Monday, August 20, 2007

Scot McKnight on the New Perspective on Paul

I'm a little late getting to it (partially because I was on vacation last week), but Scot McKnight just completed an excellent series introducing the New Perspective on Paul. I haven't had the opportunity to read the comments, but the posts themselves are very good. I've blogged about this before, but as the issue gains currency and controversy, it's worthwhile revisiting.

Essentially, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a new perspective on Judaism--specifically, the discovery from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other archeological data that first-century Judaism was not the works-righteousness religion that the Reformers, and before them, Augustine, had thought that it was. Augustine read his struggle with the Pelagians into his reading of Paul (especially in Galatians and Romans) and Luther and Calvin similarly read their struggle with the medieval Catholic church into their reading of Paul. When Paul contrasts "works of the Law" with "faith in Christ," Augustine and the Reformers saw the tension as being between "works" and "faith"; that is, earning one's salvation as opposed to trusting that it is received by grace. Scholars operating out of the New Perspective see "works of the Law" as focused on those observances that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, such as the dietary laws, circumcision, and observance of the Sabbaths and holy days. (The first and last, not coincidentally, are the main issues that the Pharisees had with Jesus.) Therefore the "works of the Law" and "faith in Christ" is not so much a dichotomy between "works" and "faith," but between "Christ" and "the Law." The New Covenant inaugurated a time when the people of God would be known not for their adherence to the Jewish Torah, but for their trust in Christ as savior. It is that paradigm shift that such passages as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 are talking about.

Opposition to the New Perspective comes largely from the perception that it undercuts the theological underpinnings of the Reformation. I.e., the argument is theolgical, not exegetical. Biblical scholars (those who write commentaries, as opposed to theologians, who write systematic theologies) are more or less in agreement that the NPP is correct in its assessment of first-century Judaism, and so a reevaluation of Paul is necessary--if he wasn't arguing against "legalism" in the classical sense of trying to earn one's salvation, then exactly what was he arguing against and what was he offering in its place?

Frankly, if the Bible is our standard, then exegesis must trump theological considerations. We must interpret the Bible as accurately as we are able, and then construct our theology from that, not interpret the Bible to fit our theological preconceptions. A refusal to do so, especially by those who trumpet sola scriptura the loudest, is telling.

More about the NPP can be found on The Paul Page.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm fairly late to the party when it comes to the NPP and McKnight's quick intro was helpful. I've just begun reading Wright's "Paul: In Fresh Perspective". I look forward to interacting with you more on this when I'm done. Wright seems (in the introduction, at least) to take things a bit beyond the "law vs. works" discussion, but I won't say more until I've digested it.