New? Old? Recycled? Historical Prolegomena to the New Perspectives on Paul

by Armand J. Boehme

Since the seminal essays by Krister Stendahl, the “New Perspectives on Paul” (NPP) has been contrasted with the old perspective on Paul. Some theological works, however, seem to indicate that the NPP theology is not as new as it claims to be. This brief study looks into some theological prehistory to the NPP to see what might be there.

First, a summary of various points found in the NPP’s theological spectrum is helpful. The NPP desires to free Paul from what is seen as his Lutheran imprisonment. Luther, Calvin, and other Reformation-era theologians are viewed as having erred in their understanding of justification in Paul’s theology. The NPP theologians understand Second Temple Judaism as a religion of grace rather than as one of legalism and salvation through the law. Paul did not wrestle with angst over sin as did Luther. Justification is not central to Paul’s theology. Justification is not a theology of grace in opposition to a theology of Jewish works. Rather justification is a way of emphasizing the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. Justification is not forensic in character. Rather it is analytic, for it includes the enabling of a new, transformed, regenerated, effective, sanctified Christian life. With Christ dwelling in the individual, the Christian truly becomes righteous. There is no pious fiction of a declaration or imputation of Christ’s righteousness, for justification is a process of being made righteous over a period of time. Thus justification is more of a future hope. Positive statements about imputed righteousness (if they are made) are always tied to the inner renewal or transformation of the Christian. The great majority of the NPP theology denies any imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Entrance into God’s covenant community is by grace, but retaining one’s status depends on one’s covenant faithfulness, one’s obedient sanctified life. Faith is almost always understood to be the human faithfulness of those living in the covenant community of the church. There is a corresponding emphasis on God’s covenant faithfulness as well. The faith of Christ is emphasized more than faith in Christ. Justification has to do with liberation from sin. Paul’s theology is not as much concerned with individual conversion and salvation as it is with inclusion in the covenant community of the people of God.

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