Conservative and Liberal Views of Paul's New Perspective
In recent decades, a new scholarly debate has emerged concerning the interpretation of the apostle Paul's theology. This new perspective on Paul has opened up a broader conversation on topics such as justification, the law, and Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the early Christian church. In this article, we'll summarize the key differences between the conservative and liberal views of Paul's new perspective.
Conservative View: Traditionalist
The conservative view of Paul's new perspective, often known as the "traditionalist" view, is rooted in the classical Reformation tradition, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin's interpretation of Paul. This historical view emphasizes that Paul's primary concern was to address the issue of "works righteousness," arguing that the Jews relied on their obedience to the Law to attain salvation, rather than faith in Jesus Christ. In this view, justification is entirely based on faith in Christ, rather than any human effort or good works.
Key points of the conservative view of Paul's new perspective include:
- Justification by faith alone: The central teaching of the traditionalist view is that human beings are justified (declared righteous) before God by faith alone, apart from works of the Law. This concept is argued to be the heart of Paul's gospel and the central message of his letters, especially Romans and Galatians.
- The Law as a dividing wall: In this view, the Mosaic Law was seen as a barrier that separated Jews and Gentiles, and as a way for the Jews to claim exclusive privilege as God's chosen people. Paul's mission to the Gentiles was to break down this dividing wall and to create a new unity in Christ, based on faith alone, thus abolishing the Law's function as a wall of separation.
- Legalism and self-righteousness: The traditionalist interpretation emphasizes that Paul's opponents, especially the so-called "Judaizers," sought to impose the Law on Gentile believers in order to maintain their own status and sense of self-righteousness. Paul's critique of this legalism is seen as a universal condemnation of all forms of human self-reliance and self-salvation.
Liberal View: New Perspective
Contrasting with the traditionalist view, the "new perspective on Paul" is a more recent movement that seeks to reframe Paul's theology in light of its first-century Jewish context. Scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright have argued that the Reformation tradition's understanding of Paul focused too narrowly on individualistic questions of "how can I be saved?" and "how can I find a gracious God?", while neglecting the broader social, historical, and theological dimensions of Paul's thought. In particular, the new perspective emphasizes that Paul's primary concern was not with the individual's relationship with God, but rather the relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the covenant community.
Key points of the liberal view of Paul's new perspective include:
- Covenantal nomism: E.P. Sanders coined this term to describe the view that, according to first-century Judaism, God's grace and election of Israel were at the center of the covenant relationship. In other words, Jews believed that they were already part of the covenant community by grace and that obedience to the Law was a response to this grace, rather than a means of salvation. This challenges the traditional view that first-century Judaism was inherently legalistic and self-righteous.
- Works of the Law as identity markers: The new perspective maintains that Paul's critique of "works of the Law" (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath observance) is not primarily about human efforts to earn salvation but rather about the proper boundaries of the covenant community. In this view, Paul disputes the insistence of some Jews that Gentile believers must adopt these specific Jewish practices in order to belong to the community of those who are "in Christ."
- Justification redefined: According to N.T. Wright, justification should be understood not primarily as "how individuals are saved" but rather as "how we know who is a member of the covenant family." He argues that justification is not the means of salvation but the declaration that someone is already a member of God's people through faith in Christ, apart from ethnic or cultural identity markers.
The debate over Paul's new perspective continues to be an ongoing and controversial conversation among biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors. Both the conservative (traditionalist) and liberal (new perspective) views offer valuable insights into Paul's understanding of justification, the Law, and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the early church.
Ultimately, engaging with both perspectives can help us appreciate the richness, complexity, and relevance of Paul's theology for addressing enduring questions of human identity, community, and the nature of God's grace.