New Perspective on Paul


"The New Perspective on Paul" is an non-traditional way of interpreting the New Testament teaching of the Apostle Paul on justification.

Leaders of the New Perspective include N.T. Wright (b. 1948; former bishop of Durham) and James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939; former professor of theology at the University of Durham). Their New Testament scholarship builds upon the research of E.P. Sanders (b. 1935; professor of religion at Duke University).

While this school of thought is often called the New Perspective (singular), it's more precise to speak of the New Perspectives (plural), because there isn't uniformity among those who challenge the "Old Perspective." New Perspective scholars disagree with each other just as often as they do with Old Perspective scholars.

Also noteworthy is that the New Perspective doesn't explicitly question all core tenets of orthodox Protestant Christianity, such as the doctrines of Jesus Christ. Its proposed corrections are limited to the meaning of Paul's teaching concerning justification; which does, though, have implications for other categories of theology.

Outspoken critics of the New Perspective include D.A. Carson (b. 1946; scholar and research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), John Piper (b. 1946; theologian and pastor), and Ligon Duncan (b. 1960; Presbyterian scholar and pastor).

History of the New Perspective on Paul

While there have been scholars prior to the 20th century that questioned Protestant, or "Old Perspective", interpretations of Pauline teachings, two 20th-century books served as a catalyst for "The New Perspective."

Krister Stendahl

Krister Stendahl's 1960 essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (first published in Swedish), was translated into English in 1963 and appeared in the book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. In the essay, Stendahl challenged the Protestant Reformation's understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, positing that the Pauline doctrine of salvation included a works component.

Following Stendahl, New Perspective scholars don't believe that Paul argues against works in general as a component of salvation, but only certain works (see "The Issues" below).

E.P. Sanders

E.P. Sanders' 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, led certain scholars to amend their understanding of Pauline thought in ways previously unconsidered. In the book, Sanders argues that first-century Judaism was not a works-based salvation like Protestant theologians so often teach.

Rather, first-century Judaism had a Pauline understanding of grace (a fact misunderstood by Reformation theologians) that conjoined with works. It was Dunn who coined the phrase "The New Perspective on Paul" in a 1982 lecture he delivered on the subject.

Issues in the New Perspective on Paul

There are multiple points of contention between the perspectives, which include, but are not limited to, the following:

Imputation or Inclusion

Certain New Perspective scholars contend that the Pauline term "justification" is the result of a sinner being made right with God and entails their inclusion into God's covenant community. The Old Perspective contends "justification" refers to the process by which a sinner is made right with God, which includes the transfer, or "imputation", of Christ's righteousness to the sinner.

N.T. Wright posits that the Pauline term "justification" isn't the means by which a person is made right with God, but a sign that they already are. "Justification," he writes, "is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other." Wright elaborates,

'Justification' in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders' terms, it was not so much about 'getting in,' or indeed about 'staying in,' as about 'how you could tell who was in.' In standard Christian theological language, it wasn't so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.

Justification, Wright argues, is the declaration of being in right relationship with God.

Old Perspective theologians believe the Pauline word "justification" refers to the means by which sinners are made right with God, as opposed to being merely being an announcement of a person's inclusion into the people of God. N.T. Wright rejects the idea that God justifies the sinner through transferring, or "imputing," Christ's righteousness to them, but that the sinner is just declared righteous as a covenant member.

One critic of The New Perspective, Douglas Moo, contrasts Paul and Wright with the following table:

Romans 4:5
is credited
as righteousness" (NAU)
N.T. Wright faith is a badge of covenant membership

Gathercole elaborates:

At its core, the doctrine of justification says that sinners can be miraculously reckoned righteous before God. This happens for all who believe and has nothing to do with observance of the law, which for sinners is impossible. With this foundation in place, we can move on to see how Paul uses the doctrine of justification by faith. The new perspective rightly observes that Paul uses justification to argue that Gentile Christians need not take on the yoke of the law (Galatians) and that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should live together in harmony (Romans 14-15). While we must not neglect these demands, we should not allow the tail to wag the dog.

Many Old Perspective scholars use a summary description articulated by Moo (1950-present, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) in his criticism of N.T. Wright's arguments, as a way to summarize the methodological differences between the perspectives:

"[N.T.] Wright backgrounds what the New Testament foregrounds, and foregrounds what the New Testament backgrounds."

In other words, The Old Perspective accuses The New Perspective of promoting what Paul makes secondary (i.e. ethnic inclusion) and demoting what he makes primary (i.e. sinners being reckoned as righteous).

Grace Alone vs. Grace and Works

The controversy over this matter centers upon the Pauline phrases "works" and "works of the law." Certain New Perspective scholars, like Sanders and Dunn, reject the notion that Paul's railing against "works" in his letters was in relation to earning God's favor, as The Old Perspective contends. Rather, "works" refers to what Dunn calls "badges" or "boundary markers" of the covenant community, like circumcision. In other words, Paul didn't teach that works weren't a part of salvation, only that certain works weren't.

Leading New Perspective scholars, such as Sanders and N.T. Wright, contend that first-century Judaism was actually a religion of grace in Paul's day, not a religion of works like is traditionally understood in Protestant circles. Therefore, New Perspective scholars aren't only proposing a new way to understand Paul, but a new way to understand first-century Judaism as well.

Sanders argues that Paul's emphasis on grace was in alignment with first-century Judaism's teaching on the subject, not in contrast to it. Wright agrees with Sanders and says readers misjudge first-century Judaism if they believe it was a works-based religion, void of the component of grace.

New Perspective scholars further postulate that after his conversion, Paul wasn't fighting legalism as the German Reformer Martin Luther taught, but that he was attempting to gather both Jew and Gentile inside the Abrahamic Covenant (see Genesis 12:1-3). When Paul criticized the Jews for following the "works" of the law, New Perspective scholars contend that he was arguing against ethnic "boundary markers," like circumcision, which separated them from Gentiles, thereby working against the ethnically inclusive nature of the new covenant in Christ.

Paul, then, was not arguing against works in general as a component to salvation; he was emphasizing doing away with the specific works that disunited Jews and Gentiles.

Sanders coined the phrase "covenant nomism" (nomism is Greek for "law") to describe how first-century Jews approached the Law. Covenant nomism is that which Paul sought to correct, according to The New Perspective because "there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Colossians 3:11). If first-century Judaism's emphasis on obedience wasn't in relation to works-based righteousness, then works-based righteousness wasn't what Paul was arguing against in his epistles.

Therefore, The New Perspective calls into question hallmark doctrines of the Protestant Reformation such as grace alone and faith alone, which are, in essence, responses to works-based religious systems.

Old Perspective scholars contend that Paul teaches salvation requires divine intervention (i.e. grace), a fact which first-century Judaism largely neglected. An example that Old Perspective scholars cite of Judaism's collective approach to salvation through works is from the epistle of 2 Baruch (circa late first-century to early second-century):

"Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works."

While the New Perspective holds to the forgiveness of sin through the blood of Christ, complimented by certain works, the Old Perspective rejects the idea that human effort of any kind is necessary for forgiveness.

It should also be noted that The Old Perspective doesn't deny the importance of good works, but it argues that they are an effect of salvation, not the means of it.

Results of the Discussion

While discussions on the Old and New Perspective are primarily taking place in academic circles, they have also reached local churches. One Protestant denomination told their pastors that if they supported The New Perspective, they had to immediately report to the leadership, since the doctrine isn't in harmony with their beliefs.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church have largely been supportive of The New Perspective because it aligns closely with their understanding of Paul. Taylor Marshall, a former Protestant turned Catholic, writes,

N.T. Wright is a good enough biblical theologian to realize that Paul didn't teach personal salvation by way of an imputation of an alien righteousness. That's why the Anglican bishop has received so much attention – he's a Protestant writing like a Catholic.

Some earnest Protestants are now scratching their heads and saying to themselves: “You know, everything we've always assumed that Paul taught isn't actually articulated by Paul. Maybe it's time to rethink the entire systematic theology that we (Protestants) erected in the 16th-17th century.”

If you buy into Wright's covenantal realism, then you've already taken three steps toward the Catholic Church. Keep following the trail an[d] you'll be Catholic. Salvation is sacramental, transformational, communal, and eschatological. Sound good? You've just assented to the Catholic Council of Trent.

It's almost as if Wright dug deeply into Paul's writings until finally he came to a door. When he opened the door, to everyone's surprise, he found that he was on the other side of Wittenburg's door.

Some advocates of The Old Perspective have stated that The New Perspective is causing some Christians to leave their Protestant churches to be Roman Catholic. At the 2010 annual meeting of Evangelical Theological Society, the topic of which was justification and The New Perspective, Wright disputed those reports.

Books on the New Perspective

Introductory Works

Perspective Author(s) Book Notes
New N.T. Wright Paul: In Fresh Perspective

Part One: Themes 1. Paul's World, Paul's Legacy 2. Creation and Covenant 3.Messiah and Apocalyptic 4. Gospel and Empire

Part Two: Structures 5. Rethinking God 6. Reworking God's People 7. Re imagining God's Future 8. Paul, Jesus, and the Task of the Church

New N.T. Wright What Saint Paul Really Said Reviewer: "N.T. Wright, a world authority on the life and letters of Paul, responds to A.N. Wilson's claim that it was Paul and not Jesus who founded Christianity. He delivers a devastating critique, contending that Paul was a faithful witness and herald of Jesus Christ."
Old Peter Stuhlmacher and Don Hagner Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification Reviewer: "Since 1963, substantial objections have been raised against the traditional view of the Pauline doctrine of justification, mainly by New Testament scholars such as Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn. This book evaluates the "New Perspective on Paul" and finds it wanting." (Note: only 108 pages)
Old Cornelis Venema Getting the Gospel Right

This book is divided into three parts:

(1). The Reformed view of Justification

(2). The challenges to the Reformed view by the New Perspective

(3). Critiquing the New Perspective

(Note:only 92 pages)

Old John Stott The Message of Romans Reviewer: "Not only is Stott deeply acquainted with the text and context of Romans, he is also conversant with the most recent Pauline scholarship."

Intermediate Works

New N.T. Wright Galatians and Thessalonians Reviewer: "Wright's eye-opening comments on these letters are combined, passage by passage, with his new translation of the Bible text."
New N.T. Wright Romans 1-8 Reviewer: "Writing in an approachable and anecdotal style, N.T. Wright helps us see the great sweep of this letter. Romans has long been viewed as the book above all in which Paul spells out the basic doctrines of the faith, and the picture of God's life for us."
New James D.G. Dunn Paul and the Mosaic Law Reviewer: "This volume explores the perennial debate over Paul’s understanding of and attitude toward the Mosaic Law. Sixteen outstanding international scholars examine the key passages in the letters of Paul that deal with the Jewish law. Their work not only provides a clearer view of the issues involved but also shows the range of interpretive approaches now being used in this important area of study."
Old John Piper The Future of Justification

"The so-called 'New Perspective on Paul' has stirred up enormous controversy. The issues are not secondary, and, pastor that he is, John Piper will not allow believers to put their trust in anyone or anything other than the crucified and resurrected Savior."

- D.A. Carson

Advanced Works

New E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism The foundation book for The New Perspective on Paul.
New James D.G. Dunn The Theology of the Apostle Paul Reviewer: "In this major work, James D. G. Dunn brings together more than two decades of vigorous and creative work on interpreting the letters of Paul into an integrated, full-scale study of Paul’s thought."
New James D.G. Dunn Romans 1-8 Reviewer: "The Word Biblical Commentary delivers the best in biblical scholarship, from the leading scholars of our day who share a commitment to Scripture as divine revelation. This series emphasizes a thorough analysis of textual, linguistic, structural, and theological evidence. The result is judicious and balanced insight into the meanings of the text in the framework of biblical theology."
New James D.G. Dunn Romans 9-16 Reviewer: "The Word Biblical Commentary delivers the best in biblical scholarship, from the leading scholars of our day who share a commitment to Scripture as divine revelation. This series emphasizes a thorough analysis of textual, linguistic, structural, and theological evidence. The result is judicious and balanced insight into the meanings of the text in the framework of biblical theology."
New James D.G. Dunn Galatians Reviewer: "In this book, Paul's epistle is transliterated, translated and explained, showing his central themes of righteousness and justification by faith. The epistle relates to Paul's missionary activities in Galatia, where he had established assemblies of Gentile Christians with no requirement for Jewish practices."
Old D.A. Carson Justification and Variegated Nomism Reviewer: "Paul's view of the law and justification has been a perennial problem for historians and biblical scholars. This collection of essays by an international list of esteemed scholars seeks, in the first of two volumes, to reexamine the concept of covenantal nomism as described in E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism and calls for a new understanding of the complexities of the Judaism of Jesus' (and Paul's) day."
Old Stephen Westerholm Perspectives Old and New on Paul 488 pages
Old Douglas Moo The Epistle to the Romans

Contains arguments against the New Perspective.

Reviewer: "Douglas Moo's work on the Epistle to the Romans is part of The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Prepared by some of the world's leading scholars, the series provides an exposition of the New Testament books that is thorough and fully abreast of modern scholarship yet faithful to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God."

Old Thomas Schreiner Romans

Contains arguments against the New Perspective.

Reviewer: "A fresh analysis of the Book of Romans for scholars, pastors, and students that blends scholarly depth with readability.

Old Simon Gathercole Where Is Boasting Early Jewish soteriology and Paul's response in Romans 1-5.
Old Seyoon Kim Paul and the New Perspective Reviwer: "Understanding Paul and his conversion to Christianity is imperative for a thorough knowledge of the New Testament. In Paul and the New Perspective Seyoon Kim develops his argument that the origin of Paul's gospel lies in two places—his radical conversion at Damascus and his usage of the Jesus tradition in light of Damascus.

This new way of looking at Paul further explains how Paul made strong distinctions between the Spirit and the flesh/law, with further implications for his doctrine of justification. A departure from the New Perspective School represented by James D. G. Dunn, Kim's Paul and the New Perspective offers a thorough and extensive argument for the foundation off the gospel that Paul spread in the first century."


E.P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress, 1977.

N.T. Wright. What Paul Really Said. Eerdman's, 2002.

Simon Gathercole."What Did Paul Really Mean?" Christianity Today. August, 2007.

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