The Historical Development of Views on Paul’s Theology (Old Perspective vs New Perspective)

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Martin Luther had problems with the Roman Catholic Church. He felt the church’s emphasis on works and rituals taught people to earn forgiveness and was suffocating the true gospel—which was all about God forgiving our sins by his mercy and love. Add to it, his angst against the church’s forgiveness scheme where a person could make a monetary contribution for a new church building and receive a pardon from sins. Luther protested and called for reform when he nailed a list of 95 grievances on the door of the church building in Wittenburg. Luther called for a return to the Bible alone and to faith alone.

Luther’s frustration with Catholicism and what he perceived as an overemphasis on earning salvation by one’s own efforts led him to gravitate to passages like Gal 2:15-16 where Paul claims that “we are not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus.” He seemed to equate justification with salvation and interpreted the passage as Paul claiming that Christians weren’t saved by following the Old Testament (OT) laws (but were saved because they believe in Jesus). He looked down on Judaism as if it (and the OT) were a series of unending laws that doomed the Jews. Thus, Judaism was an inferior system that failed to save the Jews so God got it right in Jesus by extending grace and making salvation possible through faith in Jesus. It’s as if Luther looked at Judaism the same way he looked to Roman Catholicism.

This understanding (or perspective) of Paul became the dominant Protestant theology of salvation and justification for the following centuries and is still predominant today. In churches of Christ, this was the background from which Campbell and Stone came. Their writings suggest that they were still very Reformed in their theology of salvation, justification, grace, and even Sola Scripture (Scripture Alone). Though many church of Christ people, in my experience, disagree with “faith alone,” many accept most of the premises of Reformed theology and still use those categories to understand and evangelize today. As we dig deeper into the New Perspective, we might come to see salvation, justification, and the idea of faith much differently and I want to encourage you to welcome the fresh perspective.

Most credit Krister Stendahl’s 1963 article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” as the seed that sprouted this movement. Stendahl argued that Paul’s writings had been inaccurately read and interpreted through the lens of Martin Luther and his Reformation movement. Luther fought his way out of Catholicism and struggled to find a God who was merciful and forgiving. Thus Luther read Paul as if Paul were fighting the same battle. Stendahl argued that Paul’s main interest was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers and not justification and salvation from sins.

After Stendahl, E.P. Sanders wrote a groundbreaking book in 1977 titled, Paul and Palestinian Judaism where he painted a completely different picture of what first century Judaism looked like. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls opened a door into the life of first century Judaism or to be more accurate Judaisms. Sanders observed that Judaism was not a works based religion where individuals worked to be saved or justified before God. Rather, certain works were the expected practices of those who were already in a covenant with God. Sanders called this “covenantal nomism.” Judaism was a covenant based religion and works were a result of covenant (not a means of entry) or how one maintained covenant. From his observations, he demonstrated that the traditional Lutheran view of Judaism was a mischaracterization of the Judaism of New Testament times.

James Dunn agreed with Sander’s thesis about covenantal nomism but nuanced the claims by arguing that Paul’s terms such as “works of the law” were “badges” or “boundary markers” that marked out God’s true people. Where Luther had interpreted “works of the law” to means works that humans do to merit favor with God in order to be saved, Dunn argued that “works of the law” were practices that Jewish believers were telling Gentile believers they had to do if they wanted to be fully and truly accepted as members in the true Israel of God.

Since Dunn scholars such as NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Bruce Longenecker, and others have advocated a similar New Perspective on Paul. At the heart of the issue is the desire to read Paul in context. The New Perspective (NPP) proponents argue that Luther read his own set of questions into Paul’s writings. This is why NT Wright argues that we must read Paul asking questions of Paul’s day—to the best of our ability instead of continuing to read Paul through questions of Luther’s day. Wright even argues that the “new perspective” is technically the “older perspective.” Once again, this is about trying to read Paul in context.

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