The "New Perspective on Paul" represents a significant shift since the 1970s in the understanding of the writings of the Apostle Paul, due to E. P. Sanders' pioneering 1977 work Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
Paul advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. Under influence of the Lutheran and Reformed perspective, known as sola fide, this was traditionally understood as Paul arguing that Christians' good works would not factor into their salvation – only their faith would count. In this perspective, 1st century Palestinian Judaism was dismissed as sterile and legalistic.
According to Sanders, Paul does not address good works in general, but instead questions only observances such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath laws, which were the 'boundary markers' that set the Jews apart from the other nations. According to Sanders, 1st century Palestinian Judaism was not a 'legalistic community', nor was it oriented to 'salvation by works'. Being God's chosen people, they were under his covenant. Contrary to what the Protestants thought, keeping the Law was not a way of entering the covenant, but of staying within the covenant.
Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul's writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to ascribe the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to Second Temple Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul's writings are called "the old perspective" by adherents of the "new perspective on Paul". The "new perspective" is an attempt to lift Paul's letters out of the Lutheran-Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms.
In 1963 the Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl published a paper arguing that the typical Lutheran view of the Apostle Paul's theology did not fit with statements in Paul's writings, and in fact was based more on mistaken assumptions about Paul's beliefs than careful interpretation of his writings. Stendahl warned against imposing modern Western ideas on the Bible, and especially on the works of Paul. In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this work he studies Jewish literature and Paul's writings, arguing that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul was fundamentally incorrect.
Sanders continued to publish books and articles in this field, and was soon joined by the scholar James D. G. Dunn. Dunn reports that Anglican theologian N.T. Wright was the first to use the term "new perspective on Paul" in his 1978 Tyndale Lecture. The term became more widely known after being used by Dunn as the title of his 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture where he summarized and affirmed the movement. The work of these writers inspired a large number of scholars to study, discuss, and debate the relevant issues. Many books and articles dealing with the issues raised have since been published. N.T. Wright has written a large number of works aimed at popularising the "new perspective" outside of academia.
The "new-perspective" movement is closely connected with a surge of recent scholarly interest in studying the Bible in the context of other ancient texts, and the use of social-scientific methods to understand ancient culture. Scholars affiliated with The Context Group have called for various reinterpretations of biblical texts based on studies of the ancient world.
It is often noted that the singular title "the new perspective" gives an unjustified impression of unity. It is a field of study in which many scholars[who?] are actively pursuing research and continuously revising their own theories in light of new evidence, and who do not necessarily agree with each other on any given issue. It has been suggested by many that a plural title of "new perspectives" may therefore be more accurate. In 2003, N. T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, commented that "there are probably almost as many 'new' perspective positions as there are writers espousing it - and I disagree with most of them". There are certain trends and commonalities within the movement, but what is held in common is the belief that the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives of Paul the Apostle and Judaism are fundamentally incorrect. The following are some of the issues being widely discussed.
Paul's letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of "works of the law". The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by "works of the law" is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives interpret this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God's standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is arguing against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works alone (note that the "new" perspective agrees that we cannot merit salvation; the issue is what exactly Paul is addressing).
By contrast, new-perspective scholars see Paul as talking about "badges of covenant membership" or criticizing Gentile believers who had begun to rely on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship. It is argued that in Paul's time, Israelites were being faced with a choice of whether to continue to follow their ancestral customs, the Torah, or to follow the Roman Empire's trend to adopt Greek customs (Hellenization, see also Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity). The new-perspective view is that Paul's writings discuss the comparative merits of following ancient Israelite or ancient Greek customs. Paul is interpreted as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs makes a person better off before God, pointing out that Abraham was righteous before the Torah was given. Paul identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days.
Due to their interpretation of the phrase "works of the law", theologians of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives see Paul's rhetoric as being against human effort to earn righteousness. This is often cited by Lutheran and Reformed theologians as a central feature of the Christian religion, and the concepts of grace alone and faith alone are of great importance within the creeds of these denominations.
"New-perspective" interpretations of Paul tend to result in Paul having nothing negative to say about the idea of human effort or good works, and saying many positive things about both. New-perspective scholars point to the many statements in Paul's writings that specify the criteria of final judgment as being the works of the individual.
Final Judgment According to Works... was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God's final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led - in accordance, in other words, with works.-- N. T. Wright
Wright however does not hold the view that good works contribute to one's salvation but rather that the final judgment is something we can look forward to as a future vindication of God's present declaration of our righteousness. In other words, our works are a result of our salvation and the future judgment will show that. Others tend to place a higher value on the importance of good works than the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives do, taking the view that they causally contribute to the salvation of the individual.
Advocates of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives often see this as being "salvation by works", and as a bad thing, contradicting fundamental tenets of Christianity. New-perspective scholars often respond that their views are not so different. For in the perspective of Luther and Calvin, God graciously empowers the individual to the faith which leads to salvation and also to good works, while in the "new" perspective God graciously empowers individuals to the faith (demonstrated in good works), which leads to salvation.
An ongoing debate related to the "new" perspective has been over Paul's use of the Greek word pistis (, meaning "trust", "belief", "faith", or "faithfulness"). Writers with a more historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective have typically interpreted this word as meaning a belief in God and Christ, and trust in Christ for salvation with faith that he will save you. This interpretation is based on several passages from the Christian Bible, notably the epistle to the Ephesians: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:9). E. P. Sanders has conceded that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional perspective.
By contrast, many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship. As such, the word could be almost synonymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to his master). Far from being equivalent to "lack of human effort", the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need "faithfully" to obey God's commands is quite different from one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that he will do everything for us. This is also argued to explain why James was adamant that "faith without works is dead" and that "a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (Js. 2:24), while also saying that merely to believe places one on the same level as the demons (see James 2). The "new" perspective argues that James was concerned with those who were trying to reduce faith to an intellectual subscription without any intent to follow God or Jesus, and that Paul always intended "faith" to mean a full submission to God.
Another related issue is the pistis Christou ("faith of Christ") debate. Paul several times uses this phrase at key points in his writings and it is linguistically ambiguous as to whether it refers to our faith in Christ ("objective genitive"), or Christ's own faithfulness to God ("subjective genitive"), or even our faith/faithfulness to God like that which Christ had ("adjectival genitive"). There is wide disagreement within the academic community over which of these is the best rendering. The NET Bible translation became the first mainstream English Bible translation to use a subjective genitive translation ("the faithfulness of Jesus Christ") of this phrase.
Writers with a more historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective have generally translated the Greek word charis as "grace" and understood it to refer to the idea that there is a lack of human effort in salvation because God is the controlling factor. However those who study ancient Greek culture have pointed out that "favor" is a better translation, as the word refers normally to "doing a favor". In ancient societies there was the expectation that such favors be repaid, and this semi-formal system of favors acted like loans. Gift giving corresponded with the expectation of reciprocity. Therefore, it is argued that when Paul speaks of how God did us a "favor" by sending Jesus, he is saying that God took the initiative, but is not implying a lack of human effort in salvation, and is in fact implying that Christians have an obligation to repay the favor God has done for them. Some argue that this view then undermines the initial "favor"--of sending Jesus--by saying that, despite his life, death and resurrection, Christians still have, as before, to earn their way to heaven. However, others note this is the horns of a false dilemma (all grace versus all works). Many new-perspective proponents that see "charis" as "favor" do not teach that Christians earn their way to heaven outside of the death of Christ. Forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ is still necessary to salvation. But, that forgiveness demands effort on the part of the individual (cf. Paul in Phil. 3:12-16).
To writers of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives the penal substitution atonement theory and the belief in the "finished work" of Christ have been central. New-perspective writers have regularly questioned whether this view is really of such central importance in Paul's writings. Generally new-perspective writers have argued that other theories of the atonement are more central to Paul's thinking, but there has been minimal agreement among them as to what Paul's real view of the atonement might be.
The following is a broad sample of different views advocated by various scholars:
The "new" perspective has been an extremely controversial subject and has drawn strong arguments and recriminations from both sides of the debate.
In 2003 Steve Chalke, after being influenced by new-perspective writers, published a book targeted at a popular audience which made comments highly critical of the penal substitution theory of the atonement. This caused an extensive and ongoing controversy among Evangelicals in Britain, with a strong backlash from laypeople and advocates of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Chalke's views drew much support as well as criticism, with numerous articles, blogs and books being written on both sides of the debate.
The continuing controversy led to the Evangelical Alliance organising a symposium in July 2005 to discuss the issue. A record of this symposium includes a chapter by Chalke and his views are also contained in "the atonement debate". A group of three conservative evangelical theologians responded to Chalke with their book, Pierced for our Transgressions (Crossway Publishing, 2007), which strongly criticised Chalke's position as inconsistent with some evangelical confessions of faith. However, N. T. Wright endorsed Chalke and spoke out against the latter book, commenting, for instance, that 'despite the ringing endorsements of famous men, it [Pierced For Our Transgressions] is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.'
Both sides of the debate have attempted to claim the higher, and more accurate, view of scripture. New-perspective advocates claim that supporters of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective are too committed to historic Protestant tradition, and therefore fail to take a "natural" reading of the Bible; while those of the Lutheran and Reformed perspectives claim that new-perspective advocates are too intrigued by certain interpretations of context and history, which then lead to a biased hermeneutical approach to the text.
The "new" perspective has been heavily criticized by conservative scholars in the Reformed tradition, arguing that it undermines the classical, individualistic, Augustinian interpretation of election and does not faithfully reflect the teachings of the Scriptures. It has been the subject of fierce debate among Evangelicals in recent years, mainly due to N. T. Wright's increasing popularity in evangelical circles. Its most outspoken critics include Calvinists John Piper,Sinclair Ferguson, C. W. Powell,Mark A. Seifrid, D. A. Carson,Tom Holland,Ligon Duncan. Barry D. Smith has claimed that the New Perspective's challenge to the traditional view of Jewish faith practice as legalistic is misplaced.
In 2015 John M.G. Barclay published Paul and the Gift which re-frames Paul's theology of grace and, in doing so, provides a nuanced critique of the New Perspective. The book has been praised for keeping grace at the center of Paul's theology (pace the New Perspective) while illuminating how grace, understood in light of ancient theories of gift, demands reciprocity and thus the formation of new communities based not on ethnicity but the unqualified Christ-gift (much like the New Perspective).
The "new" perspective has, by and large, been an internal debate among Protestant scholars. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writers have generally responded favorably to new-perspective ideas, seeing both a greater commonality with their own beliefs and strong similarities with the views of many of the early Church Fathers. From a Catholic point of view, the "new" perspective is seen as a step toward the progressive reality of human salvation in Christ.[clarification needed] Moreover, passages in the works of many early Church Fathers show that new-perspective-style interpretations were widely held among them.
The increased importance new-perspective writers have given to good works in salvation has created strong common ground with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Historic Protestantism has never denied that there is a place for good and faithful works, but has always excluded them from justification, which Protestants argue is through faith alone, and to which good deeds do not contribute, whether with or without God's grace. This has, since the Reformation, been a line of distinction between Protestantism (both Reformed and Lutheran) and other Christian communions.
Sanders has conceded to me that Ephesians 2:9 teaches the traditional view.
...Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing. For man's powers without the Holy Ghost are full of ungodly affections, and are too weak to do works which are good in God's sight. Besides, they are in the power of the devil who impels men to divers sins, to ungodly opinions, to open crimes. This we may see in the philosophers, who, although they endeavored to live an honest life could not succeed, but were defiled with many open crimes. Such is the feebleness of man when he is without faith and without the Holy Ghost, and governs himself only by human strength. Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works.
...This only he means, that faith, without the evidence of good works, is vainly pretended, because fruit ever comes from the living root of a good tree.
Rejections of errors... [of those w]ho teach: That the good pleasure and purpose of God, of which Scripture makes mention in the doctrine of election, does not consist in this, that God chose certain persons rather than others, but in this, that He chose out of all possible conditions (among which are also the works of the law), or out of the whole order of things, that act of faith which from its very nature is undeserving, as well as it incomplete obedience, as a condition of salvation, and that He would graciously consider this in itself as a complete obedience and count it worthy of the reward of eternal life. For by this injurious error the pleasure of God and the merits of Christ are made of none effect, and men are drawn away by useless questions from the truth of gracious justification and from the simplicity of Scripture, and this declaration of the apostle is charged as untrue: "who has saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time (2 Tim 1:9).
They also are rejected who do not teach that remission of sins comes through faith but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own.