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Getting Some Perspective
on the “New Perspective”:
What’s at stake (or not!) for Reformed Pastors regarding the contemporary discussion of Paul and “the works of the law”?

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

There has been a great deal of talk lately about “the New Perspective on Paul” and the works of, among others, Ed Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright. Each one of these writers deserves their own analysis (and “critiques” that jump from one to the other as if criticisms of one automatically apply to all have been grossly inaccurate). This brief essay will simply deal with the central idea of what has been called “covenantal nomism”–that in Jesus’ day the Jews viewed God’s covenant as a gift of pure grace and viewed the law as part of that gift to show them how to continue in that covenant. The Jews, according to the “new perspective,” were not trying to earn or merit salvation from God, but viewed their standing before God as due to God’s merciful provision. That provision included the law as the means by which God’s people continued to walk with him (i.e. stayed in covenant). It was based, all along the line, on the expectation of God’s continual forgiveness of their sins as God had graciously promised them.

Corresponding to the above statement, many NP thinkers (not all) believe that Paul’s critique of first-century Judaism was a critique of widespread boasting in their covenantal status as God’s chosen nation. “The works of the law” are badges of covenant membership which Paul believes Christ has ended but which his opponents wish to perpetuate for the sake if their own, exclusive, special standing with God.

Some have written as if NP were a grave threat to the Protestant Reformation. In my opinion these claims are overblown. I hope to briefly give some reasons why NP is not a rejection of the Reformed doctrine. I have no intention of arguing for NP in this paper. There are plenty of arguments and elaborations of NP around from a variety of viewpoints. My goal here is to attenuate the climate of suspicion that has been aroused so that orthodox pastors and professors are not slandered or libeled by baseless allegations. The simple fact is that one can be loyal to the Reformed Faith and have something positive to say about NP. NP may or may not be true, but it does not entail heresy on the part of someone who thinks it is or might be.


So, on with the show:


The first point to make is that there is no consensus present in the “new perspective” authors themselves that they are saying the Protestant Reformation sparked by Luther was without any basis in Paul’s epistles. In fact, many say quite the opposite. N. T. Wright has said any number of times that Luther’s critique of Medieval theology and practice was a legitimate application of Paul’s opposition to “the works of the law” and his advocacy of faith. But we can even find such affirmations of Luther in less orthodox “new perspective” scholars such as J. D. G. Dunn who writes in his Theology of Paul’s Letters to the Galatians (Cambridge University Press; 1993):

These extracts are enough to show that Luther had fairly grasped Paul’s principal thrust on the sufficiency of faith. His own experience had taught him thoroughly that any attempt to add conditions to the acceptability of human beings before God is a breach and distortion of the essential truth of the gospel. And his restatement of this insight, not least in his lectures on Galatians, lit a torch which has continued to illuminate western Christianity ever since….

The corollary of Luther’s restatement, however, was less fortunate. For in understanding “works of the law” as good works done to achieve righteousness his thinking was beginning to run at tangent to Paul’s…. he lost sight of the whole corporate dimension of Paul’s doctrine… The gain which Luther’s emphasis brought to theology is in no doubt and has often been explored. But an interpretation of the theology of Galatians more closely related to the historical situation of the letter itself will want to bring out other aspects too.

It is important to appreciate that both emphases are rooted in a fundamental assertion of the sufficiency of faith; both protest against any attempt to add or require something more than faith on the human side when computing what makes a person acceptable to God. The difference which became apparent in earlier chapters is that the added factor against which Paul himself was protesting was not individual human effort, but the assumption that ethnic origin and identity is a factor in determining the grace of God and its expression. Ethnic origin and identity is a different way of assessing human worth, but one more fundamental than the question of ability to perform good works. What Paul protested against was even more insidious — the assumption that the way people are constituted by birth rules them in or rules them out from receiving God’s grace. Paul’s protest was not against a high regard for righteousness, against dedicated devotion to God’s law. It was rather against the corollary to such devotion: that failure to share in that devotion meant exclusion from the life of the world to come, and that the majority of peoples in the world were in principle so excluded.

Now one sees here that Dunn does think that Luther misunderstood some aspects of Paul’s message, but he doesn’t at all disagree with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. On the contrary Luther has “illuminated Western Christianity” and his discovery is to be considered a “gain” that hinges on the “sufficiency of faith” as “what makes a person acceptable to God.”


Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2.8-10).

Sadly, many in New Testament scholarship don’t believe that Paul wrote Ephesians. That is too bad for them. But I note that we Evangelicals have here Paul’s statement about salvation by grace through faith apart from works and the context demands that these works are not “boundary markers” like circumcision, dietary code, or cultic calendar, but rather generic good deeds.

Paul also writes:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3.3-7).

Granted, Paul doesn’t mention faith explicitly, but do we not find here an affirmation of salvation by grace and mercy rather than anything we have done? Again the problem is the higher critical consensus that Titus is not a genuinely Pauline Epistle. But that is not a problem for Evangelicals.

My point is that reinterpreting Galatians and Romans could not, even at its worst, threaten justification by grace through faith apart from any and all good deeds. The only thing at stake is the possibility that mortal men whom we respect such as John Calvin and Martin Luther might have made some exegetical mistakes.


In Romans 4 we read,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness… (vv. 3-5).

Granted, some NP thinkers might think otherwise, but it seems clear to me that Paul is arguing against boasting in “the works of the law” by virtually equating it with earning favor from God. It seems to me that Paul’s argument presupposes that his opponents would recoil from such an idea. Paul’s critique will work only if Paul’s opponents think that it is wrong to claim to be earning God’s favor.

Whether or not all find the above interpretation convincing, there is plenty of reason why Paul would teach the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone in the context of arguing against nationalistic-covenant pride. For example:

Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know and of whom you have heard it said, “Who can stand before the sons of Anak?” Know therefore today that it is the LORD your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the LORD has spoken to you. Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people (Deuteronomy 9.1-6).

Now here we have a statement that condemns self-righteous nationalistic pride and applies (and has been applied by Reformed preachers for centuries) to all forms of self-righteousness. Thus (1) the Bible does condemn merit theology in this passage and many others whether or not it was a widespread phenomenon that Paul had to deal with; and (2) Paul might well have found reason to mention the theology of grace found in passages like Deuteronomy 9.1-6 even if there were no merit legalists to refute.

Or to look at this another way, there are lots of passages that support the theology of grace of the Reformation in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. For example:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1.26-31)

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (4.6-7)

You know that when you were Gentiles, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (12.2-3).

Now, one can simply read through this letter to see that some in the Corinthian Church believed they were especially spiritual and above the “weak” around them. Paul rebukes their boasting and emphasizes Christ crucified, just as he does in Galatians (c.f. First Corinthians 1.17, 23; 2.2; Galatians 2.20; 3.1; 5.24; 6.14). Furthermore, in both cases he appeals to their baptismal identity to deny the divisions they are maintaining (c.f. First Corinthians 12.12-13; Galatians 3.26-29). Yet, despite these striking similarities, no one has ever found it necessary to actually hypothesize a form of merit legalism behind the boasting of the Corinthian elite–even though Paul’s critique can be, and often is, used as a refutation of merit legalism.

So in the case of First Corinthians, Reformed pastors don’t seem to need merit legalists to exist as Paul’s opponents in order to derive and defend the doctrines of grace against more recent merit theologies. Why could not the same hold, in principle, for Galatians or Romans?


Heinrich Bullinger, an early Rhineland Reformer, wrote:

And indeed one may easily get in trouble here unless one proceeds on the royal highway. For those people who consider only the conditions of the covenant and in fact disregard the grace and promise of God exclude infants from the covenant. It is true that children not only do not observe the terms of the covenant but also do not even understand these terms. But those who view only the sacrament, ceremony, or sign of the covenant count some in the covenant who are really excluded. But if you consider each one separately, one at a time, not only according to the conditions of the covenant but also in terms of the promise or the mercy of God, and the age and reason of a person, then you will realize that all those who believe from among the Jews and the Gentiles are the descendants of Abraham with whom the Lord made the covenant. In the meantime, however, their offspring, that is, their children, have by no means been excluded from the covenant. They are excluded, however, if having reached the age of reason they neglect the conditions of the covenant.

In the same way, we consider children of parents to be children and indeed heirs even though they, in their early years, do not know that they are either children or heirs of their parents. They are, however, disowned if, after they have reached the age of reason, they neglect the commands of their parents. In that case, the parent no longer calls them children and heirs but worthless profligates. They are mistaken who boast about their prerogatives as sons of the family by virtue of birth. For he who violates the laws of piety toward parents is no different from a slave; indeed, he is lower than a slave, because even by the law of nature itself he owes more to his parents. Truly this debate about the seed of Abraham has been settled for us by the prophets and the apostles, specifically that not everyone who is born of Abraham is the seed of Abraham, but only he who is a son of the promise, that is, who is falthful, whether Jew or Gentile. For the Jews have already neglected the basic conditions of the covenant, while at the same tIme they glorified themselves as the people of God, relying on circumcision and the fact that they were born from the parent Abraham. Indeed, this error is denied and attacked not only by Christ along with the apostles but also by the entire body of the prophets (The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant with God, in Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition, Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker [Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1991], 106).

Here we have a Reformed author who claims that the First-century Jews were guilty of assuming they remained in the grace of God by virtue of their relationship with Abraham and their continued practice of circumcision. Bullinger does not present the Jews as people trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor, but rather as antinomians who have not truly continued in God’s covenant. This view is quite similar to NP authors who state that Paul was critiquing those within Judaism who claimed that boundary markers such as circumcision, diet, and calendar observance were the key to maintaining their special status with God.


Since technically NP is really not about Paul (!) but more about First Century Judaism, there is no one NP view on Paul’s doctrine of justification. However, N. T. Wright is often thought of as the premier Evangelical scholar working from the viewpoint of NP and he explicitly affirms and teaches that Paul thought of justification as the bestowal of a legal status, not a process or change in a person’s moral character.

…the key point is that, within the technical language of the law court, “righteous” means, for these two persons, the status they have when the court finds in their favor, Nothing more, nothing less (What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul the Real Founder of Christianity [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997], 98, Emphasis in original).

God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3.21-31; 4.13-25; 10.9-13). The law court language indicates what is meant. “Justification” itself is not God’s act of changing the heart or character of the person; that is what Paul means by the “call”, which comes through the word and the Spirit. “Justification” has a specific, and narrower, reference: it is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status “righteous”. (We may note that, since “righteous” here, within the law court metaphor, refers to “status”, not “character”, we correctly say that God’s declaration makes the person “righteous”, i.e. in good standing.) (The Shape of Justification, Emphasis in original)


In summary: NP is not self-consciously opposed to Reformed Theology. Reformed Theology is not dependent upon the traditional interpretation of Galatians and/or Romans. An absence of merit-legalists among Paul’s adversaries does not mean that he never taught the doctrines of the Reformation. NP is not entirely unprecedented with the Reformers. Finally, NP does not entail a denial of forensic justification and one notable NP author vigorously affirms such a doctine as being what the Apostle Paul believed and taught.

These hit the main points of concern that I have experienced. I hope they are of some help to you as you strive to know better God and His Word.

Copyright © 2002

Sounding the Alarm: N. T. Wright & Evangelical Theology
A Short Note on N. T. Wright & His Reformed Critics

1 Comment »

  1. It strikes me that both Paul and Luther had in common overwhelming life threatening events. The same is true of Bonhoeffer. I keep wondering if time spent as combat veterans or in prisons does not result in some of the scholarly differences.
    Bob Collie

    Comment by Robert Collie — July 28, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

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