Monday, October 29, 2007

What Does the New Perspective on Paul Look Like?

I like little books that pack a punch, and Jouette M. Bassler's new, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts (Westminster John Knox, 2006), stands among the best examples I can find. In just a few short (10-15 page) chapters, Bassler surveys the current conversation on topics such as grace, the law, and faith. Though anyone with an introductory grasp of Paul will understand her -- I assign this book for a 100-level course -- Bassler's discussion includes diverse points of view from across the exegetical and theological spectra. Her footnotes would make a goldmine for a doctoral student preparing for a qualifying exam on Paul: read those works, and you'll be fine.

So please read Bassler. Just the same, I'm often asked about what's called the "new perspective" on Paul. What does it look like? In short, the new perspective is a movement that began in the 1960s and continues to spark controversy. Key figures include Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright, though each of these scholars has his own distinctive point of view. In this post I'll simply list some common characteristics of the movement.
  1. Paul and Judaism. Influenced by Augustine and Luther, scholars once assumed that the pre-Jesus Paul carried a heavy burden of sin. Romans 7 and 1 Timothy 1:15 (in which Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners). In the 1960s and 70s scholars began listening to ancient Jewish texts on their own terms, rather than through the lenses of Christian reception. Texts like Galatians 1 and Philippians 3 reveal that Paul did not struggle under a burden of sin; rather, he remained proud of his faithfulness to the law throughout his life.
  2. Paul's "conversion." Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity, as in leaving one religion for another. Instead, he received an "apocalypse" (Paul's word) from the God of Israel, that revealed the risen Jesus to him. From that point Paul began proclaiming the death, resurrection, and return of Israel's messiah.
  3. Law, grace, and faith. Paul's gospel was not the announcement of salvation by grace through faith. This theme occurs almost exclusively in two of his letters, Galatians and Romans. These happen to be the letters in which Paul deals most directly with the relationship of Gentile and Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul believed passionately in grace and faith, as did other Jews of his day. What marked his mission was the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring them to observe Israel's Torah. Paul's gospel proclaimed God's decisive saving action in the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
  4. Romans. In the "older perspective," Romans outlines Paul's theology. This is essentially accomplished in chapters 1-8. Chapter 7 represents an autobiographical reflection on Paul's struggles under the law and his deliverance by Christ. Chapters 9-11 are a "great digression" on the question of Israel, while chapters 12-16 are merely an ethical afterthought. Romans' story is the story of how individual souls find themselves lost in sin but redeemed in Jesus Christ. In the new perspective, Paul is not sketching his full theology. Instead, he is defending his gospel over against objections that were already circulating. Chapter 7 is a case study in what happens to Gentiles who hope the law will justify them, chapters 9-11 represent one of Paul's most critical defenses against his opponents, and chapters 12-15 instruct Gentiles and Jews (but especially Gentiles) as to how to get along. Romans' story proclaims the righteousness and power of God, demonstrated through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (not simply "faith in" Jesus) to save humankind and the cosmos.
What's at stake in the new perspective? Among other things, Jewish-Christian relations benefit when Christians seriously try to understand Judaism on its own terms. Pastorally, consider the implications of the "older" and "newer" perspectives. Following the older perspective, Christians sought to duplicate the experiences of Augustine and Luther. Some have said, "You gotta get 'em lost before you can get 'em saved," centering the Christian experience around individuals who feel the weight of sin and who find freedom in Christ. The new perspective, while it takes sin seriously, instead announces God's liberative acts on behalf of individuals, communities and all of creation. While the old perspective calls people to repent and find forgiveness, the new perspective invites people to participate in the ongoing work of God.