Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul; A Book Review

Gerhard H. Visscher has published an important book entitled Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise. Dr. Visscher is the New Testament Professor at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton. This book has been published in the influential series “Studies in Biblical literature” as volume 122. The editor of the series writes in a general preface:

This series seeks to make available to scholars and institutions scholarship of a high order which will make a significant contribution to the ongoing biblical discourse.

This book definitely makes a significant contribution to the discussion on the so‐called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).

In 1977 E.P. Sanders published a book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he challenged the accepted interpretation of Paul concerning the doctrine of justification by faith. He maintained that Martin Luther and John Calvin read Paul’s letters (especially to the Romans and to the Galatians) through their own historical context of conflict with the medieval Roman Church. Sanders argued, however, that when Paul was speaking of ‘works of the law,’ he did not mean that the Jews tried to justify themselves by keeping the law, but rather, that Israel identified itself by keeping the law. Sanders argued (Visscher tells us) that the Jews of Paul’s day taught that “entrance into the covenant community (“getting in”) is not through a system of weighing merits against demerits with respect to a person’s work, but through God’s gracious act of election; remaining in the covenant (“staying in”) depends on the divine provision of atonement for sin and on subsequent human obedience (pg 8).” More recently scholars like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. (Tom) Wright developed and promoted this new understanding.

Dr. Visscher surveys five scholars favoring the NPP. Then he surveys five opposing the “NPP.” Visscher works especially with a 1988 statement of Stephen Westerholm (of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada). Westerholm writes “that Paul supports his rejection of the ‘works of the law’ in Romans 3:20, 28 by showing that Abraham was justified by faith, not works (4:1–5) is positively fatal to Dunn’s proposal (pg. 3).”



Working out this thesis of Westerholm’s, Visscher extensively investigates the context of Romans 4. Then follows a careful exegetical analysis of Romans 4, whereby he shows that the NPP cannot be maintained without substantial revision. Visscher concludes that though the NPP scholars have helped us to understand better some aspects of Palestinian Judaism, Sanders and his subsequent followers have not correctly understood Paul’s insistence against Judaism that humans contribute nothing to their salvation (pg 233). Instead, “what Sanders actually portrays is more like the Pelagianism against which Augustine contended, Luther thundered, and Calvin disputed” (234).

This book also includes two helpful appendices. For those who are “in the know” about N.T. Wright, Visscher’s essay, “Works of the Law: Boundary Markers?” is a great help to understanding this phrase and its place in NPP. A second essay “The Law a Barrier to Gentiles?” briefly examines and refutes an aspect of Wright’s view.

Anybody who is remotely connected or interested in the discussion about the NPP and is interested in understanding what the proponents of the NPP are promoting, needs to read this book. The concise and thoughtful analysis of the “New Perspective” scholars and their opponents is worth the cost of the book itself. The careful analysis of Romans 4 is a masterful work of Reformed exegesis.

One of the proponents of the “New Perspective” surveyed by Visscher in the book, Terence Donaldson, writes (on the back cover!), “In this thorough and perceptive investigation, Gerhard H. Visscher draws attention to the weaknesses in various New Perspective readings of [Romans 4:4] and thus adds his voice to those that call for a new appreciation of old perspectives.”

This book is supported by a comprehensive bibliography of nearly 250 books that can serve as a survey of Pauline studies generally, and NPP specifically. It is rounded out by a very brief index of main ideas and authors.

Dr. Visscher is to be commended for this important and helpful book whereby he makes a significant contribution to the scholarly discussion taking place in the theological academies of the world. But this book is doubly important in that it makes the discussion accessible to pastors, preachers, elders, and to the informed member in the pew.

This book is beautifully bound in hard cover with a sewn binding and lies open on the desk beside me as I write this review, with no weights or other books holding the book open. It has a good hard cover and supple binding, and the paper meets standards for permanence and durability for book longevity. The downside is the price. At Amazon (at this writing) it can be had for CDN 88.52 / US $76.95! You have to pay for quality! Perhaps churches could buy this for their libraries so that many people could benefit from its availability. Though there are many Greek references to the New Testament text, for the most, Visscher gives English translations of the terms he is using.

Gospel preachers will benefit greatly from this study so that they too can proclaim the Good News and urge upon God’s people that “Faith Embraces the Promise!”              Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise. Gerhard H. Visscher. New York: Peter Lang, 2009 Hard Cover, sewn binding, 265 pages. 2 appendices, bibliography and index. CDN 88.52 / US $76.95              More about the author:

Gerhard H. Visscher is presently the New Testament Professor at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton and teaches NT studies at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

He previously has pastored several churches in both Central and Western Canada.

About the reviewer:

John L. van Popta MDiv. is presently pastor of his third charge, Fellowship Canadian Reformed Church, Burlington ON. Previously he pastored congregations in Ottawa, ON, and in Coaldale AB.  He enjoys an “empty nest” with his wife Bonita (with whom he has been married for 33 years).