New Perspective on Paul What is It?

Discussing the New Perspective on Paul is not such a short conversation. First it is still a developing “perspective” and not a formalized theology. Second those who hold to this position as they develop their own ideas eventually move away from their original position making it difficult to pin them down. This post will begin first with defining it by describing it.

What is it? – It began as a new view of 1st century Judaism. The important thing to note is that number of scholars concluded that Judaism was a religion of grace not works righteousness. Therefore, the Reformers were reading Paul wrong. The Reformers were writing that Paul said “The Judaism of my time concludes that one is made righteous by works not by grace.” So we would need to conclude that either Paul misunderstood 1st century Judaism or we misunderstood Paul. The main conclusion of some scholarship has been that the Reformers (and us) misunderstood Paul, rather than, Paul misunderstood 1st century Judaism.

If this is the case, then we can no longer think of Paul as dealing with Judaism as dealing with works righteousness. This directly affects the interpretation of the Reformation. The dichotomy was plainly equating the Pharisees to Rome and Paul and Jesus to the Protestants.

These NPP scholars have claimed that the focus has been on the wrong idea. Therefore the apostle Paul wasn’t converted from an attempt to be saved by works. He had always believed in a righteousness received by grace. His experience on the Damascus road was not so much a recognition of grace but that Jesus was Messiah. His pattern of religion didn’t change. He didn’t go through a deep conviction of sin like Luther or Augustine says the NPP. The consequence is that this experience many have understood as conversion is extra-biblical. It withdraws the strong element of subjective experience of the teaching of the Gospel that has been evident in evangelical churches. The NPP calls for a re-casting of the Gospel as we know it.

NPP would have us see Paul as not being converted but finally seeing that Jesus was the crucified messiah. Therefore if he was the messiah the boundary markers that distinguished Jew from Gentile could no longer be the distinguishing markers of who were the people of God.

notes from lecture of Sinclair Ferguson on NPP