A Review of
The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective
Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Eds.
Reviewed by Danny Yencich
The worlds of biblical scholarship, Christian colleges and seminaries, and evangelical theology and preaching have played hosts to a tempest in a teapot these last few decades. While the rest of the world continued on doing what the rest of the world does, the aforementioned invested readers of Paul have been engaged in a usually quite interesting and sometimes very heated debate about the broad contours and implications of the theology of the apostle to the gentiles. Like a river system, the debates have splintered off into various tributaries, feeders, and side streams, but the central points of dispute have been, and remain to this day, Paul’s attitudes toward salvation, gentiles, and the Judaism of his day. This nexus of issues, read through the lens used by the great reformer Martin Luther, gave rise to what has been called (often pejoratively) “the Old Perspective on Paul” (hereafter “OP”). Enter its adversary from stage right: the New Perspective on Paul (“NP”). Grossly oversimplified, the OP/NP debates have largely centered on first century Torah observance (“works of the law”), justification, and the question of “faith in/of Jesus Christ.” It may be instructive here to take one verse, Galatians 2:16, and run it through the interpretive apparatuses of the OP and NP to briefly and oversimply sketch the broad contours of the debate.
…yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law (Gal 2:16, NRSV).
Three issues in this tight theological constellation have become contested sites in the debate: Torah observance (“works of law”), justification, and faith in/of Jesus Christ. OP readers would pit the first and third items against each other as mechanisms for the attainment of the middle term, justification. Under this reading, Paul tacitly upbraids the Jewish people for foolishly attempting to curry divine favor and achieve salvation by obeying Torah; it is personal faith in Christ, not works of law, that justify the sinner! NP readers, informed by recent research into Judaism in antiquity, have since rebutted, claiming that Jews did not observe Torah in order to gain God’s favor—they already had it as God’s elect! NP readers thus emphasize that justification and eternal salvation were not really on offer in pre-Christian Judaism and Israelite religion. First century Jews, already enjoying the divine favor accompanying their calling, followed the Law because they wanted to be faithful to God (imagine that!). Justification in Paul, then, has been re-cast by NP interpreters as a particularly Christian concern of chief importance to non-Jewish people. Because the Greek from which the English phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” is somewhat ambiguous (πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, pisteōs Iēsou Christou) debates have proliferated in clashes between the OP and NP and within the NP itself over whether it is individual faith in Jesus (“I believe in Jesus Christ”) or the faith(fulness) of Jesus himself that justifies the Gentile sinner.
The debate sketched above is operative in the present volume largely as background (but see Patrick Mitchel’s helpful recap of the debate, pp.71-102), as all contributors self-identify as NP readers of Paul. Each also identifies as a Christian and is interested in a meaningful application of NP insights to the Christian life and mission. This is the book’s proposed contribution to theological reflection on Paul and the NP and, for the most part, the volume succeeds on this point. The implications of the NP are rescued from conference proceedings and papers, which only specialists attend or read, and brought into conversation with the theology and churches of the Protestant traditions in the West. Following an introduction by editors McKnight and Modica, the volume progresses across eight chapters, each taking up a particular NP issue and exploring its implications for Christian ministry and church life together.
James D.G. Dunn, one of the most famed “architects” of the NP, opens the collection with an essay reviewing his own most important contributions to NP studies in Galatians. Of central importance here is Dunn’s dogged emphasis, against other NP interpreters, that it is faith in Christ—not the faith(fulness) of Christ—that justifies Gentiles. Dunn summarizes his own work on Galatians, pointing the interested reader via footnote in the direction of his more substantive works for further study. Despite Dunn’s unmatched stature as a sensitive reader of Paul, this represents the weakest essay in the volume if an exposition of the “ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective” is the goal of the collection, as the volume’s subtitle suggests. Dunn’s only application of his own NP insights to Christian life and mission comes in his too short and too general bulletpoint list of three items on page 15. Dunn’s work on Galatians is far more robust and illuminative for Christian theology than this essay would suggest.
Lynn H. Cohick’s chapter revisits Ephesians, a “disputed letter” of Paul’s, and finds the NP’s emphasis on questions of religious and ethnic identity illumine much that might otherwise go unnoticed within it. An NP reading of Ephesians presses critical questions to the modern church related to (1) racial and ethnic reconciliation, (2) religious identity in the local and catholic church, and (3) individual personal holiness. While it remains a live question whether one can speak of “race” in the ancient world, Cohick is right to emphasize Ephesians’ theology of reconciliation across Jewish and gentile lines. Ephesians, viewed through the NP, does not pit Jew against Christian but rather creates out of the two alienated groups a new humanity created through the mechanism of divine adoption (29; cf. Eph 1:5-11). Because evangelical churches and organizations have made much of the adoption motif and applied it to the good work of modern-day international adoption agencies and advocates, Cohick spends some time to thickly contextualize Ephesians’ theology of adoption as the inclusion of new members in the family of God, that is, the church. Cohick certainly supports international adoption but chastens advocates not to excise Ephesian’s adoption language from its rich scriptural context. Under Cohick’s careful direction, readers are guided through the letter and come away with a new appreciation for its import in contemporary discussions of reconciliation across religious, ethnic, and racial lines.
Bruce W. Longenecker’s essay engages the NP reading of Paul’s view of faith, works, and the implications of both within the context of worship. Paul was resistant toward “works of the law” inasmuch as gentiles were being forced to submit to particular works, like circumcision, in order to join the church at Galatia (cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). Longenecker argues cogently that Paul is not resistant toward “works” in and of themselves, but only requiring gentile believers to submit to Torah requirements as a pre-requisite for baptism. The lynchpin for Longenecker’s case is his reading of Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working practically through love” (I quote Longenecker’s own translation here; see 48). Christian faith, in an NP key, is meant to be worked out in the day-to-day through concrete practices of Christian love. Longenecker outlines the implications of this reading for Christian worship and witness in his engaging and informative essay.
Patrick Mitchel offers a very fine synopsis of the OP/NP debates and the theological concerns of both sides that animate them. For anyone new to the debate or in need of a refresher, Mitchel’s review is extremely helpful. Mitchel’s pictorial depiction of continuities and discontinuities between Second Temple Judaism and Paul’s own theology is a highlight. Much of the OP/NP debates have centered on just this sort of question, and Mitchel’s narration of the issues is clear, concise, and, refreshingly, not pejorative towards those who lean toward OP understandings of particular issues in Paul. Mitchel’s essay extends beyond mere summary, however, as he offers an application of Paul’s vision of life according to the Spirit for contemporary Christian life and witness.
In his essay, Timothy G. Gombis emphasizes the central place of the church in the writings of Paul. Gombis puts it boldly: “the focus of Paul’s reflection on the Christian life is the church…. Paul does not conceive of individuals living the Christian life in isolation from the community” (104). For Gombis, Paul’s vision of the Christian life is rooted in the story of Israel, exemplified most fully in the faithful witness of Jesus (by emphasizing the saving faithfulness of Christ, Gombis here implicitly disagrees with Dunn on the issue). Christians are then baptized into Christ and called upon to emulate his faithfulness through their shared witness as the church. Gombis makes a few questionable exegetical suggestions throughout the essay. He briefly appeals to 1 Timothy, another (very) disputed letter of Paul, with no mention of the debates associated with authorship issues and the Pastoral letters. The Pastorals are not “off-limits” in NP discussions, but any appeal to them does require some nuance. Gombis also suggests that Romans 1 is Paul’s re-telling of the “fall” narrative in Genesis 1-3. This is a possible reading, but there are good reasons to think Paul could be riffing also on non-Jewish fall narratives. In his reading of the so-called Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:9-11, Gombis suggests that the name given to Jesus is “Yahweh” (117). The divine name is curiously missing in the hymn, so such specification is probably a bridge too far.
Scot McKnight’s essay dovetails nicely with Gombis’s as it also emphasizes the ecclesiological character of Paul’s theology. McKnight reviews crucial issues in the OP/NP debate and highlights what he calls the “post-New Perspective” (also called the “Radical New Perspective” by others), which claims for Paul a kind of dual-covenant system: Torah for Jews and Jesus for gentiles. McKnight ultimately affirms the NP and uses it as his foundation for a thick description of social realities in first century Pauline churches. Adapting some material from his recent book, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), McKnight casts a compelling vision of what it might look like to adopt and participate in Paul’s radical vision of Kingdom life together.
In her essay, Tara Beth Leach applies NP insights to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological tradition. Leach uses the NP to revisit the Wesleyan tradition’s reading of Paul and thus models an admirable form of faithful yet critical engagement with one’s own tradition. For Leach, the NP does not wholly unseat the Wesleyan reading of Paul, but it certainly can help in its articulation. To a collection of essays written by professors and lecturers, Leach’s essay adds the vital perspective of a professional pastor.
N.T. Wright—like James D.G. Dunn, a major architect of the NP—closes the volume by exploring Paul’s missional theology. Wright memorably summarizes what is at stake: “Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and…his hermeneutics were missional” (179, italics in original). Paul’s mission and interpretive strategy for reading Scripture were thus intertwined in a kind of theological Ouroboros: missional reading leads to missional action leads to missional reading, and so on. Wright characterizes Paul as the inventor of Christian theology and invites the church to participate in Paul’s creative, missional hermeneutic. Like Dunn and McKnight, Wright points interested readers to his other work, especially his recent Paul and the Faithfulness of God (ERB review). He summarizes particular aspects of that work but concludes by raising two issues from it that might be taken up in further work: (1) Paul’s epistemology and (2) the political nature of Paul’s missionary plans for Spain. The essay concludes with a welcome challenge to the standard scholarly assumption (Wright calls it a “prejudice,” 191) that Ephesians is not authentically Pauline. Because Ephesians is in large part dedicated to the question of Jew/gentile relations in the church, it is high time that its place in NP debates be revisited, whether it was originally composed by Paul or someone else. If it is authentic, it creates much grist for the NP mill; if deemed inauthentic, it still might yet add something to NP discussions as an early inheritor of Paul’s theological vision.
As with all edited volumes, the overall quality and insight of the essays vary from chapter to chapter. Still, there is much here to commend the volume. For this reason it would find a welcome home in undergraduate classrooms, book clubs, and the library of anyone with a serious interest in applying the best insights of the NP to Christian life and witness.
Danny Yencich is a Ph.D. Student in New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.