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  • Writer's pictureJarrett Ford

Paul in Perspective: Part 2, The New Perspective

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome | Photo: iStock

As I mentioned in my last post, E. P. Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism created a massive grace-versus-legalism-shaped void in Pauline studies. It wasn’t long before other scholars attempted to fill it. If Paul was not pitting his gospel of grace against the Jews' religion by works, what was he doing? Sanders tried to answer this question in an abbreviated form in Paul and Palestinian Judaism and more fully in a subsequent book titled Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. In short, Sanders argued that Paul was not frustrated with his fellow kin because they clung to their legalism but because they continued to adhere to their law, thereby rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. They chose the law over Jesus.

At this point, it might be challenging to see how Sanders differs from the view he eschews. What’s the difference between clinging to legalism and clinging to the law? Clinging to the law and rejecting Jesus seems at least complementary to—if not the same as—clinging to works-based righteousness and rejecting the grace-based righteousness in Luther’s view of the gospel. To understand what Sanders is doing, remember that Luther understood salvation by faith alone not just as part of Paul’s gospel but as the centerpiece of the gospel. Luther’s Paul felt the same burden of sin that Luther felt and finally recognized that faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection was the only means by which he might receive righteousness. Romans and Galatians served almost like tiny autobiographies describing Paul’s journey from his plight to his solution.

The Problem of Guilt

This is where Sanders departs from Luther. Sanders does not believe that Paul felt the same guilt in his pre-Christian life that Luther did. Following Krister Stendahl and others, Sanders argued that Paul did not experience the same existential crisis that Luther did. Before Paul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus, Paul seems to have thought he was living righteously. He certainly wasn’t going to confession hours on end or whatever the first century Jewish equivalent of that might have been. There is lots of evidence for Luther’s understanding of Paul’s conversion, but the heart of the problem lies in Philippians 3:2–11 and Romans 7:9–23. Luther read the latter as describing Paul’s pre-conversion experience. Paul, like Luther, struggled with his sin, wishing to be released from its unbreakable bonds. He often did what he did not want to do and finally found solace in Jesus. The problem is in Philippians 3. Paul claims to be blameless before the law, suggesting that he was not aware of his sin until he met Christ. He doesn’t seem to have had any trouble keeping the law or feeling guilty about his sin.

These factors led Sanders to conclude that Paul reasoned from solution to plight rather than plight to solution. In other words, from grace back to sin, not from sin to grace. Paul’s soul was never thirsty for the righteousness Luther longed for. Indeed, Paul already thought he was righteous. It wasn’t until he realized that Jesus was the promised Messiah that he reasoned backward to a more pessimistic view of himself. If Jesus solved a problem, as Paul found out on the Damascus road, then there must be a problem to solve. Solution to plight.

Now, admittedly, it is still difficult to see how Sanders’ view differs from Luther’s in any substantial way. Regardless of the order, there is still a plight in need of a solution. Another critical difference is in the way Luther and Sanders see God’s role in salvation. Paul may have come to the latter first, but even according to Sanders’s view, both pieces still compose the essence of Paul’s gospel. For Sanders, however, emphasis is everything. With God’s solution in view, God takes center stage. Paul’s gospel no longer becomes about how a sinful man is saved or not. It becomes about how God saved these sinful men. In Therefore, in Sanders’ words, “Paul did not preach about men, but about God” (Sanders 2017, Loc. 13189).

To sum up, Sanders rejected Luther’s view of first-century Jews and Luther’s understanding of Romans and Galatians. Luther thought the Jews were legalists, and he thought Paul pitted his grace-based gospel against their works-based view of salvation. Sanders argued that the Jews weren’t legalists at all. He thought they believed in a grace-based view of salvation just like Paul; hence, Paul was not arguing against their works-based gospel. His gospel simply preached salvation through Jesus, not the law.

Few have found Sanders’s proposed solution very likely for reasons I will discuss in a subsequent post. However, the next proposed alternative to Luther’s view remains highly influential today.

James Dunn

James Dunn was the first to take Sanders’ ideas and write commentaries on Galatians and Romans. He generally agreed with Sanders’ characterizations of the Jews of Paul’s day, but his understanding of Paul was significantly different. If Sanders attempted to make Paul’s gospel more God-centered, Dunn made it more man-centered. Contrary to both Sanders and Luther, Dunn argued that Paul’s angst toward his fellow Jew had little g to do with how one is made right with God. (Again, per Sanders’ findings, Dunn thought Paul and the Jews agreed on this point). Paul’s problem with the Jews, rather, was that they were too exclusive. They saw themselves as the exclusive people of God and refused to let the Gentiles into their ranks. According to Dunn, Paul corrects this view, claiming that after Christ, the Gentiles were part of God’s people as well.

Dunn’s view had two advantages. First, it fit with what was known about Second Temple Judaism. Sanders may have shown that the Jews weren’t legalists, but many of them were undoubtedly exclusivists. There is ample evidence that Dunn’s Paul would indeed be attacking a view within Judaism that existed during the time he wrote Romans and Galatians.

Second, Dunn’s view seemed to make sense of several textual details. For example, Dunn’s most unique contribution was that the phrase “works of the law” used in Galatians and Romans did not refer to works in general but to what Dunn labeled “boundary markers”—circumcision, dietary laws, and other commands that separated the Jewish people from those around them. In Galatians particularly, it seems like the false teachers argued that a Christian must be circumcised. Consider Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:2: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Gal 5:2). This text indicates that the Galatians were on the verge of accepting circumcision, and Paul presumably wrote Galatians to stop them from doing so. Therefore, when Paul argues that the works of the law do not save them, he means that they need not be circumcised to become a part of God’s people.

Therefore, Dunn’s Paul was an ancient inclusivist, who argued that there was now no distinction between Jew or Gentile, for all were one in Christ (see Gal 3:28). Like Sander’s Paul, Dunn’s was not primarily concerned with how individuals are saved.

Because of its historical and textual strength, Dunn’s view initially gained wide acclaim. However, his views have recently waned a bit, even if they have left an indelible mark on Pauline studies.

N. T. Wright

In my opinion, N. T. Wright’s work has had the most significant effect on modern Pauline studies. Wright writes with both wit and depth. He makes you laugh as he draws you into reading a book somewhere north of 1500 pages. It is no wonder that a recent article on the subject called his body of work a theological juggernaut. His writings are vast and give their reader the impression that there is no ancient work their author has not read. Wright combines aspects of both Sanders and Dunn to provide a “narrative” view of Paul that many have accepted today.

Against Sanders, the problem with Luther’s view, according to Wright, stems from something deeper than a mere misunderstanding of the Jews. Luther simply brought the wrong questions to the text. When assessing a person’s theology, it’s important to remember the theological currents of their day, what they were responding to, and what they were specifically concerned with. Luther was a product of the Middle Ages, an era consumed with heaven, hell, and how to get there. Therefore, it makes sense that Luther came to the conclusions that he did concerning Paul. Luther’s Paul answered the questions Luther was asking. But were these the right questions? Wright thinks not.

In his view, Luther asked questions of Paul that Paul was not asking. The medieval issues of heaven, hell, grace, justification, and salvation were too abstract for the first-century context in which Paul operated. (Here, we can see his affinity with Sanders. To understand Paul, we must understand his contemporaries.)

Wright replaces these abstractions with a concrete narrative. Paul was talking about salvation, yes, but not a theoretical or purely theological version of salvation. Paul’s salvation was a story with a beginning, middle, and end. After the Fall, God devised a plan to save the world through Abraham and his people. This salvation would come through Abraham’s distant son ( the Messiah), and it would be for all peoples of the world. This salvation would be something like a New Exodus, delivering God’s people from their bondage to sin and death. Justification by faith might be a part of this plan, but it was not its focal point. It was a subpoint that served the larger movement from death in the Fall to life in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Like Sanders, Wright’s Paul is more God-focused. God launches a divine rescue plan and doesn’t focus much on how every individual is saved. Like Dunn, Wright incorporates Jew/Gentile relations. The Jewish people were to be the first step in saving the Gentiles. It was to them that God’s oracles were entrusted, and it was from them that the Messiah was to come. Wright separates himself from these two by focusing on the grand narrative of Scripture in which God saves the world through Abraham, his people, and ultimately the Messiah that would come from them.

Although there are clear differences between these men, there are also telling similarities. All of them read Paul against his Jewish background. All of them tend to minimize the faith versus works dichotomy at the heart of Luther’s understanding of Romans and Galatians. In some ways, all of them focus on Jew/Gentile relationships, making the gospel more horizontal than vertical. Each of these features still lingers in Pauline scholarship today and probably should. Before I get to why they should, however, I need to discuss some of the substantial weaknesses in each of their views.

Jarrett Ford is a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Adjunct Professor at Boyce College. He and his wife Julia have four kids and live in Louisville, KY.


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