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  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 Kӓsemann 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.