The New Perspective on Paul – Revised Edition

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008, 551 pp.

When James D.G. Dunn delivered his Manson Memorial Lecture in 1982, he set out to sketch an emerging paradigm in current Pauline studies. Though it wasn’t his intent to label that paradigm or coin a phrase, nevertheless his description of “the new perspective on Paul” struck a chord and became the catchphrase for the new paradigm.

However, the term clearly had some inherent weaknesses. For one, it wasn’t very descriptive; it didn’t convey anything about the content of the emerging approach to Paul. Second, “the new perspective” isn’t so “new” anymore, leaving other scholars to articulate more recent proposals with descriptions like “the fresh perspective on Paul” (Wright, 2000) and a “newer perspective” on Paul (Das, 2003). Thankfully, no one has yet proposed “the new and improved perspective on Paul”! Finally, the prevalence of the label itself has apparently enabled certain critics, primarily conservative Presbyterians, to imagine an entire systematic theology which they awkwardly dub “new perspectivism”!

Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses, the term stuck, partly because it’s still helpful as a shorthand way of describing the seismic shift in approaches to Pauline studies since E.P. Sanders’ monumental Protestant reevaluation of the Second-Temple Judaism with which Paul would have been familiar. Now in his 2008 book The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition, Dunn sums up the history of this new perspective and provides a thorough reevaluation. In his opening Preface, Dunn comments on the terminology itself insofar as he chose it as the title of his new work:

I need to add at once that the title should not be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as though that was the only ‘new perspective’ possible or accessible to students of Paul; given the brief history of the title, it would have been more misleading to entitle the volume ‘A New Perspective on Paul’. Nor should it be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as implying that any and every old perspective is thereby rendered passé or condemned to the dustbin; quite the contrary, as the opening essay should make clear. Nor should it be read as a claim to provide a definitive statement of ‘The New Perspective on Paul’; in the pages that follow, I speak only for myself, not as representative of some kind of ‘school’. Nor, perhaps I should add, is ‘the new perspective’ some kind of ‘dogma’ which is somehow binding on its ‘adherents’; that is not how properly critical (including self-critical) exegesis and historical scholarship goes about its task (ix, x).

This anthology of Dunn’s key contributions to the new perspective includes twenty essays published between 1983 and 2004, including his original Manson Memorial Lecture “The New Perspective on Paul,” several follow-up essays on “The Works of the Law,” his 1991 article “The Justice of God,” and “In Search of Common Ground,” his summary of the Third Durham-TübingenResearch Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism on ‘Paul and the Law’ in 1994. Of particular interest, however, are the brand new chapters prepared for this volume: a concluding chapter on Philippians 3.2-14 and the New Perspective on Paul, and a new 50,000-word introductory essay (expanded for the Eerdmans Revised Edition) which alone is worth the price of the book.

That introduction, “The New Perspective: whence, what and whither?” is divided into five parts. In the first section (1-17), Dunn provides a personal account of the evolution of his thought on Paul, including the impact of Sanders and further insights from Qumran, including notably 4QMMT. This section ends with a helpful summary of what Dunn means by “the new perspective on Paul”: It builds on Sanders’ reappraisal of Second-Temple Judaism; it observes that the social function of the law in separating Jews from Gentiles was integral to that Judaism; it notes that Paul’s teaching on justification and “works of law” belong in that context; and it protests that the church, in its failure to recognize the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, “may have ignored or excluded a vital factor in combating the nationalism and racialism which has so distorted and diminished Christianity past and present” (16,17).

In the second section (17-41), Dunn provides a gratifyingly spirited counter-response to many of his critics, including Seyoon Kim, Simon Gathercole, Mark Seifrid, Mark Elliott, and a host of others, including more caustic critics such as Carl Trueman (who has since acknowledged his misrepresentation) and Lee Gatiss, who incorrectly surmised that Dunn has no firsthand knowledge of the writings of Martin Luther.

The third section, “Taking the debate forward” (41-58), is an important reappraisal of current issues, including particularly Dunn’s continuing reflection on Galatians 3.10-14 in light of further criticism and “the later Paulines, particularly Eph. 2.8-10, but also 2 Tim. 1.9-10 and Tit. 3.5-6” (41), which have not received enough attention by scholars working through the new perspective.

In the fourth section (58-95), Dunn addresses what he considers to be the most substantive issues, which revolve around the tension between election and judgment both in Second-Temple Judaism and in Paul. In this section he emphasizes Paul’s teaching regarding final judgment according to works, but even here he strives to preclude misunderstanding by those who would characterize Dunn as anti-Lutheran:

Critics, please note: my concern is not to argue that Paul’s understanding of salvation was synergistic; I have no desire to promote a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian interpretation of Paul; I have no doubt that I and all other believers in Christ will be saying ‘the prayer of humble access’ throughout our lives and to the end. My concern is rather twofold: (a) to question whether the charge of synergism should be laid so confidently at the door of Judaism when some of Paul’s language seems vulnerable to the same charge; and (b) to ask proponents of Pauline ‘monergism’ to take more seriously and with due seriousness the other Pauline teaching and exhortations referred to above. In the latter connection, I have to insist that it is Paul’s own teaching and urgings which force the issue upon us. According to 2 Cor. 5.10, the judgment on each will be according to what each has done. Even if done by (the indwelling) Christ or in the power of the Spirit, the doer is the individual and judgment will be in accordance with that doing. It is that Pauline understanding of final judgment which has to be integrated with the Pauline understanding of justification by faith (88,89).

Most importantly, in his consideration of whether the new perspective’s reevaluation of the law diminishes the need for Christ, Dunn helpfully demonstrates how Paul’s christology precludes the polarization (articulated so forcefully by Schweitzer) between the categories of “justification” and “participation in Christ.” Specifically, Dunn argues that “the forensic metaphor of justification” is only one of three models of salvation in Paul, the other two being the gift of the Spirit and identification with Christ – identification with Christ, that is, “as a process to be worked through and not simply astatus to be accepted” (93).

In Dunn’s fifth and concluding part (96-97), he reiterates that Christian scholars cannot return to the old caricature of Judaism as a religion of dry legalism and that while the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is still necessary, it is equally important to recover the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, particularly its social and corporate dimension. Paul’s tension between justification by faith and judgment according to works needs to be maintained, as well as the fundamental point that for Paul, the eschatological significance of Christ was the primary difference between his gospel and the traditions of Israel.

Overall, Dunn’s latest volume is an exceptional contribution to the ongoing dialogue. One of its few shortcomings might relate to the scope of its counter-criticism. Dunn’s principal dialogue partners are clearly those conservative Christian reactionaries whom Pamela Eisenbaum has described as “neotraditionalists”; particularly notable is his lack of engagement with important contributions by Jewish scholars on Paul, like Eisenbaum herself and most notably Mark Nanos (although references to Daniel Boyarin and Alan Segal do turn up in a few footnotes).

Returning to the comments with which this review opened, one final question remains for this reviewer. Clearly, during the last thirty years the new perspective on Paul has become the consensus position for a majority of biblical scholars (remaining an issue only for the “neotraditionalists” mentioned above). Given that, and given subsequent developments, such as the more recent trend in Pauline studies which considers Paul’s writings in the political context of imperial Rome, might it not be appropriate at some point to speak less of “the new perspective on Paul” and to speak in a more precise (and historically useful) way of “the quest for the historical Paul,” of which the Sanders revolution and the trend of Paul and Empire may be considered different phases along the way? That, of course, is for others to decide; the question is here simply posed.

At any rate, for the present no student of the new perspective on Paul can afford to overlook Dunn’s latest monumental contribution to the ongoing discussion. The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition belongs on the bookshelf of every Pauline scholar.

Mark M. Mattison

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