How new is the ‘new perspective’?

Posted on August 27, 2010


I am no expert on the ‘new perspective on Paul’. I’ve read the obvious things – Sanders, Dunn, Wright, &c., although not Doug Campbell’s new book yet – and routinely use commentaries that presume or argue for the position; I’ve even preached and taught in ways that  broadly assumed the correctness of the NPP;  but I’ve never given the arguments the time or attention they no doubt deserve. I have long harboured a suspicion, however, that at least a part of what is going on under the headline is a comprehensive and massive exercise in deconstructing a straw man. From Sanders down to Campbell, the NPP writers have had in their sights an account of pauline soteriology (‘justification theory’) claimed to be dominant in the West from Luther down to today, which needs to be overthrown. Now, it is obvious that this involves a historical claim – that a certain characterisation of soteriology has been normative – alongside an exegetical claim – that this characterisation is inadequate. The first claim is a proper subject for someone who is interested in historical theology and, to the extent that I understand what is being said, I find it profoundly implausible.

It was reading Francis Watson’s review of Doug Campbell’s book that emboldened me to go public on this suspicion. Francis starts with an overview of the new perspective: ‘[d]issatisfied with the traditional Protestant privileging of the so-called “doctrine of justification by faith”, a number of scholars have subordinated justification to participation or union with Christ…’ That was roughly what I had thought was going on, but I trust Francis’s judgement much more than my own on this issue, and so I will proceed on the basis that this is an adequate summary of one part of the argument. For the historical theologian, this statement invites the question, what is the ‘traditional Protestant’ position on soteriology? Does it privilege justification by faith, at the expense of participation/union with Christ?

Let me quote Heinrich Heppe for a rapid demonstration. I choose Heppe for two reasons. First, he claims to be offering a synopsis of the major writers of Reformed dogmatics from Calvin to Schleiermacher – I could point to places where I think he twists the tradition (rarely) or over-systematises a fairly diverse witness (more common), but basically, this is a good witness to a broad swathe of Reformed tradition. Second, Heppe originally published his manual in 1861, so this is not new scholarship or a revisionist account; this is, simply, the tradition as it was received and understood. What, then, does he have to say about soteriology?

He orders his account of soteriology under the classical ordo salutis taken from Rom. 8:30 – justification is consequent and dependent upon vocation, which itself follows predestination. I will pick the story up at vocation, or ‘calling’. ‘According to its real nature the calling of the elect is thus an insitio in Christum or a unio cum Christo, a real, wholesale, spiritual and indissoluble union of the person of the elect with the divine-human person of the Redeemer … At the root of the whole doctrine of the appropriation of salvation lies the doctrine of insitio or insertio in Christum … so the dogmaticians discuss it with special emphasis.’ References to Boquin, Zanchi, Olevian, Witsius, and van Mastricht follow, but he could have cited almost any of the standard manuals of Reformed dogmatics (at least of those I have read) – certainly the point is made abundantly clearly by Calvin, as scholarship has long recognised (Wendel, writing in 1950, assumes the point is standard). Justification is consequent upon union with Christ. That is the foundational claim of all traditional Reformed soteriology.

Sanders, and those who have followed, certainly offered a new perspective on Palestinian Judaism, and (for me, at least – I understand that it had already been essayed elsewhere), a new way of understanding the structure of Romans, and the argument of Galatians; but the idea that traditional Protestant soteriology ought to be replaced with an account that ‘subordinate[s] justification to participation or union with Christ’? Sorry, but that just is traditional Protestant soteriology, at least in its Reformed expression (Lutheranism has not traditionally had this arrangement of union with Christ as the basis of justification).

Why might this matter? Well, it is precisely the claim that the NPP calls for an overthrow or replacement of the Reformation teaching on justification by faith that has led to such vitriol and hostility from traditionalists; most recently and visibly, John Piper’s denunciations of Tom Wright. If I am right – and I repeat that I claim no expertise in understanding what the NPP writers are saying – then the new readings of Paul might be better characterised as upholding the classical Calvinistic/Reformed soteriology against the Lutheran – and Arminian – traditions. Demonstrating that claim might just cool a few overheated arguments…

(If anyone reading this knows more than I do about the NPP (which seems likely…), I’d be interested to know if there is something fundamental missing from the summary I borrowed from Francis above – are there real and basic points of difference that ought to be taken account of? If not, I might even write a paper on this – it seems a point worth making.)

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