Intro to NPP


Bishop N.T. Wright, among a number of others, have become identified as leading propenents of a re-evaluation of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of Justification. His re-evaluation and those of other scholars, a variegated as they are, are usually described as being of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) school of thought.

This isn’t a trivial issue really, though it doesn’t speak to most of the major doctrines of the Church Catholic. It forces us in the reformed traditions to go back and re-think our theological anthropology (our understanding of what it means to be human and/or sinful) – and that re-thinking is important (perhaps even fundamental) to the Current Unpleasantness in the Anglican Communion.

Christianity Today has very good introduction to the whole enterprise that is called the New Perspective. Here’s a few of the key paragraphs:

“Two vital ingredients go into the new perspective. The first is actually more a new perspective on Judaism than on Paul. It reacts against the traditional idea that Jews in Paul’s day believed they could accumulate merit before God by their deeds. In place of seeing Paul’s contemporaries as legalistic, the new perspective says the concern in early Judaism was to maintain the identity of the Jewish nation, especially through observing the Sabbath, circumcising their newborns, and eating kosher. These boundary markers or badges of identity for the Jewish nation distinguished them as belonging to God’s covenant people.

Second, this understanding of first-century Judaism is then applied to Paul. According to the new perspective, Paul is only focusing on these aspects of Jewish life (Sabbath, circumcision, food laws) when he mentions ‘works of the law.’ His problem isn’t legalistic self-righteousness in general. Rather, for Jews these works of the law highlighted God’s election of the Jewish nation, excluding Gentiles. Called by God to reach the Gentiles, Paul recognizes that Jews wrongly restricted God’s covenant to themselves.

Paul extends these insights to church relations. Just as Jews wrongly restricted God’s covenant, so also Jewish Christians wrongly insisted that Gentile Christians needed to observe the law to be full-fledged disciples. This led to the challenge that Paul issued to Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). How could Peter withdraw from table fellowship with the Gentiles there? Surely such an action was inconsistent with the truth of the gospel.”

There’s more at the article, but you can see by reading this little bit how much of this thought is influencing people within Anglicanism who are claiming a scriptural warrant from Paul’s teaching thusly for the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian Christians into the life of the Church.

There’s also a question, more fundamentally, of whether or not, if this NPP is true, Luther and the other reformers erred in seeing the Roman Catholic’s Church emphasis on good acts as part of the Christian life as being a similar error to the one that the jewish-christians were making in the Paul’s time.

Read the rest here: What Did Paul Really Mean? | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Sadly, one of Luther’s contributions to Christianity has been entrenching the practice of Christians insulting other Christians by saying they’re like Jews. I spend a lot of energy in my lectionary blog trying to put an end to this practice, which is still rife — particularly, in my experience, among Christian progressives who use “Pharisee” as a synonym for “heartless, self-important hypocrite” when criticizing their conservative (Christian) opponents. Martin Luther was many things more admirable than this, but he was also profoundly antisemitic, and I find it sad when Christians pick up his rhetoric without examining its assumptions and the antisemitism underlying them.
    On the “New Perspective on Paul,” my chief complaint is that people are still calling it “new.” It was pioneered by scholars like E.P. Sanders and Jack Neusner in the early- to mid-1970s — when I was an infant, over 30 years ago. Our 1979 BCP is newer, and I often chuckle when I hear people calling it “new.” I’m glad that readings of Paul that are better grounded among first-century Judaisms are finally gaining some steam in the church, but I wish one of the lessons people drew from them was that NT scholarship does have something to offer parish preachers and teachers, and therefore is worth the effort it takes to read as widely as possible in the field in seminary and to try to keep up with it after graduating.

  2. I’m right now reading Garry Wills’ book “What Paul Meant,” which covers much of the same ground.

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