A Reformed Critique of
The New Perspective
by Richard Gaffin
© 2002 (March April Issue). All Rights Reserved.
Michael S. Horton
Charles P. Arand
S. M. Baugh
R. Scott Clark
J. Ligon Duncan
T. David Gordon
W. Robert Godfrey
Donald A. Hagner
John D. Hannah
Hywel R. Jones
Donald G. Matzat
Mickey L. Mattox
Philip G. Ryken
A. Craig Troxel
Gene E. Veith
Paul F. M. Zahl
© 2004 All Rights Reserved. For more information write to
1725 Bear Valley Pkwy
Escondido, CA 92027
click here for email
The New Perspective on Paul, as it has been called, raises serious questions for Protestants committed to the doctrine of justification by faith. This school of thought does so in two ways. On the one hand, it questions the Apostle Paul’s relationship to—and understanding of—Judaism. On the other hand, it undermines the Reformation’s understanding of Pauline theology. To put it bluntly, this reassessment narrows the distance between Paul and the Judaism of his day while it widens the gap between Paul and the Reformation. Also, these questions themselves raise other questions, which cast doubt upon the New Perspective’s conclusions.
The Righteousness of God in Christ
One overall effect of the New Perspective tendency to reduce or moderate the distance between Paul and the Judaism of his day is that it appears to assume a basic continuity between the Old Testament and the various mainstreams within Judaism. For both James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, two leading spokespersons for the New Perspective, the Old Testament roots of Paul’s theology and its roots in Second Temple Judaism seem to be interchangeable, or at least continuous. What one would think is an obvious distinction, at least from an evangelical perspective, is repeatedly glossed over. There is little appreciation or even recognition that Old Testament revelation and Jewish religion and theology are not the same thing and are often in conflict, even in Old Testament times and especially in Paul’s day. Nor is there an appropriate awareness of the canonical distinctiveness of the Jewish scriptures in relation to subsequent sources. The piety expressed throughout the Hebrew prophets and elsewhere in the Psalms, for instance, is normative in a way that the Qumran materials [those extra-biblical writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by an apocalyptic Jewish sect at the time of Christ], are not, even when similar sentiments are expressed in the latter.
This is not to deny a factor of continuity, that there remained in Paul’s day a faithful remnant (e.g., Rom. 11:5; cf, Luke 2:25ff., 36–38), individuals found, no doubt, among the various mainstreams, even within the religious establishment (Luke 23:50–51; cf. John 3: 1ff.; 7:50–51; 9:16; 19:39). But these, as the idea of the remnant suggests, were the exception. Wright relentlessly insists that Paul “did not (as it were) abandon Judaism for something else” throughout his writing. But, while Paul certainly did not abandon the religion of the Old Testament, just for the sake of fidelity to it and to the God of Abraham, he most certainly did abandon the dominant streams in the Judaism of his day, which were relentlessly opposed first by Jesus and then by himself. Judaism and Christianity are two different religions. Not to recognize that fact will inevitably distort the interpretation of Paul as well as Jewish-Christian dialogue today.
In fact, both Dunn and Wright see their reduced distance between Paul and Judaism as affording advantages and new opportunities for such dialogue. This is explicit in Dunn; more implicit but, I judge, pervasively present in Wright. In this regard, the difference in how each construes Paul’s view of God will inevitably come into play. For Wright, Paul’s trinitarian conception is found to be quite at home within first-century Jewish monotheism. Dunn, primarily in view of that same monotheism, argues for a less than fully trinitarian conception. It is not difficult to imagine that in current dialogue, Dunn will receive the more sympathetic hearing.
As to the alleged distance between the reformers and Paul, the flaw of the reformers is seen, in large part, in their preoccupation with Pelagian-ism; the inveterate tendency especially of the Reformation tradition has been to read this preoccupation into Paul. This, thereby, attributes to him the Reformation’s own misunderstanding of Judaism as “proto-Pelagian,” “a Pelagian religion of self-help moralism” (Wright). This charge is a common refrain in Wright and also repeatedly surfaces in Dunn’s discussion of Paul’s teaching on the law and justification.
Apart from the reminder above that meritorious and, therefore, moralistic tendencies are by no means nonexistent in Second Temple Judaism, a further observation needs to be made. When I consider the conclusions that our two authors reach on Paul’s understanding of sin, I cannot help but envision the tired but knowing smile of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, observing, as he surveys the ebb and flow of Church history, that it’s not so much the ghost of Pelagius that he fears as the ghost of semi-Pelagius!
Both authors speak of sin as incurring guilt, but on what constitutes guilt Wright is at best unclear or silent. Dunn is clearly deficient. Both fail to affirm that Paul teaches the imputation of Adam’s first transgression (see Romans 5:12ff)—that guilt for sin is an essential factor in original sin (the condition of sin into which every human being is born). Dunn, in fact, rejects that Romans 5 teaches this: “Nevertheless, guilt only enters into the reckoning with the individual’s own transgression.” “Human beings are not held responsible for the state in which they are born. That is the starting point of their personal responsibility, a starting point for which they are not liable.”
The Pelagian/semi-Pelagian axiom that ability is the measure of accountability could hardly be expressed more clearly. Where, in this or similar fashion, personal responsibility is removed from the notion of original sin, then the undeniable “givenness” of sin as part of the human condition from birth, sin in its corporate dimensions, will be seen, inevitably, as an alien, enslaving power. The accent then will fall on sinners as helpless victims. Correlatively, accountability and guilt will be limited to personal, voluntary acts and so give rise to the temptation to find remedies that are essentially moralistic.
Wright does not address the issue of predestination directly, and undoubtedly it was not within his purview to do so. Where he does touch on election, it is viewed as corporate (Israel as a nation). It does seem pertinent, however, to observe that, given his orientation at a number of points already noted, particularly that God’s wrath and justice are penultimate (and no more than metaphorical) expressions of his love, it is not clear that he would differ substantially with Dunn.
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Th.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). He is the author of The Centrality of the Resurrection (Baker Book House, 1978). This article is adapted from “Paul the Theologian,” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000) 121-41.
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger is a graduate of California State University in Fullerton (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Kim has contributed chapters to books such as Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church, Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites & Divides Us, and Christ The Lord: The Reformation & Lordship Salvation, and is currently the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California.