Book Review – The New Perspective on Paul (Michael B Thompson)

This short booklet (29 pages) can be purchased from Grove Books in either printed or PDF format (£2.75 either way). Despite the abundance of material on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), there is a real shortage of accessible introductory material that presents the issues clearly and fairly. Thompson does this admirably and his task is helped by his moderately neutral stance on the issue.

After a brief introduction, the ‘Old’ Perspective is described, with particular reference to Luther’s understanding of Jewish theology. He summarises the ‘Lutheran’ position in six points and then highlights problems with each that have given rise to the New Perspective. He does not unfortunately attempt to define a non-Lutheran ‘Old Perspective’, and the points end up being something of a straw man that many from the Old Perspective could easily knock down.

Chapter 3 attempts to explain the New Perspective by outlining the theology of three leading proponents – Sanders, Dunn and Wright. Sanders denied that Judaism taught salvation earned by good deeds, but that rather these works helped Jews to stay in the covenant. Dunn built on this by defining “works of the law” as those things that marked the Jews as insiders as opposed to the Gentiles, hence they are not to be thought of in terms of basic moral behaviour. Thompson broadly agrees but is not sure that all references to ‘works of the law’ can be defined in such narrow terms. Wright’s alternative definition of ‘justification’ is explained, along with his distinctive emphasis of the exile theme – that God will sort out evil and deliver his people. Thompson notes that not all have been convinced by this, and especially some evangelicals are concerned about the loss of imputation from the concept of justification.

Chapter 4 provides some of Thompson’s own insights into Paul’s letters. He emphasises the Jewish belief that the law was a good gift, but that for Paul he had come to see that Jesus was the ultimate gift. However many Jews had rejected Jesus and persecuted Paul, and some Christian Jews were effectively rejecting the sufficiency of the cross with their requirements on Gentile converts. Thompson helpfully summarises both Paul’s criticism and respect for the law. He does not however, address to what degree Paul expected Jewish believers to adhere to the law.

Chapter 5 summarises the evangelical criticism of the New Perspective. He argues that the concern that justification by faith is being lost in favour of salvation by works is not justified. But he does believe that the NPP brings a much-needed emphasis on our Christian behaviour in addition to faith. Another concern is whether this signals an end to evangelisation of the Jews, which he is a little unclear on. He does believe it the gospel should be preached to Jews but hints that Jews can be saved by grace without the gospel (I may have misunderstood him here though).

Chapter 6 brings the positives of the New Perspective, which at the very least has caused people to study their Bibles more thoroughly. Thompson does not believe all the texts fit either view perfectly, but the NPP brings much light to the flow of argument in Romans and elsewhere. He also believes that NPP can help bring a corrective against antinomian tendencies.

The booklet concludes with a bibliography, and a web link to what is the premier online resource for New Perspective research – the Paul Page. This booklet is by far the best introductory material to the New Perspective I have read, and shows sensitivity to both sides of the debate as well as evangelical concerns. Its relatively brief size will be welcomed by anyone who just wants to grasp the basics before diving into the much longer books and papers available. There are a few points on which his argumentation is weak, and he doesn’t allow himself to be drawn on the imputation debate, but his conclusions are not overly ambitious and provide food for thought for evangelicals from either perspective. The booklet will also serve as a handy reference to the main texts in the Pauline corpus that are pertinent to the debate.

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