Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The New Perspective on Paul

"Paul was reacting primarily against the exclusivism which he himself had previously fought to maintain. In particular, he was reacting against the conviction (shared by most other Christian Jews) that 'works of the law', such as (or particularly) circumcision and laws of clean and unclean, continued to prescribe the terms of covenant relationship for Gentiles as well as Jews. It was in and from this conflict that Paul's doctrine of justifcation by faith alone achieved its classic expression (Gal.2:1-21)."
The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, James Dunn (ed), 2003.

My article on N.T. Wright generated alot of questions and as a result, I would like to write an entry on one of the ongoing debates in New Testament research these days referred to as "the new perspective on Paul" ("NPP" to follow). Let me first provide some background information, and then outline what I see as the main points of this "new perspective".

Surprisingly, the majority of scholars linked to the NPP are Anglo-American. Usually one could expect some German influence, as many of the great theologlians are German, but then again this is largely a rejection of another German named Martin Luther. One can connect the dots between the work of W.D. Davies, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright whose work each built on the other. Of those mentioned, the latter two, Dunn and Wright, have written the most on the topic. If you want to dive into the NPP debate, any of the works by Dunn and Wright would be excellent places to start. For example, why not try N.T. Wright's Paul In Fresh Perspective (2005) as a pu pu as they say in Hawaiian!  They are well worth the effort.

NPP writers argue that we need to rethink how we read Paul, and how we understand Judaism. Much of our views have been distorted by Luther (mostly) and Calvin (to a lesser degree). In short, we have read the Reformers interpretations over Paul's and a result misunderstood both what Paul was trying to say and first century Judaism. In an interesting twist, Wright and others advocate for sola scriptura, which must drive the Reformed crowd nuts. But that is Wright and others point. Lets go back to what the Scriptures say which might not be what we have been taught. Scholars like Sanders have helped to carve out a new appreciation of Judaism for example, and that first century Judaism was never a religion of legalism based on works of righteousness. To put it in terms we in the Celtic world would appreciate, Judaism was not an early version of Pelagianism. Sanders coined the phrase "covenantal nomism" to describe the pattern of religion found in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Judiasm. This was a system which was based on the covenant and which required a proper response from the follower.

If Paul was not protesting against Judaism, what was he protesting against then? According to the NPP, Paul was more of a zealot for his country than a devout Jew. And once Paul converted to Christianity, he railed not against the Law, but rather a limited view of Judaism, a Judaism which focused more on the cultural aspects such as circumcision, purity codes, and that which ultimately separated the Jews from the Gentiles. Paul's understand of the Law and Covenant was wider than his contemporaries, and was one which he felt was meant to include the Gentiles.

There is more to the NPP debate than this, but these two points seem to me to be the most important and controversial ones. Now you can disagree with the NPP and that's fine. But if you are serious about New Testament studies, and want new perspectives for preaching and your own knowledge, you would be well to become familar with the writings of both Wright and Dunn who are two of the finest New Testament critics in the English speaking world today. These men remind us, and rightly I think, that there is always something new and fresh to learn when it comes to understanding God's word, and it's relevance for our life in the world today. Each age is challanged to interpret anew and to struggle with what the New Testament means.

After completing this article, I found a cool clip on Youtube, with both Wright and Dunn, that I wanted to include and is linked here. This also provides an excellent introduction to the NPP. Enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment