While the debate concerning the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP) is no longer new, it has not yet retired. Indeed, within the last couple of years there has been a fresh flurry of books defending, developing, or critiquing that movement. See, for example, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective, ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016) or Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology by Robert J. Cara (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2017). Generally speaking, the debate has also mellowed from a hard either/or to a softer both/and in many respects. Witness for example a recent collection of articles honouring Doug Moo (Studies in the Pauline Epistles [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), which contains both “What’s Right about the Old Perspective on Paul,” by James D. G. Dunn and “What’s Right about the New Perspective on Paul,” by Stephen Westerholm. The wolf and the lamb (however we assign those respective roles) are at least talking to one another.
Where then does Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective fit in? Essentially it is an attempt to progress the case for a both/and approach; it is a “study in peace-making” (p. 3) and it is an enormously effective one for two reasons.
First, Anderson introduces and surveys the debate with admirable clarity and charity. The opening chapter—“Breakthrough, Impasses and Stalemates, Assessing the New Perspective”—outlines the contributions of Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, and then offers a critique of each that accounts for why Anderson describes himself as a NPP “God-fearer, not a proselyte” (p. 37). The second chapter addresses “The Uncooperative Paul” and is probably the best chapter of the book. Here Anderson shows that Philippians 3:1–11, Romans 3:21–4:8 and Ephesians 2:1–22 deny the boast of anyone who would claim that old or new perspectives are “exclusive paradigms” (p. 91, emphasis original). The chapter exudes Anderson’s desire to resist tired characterisations (e.g. that Eph 2:1–10 builds a mighty fortress for the old perspective while Eph 2:11–22 is more interested in tearing down walls of human division, as per the NPP). Exegetical insights abound here.
Second, Anderson moves the debate forward by reintroducing the disputed letters of Paul. This is important both because of their neglect and because of their use. As to their neglect, it is a common feature of the NPP debate that both sides have largely observed the customary scholarly silence on the disputed letters of Paul. This desperately needed addressing. As to their use, Anderson is concerned that the evidence they provide has entrenched rather than enriched the debate. It is simply too easy for traditional readers of Paul to take later references to “works” and to read that back into the more specific “works of the law” in Romans and Galatians. It is less easy, but still possible, for NPP readers to assume that every reference to “works” in Paul has “works of the law” in view.
So how might this evidence enrich our reading of Paul? Anderson suggests it can by tracing a development in Paul’s thinking on the matter of works and justification. On the matter of works, Anderson argues that the divine grace/human effort contrast only clearly emerges in Romans and flowers most fully later in Ephesians 2:1–10, Titus 3:5–7, and so on. Instead of reading that contrast back into Galatians, therefore, we should note that at that stage and in that setting, Paul’s primary complaint with “works of the law” in Galatians is not with “works” but with “law.” Primarily, he is not targeting autosoterism, but nomism. Thus, Anderson argues that a modified and nuanced version of the New Perspective better reflects Paul’s earlier writing (specifically, Galatians), whereas the Old Perspective emphasis on any human works has a stronger foundation in later writings (Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, with Romans reflecting a transitional phase). In his own, playful summary, the thesis is that “the new perspective on Paul is Paul’s oldest perspective and that the ‘old perspective describes what would become (more or less) Paul’s settled ‘new perspective’” (p. 379).
Some reflections are in order:
- That playful thesis statement ought not to put readers off—the overview of the debate has already made it clear that neither the Old Perspective nor the New can be read into any of these letters in an unreconstructed way.
- Development in Paul is hard to prove when dates are debated, and texts are both relatively few and highly occasional. Does Galatians have the flavour it does because of its chronology or its crisis? I find it hard to be sure, even though I agree with the dating he suggests.
- Anderson has also argued that Paul’s older perspective is only really in evidence in one letter, Galatians (the letters between Galatians and Romans being silent on the matter of justification by works). With a transition underway as early as Romans it is striking that Anderson’s argument adds real weight to the Old Perspective side of the scales.
- Happily, Anderson does not fall into the trap of supposing that development implies departure from early positions. Rather, he argues that later formulations are contained in seed form already in the earlier letters. This is suggestive, and I find myself pondering whether there might not be a bit more to be said for the presence of Old Perspective themes in Galatians. As Anderson rightly says, Paul’s critique of the Galatian nomism is not simply its restrictiveness but the inability of anyone to be justified by its works. That Paul speaks of no flesh being justified in 2:16, thereby amending the allusion to Psalm 143, suggests there is an anthropological issue in view. Likewise, the way in which the receipt of blessings comes through the passive act of hearing rather than works of the law (Gal 3:2, 5) suggests some emphasis on the contrast between divine and human activity, especially when the only one in that passage who has worked is God (Gal 3:5). If these are seeds of a later view, we would have to say that they are already sprouting.
That question aside, this really is a very fine book, and we have not even had space to describe many of its qualities. (The discussion of reconciliation and its deployment in Paul and in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God [London: SPCK, 2013] would be worth the cover price, even if that were all the book contained.) Anderson offers one of the most even-handed overviews of the NPP debate I have ever read, and is certainly the most up to date. It consistently holds the feet of every perspective to the fire of Paul’s letters, and offers a stimulating argument backed up by plentiful data to help every reader reflect on Paul’s true perspective on the gospel of God’s grace.