Wednesday, July 31, 2013

James D. G. Dunn on the So-Called "New" and "Old" Perspectives on Paul


Over at Euangelion Michael Bird has drawn attention to a helpful article by venerable New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn in the latest issue of Early Christianity (4:2 [2013] 157-82). Entitled "A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul," the article interacts largely with German scholarship which, by and large, has either ignored or rejected the so-called "New Perspective" (henceforth NPP) precipitated by Ed Sanders's ground-breaking 1977 tome, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The German response to the NPP is hardly surprising, given that the foil for Sanders et al.'s rethinking of St. Paul's teaching on justification is Martin Luther's classic and influential articulation of the doctrine as a polemic against prideful works-righteousness. More recently, one thinks as well of the related debate half a century ago between Krister Stendahl, a forerunner of the NPP, and the august Lutheran scholar Ernst KÓ“semann on the related topic of the presence of salvation-history in Paul's thought. It is not surprising that the NPP has been no more congenial to the thought of German Lutherans than it has been to confessional Reformed types in the USA and UK.

Professor Dunn is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, having popularized the title "The New Perspective on Paul" in his famous 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture of that name at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. In the three decades since then he has continued to contribute to the discussion with major commentaries on Romans and Galatians, a magisterial Theology of Paul, and numerous smaller studies in journals and Festschriften. Most recently, he contributed to the very helpful 2011 book, Justification: Five Views, which all theology students not up to speed on the issue should read as soon as possible. Over the years, Dunn has almost imperceptively shifted his articulation of the issues to the point where, though he once may have drawn too sharp a distinction between the perspectives, he now writes with a balance that refuses to place a wedge where one is not necessary. Bird draws our attention to the following, entirely a propos comments from his most recent article:
[T]he ‘new perspective’ should not be defined or regarded as an alternative to the ‘old perspective’. The ‘new perspective’ does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the ‘old perspective’. It does not regard the ‘new perspective’ as hostile or antithetical to the ‘old perspective’. It asks simply whether the ways in which the doctrine of justification have traditionally been expounded have taken full enough account of Paul’s theology at this point. It is not necessary to call into question what have traditionally been taken to be the the central emphases of Paul’s doctrine.
The social dimension of the doctrine of justification was as integral to its initial formulation as any other. It was not a corollary which Paul drew from his primary emphasis at a later date; as an apostle he was never anything other than apostle to the Gentiles. This emphasis was at the heart of his gospel, why he felt so committed to it and why he defended it so resolutely. A doctrine of justification by faith which does not give prominence to Paul’s concern to bring Jew and Gentile together is not true to Paul’s doctrine.
To repeat, ‘works of the law’ is a more general phrase, which refers to the principle of keeping the law in all its requirements. But when the phrase comes in the context of Paul’s mission to Gentiles, and particularly of Jewish believers trying to compel Gentile believers to live like Jews, then its most obvious reference is particularly to the law in its role as a wall diving Jew from Gentile, the boundary markers which define who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, that is, inside the law/covenant and outside the law/covenant people.
I would maintain that these statements are completely correct. Indeed, they are substantially the same points I had made back in 1995 in my Ph.D. dissertation dealing with Paul's teaching on justification in Galatians. Alas, however, such has been a hard sell in very conservative American Protestant Christianity, especially in so-called "confessional" circles beholden to 16th and 17th century doctrinal formulations reflecting the debates of that time with semi-Pelagian Roman Catholicism. Indeed, being "favorable" to the NPP in any of its various permutations—even when, like Dunn, one affirms the compatibility of the NPP with the main features of the "old" perspective—can be career suicide, as any number of scholars can attest, to the enduring shame of the institutions in question. In the long run, however, there is no going back. Dunn, in his most recent writings, demonstrates that the NPP has raised historical and theological issues in Paul's letters that cannot be avoided in favor of perpetuating anachronistic paradigms. Luther and Calvin may have been justified—I would argue they certainly were justified—in applying what Paul wrote to the Galatian and Roman churches to the important soteriological conflicts in which they were engaged. But to see the faces of medieval Roman Catholics in Paul's Jewish Christian opponents at Galatia, and even in first century Jews, is unjustified, and to do so causes the interpreter to privilege anachronism at the expense of the very historical exegesis which is his or her proper concern.


  1. Hi Dr. McGahee,

    I have your dissertation open on my desk. I am a student at DTS and I thought it would be fun to try to understand something about the NPP during summer break. I am about half way through, but I think I really jumped into the deep end starting with your dissertation. There seem to be so many permutations of the NPP that I am having trouble understanding exactly what the NPP is.

    What I think I understand is that the NPP accepts Paul's argument of justification by faith and not by works of the law. But it adds that Galatians in particular is a polemic against the Jewish mindset that they had to maintain the salvation they were born into by works of the law.

    Is there a short and current paper which distills the NPP, like NPP for Dummies? thank you for your work on this dissertation. I can't imagine how many hours you have invested in this topic.

    1. Thanks, Bob. Probably the best summary may be found in Jimmy Dunn's contribution to the volume, "5 Views on Justification." Foundational is the recognition, made obvious by E. P. Sanders, that Second Temple Judaism wasn't "legalistic" in the sense that they thought they could "earn" their individual "salvation" through good works. In other words, how Protestants had understood Paul was largely defined by 16th century controversies, in which Paul's justification teachings were (rightly, IMO) applied to counteract Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism. In Galatians, the point wasn't that Paul's adversaries were trying to "earn" their salvation by circumcision, but rather were saying that Gentiles, to be true children of Abraham, had to normalize their covenant status by undergoing the covenant sign. The problem, as Paul saw it, is that such a demand didn't reckon with the facts of eschatology brought about by Christ's death and resurrection. To insist on circumcision meant that faith in Christ/Christ's faithfulness (depending on one's inter[retation of pistis christou) wasn't sufficient to bring about the needed covenant status of justification about for Jew and Gentile alike. Probably the best sustained reading of Paul along these lines is found in N. T. Wright's book on Justification. Hope your summer has been profitable. There is no better way to spend one's time than in the company of Paul the Apostle!