Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey

Book Review

Garwood P. Anderson (IVP Academic), 2016, 457 pp.

What began as a promising breakthrough in Pauline studies just three decades ago — “the new perspective on Paul,” as James D.G. Dunn famously dubbed it in 1982 — seems in recent years to have became mired in increasingly polemical disputes among evangelical Christian scholars. The new perspective, particularly on the historical context of Paul’s doctrine of justification, drew strong criticism from some Reformed quarters, leading most notably to the rhetorical impasse of the debate between John Piper1 and N.T. Wright.2 Garwood P. Anderson introduces his ambitious new book, Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey, with a description of the Wright-Piper debate, which left many evangelicals in a puzzling quagmire and looking almost in vain for a way forward (pp. 1-3). In the chapters that follow, Anderson details numerous attempts over the years to work “beyond the new perspective on Paul,” with varying degrees of success but no clear consensus.

Anderson’s own attempt is an impressive project, an extended argument intended to build on the strengths of both “the new perspective on Paul” (abbreviated as “NPP”) and “the traditional perspective on Paul” (abbreviated as “TPP”) while carefully qualifying each in turn. In what may become the most memorable statement of his book, Anderson cleverly writes that “In short, I argue that the new perspective on Paul is a better account of Paul’s older perspective” (p. 12). Or, as he sums it up later:

The proposal of this book is that contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are both right, just not at the same time. … The thesis of this study 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).

This is clearly an innovative way to have one’s cake and eat it too — to argue for a restrained “new perspective” of Paul’s earlier letters but a more “traditional perspective” in Paul’s later letters, charting a specific trajectory of development in Paul’s teaching.3 In a pastorally-sensitive tone which should hearten evangelical scholars, Anderson doesn’t argue that this proposed trajectory of Paul’s theological arguments constitute internal contradictions or reversals, but rather a nuancing of thought, with Paul’s earlier thinking and his later thinking not being mutually exclusive.

Since the proposal for such a trajectory requires some distance between Paul’s letters, Anderson necessarily spends a substantial portion of his work on chronology and dating. Two full chapters (four and five, pp. 153-225) methodically work through an itinerary beginning with the South Galatian hypothesis (with Galatians written first, ca. 48 – 49 CE) and arguing for a Pauline mission extending past Paul’s Roman imprisonment to include Colossians and Ephesians (alongside Philemon and Philippians) ca. 60 – 62 CE and even the Pastoral Epistles ca. 62 – 65 CE. Though (by his own admission4) Anderson’s arguments are unlikely to persuade more than a few to change their opinions about whether Paul personally authored all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament canon, by positing thirteen letters over a fifteen-year span instead of seven letters over a five-year span, Anderson creates a plausible framework for a trajectory of development in Paul’s own thought:

Thus, I am working with a thirteen-letter corpus and a Pauline soteriology that stretches from AD 49 to the mid-60s — indeed, as I will argue, with a soteriology that itself stretches. By way of comparison, some studies of the development of Pauline soteriology are limited to seven letters while having primary interest in but two (Galatians and Romans), and these may be separated by a span of mere months (p. 166).

Anderson admits to having considered sidestepping the question of authenticity by focusing on the theological trajectory of the Pauline corpus irrespective of Paul’s personal authorship, but notes that his proposal for a development in Paul’s own thought is better accounted for with the chronology proposed (cf. p. 222).

Having articulated a timeline for Paul’s writing, Anderson lays out a sustained argument for Paul’s evolution on not only “works” and “grace” (chapter six) but “justification,” “salvation,” and “reconciliation” as well (chapter seven), followed by supporting arguments for the specific contexts of these developments (chapter eight) and finally additional reflections (chapter nine) on the place of justification and participation in Christ in Paul’s theology.

To be more specific about the five themes enumerated above (works, grace, justification, salvation, reconciliation): in chapter six Anderson argues that “the NPP” was right to understand “the works of the law” as impediments to Gentile inclusion in covenant membership, whereas “the TPP” was equally right to understand “works” (without modification) as meritorious efforts to obtain divine favor:

Against the majority views of the NPP and the TPP, I have argued that erga nomou and “works” are not interchangeable, against the NPP that “works” is not shorthand for its definition of “works of the law” and against the majority of TPP interpreters that erga nomou is not simply a subset of, or synecdoche for, “works.” More importantly, neither is Paul’s polemic against erga nomou identical to that opposing “works” (pp. 280, 281; cf. p. 228).

Anderson situates the polemics against more narrowly defined “works of the law” in Galatians but situates the polemics against human “works” more broadly in the Deutero-Paulines and the Pastoral Epistles, with Romans being the “middle ground” in which both arguments are present. Anderson then argues for a corresponding pattern with respect to the meaning of “grace” in Paul’s writings, as the counterpoint to human performance and boasting in Paul’s later writings but not his earlier writings (cf. p. 281).

In chapter seven, Anderson makes a clear distinction between “justification” and “salvation,” arguing that whereas the former dominates Paul’s earlier writings as a forensic concept, the latter dominates Paul’s later writings as a more broad concept. He goes on to consider the theme of reconciliation in Paul, which is absent in Galatians, the Thessalonian correspondence, and 1 Corinthians, but which becomes a key argument in 2 Corinthians and Romans and carries over into Colossians and Ephesians.

Anderson’s attention to detail and nuance is impressive. In addition to well-known disputes about the new perspective, he recounts even lesser-known, smaller theological “skirmishes” (like the “Auburn Avenue” controversy, p. 95), and is careful not to oversimplify or gloss over points often lost in popular recountings of the new perspective, such as Dunn’s repeated qualification of his original 1982 essay (cf. pp. 45 – 46, 48, 50 n. 68, 58 n. 2, 96, 100 n. 24, 109 n. 48). Anderson’s apparent target audience, evangelical Christians stuck between Wright and Piper — between “the NPP” and “the TPP” — will undoubtedly find this book to be an invaluable contribution to the debate.

However, scholars working outside of that confessional context may be disappointed that perspectives other than “the NPP” and “the TPP” are hardly even acknowledged. For example, the more recent perspective described as “Paul Within Judaism” (could we label it the “PWJ” perspective?) seems obscured in Anderson’s taxonomy, its proponents apparently lumped in with scholars representing “the NPP” (cf. p. 93, n. 3) and without much representation. Perhaps a broader scope would have pushed this already ambitious undertaking beyond its manageable limits and turned it into a different sort of project, but even a tip of the hat to other approaches would have been very welcome.

Finally, as one who remains unpersuaded by the argument for Pauline authorship of the Deutero-Paulines and the Pastoral Epistles, this reviewer nevertheless found Anderson’s arguments to be thoughtful, nuanced, and even unpretentious. More significantly, the sweep of Anderson’s exercise across the entire canonical Pauline corpus highlights the pressing need for both “the NPP” and other perspectives on Paul, particularly “PWJ,” to devote more attention to the disputed Pauline epistles (cf. p. 223). If for no other reason, this book will provide value even to scholars beyond its evangelical target audience.

Mark M. Mattison

 

Notes

1John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway), 2007.

2N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic), 2009.

3A similar trajectory has also been proposed by Wan Chee Keong in his article, “Justification and the Righteousness of God in the Pauline Corpus.”

4Cf. pp. 182,183: “It is highly doubtful that in brief compass I will succeed in persuading those convinced of the pseudonymity of some or all of the disputed letters, though I would be content even to sow some seeds of doubt. … In any case, even readers skeptical of the authenticity of some or all of the disputed letters can benefit from the thought experiment of reading the disputed letters ‘as if’ from Paul.” The point is well taken.

One Comment

  1. Joshua says:

    Thanks Mark. Looks interesting.

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