Sunday, February 17, 2008

What is This New Perspective Thing?

I noticed a comment on one of the discussion boards concerning the "New Perspectives of Paul", in particular the writings of N.T. Wright. I have not studied a great deal on this matter however I have dabble enough into it to have serious questions. In any event, I thought it might be profitable to gain some direct insight from the writings of N.T. Wright himself in order to approach the matter with an open ear to the issue. There tends to be an amazing degree of internal bias in the church regarding this issue and I have determined myself to not take another man's word on these matters, instead examining the issue and a myriad of writings. The following is the opening of an address Mr. Wright made in a 2003 conference.

New Perspectives on Paul

N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham


I am grateful for the invitation to this conference, and for the sensitive way in which the organizers responded to my comments on the initial outline of the programme. I am aware that fresh interpretations of Paul, including my own, have caused controversy in evangelical circles, and particularly reformed circles. My own name has been linked with proposals which have been variously dismissed, scorned, vilified and anathematized. Having heard the papers yesterday morning and afternoon I suggested to David Searle that I should take two hours not one to say what needs to be said just now; but when I heard Tony Lane last night I realized I would need, like Cardinal Seripando at Trent, two days to establish my own orthodoxy. We shall see.

There are several different agendas coming together at this point. The issue is sometimes treated as a variation on old modernist controversies, at other times as a clash between a Christian absolutism and a religious relativism, and at other times as a variation on a perceived protestant/catholic divide (or even a high-church/low-church divide), with the so-called new perspective focusing on ecclesiology rather than soteriology and being condemned for so doing. And that's just the beginning. From time to time correspondents draw my attention to various websites on which you can find scathing denunciations of me for abandoning traditional protestant orthodoxy and puzzled rejoinders from people who have studied my work and know that I'm not saying what many of my critics say I'm saying. Go to and look at the comments which anonymous correspondents have appended to some of my books.

Faced with that kind of problem, it would take a whole book to unpick the strands, to disentangle them from other issues, to explain what the so-called New Perspective is and isn't, and to argue exegetically step by step for a particular reading of Paul. Clearly I can't do that here. What I shall do instead is to make two opening remarks about my aim and method on the one hand and the problem of the New Perspective on the other, and then to attempt once more to say briefly what I think needs to be said about Paul and justification, sharpening up the issues here and there.

First, as to aim and method. When I began research on Paul, thirty years ago this autumn, my aim was to understand Paul in general and Romans in particular better than I had done before, as part of my heartfelt and lifelong commitment to scripture, and to the sola scriptura principle, believing that the better the church understands and lives by scripture the better its worship, preaching and common life will be. I was conscious of thereby standing methodologically in the tradition of the reformers, for whom exegesis was the lifeblood of the church, and who believed that scripture should stand over against all human traditions. I have not changed this aim and this method, nor do I intend to. Indeed, the present controversy, from my own point of view, often appears to me in terms of a battle for the Reformers' aims and methods – going back to scripture over against all human tradition – against some of their theological positions (and, equally, those of their opponents, since I believe that often both sides were operating with mistaken understandings of Paul). I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many of the others would tell us to read scripture afresh, with all the tools available to us – which is after all what they did – and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and I believe I am honoring them thereby.

The full text of this address can be found here.