Addressing the New Perspective on Paul
Addressing the New Perspective on Paul
by Duane Den Boer
Addressing the The Apostle Paul was one of the pillars of the early church, his teaching laid the foundation for our understanding of the mystery of Christ, the gospel of our salvation. Recently there has been a shift in the biblical scholarship concerning Paul that has come to be known as “the new perspective on Paul.” This new perspective is shifting that great pillar and shaking the foundations of our understanding of the gospel today. This shaking is happening deep within the bowels of Christendom such that on the surface, we the church feel a mere swaying that is hard to pinpoint. And, like many of the more recent Christian movements, pinning down the stances of those who have joined the movement is difficult. The correct understanding of Paul, however, is vital to our faith, so addressing the shift of this great pillar is important if we hope to maintain our solid foundation in Christ Jesus.
In general, the new perspective has some key elements. Its beginning has flowed from scholars that dove into first-century Jewish Culture, also referred to as “Second Temple Judaism.” In an attempt to understand the Jewishness of Paul, scholars studied Jewish literature of the centuries immediately surrounding Christ. Some who did this began to believe that the Judaism of Paul’s day (and Jesus’ day) had correctly understood God’s revelation concerning righteousness. As a serious Pharisee, then, Paul could not have been denouncing the Jewish understanding of the law or their view of righteousness but was instead confronting the Jewish idea that covenant righteousness and blessings are limited to Jews alone and not extended to Gentiles. Thus the reformers had read Paul wrongly and their understanding of justification and righteousness was off.
The new perspective has attacked a few key doctrines of our faith. The first stronghold they went after was the concept of righteousness. They rightly point out that the word “righteous” or “just” (which is the same word in the Greek) is not necessarily a statement of goodness (see Romans 5:7). One adherent to the new perspective (N. T. Wright) redefines “righteousness” as synonymous with “vindication” – specifically vindication for having lived in covenant faithfulness as Jesus did.
Based on this view Israel, God’s covenant people under the Old Covenant, failed to live out their lives in covenant faithfulness because they loved this world instead. Christ, being the true Israel, arrived on earth and lived in perfect faithfulness to the covenant, which led to the powers of this world, both Jewish and Roman, putting him to death on the cross. But God, wanting to show that his Son had done it right, vindicated him by raising him from the dead. In this understanding, when we believe in the truth of God’s love for us that was demonstrated in Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s covenant people. The Holy Spirit then helps us to live in covenant faithfulness, and in the end, when Christ comes back, we too are resurrected as a vindication because we too, in the power of the Spirit, lived in covenant faithfulness.
All of this does not sound so terrible at first. Partly because it has many aspects that are true. The danger lies in what is not said. Those espousing this view are uncomfortable with the doctrine of penal substitution, which teaches that it was God’s wrath poured out on Christ as our substitute, not just the hatred of the earthly powers. Some in the new perspective openly deny that the cross had anything to do with the Father’s wrath being diverted from us to His Son, calling the idea barbaric.
Those who are careful not to deny penal substitution settle for simply sidelining the doctrine in favor for an emphasis on what is called the Christus Victor model. This model emphasizes how Christ’s death was a victory over this present age and how Christ is now in the process of redeeming this world to himself. Don’t be confused. This redemption is not the idea of individual souls being redeemed; this is instead what I refer to as the “new redemption”. The idea that we can redeem the field of biology, or redeem the City of Long Beach, or some other such corporate or community entity. This “redemption” has little to do with individuals converting to a true faith in Christ, and has much more to do with communities being influenced by Christian values.
While unpacking this issue in more detail would be delightful, doing so would exceed the parameters of this article. So we will instead cut to the quick of it all. This subtle shift in emphasis is a very smooth and intelligent way to remove the offense of the cross. It gives us a more positive message, a good news without the bad news. You need only believe that God loves you and accepts you into His covenant people in order to come to faith. You do not need to humble yourself before an almighty, holy God who was moved to wrath by your sin. You do not need to repent and trust that you are incapable of pleasing God, and lean wholly on the righteousness given to us by Christ’s death. In truth, you could come to faith in Christ through the new perspective and hardly have to address your pride and inner idolatry.
This new perspective has infiltrated much of the teaching in the church today. Curriculums by major Christian publishers, radio preachers, popular speakers, worship music, etc. have all been affected by this teaching. This is one of the reasons why Cornerstone Church feels it is necessary to have a class that can address this issue by providing a solid, historically sound and theologically accurate understanding of the life and theology of the Apostle Paul. Thus when we feel the swaying that reaches us from the depths of Christian scholarship, we are able to recognize it, avoid it, and when necessary give an answer for what we believe.