I have a theory that if not for what is called the “New Perspectives on Paul” (NPP), there may never have been a book called Justification: Five Views. Sure, justification would still be discussed in theological circles, but it would probably just be a category under the heading of “atonement theology.” I suspect that it’s only the evangelical dust-up over the (perceived) problems with the way N.T. Wright (and to a lesser extent, James Dunn) have framed justification that a separate book on the topic was even necessary.
I say this because by the time I got to the end of the responses to Dunn’s essay, I got the distinct feeling that the contributors were running out of things to disagree about.
Dunn’s defense of the New Perspective View of justification begins by making it crystal clear that the “new” and “old” perspectives are not mutually exclusive alternatives. The new perspective,” writes Dunn, “does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the old perspective…It asks simply whether the ways in which the doctrine of justification has traditionally been expounded have taken full enough account of Paul’s theology at this point.”
I have to wonder how anyone, even someone predisposed to thinking of NPP as the greatest threat to orthodoxy since “Jesus Christ Superstar,” could chafe at such a statement.
Dunn proceeds to work through the foundational aspects of NPP, beginning with the assertion that—contrary to what the Reformer’s believed and taught—Judaism was not the works-based, legalistic religion that we’ve all been taught that it was. Instead, E.P. Sander’s groundbreaking 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism asserted that Israel thought of itself as being chosen by God based on His grace and initiative alone. Keeping the Law, according to Sanders, was Israel’s grateful response to God’s grace, not a way of earning justification.
Later in his essay, after a very persuasive argument suggesting that Paul’s view of justification “grew out of the context” of his mission to unite Jews and Gentiles under the gospel, Dunn explains the central dilemma of the New Perspective. “If Paul was not objecting to, but rather drawing on, Israel’s understanding of God’s saving righteousness,” Dunn wonders “then what was he objecting to when he spoke of ‘works of the law’?”
The answer to this question, according to the author, is “four interlocking points” which basically all boil down to this: When Paul refers to “works of the law,” he is not referring to acts that the Jews performed in order to get them into God’s good graces, but rather to those behaviors that marked them off as God’s people and kept them separate and distinct from the Gentiles. According to Dunn, these Christ-following Jews are not doing the “works of the law” because they think they will be justified by them, but because they think they should remain separate from their Christ-following Gentile brothers and sisters. “For Paul,” writes Dunn “the truth of the gospel was demonstrated by the breaking down of the boundary markers and the wall that divided Jew from Gentile, a conviction that remained the central part of his mission precisely because it was such a fundamental expression of, and test case for, the gospel. This is the missing dimension of Paul’s doctrine of justification that the new perspective has brought back to the center of the stage where Paul himself placed it.”
So the bottom line is that Dunn still agrees that Paul taught “justification through faith alone,” he just disagrees that Paul sees the Jews and the Old Testament Law as the villains in all this. Although I may disagree with a few minor details here and there, I do see Dunn’s point that there’s really nothing in the NPP that contradicts the traditional view of “justification through faith alone.” What Dunn seems to be advocating is just a shift in emphasis regarding what Paul was arguing against.
What I find more interesting than the specifics of NPP itself, is Dunn’s admirable ability to live “in the tension” on other issues. For example, while most scholars will admit that there has always been a little uneasiness between Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone and his frequent warnings about the consequences of falling away, Dunn is content to say that we need to embrace “all” of Paul’s teaching on this and not try to impose a false consistency on Paul’s thought. And while Dunn refers to the NPP’s renewed emphasis on judgment as “disturbing,” it doesn’t disturb me in the least. I welcome any trend that leads me back to the Bible to double-check my theology.
Horton, predictably, has the most disagreements with Dunn’s view. Oddly though, he spends much of his time arguing not with Dunn, but with E.P.Sanders. Other than the occasional “tweak” to his perspective, the other responders largely agree with Dunn’s views. Bird, in fact, wonders aloud, “If Dunn had written this in 1983 when he published his well-known article “The New Perspective on Paul,” would we have had half of the fuss that we’ve had since then?”
Although there seems to be little substantive disagreement between Dunn and the other contributors, listening in on world-class scholars discussing what can be a confusing (and, let’s face it, really frustrating) theological topic has helped me clarify my own views better. Now, not only can I now join in on the conversation when someone starts talking about “New Perspectives on Paul,” but I am closer and closer to being able to explain to other people why it’s important.
Reading books in which scholars actually agree with each other may not sound particularly exciting, but it can be positively enlightening.