The 'Old Perspective' on Paul is Actually Quite Old!

If you are familiar with the academic debates on Paul and Judaism, you'll know that most advocates of the "new perspective" on Paul (NPP) are a tad left of Evangelical. For various reasons, most NPP advocates have denied that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals. This is no small thing. One of the linchpins of the NPP is seeing "works of the law" (erga nomou - ἔργων νόμου) as Jewish boundary markers, namely circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws – and not human works in general. So for them, Paul was not so much opposed to human effort to gain righteousness as he was to ethnocentrism. But those letters supposedly not written by Paul do not fit the NPP paradigm. They speak more generally of human works and not merely to "works of the law." For example:

  • 2 Timothy 1:9 - God "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began."
  • Titus 3:5 - "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."
  • Ephesians 2:8-9 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

In the book by E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) that started it all, in 449 pages there is one footnote on Ephesians 2:8-9. Other than that, there is not a single mention of these passages. Neither is there a single mention in Sanders’ 630 page Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, or in James Dunn’s Jesus, Paul, and the Law or in N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant![i] That's one way to do scholarship: merely ignore any evidence that doesn't fit your system.

But listen to this admission by one of the NPP big guns: James Dunn writes, 

In all these cases [Phil 3, Rom, Gal], therefore, it is difficult to sustain the claim that Paul was polemicizing against ‘self-achieved righteousness.’ Of course the texts just reviewed can be read that way. The only question is whether those who read them that way have shifted the issue from one of Israel’s works of the law vis-à-vis Gentile acceptability to the more fundamental one of the terms of human acceptability by God. That may have happened already in Eph. 2.8-9, where the issue does seem to have moved from one of works of the law to one of human effort. But when the texts in the undisputed Pauline letters are read within the context of Paul’s mission emerging from its Jewish matrix, the resulting picture is rather different.[ii] 

The shift from a concern over merely Jewish badges and "boundary markers" to works as in self-achievement "may have happened already" by the writing of Ephesians?! Some NPP advocates argue that "old perspective" advocates are pulling Paul out of his context and modernizing him and distorting him with our Western "introspective consciences." But here, NPP's poster boy says that Paul was being modernized . . . .  in the 1st Century! 

While acknowledging that the NPP has brought many truths to the surface, I submit that the NPP advocates are the ones guilty of modernizing Paul on this particular issue. Away with sin, guilt, and blood. Replace those with community and unity, and dare not say anything remotely negative towards the Jews. Paul ends up sounding like a Postmodern, post-holocaust Protestant liberal. Surprise surprise. So when we bow the knee to all of God’s self-revelation, we see that seeking justification by works is a universal human problem, as we see from Ephesians and the Pastorals, as well as in Galatians and Romans.




[i] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 406.
[ii] James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 371.