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  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?”