Do we have a valid criticism of the New Perspective on Paul? (NPP) Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
A reader of the blog wanted to get my thoughts on an article he found online from Got Questions (GQ). He had been searching for information on the New Perspective on Paul and wanted to see what he could find. This one showed up on the first page and when I did my look, I got the same results. So let’s look at what the author of the piece has to say. Those wanting to read it can find it here. The question being asked is if the NPP is Biblical.
Any time a “new perspective” on some biblical doctrine arises, red flags should go off warning Christians of possible danger. In many cases such “new” ideas, teachings, or perspectives are not new at all. Rather, they are the same old lie from the Garden of Eden when Satan first cast doubt on God’s Word: “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1). In that sense, the “New Perspective on Paul” is ancient in that it tries to deny what the Scriptures clearly teach and what has been accepted by Christians for centuries. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not biblical and appears to be an attempt to redefine and even deny key biblical doctrines that are the foundation of the Christian faith.
Way to start off with both guns blazing! GQ didn’t even hesitate to start tying in the NPP with the lies of the devil. Why? Well first off, because it’s new. One can only imagine what they would have thought at the time of the Reformation. Would they have sided with Luther? Even if my readers aren’t Protestant here, it should be realized that GQ is not a Catholic ministry so they must answer this question. Would heliocentrism be considered a new perspective causing doubt on the Word of God? They do believe in the rapture. Are they not aware that historically that is a “new teaching”?
Anyway, to get back to the main point, we have already been told that the NPP is not Biblical and is an attempt to redefine core doctrines of the Christian faith. This is an interesting statement, but there’s one glaring problem. We haven’t even been told what the NPP is. We’re just told that whatever it is, it is like the ancient lie of the devil.
Sadly, however, the teachings propagated by the few who champion the “New Perspective on Paul” are gaining ground, even among evangelical churches, despite the fact that some of its leading proponents are liberal New Testament scholars from secular universities. Most well-known among the “New Perspective on Paul” proponents is N.T. Wright, a noted Bible scholar and Bishop in the Anglican Church, whose books seem to be influencing the spread of this troublesome teaching in evangelical churches.
Some of its proponents are liberal NT scholars who teach at secular universities like…..well…..we’re not told. N.T. Wright is the one mentioned here and he is hardly liberal. Wright wrote one of the leading books arguing that Jesus rose from the dead.
The heart of this teaching is that for hundreds, if not thousands, of years Christians have seriously “misunderstood” the apostle Paul and his teachings—thus the need for a new perspective on Paul. The idea that these latter-day scholars are so wise that they can figure out the correct perspective on Paul, when biblical scholars from the time of Christ on could not, is founded upon audacity and even borderline arrogance. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not unlike the Jesus Seminar group, who several years ago decided they could determine what Jesus actually said and did not say by voting on which words of Christ in the Bible should be attributed to Him and which should not. The implied arrogance of these types of “wiser than everyone else” attitudes should be clear when they claim that Christians for almost 2,000 years have been wrong about Paul.
Um. No. It’s not arrogance at all. It’s simply based on having new information that they did not have, including information found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s also this head in the sand approach that new ideas cannot possibly be true. We are learning more about the world of the Bible regularly. Archaeology and other disciplines are showing us things that had been lost for centuries. This is not arrogance. Arrogance is thinking that we will not uncover anything that could change our minds.
It’s also hideous to say that this is like the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a group of leftist NT scholars who approached the text with an assumption that miracles didn’t happen and didn’t consist of anyone from a European school. The NPP is not like that at all. GQ is just engaging in some guilt by association.
There are four basic tenets of “New Perspective on Paul.” First is the belief that Christians misunderstand Judaism of the first century. They say that Paul was not battling against Jews who were promoting a religion of self-righteousness and works-based salvation and that the Pharisees were not legalists. Yet the Bible describes the Pharisees as those who “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” “straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel,” and ones who “cleaned up the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23–25). The view that first-century Pharisees were not legalists and their religion was not one of self-righteousness and works-based salvation directly contradicts Jesus’ own words in this and numerous other passages.
No it doesn’t. The idea is that the Pharisees did not keep the Law in order to attain righteousness. They kept it to demonstrate their righteousness. That can still work with self-righteous. The Pharisees thought they were righteous because they kept the Law, but Christ pointed out that it was all show. It would have been good for GQ to go and get Paul’s own perspective with the Law.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Paul would have said he kept the law flawlessly. He wasn’t living in a legalistic system where he was hoping everyday he could keep the Law. That’s the idea that has often come to us, but it’s simply a false one. In fact, the Reformers themselves would have been the first to say “Let’s look at this idea!” Their cry was “To the sources!” If this idea could be demonstrated from the sources, then let us go with it.
The second tenet of this false teaching is that Paul really did not have a problem with the doctrine of salvation taught by the Jewish leaders of his day. His disagreement with them was simply over how they treated the Gentiles and not a fundamental difference over how one is saved or justified before a holy God. However, in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, Paul clearly and solidly condemned the works-based system of righteousness promoted by the Judaizers who were trying to lure the Galatians away from the true gospel message. In fact, he said that anyone who preached a gospel other than the one he preached should be “eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8–9). Once again, Scripture shows that the “New Perspective on Paul” is not based on the testimony of Scripture but instead is contrary to it, making it an unbiblical teaching with serious consequences for those who follow it and are led astray by it.
No. Once again, GQ is assuming their stance and pushing it onto the Bible. The question of Galatians is “How do you show you are a part of the family of God?” The answer of the Judaizers was “Keeping the Law.” The answer of Paul was “Faith in Christ.” Paul would have indeed said you could not be righteous by keeping the Law. You can only be righteous by having faith in Christ. The NPP would not disagree with that.
The third unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching is that the gospel is about the Lordship of Christ and not a message of personal salvation and individual redemption from the condemnation of sin. Certainly, the Lordship of Christ is an important part of the gospel truth, but, if that is all it is, how is that good news? No one can make Christ Lord of his life without first being cleansed of sin and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can empower us to yield to the lordship of Christ. Clearly the hope of Christians is that Christ is first and foremost a Savior whose atoning sacrifice has personally and completely made atonement for their sins. It is for this reason that the gospel is the good news, because “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
The NPP is right on this and what GQ misses is that salvation is the result of this. Since Christ is Lord, He is able to pronounce forgiveness and judgment. It’s a shame that GQ asks “How is this good news?” How is it not? One does not say “Jesus is Lord and that’s all.” It’s “Jesus is Lord and that changes everything.” The NPP is certainly right that we have individualized the Gospel and started it with ourselves instead of Christ as Lord. Again, nothing else said here about the Holy Spirit would be problematic to the NPP.
This leaves us with the fourth and the most serious unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching—the denial of the doctrine of justification by faith, a central and non-negotiable Christian doctrine. According to proponents of this unbiblical teaching, when Paul wrote about justification, he was not speaking of personal and individual justification whereby a guilty sinner is declared righteous on the basis of his faith in Christ and Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the sinner. Instead, they claim, when Paul wrote about justification, he was speaking of how one could tell if a person was “a member of the covenant family.”
And the problem? One is welcomed into the covenant family on the basis of faith and not the works of the Law. How is that a denial of being justified by faith? Salvation still works out the same way. At this point, I can’t help but think of how someone once asked me to watch a video with Al Mohler hosting a group of Christians, whether scholars or not I couldn’t tell, on N.T. Wright’s view and if he was going against the Reformation. One person actually said “N.T. Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition.” I nearly fell out of my chair hearing that.
Wasn’t that kind of what the Reformation was all about? Going against tradition because of something found in the Scriptures? Why would the Reformers be opposed to this then?
According to N.T. Wright, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was in fact, a member of his people.” The problem with this tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” is that it distorts the biblical teaching on justification by faith and instead teaches that Paul’s doctrine of justification was only concerned with the Gentiles’ standing in the covenant community and not at all about a guilty sinner being declared just before a holy and righteous God. Simply put, we cannot disregard or redefine justification and still be considered Christian or biblical. In his writings, N.T. Wright often argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel (2 Corinthians 5:21).
It would have been nice to have seen something from N.T. Wright on this. We have a quote, but who knows where it comes from? Instead, GQ puts up a straw man saying Paul was only concerned about Gentiles. No. Paul was a preacher of one Gospel. After all, Paul counted his keeping of the law rubbish when compared to Christ. It’s a shame also that GQ says Wright argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel.
I could have sworn the heart and soul was Jesus Christ died, buried, and resurrected again. Could it be GQ here is actually demonstrating the point about individualizing the Gospel? They’ve said the start of the Gospel is the news about themselves. It’s not. It’s the news about Jesus.
Just as Satan called into question the Word of God to Eve, the “New Perspective on Paul” calls into question the basic doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed by the Bible and, because of this, the “New Perspective on Paul” should be rejected.
It would have been good to have seen this demonstrated, but instead, we have a head-in-the-sand approach that says “New idea! Must not be investigated!” And apparently, they didn’t. You do not find all these other scholars quoted and only one attempt at a quotation from Wright that does not even have a source. It’s because of this, that I think GQ should be rejected on this. Now it could be the NPP is not true and should be rejected, but it is better to debate a matter without settling it than to settle a matter without debating it.