September 23, 2020

James D.G. Dunn on the Importance of the New Perspective

I think the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” is of tremendous importance for a more accurate understanding of the Gospel and the teaching of the New Testament.

I have always felt that way, from the my first exposure to E.P. Sanders, Krister Stendahl, and James D. G. Dunn in seminary back in the 1980s.

On the other hand, I never thought that what they were saying was necessarily in contradiction to more traditional “Reformation” readings. In my view, they added context to those readings and broadened my understanding of such teachings as justification by faith. I never could fathom the harsh reactions of many to “the new perspective.”

One of my favorite commentaries on Romans is James D. G. Dunn’s two-volume work in the Word Biblical Commentary. In the Author’s Preface, Dunn explains why this “new perspective” is so important, and I would encourage you to think about his words today.

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The conviction began to grow in me that the reasons why Romans is such a powerful piece of writing, and why it has been so influential in Christian history, are one and the same. Because in it we see the emergence of Christianity from Judaism actually taking place; we see Paul the Pharisee, Paul the apostle, caught in the tension between his Jewishness and the impact of the risen Christ, between his inability to escape from the Jewish conviction of God’s special choice of and revelation to Israel and the impact of a gospel that came to him independently of his Jewishness and despite his Pharisaic zeal for the law. We see Paul the Jew wrestling with the implications of his own and his converts’ experience of grace and Paul the Christian wrestling with the implications of his Jewish heritage. We see in Romans Paul operating at the interface between Pharisaic Judaism and Christianity, and the transition from the one to the other in process of being worked out.

That, I would suggest, is why the letter has always struck a chord in those of subsequent generations conscious of a similar tension, caught at a similar point in time when long established traditions came under question from their own insight and experience, when well entrenched institutions and ideologies ceased to provide an answer to the sharpest of the new questions. That is probably why it exerted such a powerful influence on such as Augustine, Luther and Barth. Not for its literary or aesthetic appeal; not because they saw it as some dogmatic treatise; but because they too were at similar transition points in history (the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the breakdown of medieval Christendom, the profound shock of the 1914-18 war on the old European empires and on the hitherto dominant liberal optimism). And in the Paul of Romans they recognized a kindred spirit whose wrestlings with his tradition and his experience spoke with word-of-God power to their own situation.

This also points up the importance of maintaining the right hermeneutical balance, why the attempt to get back into the historical context of the letter is so important. Because it is when Paul is most clearly seen within his own times and context, when the function of Romans is most clearly understood as Paul’s thinking out the questions which deeply disturbed and profoundly affected him as a Jew who believed in Messiah Jesus as Lord, it is then that we come closest to Paul. And it is as we learn to hear him speaking to the reality of his own situation (not compiling an abstract treatise) that we begin to recognize that such periods of transition and tension are not new within the purposes of God, we begin to hear him speaking to our own situations of transition and of confusion in personal and national identity.

One of the most challenging lessons about Romans then is this: the more we see it as a dogmatic treatise which speaks the same message to every age, the less able we are to hear it in the way it was intended to be heard; whereas when we hear it in all its historical relativity, then we may begin to appreciate the full power of its message to the great moments of crisis in world and ecclesiastical (as well as personal) history. To rediscover Romans as a statement sketched out on the interface between diverse traditions and visions and cultures is to liberate it to speak with fresh force to those concerned at the interface between Judaism and Christianity. To appreciate something of its power as word of God to the Christians in first-century Rome may be a vital first step to hearing it as God’s word to equivalent situations today.


  1. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I was first exposed to the New Perspective through the essays of Krister Stendahl while working on my Master of Christian Ministry degree at Wayland Baptist University. Later, I came across other NPP writings, especially NT Wright’s commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary set. I have definitely come to appreciate the NPP folks’ desire to let St. Paul speak through the Pauline writings rather than filter St. Paul through Augustine’s issues or Luther’s issues, etc. There’s certainly great value in seeing the application of Pauline theology in Augustine, Luther, Barth, etc., but we ought not turn Romans into a Lutheran text or an Augustinian text.

    That said, I, too have not seen any major contradiction between those Reformation-era Solas and the NPP. Rather, the NPP helps give a greater context to the whole picture. When I’ve heard some other theologians criticize the NPP by saying that it compromises the Gospel, I think they’ve read into the NPP stuff that’s not really there.

    One criticism of the NPP I do have is that I’ve noticed that several of their authors don’t seem to make a distinction between Pelagianism (we can in theory be good enough to earn salvation, though most won’t get there) and Semi-Pelagianism (our works contribute to our Salvation, but we need God’s grace as well). NT Wright, for example is dead-on correct when he says that Pelagianism is a dead issue. But when he concludes that the Reformation issues are thus no longer relevant, I think he’s wrong, because Pelagianism wasn’t the problem in the Reformation; it was Semi-Pelagianism. Though they wouldn’t be explicit about it, Semi-Pelagian ideas are rampant in all corners of the Church today. Just look at the moralistic approach to Christian living that is advocated in most of the books in any given Christian Book Store. Sure, they say, Jesus saves us, but it’s up to us to take up the slack after Salvation.

    And that’s why we still need Luther’s and Augustine’s take on Paul, just as much as we need the contextualization of the NPP folks.

    • I think Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism in its various incarnations throughout church history has often been an over-compensating error in response to other errors and problems within the church — most particularly situations in which the eternal salvation of individuals is treated as a commodity exclusively owned and controlled by a religious institution and dispensed (or withheld) in incremental doses by an elite, power-seeking priesthood.
      The problem is that Palagians try to place primary control of individual salvation in the hands of the individual — rather than back in the hands of the One who paid for our salvation with His own blood.
      Ironically these days, individual control of salvation often means individually jumping through a set of hoops set up by a religious institution — combining the worst of both worlds.

  2. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    N.T. Wright is the only NPP writer I’ve read.

  3. I always get the “New Perspective” on Paul confused with other new perspectives on Paul. I took a few classes with Calvin Roetzel who I thought was the leading expert on the new perspective on Paul, but I think it’s an entirely different view than the one put forth here.

    Also slightly off topic, but is anyone planning on reading or reviewing this Retro Christianity book? Seems down the IM alley.

    And Michael…I haven’t forgotten you. Forgive me for being busy!

  4. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for posting the Dunn passage. It covers a lot of ground in a short amount of space. I have been meaning to read up on the “New Perspective” but have not yet had a chance to do so. This serves as a good incentive to go further with it.

  5. I haven’t heard of the “New Perspective” before, but I was reading Romans last night and thinking about it in a very different way than Dunn presents it here. Paul surely is writing out of his own experience as a Jew, but it seems to me that the problem he is addressing is not so much Jewish law per se as sin itself: the corruption within all of us that seems to be there against our better desires, but still has so much power over us that it holds us in slavery unless we are freed by Jesus.

    I recently read I Corinthians 15:56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” The problem isn’t the law per se; the laws may be right and just. The real problem is that we can’t ever measure up to it – in fact, the problem is us, human nature, sin. That’s as old as the Fall of Man.

    I think it would be a dangerous mistake to pigeonhole Paul as a frustrated first-century Jew, and even worse to coopt his words to use against any “established order” of religion. The only true, radical revolution, as Chesterton describes in Orthodoxy, was Jesus overthrowing the established order of death. That’s the ultimate tension point in history, and the repercussions of it still shake the world. Wars and schisms pale in comparison.

  6. I am sure that Paul intended to write a dogmatic treatise when he wrote Romans and not just work through his internal struggles in front of his Roman audience. What I do appreciate about writings on the new perspective is that they encourage us to detach from out medieval and reformation contextualization of Paul’s writings and think about them in terms of their 1st century context.

    • I agree that Romans appears to be more of a treatise or even an essay than just wrangling over theological issues on paper. But Paul does seem to employ a progressive method of argument, building ideas on top of each other (as if wrangling over the issues himself), before guiding the reader to the intended conclusions. That way the reader gets the impression that he or she has participated with Paul in working through these issues, rather than just being told flat-out what to believe.
      I could be wrong, but one thing I see in Romans is what seems to be Paul’s attempt to stave off the beginnings of a general rift or drifting apart between Jewish and Gentile Christians — a divide that became bigger and more pronounced in the decades and centuries after Paul’s death. He seems to be reminding them that they all, whether Jew or Gentile, are part of the same unfolding narrative of God’s redemptive plans for fallen humanity.

  7. For an excellent, clearly written series explaining the New Perspective on Paul [NPP], by an excellent scholar, see his blog here:

    Scroll down to start at the beginning.