I ducked out of New Haven just in time! Left last Thursday for Tennessee to visit the family. Today the Northeast has been slammed with a blizzard, apparently they are getting a foot to a foot and half of snow in costal Connecticut. Which will probably still be on the ground when I make it back up there Friday. But still… I am rather glad to be where I am right now… We got snow in the south as well, but when we get snow its like a light dusting that lasts for three hours and still manages to shut down entire states… I’m not looking forward to walking to class or to work in a foot of snow come January or February!
While here in TN for Christmas I have been thinking a bit about a topic I haven’t really touched in a while- the New Perspective on Paul. I was very intrigued by this school of thought in undergrad, but honestly after initially studying it and deciding it seemed to make more sense of Paul than most other interpretations I’d read, I didn’t really do much with it. I am far more interested in studying the Old Testament than Paul, and so after an initial fling I kinda moved on from studying this issue critically and did other things. But lately I’ve been thinking about it more again. I had a conversation with a good friend the other day in which I tried, probably not very clearly, to explain the NPP. Then I just recently read a bunch of blog posts by some New Testament scholars who were at the ETS conference in which Wright and Schreiner went head to head on this issue. Apparently (I wish I had been there, I need to go find a recording or a transcript of this) Wright made some comment that they took as a concession to Schreiner on the issue of Justification. I love (in the most drippingly sarcastic way possible) how so many Evangelical theologians just assume that they have all of theology figured out; many of the posts took the form of smugly congratulating Wright on his seeing the light and correcting prior statements… Then today I heard a sermon that I think perfectly encapsulated some of the difficulties of the “popular” Reformed position that motivate a lot of my reasons for being interested in the NPP.
So here is a basic argument for why I think the NPP is a preferable interpretation of Paul. Two disclaimers before we go any farther. First, I am dealing primarily with what I understand as the “popular” interpretation of Paul in Reformed, Evangelical circles where the NPP is being met with the most hostility. Many scholars in the Reformed tradition would not face some of the issues I am raising, but I am not nearly ambitious enough right now to take them on in all the nuances of their ivory towers. So we are keeping this post on the popular level. Second, I am not making a traditional presentation of the NPP, which centers on interpreting Paul in a first century context in light of what we know of Second Temple Judaism. Fascinating as all of that is, I don’t know enough about it to deal with it in any sort of rigorous way. But I have spent a good amount of time studying the Old Testament, and so what I am arguing for is a reading of Paul from the perspective of the Old Testament.
The typical “popular” interpretation of Paul in Evangelical circles reflects a particular way of systematizing the Reformers. Reformers like Luther and Calvin were responding to particular abuses in Catholic theology such as the selling of indulgences and the excessive homage to relics which were really in many ways political ploys by the Medieval Church. Convince the people that they can only reach heaven by doing certain works that are only available through the Church and you suddenly have quite a bit of political power over the populace. In contrast, Luther and Calvin want to emphasize the role of Faith over Works- jumping through the hoops laid out by the Catholic Church was not the road to Salvation, the road to Salvation was found in Christ alone, and was accessed through your faith in Christ, not any particular action or ceremony performed by the clergy or yourself. Now its important to note that none of the major Reformers took this to mean that we should do away with all the ceremonies of the Church. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all still baptized infants. They all offered Mass to their congregations. They just wanted to do so in a way that emphasized that the action of being baptized or of receiving communion did not itself grant you salvation. Your faith was what led you to God, the actions you took as part of that faith were just acts if not accompanied by such faith.
I can’t speak much for the development of Lutheran thought since the Reformation, but I have spent a good amount of time studying the development of the Reformed tradition that followed from Calvin. In that tradition a particular emphasis on systematizing doctrine has been present for a long time that has led to a number of splits- for instance, the divide between Calvinists and Arminians and Wesleyans. Particularly in Evangelical Circles there has developed a theology known as Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism in many ways pits the New Testament against the Old Testament. It takes a rhetorical move of Martin Luther and turns it into a systematic understanding of the relationship between the two parts of the Bible. In this understanding, the Old Testament really does offer the possibility of Salvation to anyone who can keep the whole law. However, as Paul kindly informs us, this is not possible because we are all sinners. Therefore, we are in need of a savior who has kept the whole law perfectly and therefore nullified it. Now our salvation is not dependent on the keeping of the law, it is dependent on our faith in Christ who has kept it for us. This plays nicely into the substitutionary model of the atonement and an imputed model of grace, both of which are very important to Calvinist doctrines of salvation. So in Evangelical Reformed theology, even among those that explicitly deny being dispensational, we can see a heavy influence of dispensational thinking on the understanding of how the Old Testament and New interact and relate to one another. Thus, the ideas of faith and works are radically opposed to one another.
We can immediately pose a question: where do works fit into this schema?
The Reformers would, as far as I understand them, all want to say that out of our faith grows a desire to do good works of worship and service to God. This was a natural result of faith they would say, and its absence pointed to an absence of faith. Under the influence of dispensational thought in Evangelical circles this becomes a bit more murky. The Old Testament law and prophets have generally been almost completely disregarded in a way that to me seems dangerously close to the ancient heresy of Marcion. Sure, Jesus restates the law in the commandments to love God and neighbor. But far too often in Evangelical circles there has been a tendency to interpret “love” of God and neighbor in a way that rings of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism- the best way to love someone is to convert them so as to save their soul, their body being completely disregarded, and turn them to worshipping God through going to Church, the ultimate expression of love toward God (never mind Jesus’ own statements about God desiring service more than ritual). This very shallow understanding of what love means, this utter disregard for the Old Testament, has been the source of a lot of my frustration growing up in and studying in Evangelical circles (though thankfully I don’t think anyone on faculty at the Evangelical college I graduated from would have argued for either of these things). It also, I think, creates some serious difficulties for the popular understanding of Paul. If Paul is really pitting faith against works, then where do works fit in at all? Once we read on from Romans 3 to Romans 6, where Paul says we should not continue in sin, we should not continue to break the law, what do we do? The tendency has been towards a tedious legalism with the repeated, conflicting emphasis: Christians don’t do these certain things. Likewise, we are sinners who in fact do these things and need grace because we can’t not do them on our own. I remember reading something by John Piper about movies in which he explained why he doesn’t watch a good many moves. His claim was that it was because he was weak and sinful and didn’t want to expose himself to temptation. Yet that same weak sinfulness is why he is dependent on God and not himself for salvation. This is not a formal contradiction of doctrine. But practically, I think this results in a feeling of being caught hanging over a precipice with your feet on one ledge and your hands on another and not being sure which ledge to jump for.
In dealing with these issues I think the New Perspective offers a far better understanding of Paul that also reads from the direction of the Old Testament toward the New. The starting point, which, interestingly, has been clearly argued for by Walt Kaiser, a very respected, Evangelical scholar of the Old Testament who as far as I know would not claim to be a proponent of the NPP, is that there is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament. Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation. From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation! The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God’s chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God’s people. In contrast with the “popular” Reformed reading, having been influenced by Dispensational theology, which reads the Old Testament as in opposition to the New, the New Perspective maintains this reading of the Old Testament on its own terms and argues that Paul’s issue is not with the idea that you earn your Salvation via doing the law but with the idea that the only people who have Salvation are the ones set apart by the law- the Jews. Instead, through Jesus Christ the path to Justification has been opened to all who participate in Christ by faithfully serving Him through the New Covenant that he has formed. Following the logic of the Old Testament, the people of God are still a people that are marked as different, but the mark is not participation in the particular rituals of the Old Testament- Sabbath keeping, Circumcision, Kosher food laws, etc- but the faithful continuation of the mission of Christ through the life of the Church.
It is important to keep in mind the logic of the Old Testament covenant when considering the Pauline concept of salvation and the law. Paul is certainly not saying that we earn our salvation by doing the law or by doing any good works. Paul is addressing those who are recipients of salvation, who through their baptism are already included in the community of Christ. His argument is that these people do not now need to take on the stipulations of the Jewish law. They are already part of God’s community. Instead, they need to embody the covenant Jesus had established, to obey in the same way that Israel was instructed to obey at Sinai. They were already out of Egypt, they were already circumcised members of the covenant community. Then they received the law which they were instructed to obey, not to merit their position but to mark their position as set apart from those outside the community. Paul envisions a similar logic for the Church, but centered on the person of Christ and not on the Old Testament covenant.
I think this NPP reading makes better sense of the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. I also think it makes better sense of the role works play in the life of a Christian. It is not that they are required to become a Christian. But they are required to be a faithful Christian fulfilling the calling of Christ. In that sense I don’t think what the NPP is doing is any different from what the Reformers wanted to argue for, but it states it more clearly by distancing itself from a view of the law too influenced by dispensational developments in Reformed theology. Rather than seeing faith and works in opposition to one another, the NPP wants to see them as in cooperation with one another in the same way as the they were in the logic of the Old Testament: Faith in God for what God has already done leads to obedience of the commands God gives to us.