Comparative Theology

Protestant Revisionism

15 "We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. Galatians 2:15-16.

The New Perspective on Paul

The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a Protestant revival of the centuries-old dogma of salvation by works advocated by Roman Catholicism both prior to the Reformation and afterwards, as spelled out in certain anathemas of the Council of Trent. The three main spokesmen for NPP are Ed Parish Sanders (1937-), James D. G. Dunn (1939-), and Nicholas Thomas Wright (1948-). Of these three, N. T. Wright alone describes himself as an evangelical, but frankly, that label has been diluted to such an extent that it is virtually worthless. None of the three is a conservative. The term “New Perspective on Paul” was coined by James Dunn, one of the three major proponents, in 1983. (See James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Ryland’s Library 65 [1983] 95 -122.)

The historical underpinnings of NPP certainly antedate the careers of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright. They include Jewish opposition to Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels; Jewish opposition to Paul and his stance on the Law and Judaism as described in the book of Acts and the Pauline letters; the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther late in his life; and the corrosive influence of historical criticism particularly as applied to Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels and, more recently, as applied to Paul as he is portrayed in his writings.

The Reformation perspective on Paul identified God’s justification (declaration of righteousness) of the individual who believes in Jesus as the cornerstone of Paul’s theology. It also identified Paul’s opponents as legalistic Jews (Judaizers) whom Luther and Calvin viewed as agreeing with the Roman Catholicism of their day. 

Just as historical criticism, with its low view of the veracity of the Gospels, brazenly set about on a quest for the “historical Jesus,” so the formulators of NPP, with their low view of the veracity of the Pauline letters, set about to mimic and embellish historical critics who had begun the task of reinventing Paul and explaining him in terms that were less offensive to Jewish scholars. Their strategy has often been reduced to pitting the “Lutheran Paul” against the “historical Paul,” whom they construct sometimes without regard to an honest exegesis of the appropriate Biblical texts.

So what is the essence of NPP regarding Paul and his teachings? According to F. David Farnell, “NPP proponents either accuse Paul of misunderstanding or misrepresenting Judaism (i.e., Paul was wrong), or redefine the opponents that Paul was criticizing, asserting that Luther and the Reformation heritage have misperceived Paul’s opponents by misreading Paul.” Proponents of NPP insist that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day did not believe in salvation by works. They state that the Pharisees believed in grace, just as does the Protestant Church today. NPP proponents redefine justification for first century Palestinian Jews as “covenantal nomism,” by which they mean that Jewish people enter a covenant relationship with God through birth into the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that they retain their covenant relationship by obeying the Law. The practical effect of their dogma is the implication that one can, through his good works, contribute toward his own salvation. That, of course, is a works salvation, but NPP advocates deny this. They insist, rather, that both the election of Jewish people and their keeping of the Torah are products of God’s grace.

There is a certain amount of correspondence between the practical results of NPP theology and its definition of “covenantal nomism” on the one hand and on the other, the Roman Catholic insistence that good works contribute grace towards one’s salvation (see The Council of Trent, Session VI, Chapter XVI, Canon XXXII). Anecdotally, it is my impression that accepting the tenets of NPP makes one more amenable to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, and hence susceptible to conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. I have seen it happen.

I acknowledge my indebtedness to the article by F. David Farnell, The New Perspective on Paul: Its Basic Tenets, History, and Presuppositions.

James T. Bartsch,

(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB.)

Published August 12, 2013

Updated March 24, 2014

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