October 20, 2020

A Surprising Implication of the New Perspective


St. Paul, 9th c manuscript, Monastery of St. Gallen

We haven’t talked much about biblical scholarship lately.

I know it’s not necessarily high on the agenda for a number of our readers, but perhaps others might wish we would discuss such matters more often. Honestly, too much time was spent in my former fundamentalist and evangelical circles arguing about who wrote what book of the Bible and so on, and marking who was “in” and “out” on that basis. Biblical/apologetic battles (usually between Christian traditions) received an inordinate amount of attention during my training for pastoral ministry and many of us were thereby shortchanged with regard to training in worship, pastoral care, spiritual formation, and church life.

Nevertheless, an awareness of the issues in biblical scholarship has a place, and today we’ll give some time to an interesting development noted by N.T. Wright in his latest book.

Some Bible scholars have expressed opposition to various forms of the so-called “New Perspective” because they challenge certain long-held conservative positions, particularly with regard to soteriology (doctrines of salvation). However, as today’s quote from N.T. Wright illustrates, some of these new perspectives also call into question established liberal/critical conclusions about Paul and the Bible, and actually end up reinforcing what conservatives have been arguing for all along.

Per Wright, critical scholars deny Pauline authorship of many of the epistles attributed to him because of dogmatic agendas. However, the findings of Wright and others have undercut the dogmas which formed the foundation for those views.

PFGHardly anybody today questions the authenticity of seven of the “Pauline” letters: Romans, the two Corinthian letters, Galatians, Philippians, the first of the Thessalonian letters, and Philemon — though it is a salutary exercise to remember that all have them have been challenged at one stage or another, and that F.C. Baur, who launched the nineteenth century  Tübingen school, regarded only the first four of those as genuine, spreading all the others out across a lengthy chronological framework. That position died a death over a century ago, but some of Baur’s assumptions linger on in other forms, as we shall see.

It is high time, in my view, to reconsider the three obvious omissions in the list, namely Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. Many scholars have in fact resisted the trend on one or more of these letters, more with Colossians than with the other two. Reasons of style are often cited. But I have come to think that the main reasons why Ephesians and Colossians have been regarded as non-Pauline (or, in the somewhat grandiose phrase, Deutero-Pauline) is because they fly in the face of the liberal protestant paradigm for reading Paul which dominated the scholarly landscape for several generations, but which has been undermined from more or less all sides over the course of recent decades. Quite simply, Ephesians in particular, and Colossians to a considerable extent, seem to have a much stronger and higher view of the church — and, indeed, of Jesus himself — than many scholars have been prepared to allow. The real Paul, such scholars assumed, taught “justification by faith”, and since this was held to be radically incompatible with what was seen as a high view of the church (sometimes, too, with a high view of Jesus), Paul could not have written those letters. Indeed, these letters did not appear to teach “justification by faith”, except in the single verse Ephesians 2:8, and that could be explained away in terms of “Deutero-Paul” nodding politely to his great exemplar. But Procrustean beds will not do. It is time to challenge such dogma-driven prejudices head on.

But surely (someone might ask), isn’t that liberal protestant paradigm what has been challenged so strongly over the last generation by the “new perspective”? And what about the new “political” and “sociological” readings of Paul? Now that they’ve highlighted Paul’s vision of Christ as sovereign over the powers, and realized that Paul was interested in forming and shaping the early communities, might that not affect a decision about sources? What, indeed, about the fashion for “apocalyptic”? Might that not have changed things as well?

Well, yes, all three of these movements might well have had that effect. The “new perspective” might well have noticed that the main emphasis which has emerged from its own study of Romans and Galatians is exactly what we find in Ephesians 2:11-21, and that the stress on “participation in Christ” which was so important already for Albert Schweitzer, and which has reemerged as a central theme for writers like Ed Sanders and Douglas Campbell, is massively reaffirmed there as well. So, too, the “political Paul” of Horsley and others might have been thought very likely to emphasize the sovereignty of Jesus Christ over all the powers and authorities, and the victory of the cross in which those powers were led as a defeated rabble behind him. There we are again: Ephesians and Colossians….

– N.T. Wright
Paul and the Faithfulness of God

A broader and clearer understanding of the N.T. message — the Gospel that is more than simply “justification by faith” for individuals and the hope of heaven when we die — not only helps us understand Jesus and his Messianic mission better, but also sheds a new light on the epistles, suggesting that the “Paul” of both conservatives and liberals may have been misunderstood in some key ways in the past.



  1. I appreciate Wright’s affirmation of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. However, I would like to point out the irony in his assertion, namely, that among “new perspective” proponents, his is not the majority position. Furthermore, I don’t think he goes far enough, for he continues to regard the Pastoral Epistles as deutero-Pauline.

    As Henri Blocher has pointed out, when the Pastorals are regarded as genuinely Pauline, the dichotomy of “faith” vs. “good works” (not “works of the law,” as in Romans and Galatians) is clearly present in Paul’s writings, just as the so-called “old perspective” has always claimed. And if it is clearly present in Paul in one location, why should we confidently affirm that the very similar sounding phrase in Romans and Galatians means something quite different from it?

    Even in Ephesians, Paul clearly opposes faith to good works (not mere Jewish identity markers) in Ephesians 2:8-10.

    I have argued in my book on the new perspective that while it brings some important exegetical insights to the table that need to be heard, its downfall has been the suggestion of a sweeping paradigm shift in Pauline interpretation. I generally don’t find objectionable the things that new perspective proponents affirm so much as I find objectionable what they deny. The pendulum has swung too far, and it needs to come back a bit.

    • I haven’t come to what he says about the Pastorals, etc, yet.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I’d like to see what he says about the Pastorals et al.

        Bishop Wright seems to know what he’s talking about.

        • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

          He’s got a real soft spot for the Pastorals, especially Philemon. I once heard him say that he’d like to see a paper on how one would interpret Romans, Galatians, etc. using the Philemon and the Pastorals as the starting place for Pauline theology rather than the other way around.

    • “Even in Ephesians, Paul clearly opposes faith to good works (not mere Jewish identity markers) in Ephesians 2:8-10.”

      Wright has always acknowledged as much. See his “For Everyone” commentary on Ephesians.

      • Right. Which makes it odd that a very similar sounding phrase in Romans and Galatians would mean something almost entirely different. That’s my point.

        • It’s all about context, and each instance should be analyzed that way, not on the basis of dogmatic categories that rule our interpretations.

        • I think that one of Wright’s major hermenuetical principles is that Paul was NOT writing a systematic theology, ever. So if you accept that fact, it’s clear that the same phrase might mean something in different contexts. The same phrase might be emphasized in different ways. That, in my mind, is the biggest shift in the NPP: the idea that Paul never wrote systematic theology but always responded to particular issues in particular churches in his writings. He may have given a systematic theology when he preached the Gospel at first, but we have no record of it.

    • “Even in Ephesians, Paul clearly opposes faith to good works (not mere Jewish identity markers) in Ephesians 2:8-10.

      I have no idea what this means. Can someone elaborate?

      • I think it is saying that the “works” commonly associated with the NPP regard Jewish identity markers/distinctions, which became a source of pride and separation for the Jews (thus, Paul was upset about the lack of unity). However, sometimes the idea of “works” did also involve a earning of righteousness (works salvation), which seems to be the kind of works the Ephesians passage is dealing with.

    • I don’t believe Wright holds, at least not dogmatically, that the Pastorals are Deutero-Pauline. I finished Paul and the Faithfulness of God last week, and as I remember he only mentions in passing about the possibility of 2 Timothy not being penned by Paul.

  2. “a broader and clearer understanding of the N.T. message – the Gospel that is more than simply “justification by faith’ for individuals and the hope of heaven when we die…..”

    Its been this perspective that has in so many ways refilled me with joy in my Christian walk. Growing up fundamentalist and being taught to obsess over Justification by faith alone handicapped me in so many ways. It wasn’t until I found Francis Schaeffer’s books as a teen that I realized there was so much more to my life in Christ and that I could embrace and enjoy things such as the Arts. Having read nearly everything N.T. Wright has written, he too has been a huge encouragement to my spiritual walk in helping me to focus on living in the here-and-now; realizing that I am apart of the Kingdom now…..

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      You found there was more to the Gospel and the Kingdom than Fire Insurance and Fluffy Cloud Heaven.

      And that it involves others than Me, Myself, I, and Jeesus.

  3. I don’t care who wrote them.

    I care about what they say.

    Is the law there, to expose my need? And is the gospel there to provide me a Savior.

    It’s akin to Luther stopping a little kid on the street and telling the kid to proclaim the absolution to him (to Luther). It doesn’t matter, in the least, whose mouth it comes out of.

    • I think that’s going too far the other way, Steve. The church placed a priority on apostolic authority in receiving the NT canon. It may not be of immediate interest to many people, but it is not unimportant.

      • This raises the question: what are we prepared to do about this? Does anyone anticipate that we will be prepared now or in the future to drop some of the epistles from the canon because we cannot establish their apostolic authority to our satisfaction, when their apostolic authority had already been previously established and recognized for many centuries? And what authority will decide this? And what will happen if, say, the ECUSA decides to stop recognizing certain epistles as canonical, but the Catholic Church, Orthodox communions and various other Protestant denominations do not?

        I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to engage in this kind of study but I think that Steve’s position is a valid one. I think that most people would agree that the Christian faith is fragmented enough as it is, and the prospect that we might face a future where potentially every denomination has their own canon of Scripture is not a pleasant one.

        • dabhidh,
          We’ve already swum that tide. Is it 66 books or is it 73 books, or 78? Is it 150 psalms or 151?
          Canon becomes whatever the authority we recognize says it is.

          So yes the spector of “canon by denomination” has been with us for some time. And what stops further eliminations? Or additions for that matter? Not much if a denomination chooses to be so bold. Think what an elimination of that pesky “epistle of Straw” would do for the works-rightousness debate. With the stroke of a scholar’s pen and a printing press adjustment we can justify, canonize and enshrine our contention.

          Been there, done that.

          • Of course I’m aware of the differences between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants over the canon, but I don’t think we’ve quite “done” a situation in which various denominations choose to chuck the Pauline epistles, in whole or in part. I think that could cause much more trouble than you recognize.

        • [Possible repeat post]

          I have a different take from flatrocker, though his point is a good one. Hermeneutics trumps canonicity. If a church already takes vast swathes of Scripture with a grain of salt anyway, there’s little logical need to decide what’s in and what’s out. You don’t need to dispense with a text when you can just ignore or, better, “reimagine” it to death. This probably explains why we haven’t seen much de-cannonization noise from liberal denominations.

          Aside from that, any redactions would probably in practice still look a lot like the way the beginning of John 8 and the end of Mark are treated in most modern translations, including the NIV: you simply put a footnote indicating these passages are problems for scholars and keep whistling along.

          • “seen much de-canonization noise.” Right.

            Methinks I shall take arms against a sea of troubles sometime soon.

          • Excellent point Trevis. It’s so much less challenging to just ignore what we can’t abide in.

            In addition to trumping canon, I think hermeneutics also leads to canonicity. If enough hermeneuticals (wow, a new possible denomination) can agree, canon will shortly follow. And canonicity tends to perpetuate the culture of which we place high value First however, we do need to answer the age-old question: just how many hermeneuticals does it take to screw in a light bulb?

  4. I’ve been reading Tom Schreiner’s (an old perspective scholar) commentary on Romans as well as Wright’s Romans for everyone commentary, and the thing that has struck me the most is the amount of agreement, not disagreement. I forget what I was reading exactly but I believe it was over Romans chapter two, and while there is some disagreement, it didn’t actually make a dimes worth of difference. I wish I could say more but I don’t want to misquote anyone. It seems that the big difference is in the interpretation of ‘works of the law’ and from what I’ve read I’m still in the old camp, as the new interpretation of works of the law being simply boundary markers doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in the context of Romans.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    But surely (someone might ask), isn’t that liberal protestant paradigm what has been challenged so strongly over the last generation by the “new perspective”?

    Well, Fundamentalism (and KJV1611 ONLY) types have challenged that “liberal protestant paradigm”, but that’s a more of a “Communism begets Objectivism” reaction.

    And what about the new “political” and “sociological” readings of Paul?

    I have become very leery of “political” and “sociological” readings. The first always reminds me of classic Communists (where everything “Ees Political”) and the second of psychobabble.

    • Bravo HUG! How does this perspective change the lives of believers? Not one WHIT! I won’t go so far as saying it is a discussion for eggheads, but it almost certainly merits a “Ho Hum” from the average church goer.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Really? I don’t see the lack of difference. The `mechanics` of the theology may not matter to the “average church goer” [if there is such a thing”]. But a religion of personal-salvation [a religion of My Faith] vs. a religion of citizenship in the kingdom of peace-makers [a religion with a place and role for community]… these are two religions that almost cannot be conflated into one.

        And anyone who denies a “sociological” reading of a text is full of bull; unless you intend to do nothing what-so-ever with the content of a text – then you are performing a sociological reading. Regardless of if you call it that or not.

      • This perspective won’t affect the lives of believers who are busy simply surviving in everyday life, or who are not intellectually inclined, or who suffer from developmental disabilities, or others as well. I think it’s great that we can indeed participate in the life of Christ without getting all the intellectual stuff correct, especially about scripture. Not having a New Testament didn’t stop the first Christians from participating in the life of Christ *and* understanding what they could understand.

        For those who want to get at *meaning*, though, it does make a big difference, because it describes the Context, and politics and social setting are part of that. Again, reading our situations anachronistically back into scripture (i.e. the “separation of church and state”) can often cloud the meaning. The question is not whether everything is political or what the social setting is, but to what extent and how fully we are enabled to understand the context, and so come to understand what St Paul meant – which of course is larger than “psychobabble.” And all of this understanding filters down to “the average church goer” through sermons and liturgies.

        Also, what Adam Tauno said.


      • It makes a big difference, at least it has in my experience. It has everything to do with how we perceive and portray God. Perhaps, unlike me, you were lucky enough to grow up not thinking that God was constantly mad or disappointed in you. It wasn’t even something that I can blame my parents for. It was simply the logical outworking of a soteriological system that has a wrathful God in need of appeasement as the centerpiece of its theology. So I think it matters a great deal, even if the complete details are more than the average churchgoer cares to learn about.

      • “How does this perspective change the lives of believers? Not one WHIT!”

        I definitely beg to differ. Even if you don’t go in for reading 18,000 page books on Biblical scholarship, trends in scholarship affect life on the ground in the Church. For instance, when it becomes clear among scholars, and then among pastors, and then among average church-goers, that we can only interpret Paul in light of his historical context, not simply read ourselves back into the text, then the contours of the Christian faith change, or at least what most Americans know of it. The simple revelation that the Bible is not primarily designed to generate a faith whose climax is simply “my personal salvation,” and how to hold onto it, or be assured of it or whatever, which is usually what is read out of Romans, will be earth-shaking for many.

  6. David Cornwell says

    I had planned on delaying a purchase of “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” until later in the year. I have a reading list, and am slowly progressing through it. However about two weeks ago, on my birthday, I was pleasantly surprised when it arrived in the mail, a gift from my daughter.

    So far I’ve barely touched the surface, reading here and there, and checking out certain references and ideas. Now I need to alter my entire plan somewhat in order to fit Wright’s volumes into it.

    If nothing else, Wright forces one to think, and in doing so to reconsider older presuppositions from whatever camp one might be located. And that makes it all worthwhile.

  7. I had not heard this from Wright before. Very interesting. I recently interviewed Wright but we didn’t get into Pauline authorship: http://re2podcast.com/2014/02/11/episode-24-re2-interviews-n-t-wright/

  8. Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

    I’ve got an open mind about a good deal of what I’ve read from the New Perspective folks. One of the most interesting reads during my graduate studies was Krister Stendahl’s Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, especially his seminal essay “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” The most intriguing aspect of the essay was the assertion that we’ve been reading Paul through the eyes of Augustine and Luther for far too long and that we need to read Paul through his own eyes. Or, as NT Wright said (paraphrased), we ought not be focused on questions from 500 years ago, but we ought instead to be finding out what questions Paul was asking and answering.

    Since then, I’ve read and heard some good critiques and rebuttals on some of Stendahl’s assumptions, which makes me suspect that in some of the details he may have overstated his case a bit. But, the core issue of not reading Paul through later filters remains important. Heck, Stendahl was really the first taste of the NPP folks, so it would make sense that later writers fill in some of the gaps.

  9. CM, thanks for this. I have been trying for a long time to figure out why anyone would deny Paul’s authorship of so many letters. Obviously it would help if I was fluent in Koine, but even so the stylistic arguments have never made sense to me. Different styles in different contexts and times seems perfectly natural to me. Objections based on hyper-Protestant dogma makes much more sense, and this is the first I have seen that articulated so well. More than ever that argument convinces me that Paul was indeed the author.

    I look forward to more on the Pastorals and etc. Tomorrow would be great while the iron is hot.

  10. You people sure do love your N.T. Wright. The scholarly thing to do would be to pay more attention to scholars who disagree with you.

    • Wexel, your comment is uninformed. I’ll speak for myself as one who spent 30 years studying the “Old Perspectives” before coming to appreciate Wright and others who introduced newer ones. I’d say I’ve paid plenty of attention to those who disagree.

      • I’m not talking about even more conservative scholars, I’m talking about the radical ones who do NOT approach the texts with the agenda of defending Christianity. Crossan., Meier, Borg, Ehrman, even Earl Doherty. (I speak as a Raymond E. Browne fan, btw.) For all I know you may be these books memorized, but this website makes it look like Wright represents some kind of “mainstream,” and this is as much of a distortion of the state of Jesus Studies scholarship as a discussion of the OT would be if people like Israel Finkelstein were overlooked.

  11. I haven’t yet dug into the whole new perspectives/old perspectives debate. At this point in my journey, I don’t have a heart for that sort of thing. At first glance, though, it seems new perspective is just taking a new swing closer to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    But, as far as N.T. Wright, I recently read “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” and I got a lot out of his perspective on the resurrection. He really stated a lot of things about the resurrection that I believed, but was afraid to say because it is in the face of modern Platonic views of heaven. I was also impressed about his statements about the failure of mid 20th century liberalism. Modern evangelicals put all mainlines in the ‘liberal’ column, yet it seems many in the mainlines have abandoned the 20th century view of liberalism. It is reinforcing my belief that it may be possible for me to support traditional historical Christianity, yet be ‘progressive’ on many social issues facing our world.