While a graduate student in the late 1970’s at Princeton Theological Seminary, I frequently joined students in the departments of theology and biblical studies in a debate regarding the merits of our respective fields of study. Our discussions often turned to the perception of a wide chasm between the interests of the academy and of the pew. Those of us who were in the department of theology were especially critical of the discipline of biblical studies as irrelevant to the life and ministry of the church. Did the church or the pulpit, we asked, really need another lengthy article on some arcane feature of the biblical text? And, if the biblical texts were as hopelessly diverse and inconsistent in their teaching as the biblical students maintained, then what difference would it make what the text taught? After all, one text is as good as any other, and if they do not agree with each other, who is to say “my text is not better than yours”?
To complicate matters further, there was the rather daunting problem of the historical distance between “then” and “now.” Even if we were able to determine what these “ancient texts” were saying, there was the additional problem of bridging the divide between what people in ancient times believed and what people believe today.
So far as we would-be systematic theologians were concerned, it was rather unlikely that any help for the church’s proclamation of the gospel would be forthcoming from the field of biblical studies. Needless to say, the students of biblical studies were no more hopeful regarding the discipline of theology. Whatever the challenges facing students of the biblical texts, at least they were busy with actual texts! Better to confront the challenges of understanding the Bible than to ignore, as they accused the theology students of doing, the texts altogether.
When I consider the development in recent decades of what is known as the “new perspective on Paul,” I am newly reminded of those graduate school conversations. One of the more striking illustrations of the gap between contemporary biblical scholarship and the pulpit or pew is the emergence in biblical studies, particularly studies of the epistles of the apostle Paul, of this new view. Whereas in most Protestant churches, especially Lutheran and Reformed churches whose adherence to their confessions is more than a matter of lip service, the teaching of justification by faith alone remains a matter of special emphasis.
Pauline scholars in the last several decades have engaged in a process of thorough-going deconstruction of the doctrine. Indeed, so widespread and influential is this new reading of Paul, which calls into question the Reformation’s understanding of the gospel, that it might be regarded as something of a consensus opinion among contemporary Bible scholars. Articles and books, which address one or another feature of this new perspective, are being produced in such abundance that it has become virtually impossible for the non-expert to keep up with the subject.
Though there are some signs that the new perspective on Paul is making itself felt more widely in non-scholarly circles, so far it has largely been the subject of discussion among biblical scholars. However, whatever the gap between academy and pulpit, lectern and pew, this new approach to the interpretation of Paul is so revolutionary and far-reaching in its implications, it seems unlikely that it will not, sooner or later, have a profound affect upon the life and ministry of the church. If the Reformation misunderstood the gospel, as the new view intimates, things cannot go on as before. Not only must this be reflected in a new way of preaching the gospel, but it also has rather obvious implications for the historic division between Protestantism and Catholicism. It will also challenge directly churches whose confessions are the product of, and give summary expression to, the gospel as it was understood at the time of the Reformation. Consequently, though many readers of The Outlook may be happily unaware of the new perspective on Paul, it is not a development that can be safely or responsibly ignored. Whatever the gap between academy and pew, ideas tend to have legs (or to change the image, tentacles) that will eventually take them into the church. Seminary students who are taught by professors sympathetic to the new perspective will likely allow the seeds to germinate and produce their fruit in their own ministries. Churches and church members who are uninformed about the new perspective could be easily caught unawares. Furthermore, since the new perspective deals with things as basic as the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christian believers have the duty to assess its claims by the standard of the Word of God in Scripture.
For these reasons, I am beginning in this and in subsequent articles a somewhat extended introduction to and evaluation of this new perspective. Admittedly, this is a rather hazardous, if not foolhardy, undertaking on my part. I can claim no particular expertise in this area. Worse yet, I am a doctrinal theologian so that, to take up this subject, is to enter territory already occupied by those who are experts in biblical, and especially Pauline, studies. And if those who are experts in biblical studies confess their inability to keep pace with the literature on the subject, how much less can I pretend to have kept pace with developments in this area. However, despite the risks attendant upon my entering this field, the subject is too important to ignore. If this subject has to do with our understanding of the gospel, then it is incumbent upon us to venture into this territory, however cautiously.
In order to get started in this exploration of the new perspective, I will begin in this article with a brief statement of the contrast between the older, Reformation understanding of the gospel and the new perspective. In subsequent articles, we will consider the background and history of the development of the new perspective, including a summary of the arguments of some of its key representatives. After that we will conclude with an evaluation of the new perspective in the light of Scripture and the confessions.
The Reformation Understanding of the Gospel
The classic Reformation understanding of the gospel is well known. It is an understanding that has shaped the preaching of the Protestant church since the time of the Reformation. It is enshrined in the confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation view of the gospel, which sharply opposed the medieval Roman Catholic view, occasioned the most far-reaching division within the Christian church in her history. For the Reformers, so serious was the corruption of the gospel in the Roman Catholic Church that they were compelled to regard it as no longer a true expression of the church of Jesus Christ on earth. Though there were differences between Luther and Calvin in their understanding of the gospel, on the primary themes they largely agreed. For Luther and the Lutheran churches, the central point of the gospel is the free justification of sinners through the grace of Christ received by faith alone, apart from works done in obedience to the law. This doctrine of justification is the “article of the standing or the falling of the church” (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).1
Similarly, Calvin maintained in his Institutes that the teaching of free justification is the “main hinge of the Christian religion.”2 Though for Calvin justification was not the whole of the gospel—Calvin insisted that justified sinners were simultaneously sanctified by the grace of Christ’s Spirit—it was no doubt the most pivotal feature of the good news of God’s salvation in Christ.
In their understanding of the gospel of free justification, Luther and Calvin insisted upon several key points.
First, the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification compromised the gospel by emphasizing obedience to the law as a partial, meritorious basis for our justification. Though the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged the priority of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, it insisted that the believer must cooperate with God’s grace by obeying the commandments of God and in so doing merit further or increased justification. In this understanding of the gospel, believers are saved, not by grace alone through the work of Christ alone received by faith alone, but by grace plus works.3 The righteousness that makes believers acceptable to God is not exclusively the righteousness of Christ, but includes the good works of believers.
Second, Luther especially emphasized the essential similarity between the Roman Catholic teaching of salvation by meritorious good works and the Pharasaical or Judaizing teaching of salvation by obedience to the commandments of God. In Luther and Calvin’s polemics with the Medieval church, the charge was often made that the Roman Catholic Church was making the same error as had earlier characterized the religion of the Pharisees and Judaism at the time of the writing of the New Testament. Just as the Pharisees trusted in their own righteousness before God as the basis for their claim upon his favor and mercy, so the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by grace plus works encouraged a similar trust in one’s own righteousness. The apostle Paul’s arguments with the Judaizers in Romans and Galatians, therefore, anticipated the Reformers’ opposition to the Catholic doctrine of righteousness by works.4
Third, in Luther and Calvin’s understanding of the believer’s justification or acceptance with God, a sharp contrast is drawn between the law and the gospel. The law, at least in its first or theological use, is a mirror that teaches the believer to know his or her sinfulness before God. The law in this use can only condemn and expose the unrighteousness of sinners before God.
In the first and second tables of the law, we are commanded to live a life of perfect love for God and neighbor. However, there is no one who is righteous by this standard, who is able to keep the requirements of the law perfectly and on that account stand before God justified. Only Christ, who obeyed the law perfectly and suffered its penalty in the place of his people, can obtain for sinners the righteousness by which they are acceptable to God. The contrast between the law and the gospel, therefore, is the contrast between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith. Either we are saved (partly or wholly) by our obedience to the law or we are saved by Christ’s obedience for us. More than Luther, Calvin also insisted upon the law’s use in the Christian life and a rule of gratitude.
However, with Luther he maintained that the law has no role to play in the believer’s justification before God. Fourth, parallel to the contrast between the law and the gospel, Luther and Calvin insisted that we receive the gift of God’s grace and righteousness in Christ by the hand of faith alone. God grants and imputes to believers the perfect righteousness and obedience of Christ, which is received by faith only. Though the faith that receives God’s grace in Christ is an active and fruitful faith, it is not on account of its fruit-bearing that faith justifies. What distinguishes faith as the appropriate instrument by which to receive God’s grace is that it looks outside of itself to Christ alone as the only and perfect Savior. Faith receives the righteousness of Christ freely imputed to believers by God.5
In this Reformation understanding of the gospel, the religious issue that takes precedence over all others is the issue of the sinner’s standing before God. How can sinners, who have disobeyed the law of God and are worthy of its curse and condemnation, find favor with a holy and righteous God? The gospel or good news of Jesus Christ answers this question. God has provided for the sinner’s need through the provision of Christ as Mediator. By means of his perfect life of obedience and substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin, Christ has obtained or merited righteousness, favor and life for his people. All the demands of the law have been met for believers in Christ. Salvation is, accordingly, a free gift to be received by faith alone.
The New Perspective on Paul
The Reformation understanding of the gospel is not difficult to identify. However, matters are not as simple when it comes to the new perspective on Paul. As we shall see in subsequent articles, there are considerable differences of emphasis and position among writers who, broadly speaking, are identified with the new perspective.6 Some writers whom others have identified as advocates of this new approach are reluctant to regard themselves as advocates of the new perspective, since this seems to belittle the real differences between their views and others. Despite this difficulty, however, it is possible to identify several features of the new perspective on Paul that are generally present, to one degree or another, among writers associated with the new approach.
First, the new perspective is based upon a comprehensive re-evaluation and assessment of the patterns of religious belief among the Pharisees and the Jewish community contemporaneous with the writing of the New Testament. Contrary to the Reformation’s claim that the Pharisees in particular, and Judaism in general, were representative of a “works righteousness” religious practice, the new perspective maintains that “second temple” Judaism emphasized God’s gracious election and initiative in embracing his people, Israel.
Judaism never taught that those who belonged to the covenant community were members by virtue of their own good works and acts of obedience to the law (Torah) of God. Rather, Judaism was a religion of grace in which believers were brought into covenant relationship with God by the initiative of His electing grace. To be sure, those who were members of the covenant community were obligated to obey the law of God in order to maintain their position in the community. But this obedience to the law was not the ground upon which Israel was embraced within God’s favor. The Reformation’s claim, therefore, that Judaism was a legalistic religion, which anticipated the legalism of the Roman Catholic church, is untenable.
Second, the Reformation’s insistence upon a sharp distinction between law and gospel in the believer’s justification is likewise based upon a misreading of the gospel and of Paul’s experience. Whereas the Reformers viewed the law as exposing human (whether Jewish or Gentile) sinfulness before God, the new perspective insists that the problem within Judaism was not the law as such, but Israel’s claim to be the exclusive community of God’s people. The boasting that the apostle Paul opposes in his epistles is not the claim to find favor with God on the basis of obedience to the law. Rather, it is the boasting in those “works of the law” that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, and mark off the former as the exclusive objects of God’s favor and mercy. According to the new perspective, the problem the apostle Paul opposed in his epistles was not the problem of a self-righteous boasting before God, which assumes that our standing with God is based upon meritorious good works. The problem Paul opposed was the exclusivistic claims of many Jews who maintained that they alone were numbered among the people of God by virtue of their keeping certain requirements of the law (circumcision, feast day observances, dietary laws) that distinguished or separated them from the Gentiles.
Third, the new perspective argues that Paul’s doctrine of justification, accordingly, was not the central theme of his gospel, nor was it addressed to the problem of legalism. Justification is a doctrine that addresses the specific problem of who is included within the covenant community, particularly whether Gentiles also are included. When Paul speaks, therefore, of justification by grace through faith, apart from the works of the law, he is teaching that all become members of the covenant community through faith in Christ, not by submitting to the requirements for inclusion among the Jews as a distinct people. This means that the problem with Judaism was not that it was legalistic and self-righteous. The problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. It did not recognize the new reality of God’s saving presence in Jesus Christ whereby all, Jew and Gentile alike, are brought into the number of God’s covenant people.
Fourth, contrary to the Reformation’s claim that the gospel is the solution to the plight of human sinfulness (and therefore the gospel is really about how sinners can be saved), the new perspective suggests that Paul’s gospel moves from “solution” to “plight.” Paul starts with the conviction that faith in Christ is the one way to inclusion among the covenant people of God. From that conviction the apostle Paul develops his particular view of the law, not as an instrument whereby our sinfulness is aggravated, but as an instrument whereby Israel sought to oppose the inclusion of Gentiles among the people of God. The problem with Judaism was not that the law was viewed as a means of self-justification before God, but that the law was misused as a means of excluding the Gentiles rather than of including them.
Fifth, the new perspective, as should be evident from the points mentioned thus far, believes that the older reading of Paul paid insufficient attention to the historical background and context for Paul’s presentation of the Christian gospel. In order to understand Paul’s epistles, and for that matter the New Testament Scriptures, it is necessary to begin with a careful study and analysis of the Judaic background of Paul’s gospel. When Paul was converted, he did not cease to be who he was previously within Judaism. Instead, he discovered in the gospel of God’s work in Christ the fulfillment and realization of all that was true within Judaism. According to proponents of the new perspective, the error of the Reformation’s reading of the apostle Paul stemmed from its failure to read his letters in their first century context. Due to the Reformation’s pre-occupation with the teaching of Medieval Roman Catholicism on the doctrine of justification, it neglected to read Paul against the background of the history of Judaism. Rather than viewing Judaism in its historical setting, the Reformation tended to view Judaism as a kind of proto-type of the legalism of Catholic teaching about salvation.
And sixth,J the new perspective maintains that the Reformation’s zeal to exclude good works altogether from playing any role in the believer’s justification was inordinate. Just as Judaism taught that God’s people are admitted into the covenant by grace, but kept in the covenant by a life of faithful covenant keeping, so the apostle Paul taught a kind of initial justification (or inclusion among the covenant people) by grace and a further or final justification by works. The new perspective maintains that the Reformation’s understanding of justification failed to recognize that Paul developed the doctrine in relation to the specific problem of Judaizers who refused to include the Gentiles within the covenant people of God. It also failed to realize that, once a believer is included among the people of God, works done in obedience to the law play a legitimate role in “maintaining” the covenant relationship. Indeed, when Paul says that “only doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13), he is speaking of the final (or eschatological) justification in which the believer’s works will play an important role. The answer, therefore, to the apparent problem of the Reformation’s doctrine of justification (if we are saved by grace alone, then what becomes of the necessity of our good works?) is the recognition that justification has both an initial and a final reference. Believers enjoy their initial justification or inclusion among God’s covenant people by grace alone, but their final justification is based in part upon their continuance in the way of obedience.
Though these summaries of the Reformation and new perspectives on Paul are rather general and open-ended, they are sufficient to illustrate the importance of the new perspective for an understanding of the gospel. If the new perspective more adequately reads Paul than the Reformation, a substantially new view of the gospel must prevail. No longer is the gospel about what God has done in Christ to save unworthy sinners. Nor is it about the way sinners, who are under the condemnation and curse of the law, can find acceptance with God through the saving work of Christ, the Mediator. Christ did not come to solve the problem of human sinfulness by keeping the law’s demand (active obedience) and suffering its penalty (passive obedience). Rather, the gospel is about who ought to be numbered among the covenant people of God. The gospel has more to do with reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles than it has to do with reconciliation between sinners and a holy God. The gospel, in other words, is not about calling sinners to find salvation through faith in Christ. The gospel, according to the new perspective, has to do with God’s work in Christ to tear down the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile, to bring the promises of the covenant to all peoples through faith in Christ.
For those familiar with the three-part division of the Heidelberg Catechism, the new perspective amounts to the suggestion that a new catechism should be written. This new catechism would not begin with the knowledge of our sin and misery. The first part of the new catechism would teach that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, who believe in Jesus Christ are included among God’s covenant people. The second part would expose as sinful any attempt to set forth additional requirements, including any ceremonial provisions of the law (e.g. circumcision, feast day observances), other than faith in Christ as necessary to inclusion among God’s covenant people. The third part would then spell out the requirements of obedience that are necessary to “stay in” the covenant. This third part would emphasize that, though we are admitted into the number of God’s people by grace (initial justification), our final justification or vindication awaits the final judgment, which will be based upon faith and its fruit in a life of good works.
1. Though this language is often attributed to Luther, it actually reflects the language of the Smalcad Articles (1537), an early Lutheran statement of faith that was later included among the Lutheran confessional documents with the Formula of Concord (1576). Article states, “Christ alone is our salvation, all stands or falls with this major article.” Luther, however, used similar language in his A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians (ed. P. Watson; Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1972 [reprint]), p. 143: “[justification is] the principal article of all Christian doctrine, which makes true Christians indeed.”
2. Institutes III.xi.1 (ed. John T. McNeill; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960). Calvin uses language similar to Luther’s and the Lutheran tradition in a sermon on Luke 1:5-10: “[justification is] the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion” (as cited by F. Wendel, Calvin [London: Collins, 1974], p. 256).
3. Cf. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, Chap. XVI (quoted from Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II: The Greek and Latin Creeds [Harper & Row, 1931; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985], p. 107), “And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits.”
4. Calvin, for example, in his commentary on Philippians 3:8, spoke of the Roman Catholics of his time as “present-day Pharisees” who uphold “their own merits against Christ.” See Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 274.
5. The Heidelberg Catechism expresses clearly this understanding of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Q. & A. 61: “Why do you say that you are righteous only by faith? Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.” Faith alone justifies because it serves as the exclusive instrument by which to receive the imputed righteousness of Christ as a free gift.
6. For surveys of the history and development of the new perspective, see Douglas Moo, “Paul and the Law in the Last Ten Years,” Scottish Journal of Theology 40 (1986): 287–307; FrankThielman, A Contextual Approach to Paul & the Law (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1994), pp. 9–47; Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of the Law (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), pp. 1331; Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); and Gerhard H. Visscher, “New Views Regarding Legalism and Exclusivism in Judaism: Is there a need to reinterpret Paul?,” Koinonia 18/2 (1999): 15–42.
Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.