Regular readers will be aware that I regard myself as an “amateur theologian” and that I advocate that all christians ought to be, to some extent. I have no formal training in this area, all my education was science-based and my post-education career has been finance-based.
Because of this, I am often some way behind the times in terms of major debates. One debate that has come to my attention is that of the “new perspective on Paul.” At present, I will confess that I don’t really know too much about it. I’ve bought a small raft of books on the subject (both for and against) wanting to try to get to grips on the topic.
Part of my motivation is one of a little “fan-dom” of Tom (N.T.) Wright, who is expecting to publish volume 4 of his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series in the summer of 2013. I started with volume 3 (not realising beforehand that it was part of a series) before doing volume 1, and I am presently about half way through reading volume 2. Volume 4 is expected to be something of a magnum opus on the topic, so I thought I ought to get acquainted with the issues beforehand.
There were a couple of books that I wanted to get my hands on but couldn’t do so at a reasonable price, but I did get the following:
- Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
- What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
- Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wright
- The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper
- Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright
- Justification: Five Views by various authors
The two I missed out on were Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders and Justification and Variegated Nomism by D.A. Carson. For that last one, when I tried searching for it on the website of my local christian bookshop, the only results it came up with were Veggietales DVDs!
So over the next few months, you can expect to see each of these books reviewed, at the end of which I intend to write up a conclusion on my own thoughts based on what I’ve read.
At the outset, I must confess I don’t really get what the major fuss is about. From having read through some of the introductions, it seems that the issue is roughly as follows:
One of the lynchpins of the theological side of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by faith. That is to say, through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, the door was opened by we could attain salvation, but that invitation had to be accepted. This acceptance was through faith in Jesus.
The new perspective says that this picture is not wholly incorrect, but that it is incomplete. The reformation theologians did not integrate into their thinking the cultural and historical context into which Paul was writing. Once this line of thought is taken into consideration, an alternative emphasis comes out particularly in relation to how Paul saw the Jewish law and its relation to both Jewish and Gentile converts to christianity.
The most important practical aspect for believers is that it affects how those who roughly subscribe to reformed theology view the importance of works in personal salvation, thus undermining somewhat the notion of sola fide as most famously espoused by John Calvin.
Of course, my understanding of the issue may be completely erroneous. I freely confess, as always, that I may be (and indeed, may well be) wrong, but that is why I’m undertaking these readings. I always am interested in getting to the heart of a matter, of understanding what’s going on and why this has caused such heated discussions amongst some believers.