A while past I promised Jock that I’d say something on Paul and the so-called ‘new perspective’. Indeed, some of what Jock disagrees with me on over salvation, as far as I understand his position, is to do with this. Two words of warning to commence: the first is that there are many new perspectives; indeed, almost as many as there are old ones.
That said, it amounts to this. In the 1960s and after, some scholars in the Protestant tradition became impatient with the way their own traditions had treated St Paul. In the aftermath of the war and of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, scholars looked again at first century Judaism, and as they did so, they began to see that their predecessors hadn’t understood it aright; this led some, in particular E.P. Saunders, James D.G. Dunn, and Tom (NT) Wright to argue that to see Paul was rejecting ‘works’ as having any part in salvation was too simplistic by half, if only because it presupposed a version of what was meant by ‘works’ which was that of a sixteenth century Protestant and not a first century Jew. Essentially the argument is that Luther and his successors transferred to Paul their own obsession that works don’t obtain salvation for us; quite who has ever argued they did is a moot point.
For Dunn and company, ‘works of the law’ are effectively badges of covenantal belonging – part of the idea that adhesion to the Torah made you a better person in the eyes of God – well Abraham didn’t and he was still adjudged righteous by God. For those of the new perspective, the old Protestants are pursuing their own argument with their own understanding of Catholic teaching when they argue that Paul is arguing that you can’t be saved by works: the Jews did not believe you could be; but they did believe that God regarded you as righteous if you were an observant Jew.
God judges us, Wright and company argue, on the lived life: have we believed in Christ and has that shown fruit (think about the parable of the talents); works are the result of our righteousness, and we shall see at the Last Judgement that this is so.
But faith itself requires our affirmation – and, Wright suggests, is in that sense a work and a fruit of the Spirit within us. We cannot believe effortlessly. Faith is not simple intellectual assent. At its most extreme, the new perspective argues that it is by Christ’s faith, not our own, that we are saved; His faith being exemplified in His sacrifice on Calvary.
Whilst the new perspective writers are agreed that Penal Substitution atonement is not as important to Paul as their predecessors thought, they’ve not managed to agree what theory is.
Catholic writers like Taylor Marshall have pointed out that this new perspective is not terribly new – it is more or less what the Catholic Church has always argued, as its tradition carried forward with it a living understanding of the Jewish tradition. In many ways it brings Protestantism closer to the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of these things – which hardly recommends it to old style Protestants.
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