Romans and the New Perspective on Paul


Our Worship Minister, Tim Hollis, recently told me a story of an exchange student at Baylor University who said that he liked the town of Waco, “except for all the rats in the trees.”

“What!?” was Tim’s response, “What do you mean ‘rats in the trees’?”

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that this exchange student had never seen squirrels before; he actually thought that the squirrels he saw all over Baylor’s campus were rats. Luckily for Baylor, as far as we know, Waco was not infested with tree-climbing rats—the student was just using the word “rats” incorrectly.

We often misuse words and phrases because we begin with a false assumption of what something means. But this doesn’t happen just with rats and squirrels. It happens when we read the Bible.

Right now, The Parkway Church is going through the grand-daddy, Jedi Master, SEAL Team Six of New Testament theological epistles—the book of Romans. The Bible is not a systematic theology textbook, but the closest we get to a systematic approach to Paul’s thought is in Romans. Gospel, law, grace, election, justification, etc. are all contained within its pages.

But are there places where we might be misreading Romans because we are reading our presuppositions back onto the text? Are there places where we might be calling theological squirrels (terms like “justification” or “works”) “rats?”

For one group of scholars, that’s exactly what has happened. We have read our presuppositions onto Romans—making it difficult to properly understand it (as well as Paul’s other letters) in its first-century, Jewish context. This movement is what has been called “The New Perspective on Paul.” But this prompts the question, “What was the ‘old’ perspective on Paul?” and “To what is this movement responding?”

The Old Perspective on Paul

Whether you know it or not, you don’t read the book of Romans in a vacuum; you have been strongly influenced by your theological tradition. If you are Catholic, you have been influenced by how the Council of Trent (1545-1563) interpreted Romans. If you are Protestant, you have been influenced by how Martin Luther interpreted Romans.

Martin Luther was a monk who was plagued by legalism and was fighting against a Roman Catholic Church that he believed was teaching people that they could earn their salvation. Luther was a tormented soul who believed he was condemned and was trying to find a gracious God. This lead Luther to read the New Testament in light of his circumstances, which means that he equated several things in Paul’s letters to his own day. He assumed that the Jews must have been like the Roman Catholics of his own day, teaching people how to do works to ensure salvation. Luther assumed that the question Paul was asking must be the same thing he himself was asking: “How can a sinner find a gracious God?”

But is this right? Is Paul like Luther? Were Jews legalists? Was Paul worried that he hadn’t kept the law or was he actually pretty confident that he did (see Phil 3:5-6)? Where have we perhaps misread Paul because we have read him through 16th century Lutheran eyes instead of through first century, Jewish eyes?

Well, that’s what the New Perspective is all about. The New Perspective is a critique of the Lutheran reading of Paul’s letters in light of modern historical research into the beliefs of first century Judaism.

But if this is true, then what does Paul really mean when he uses phrases like “justification by faith” or “works of the law?” Where was Luther right and where was Luther wrong?

A History of the Movement

Most of Christian history has been Roman Catholic. The Catholic view of justification is that God makes (not declares) people righteous by grace; but, this grace is not obtained by faith alone but by sacraments, acts of charity, and faithfully living as a Catholic, among other things.

Luther challenged all of this. Luther said that we are declared righteous by grace and that grace is received by faith alone. Luther believed that the Jews of the first century were trying to earn their salvation by works just like the Roman Catholics of his day.

As Protestantism spread, Protestant biblical scholarship tended to agree with Luther. This was compounded by the fact that most New Testament scholarship in the 19th and 20th century was done by German (read “Lutheran”) scholars.

But there were several scholars challenging this idea (C.G. Montefiore – 1894; G.F. Moore - 1927; W.D. Davies -1948, et. al.) who said that we had gotten Judaism wrong. They said that what Jews around the time of Paul actually believed is different than what Luther thought they believed.

In 1963 a Harvard professor named Krister Stendahl wrote a very famous article called “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in which he argued that we as westerners have a tendency to read Paul through individualistic eyes that are focused on our own personal fears about salvation instead of trying to understand what Jews were concerned about in the first century.

But the scholar who really got the movement going was a now retired Duke professor named E.P. Sanders. He published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, in which he argued that second-temple Judaism (i.e. Judaism after the exile) had been misunderstood. Jews in the second-temple period did not believe that they earned their salvation through doing good works. In fact, Jews were saved (i.e. delivered out of Egypt) before the giving of the Mosaic Law. Even in Judaism salvation was by grace. Keeping the Mosaic Law was not something they did to “get saved” but instead, according to Sanders, something they did to remain in the covenant. It wasn’t about “getting in”; it was about “staying in.” Sanders called this idea “covenantal nomism.” One followed the law (grk. nomos) because they were the people of God, not to become the people of God.

Sanders’ work was followed by James D.G. Dunn (who first coined the phrase “new perspective” in 1982). Dunn, a New Testament professor from Durham University, argued that the primary issue Paul is addressing is not soteriology (salvation) but ecclesiology (who gets to be a part of the people of God). Dunn argued that the phrase “works of the law” for Paul doesn’t mean doing good deeds like helping little old ladies cross the street, but that it referred to covenantal-identity markers that separated Jews from non-Jews (such as circumcision, food laws, Sabbath, etc.). For Dunn, the primary issue Paul is dealing with is not “how do we get saved?” but “how do non-Jews get into a Jewish faith without becoming Jewish?” The problem then is not legalism but ethnocentrism. Paul’s answer is that Gentiles don’t get into the covenant by “works of the law” but by faith in Christ.

Dunn was followed by probably the most well known New Testament professor alive today, N.T. Wright. Wright made the New Perspective accessible to a lay audience and promoted the idea that, for Paul, justification is not so much about imputed righteousness and being forensically declared “righteous” by God, but rather about God declaring who was “in the covenant.” Justification for Wright is moreso a declaration about who is in and who is out and less about forensic ideas regarding how imputation works.

What are the main claims made by the New Perspective?

There is not just one “New Perspective,” but really several “New Perspectives” because it is a broad movement with several variations. But some of the following beliefs are common and central to the movement. I’ve contrasted them with Luther’s view to make it easier to see the differences:

1. Luther claimed that Jews were legalistic—trying to earn their salvation by doing good moral deeds. The New Perspective claims that Jews in the first century did not believe that you could merit your salvation by doing good moral deeds.

2. Luther had a tendency to treat works, the Mosaic Law, and Judaism as bad. The New Perspective believes that Paul is not against works, the Mosaic Law, or Judaism, but only against their abuses—like when they are being used to try to keep Gentiles out of the covenant.

3. Luther believed “justification by faith” was about how an individual sinner found peace with God. The New Perspective believes that Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith” is primarily a statement about ethnic inclusion into the people of God.

4. Luther eventually came to believe that the “righteousness of God” refers to a status of “righteous” that God grants people who have faith in Christ. The New Perspective believes the Pauline phrase the “righteousness of God” refers to God’s own personal attribute of covenant faithfulness to save.

5. Luther had a tendency to view “works of the law” as any good deed you did. He even (erroneously) divided the whole Bible into what he called “law” (something you do) versus “gospel” (something God did for you), despite the fact that the Apostle Paul doesn’t use the terms “law” and “gospel” in this way. The New Perspective sees the phrase “works of the Law” as referring to Jewish works of the Old Testament, Mosaic Law and not to generic good deeds that we do. So “works of the law” are things like not eating pork, circumcision, keeping holy days (i.e. specifically Jewish works) and not about generic good deeds Christians do today like going to church, reading the Bible, not getting drunk, etc.

What is right about the New Perspective?

There are several places where the New Perspective is really helpful:

1. It does a better job of understanding the New Testament in its original, Jewish setting.

2. It better understands the Jew/Gentile division going on in much of Paul’s writings.

3. It rightly sees that Jews believed (and that the Old Testament teaches) they were saved by grace.

4. It rightly sees that the law is not bad. The law is good. We are bad and the law is therefore bad news for us because we cannot keep it.

5. The phrase “the righteousness of God” (grk. dikaiosunē theou), indeed, refers to God’s own personal quality of being faithful to keep the covenant at several places in Paul’s letters.

6. It rightly sees that the phrase “works of the law” (grk. erga nomou) refers to Jewish rules from the Old Testament and not to generic good deeds people try to do today.

What is wrong about the New Perspective?

The New Perspective is not so much wrong in what it affirms but in what it denies. I have listed a few things to note:

1. It assumes that all Jews believed the same thing about salvation, though we know Judaism in the first century was very diverse. The New Perspective has a tendency to make sweeping generalizations.

2. Though it is true that Jews were saved by grace, there was what we could consider to be actual “legalism” going on in Judaism at the time of Jesus.

3. Paul’s condemnation of trying to keep the Mosaic Law is not just about “covenant identity markers” that separated Jews from Gentiles but about going back to an old system of salvation that you could not keep (and therefore condemned you) instead of trusting in Christ alone. For example, when Paul condemns the Jews in Romans 2 it is not mainly because they are being ethnocentric (although that is certainly there), but because they fail to keep the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law.

4. The New Perspective focuses too narrowly on salvation just being about larger groups (Jews, Gentiles, the church, etc.). There are several places where salvation is not about large groups but about individuals (Rom 3, Rom 4, Tit 3, Eph 2, Rom 10, etc.). Groups are made up of individuals, so to say that the gospel or justification is just about groups ignores that these groups are made up of individuals who must be justified personally by faith.

5. The phrase the “righteousness of God” refers to a lot of things. In some contexts, it is a status he gives you; in others, it is his own quality of righteousness; in others, it is his righteous activity to save, etc. There is not just one meaning.

6. The New Perspective assumes that Paul agrees with the Judaism of his day, though he actually disagrees with it at several points.

7. The movement has an allergy to speaking of justification in forensic terms. Yes, it is true that justification is also something that happens at the final judgment and your works evidence your faith; but the reformers already held that. The New Perspective is uncomfortable saying the same thing that Paul implies, which is that there is a fiat moment when you are forgiven, a fiat moment when you receive the Spirit, and a fiat moment when you are “reckoned” as being righteous. Thus, some have even accused the New Perspective of being Catholic in its view of justification (at best) and pelagian in its view of justification (at worst).

8. Though the phrase “works of the law” (grk. erga nomou) usually (and maybe even exclusively!) refers to Jewish, Mosaic works, it is also true that we are not saved by any of our good deeds. In fact, when just the word “works” is used (grk. erga) it shows that Paul believed that we could not be saved by our own efforts. This means that it is true that people today are not saved by going to church, helping little old ladies across the street, reading their Bible, etc.

Ephesians 2:8–9 - For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 

Titus 3:5 - he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit

Romans 4:2–5 - For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness

So what?

I realize that this article is a bit technical for a blog. What does all this nerdy, second-temple, scholarly sounding, Jewish stuff have to do with us? Well, it reminds us to read the Bible in the culture in which it was written. Paul was not white, or black, or American, or Chinese. He was not a woman, nor a Canadian, nor was he Martin Luther. So we can’t read him through our lenses. Paul was a first-century Jew in Palestine who had been transformed by the gospel and, therefore, he needs to be read as such. It reminds us that there is a bigger Jew/Gentile dynamic going on in Paul’s letters than we often assume. Yes, it is true that individuals are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but we can only get to that truth after we see the cultural, ethnocentric issue that Paul is addressing. One should not wholeheartedly embrace the New Perspective, but neither should one wholeheartedly reject it. 

We have to be careful that we don’t play fast and loose with the Bible. We have to understand what is being said in its original context before we ask the question, “what application does it have for my life?” 

After all, we have to know if something is a rat or a squirrel before we know whether or not we should hang out in Waco. 

Bibliography and Helpful Resources

Introductory Resources

The New Perspective on Paul. Lectures by D.A. Carson: Click Here

What Saint Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright

“Law” by Frank Theilman in the Dictionary of Paul and his Letters


Scholarly Resources

“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in The Harvard Theological Review by Krister Stendahl

Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders

The New Perspective on Paul by James Dunn

Paul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

Justification by N.T. Wright

The Saving Righteousness of God by Michael Bird

Perspectives Old and New on Paul by Stephen Westerholm

Justification and Variegated Nomism (Two Vols). Edited by D.A. Carson

Zach Lee