment is not clear to me. Yes, according to the NT, the covenant God made with Abraham was fulfilled in Christ — by God’s intention. But for the NPP, this covenant was not originally INTENDED to require a role for Christ, but was supposed to be fulfilled solely by the nation of Israel. Only because Israel failed to keep its part of the covenant was a role made for Christ. Thus the role of Jesus is quite secondary.

    • One thing that is often overlooked is the difference between the covenant promises, and the FULFULLMENT of those promises. Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 12:3; 22:18) were the MEANS by which the covenant promises were to be fulfilled, especially via the ONE offspring, Jesus (Gal. 3:16). Acts 13:32-34 says that in Jesus all the promises to the fathers wee FULFILLED. Abraham received the promises (Heb. 11:17), but he did not receive the FULFILLMENT of the promises (Heb. 11:13). The New Covenant established by Christ (Luke 22:20) contains a whole new set of promises, which are the FULFILLMENT of the Abrahamic covenant. We receive these new promises as part of the New Covenant. And we receive them by FAITH, which is our main connection with Abraham: we imitate his RESPONSE to God’s promises (Romans 4). We are definitely NOT under the Abrahamic covenant.

  7. So the proceeding scholarship misses Paul’s presuppositions? Dr. Wright would have to assume that the appearance of the Risen Jesus was not a life changing event. Saul was persecutor of Jesus, so said the LORD Himself. PAUL would ask that we would not give to much credence to who SAUL was. If you think about N.T. Wright and the proceeding scholarship are talking about two different people. The proceeding scholarship was referring to Paul and Dr. Wright is referring to Saul.

  8. Thanks Dr. Cottrell for once again explaining with precision and clarity this subject. A short book I found helpful for understanding this rather complex issue is Kent Yinger’s, “The New Perspective on Paul.”

  9. I forgot to mention this in my previous comment and do not see how to edit it. But Tom Olbricht has shown there are some significant connections between Campbell and N. T. Wright especially on the narrative structure of scripture, See “Recovery of Covenantal Naratival Biblical Theology in the Restoration Movement,” in And the Word Became Flesh: Studies in History, Communication, and Scripture in Memory of Michael W. Casey, eds. Thomas H. Olbricht and David Fleer (Pickwick, 2009), 72-88.

    Worth a read.

    Blessings

  10. I read this with interest. I have always appreciated your work Dr Cottrell and have learned greatly from you over the years. But I cannot agree with any of the criticisms noted here.

    The final quote, for a Restorationist to affirm is striking. However, in the early church people did not read Paul as did Luther and Calvin so the statement is incorrect.

    As for “Judeocentric,” while I do not like that term, I will affirm that the historical context of Jesus and Paul are paramount in properly understanding them. Jesus is a Jew. Paul was a Jew. Their thought world is the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism. Call it the the scandal of the incarnation but it is still true. I think Alexander Campbell would be saying a hearty AMEN to Wright on this very point.

    I do not think Wright would disagree that Christ (the Messiah) is the crux of the matter. Wright addresses all of these matters, including substitutionary atonement, in his collection of essays “Pauline Perspectives.” Of course atonement cannot be reduced to a single metaphor either.

    My suggestion for anyone is to read Wright’s “Justification” themselves in which you will find some of the finest statements around for letting Scripture sit in judgement upon our historical opinions instead of the Protestant Reformation. I have no doubt, again, Campbell would say “Amen.”

    I appreciate you sharing, I just graciously demure.

    Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  11. Bro. Cottrell, thank you for your excellent rebutal of one of the most serious challenges I have heard. Truly Christ is the .”Seed” of the woman, long before Abraham was conceived. Why else would our Lord say, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day.?” As you so effectively assert, to allow “any other Gospel, which is really no Gospel at all” to be preached is precisely what Paul was condemning in Galations 1:6-9! Obviously, to substitute Israel for Christ is exactly that.

  12. Dr. Cottrell,
    While I do think at times Wright goes to far in places (especially seeing new-exodus imagery in places it seems a stretch), I think this rebuttal presents things with too much either-or thinking and not enough both-and. For example, justification for Wright is both a legal declaration of our right standing with God and an inclusion in the covenant family. And Wright is one of the most Jesus-centered theologians I’ve read. So to pit Jesus-centeredness against Jewish-Centeredness really isn’t fair. His JUDEOCENTRISM, as you call it, is a hermeneutical commitment to read Paul on his terms, understanding him within his cultural background. Certainly it’s possible Wright has misunderstood some things about first century Judaism, though he is more balanced and less extreme as some proponents of the NPP. But trying understand the cultural background to make sure we’re properly understanding the text is standard interpretive practice. This commitment leads Wright to assert the importance of Israel to the story of redemption rather largely overlooking or bracketing them from that story (which much of the Old Perspective has done at times).

    All in all, I think some of the conclusions drawn in this essay are dangerous in that they can cause people unfamiliar with Wright to conclude he believes things that once you read a wide collection of his material it becomes clear he in no way believes. Some of the conclusions drawn here are diametrically opposed to positions Wright has argued for and defended in his larger body of work. I hate to see him, his work, his diehard devotion to the authority of Scripture, and his clearly articulated commitment to substitutionary atonement misrepresented.

    • I am not a graduate of Bible college nor a well-known scholar. I am a life-long Christian who strives to follow the Word in my beliefs and life choices. An acquaintance introduced N.T. Wright’s ideas on the crucifixion in a conversation around the dinner table one evening. My first thought was, “Oh my, what is she saying?” She is getting a Masters in Theology and taking classes and working as a missionary, and I was surprised by the depth of her conviction that we have all read Jesus’ death on the cross wrong all these years. But I try very hard not to rule things out without knowing something about them. So I looked up N.T. Wright’s website and read some of his own words and thoughts on various subjects. Again, I have not read all of his work. I do not like what I am reading. The role of Jesus in our salvation is almost completely mitigated. His role is so minimized that I wonder why he bothered to go through the pain, betrayal and death. My personal relationship with God is nearly obliterated and turned into a relationship that I can’t quite figure out based on Wright’s thoughts. Not being a scholar on the subject, just an ordinary Christian, I still reach the conclusion that Wright is thinking a bit too much of his own intelligence to consider that he finally has seen something that no one else has in all these years. Not that that couldn’t happen, but if it were to happen I certainly believe it would fit ALL scripture much better than Wright’s “Judaistic” interpretation of a few scriptures while ignoring others completely. The success of his shared insights scares me more than it does anything else. I believe many good people will be led astray by a person who gives himself a little too much credit and not enough credit to God for inspiring the scriptures in the first place. Paul was a Jew, yes, but his conversion clearly indicates that he did not think in Judaistic terms only. That conversion on the road to Damascus had a huge impact on his life. Had that not happened, then I might be sold on the whole NPP perspective on Paul’s writings, but it DID happen and God was a part of Paul’s writing process. God does not make mistakes! Sorry, N.T. Wright, but you will not convince me that you have the “right” perspective and God had it wrong all these years.

  13. Thank-you Dr. Cottrell. You have certainly enlightened us on the deception of the NPP movement. As I was reading this the light bulb blinked on and I said, “Christ, not Judaism is central to the message of the whole Bible. Our Salvation is through Christ, not the Jewish covenant.” And, guess what, you reached the same conclusion! Boy I must be smarter than I thought. The problems that you identify with the NPP belief system seem so elementary to me. Why is it that scholars tend to go off on such tangents?

  14. Brother Cotrell,
    It appears that those who would revise the longstanding understanding
    of Paul’s ministry overlook the fact that his Damascus road experience shifted his primary focus from the Law to Jesus Christ.

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