UK Christian Bookshops Directory: Christian Book Reviews: The New Perspective on Paul
The New Perspective on Paul The New Perspective on Paul

Michael B Thompson
ISBN 9781851745180 (1851745181)
Grove Books, 2002

Category: Biblical Studies
Subcategory: New Testament

I've recently written an essay about Paul and 1 Corinthians, and this book made for remarkably helpful preliminary reading. But I have a confession to make: when I began reading this Grove booklet on 'The New Perspective on Paul', I didn't really know anything about an 'old perspective', let alone a new one. But what I learned was that there is considerable debate over whether many traditional Evangelical assumptions about Paul and his message are incorrect, or at least inadequate. Thompson suggests they are, and so do E P Sanders (purported to have begun this new understanding about Paul), J D G Dunn, and N T Wright. Thompson puts it like this:

Essentially the NP (New Perspective) represents a 'reformation' of a few notions Christians have inherited primarily from the Protestant Reformation. The NP however is not a return to pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism, but an attempt to interpret Paul in his own context, apart from the categories and issues of the sixteenth century. Scholars holding NP views do not see themselves as a particular religious movement; disagreeing among themselves about a number of interpretative details, they do not reflect any one particular theological persuasion. Most NP writers have not set out deliberately to undermine insights from the Reformation, much less to distort the teachings of Paul. But their conclusions do challenge some cherished views. That is producing heat, as well as light! (p.4)
Some of the questions to be discussed throughout the book are introduced on pages 5-7. These include: Was Judaism simply a religion of merit? Was justification by faith a new idea for Paul as a Christian? Did faith replace works for Paul? and did the Law stand opposed to God's grace? There are some refreshing insights here. For me, most interesting was the reminder that the relationship between God and his people has always been about his grace and, in a sense, our justification by faith. The idea isn't new for Christians:
Abraham, David, and the other faithful ones of the OT were acceptable to God because they trusted his promises and responded to the grace given to them. They did not know anything about Jesus, yet they were accepted by grace. Relating to God by faith has always been crucial; what changed with the coming of Christ is the content or precise object of that faith. (p.6)
It's too early to tell whether I'd subscribe to the New Perspective wholeheartedly; after all, there are many sides to every story, and this booklet is by no means the last word on the subject; indeed, it claims to do no more than scratch the surface. Nevertheless, it is an essential, well-argued, compact resource for any preacher or student wishing to engage with recent study about Paul and his message. To what extent is it theologically sound? I'll let you know when I get my essay result back -- just kidding!

Mark Burnhope, April 2004

Mark Burnhope is a graduate of London School of Theology. He is a 'trying' novelist and poet with a Masters Degree in Creative and Transactional Writing from Brunel University, and an alternative worship/emerging church obsessive.

The Paul Page (Mark M Mattison)

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