The Achilles Heel of the New Perspective on Paul

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 18, 2017

As most readers know, there has been a long scholarly debate over what is known as the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP). This approach argues that “justification” in Paul does not mean what many Christians (especially Reformed folks) have always believed.

In short, NPP advocates (e.g., N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn) argue that when Paul mentions “justification by faith” he is not referring to a doctrine about how one gets saved but to how membership in the covenant community can be obtained without the standard Jewish boundary markers laid out in the law of Moses (food laws, circumcision, Sabbath observance).

In other words, justification is less about soteriology and more about ecclesiology. It is not about how a person becomes a Christian but a declaration that they have become a Christian.

But in all the debates over how to properly understand Paul sometimes people miss the fact that this view of justification is built entirely upon an earlier and more foundational premise, namely that first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion.

The NPP stands or falls on this one issue.

Indeed, scholars argue that Paul can’t be using “justification by faith” as alternative to salvation by works because first-century Jews didn’t believe in salvation by works!

But, this is precisely where the NPP is vulnerable.  If it can be shown that some first-century Jews did believe in salvation by works, then the foundation of the NPP would begin to crack.

And this is precisely the purpose of Robert Cara’s new book, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology (Mentor, 2017).

Cara is the Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament here at RTS Charlotte, and Provost of the entire RTS institution.

Just when you thought there was little new to say in the NPP debate, this volume really does something unique.  Focusing just on the issue of whether first-century Judaism was (or was not) works-oriented, Cara offers a litany of new arguments favoring the traditional view.

As just one example, Cara dives into a number of Pauline texts that are routinely ignored simply because they appear in letters that scholars believe were not written by Paul: Eph 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7; and 2 Tim 1:8-10.  What is remarkable about these texts is that even NPP advocates concede that they are arguing against a salvation-by-works perspective.

If so, then these passages prove, argues Cara, that at least some first-century Jews did, in fact, believe in works righteousness.  Even if Paul didn’t write these books (though Cara thinks he did), they still show that a works-righteousness mentality was a problem in the first century.  It was a big enough problem that the author of these letters (if it is not Paul) felt the need to battle against it.

And that fact alone strikes a serious blow to the foundation of the NPP.

Cara states:

If one concedes that these texts are contrasting a works righteousness soteriology with grace, then one would also have to concede works righteousness existed in Second Temple Judaism (131).

In addition, if someone believes in the Pauline authorship of these three letters (Ephesians, Titus, 2 Timothy) then there are good reasons to doubt the NPP view of justification. Otherwise, we would have to argue that Paul contradicted himself.  We would have to believe that Paul had one view of justification in Galatians and Romans and an entirely different view of justification in Ephesians, Titus, and 2 Timothy.

There are, of course, many more arguments made by Cara in his book.  So, you will want to get a copy and check it out for yourself.

In addition, check out Cara’s excellent summary and review of Lee Iron’s book on the NPP, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Mohr-Siebeck, 2015).


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