The New Perspective on Paul occurred in 1963
Posted by NT Wrong on September 7, 2008
Who coined the term ‘New Perspective’ on Paul? Krister Stendahl, in 1963.
In 1963 the late Krister Stendahl wrote a paper which was truly revolutionary in its new perspective on Paul. ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscious of the West’ (HTR 56: 199-215) demolishes a modern misinterpretation of Paul, which viewed him as obsessed with a troubling ‘instrospective conscious’ and rather preoccupied with his personal justification and faith.
Stendahl replies that such a consciousness did not exist before Augustine and, in any case, is not evident from Paul’s letters. Stendahl demonstrates that the whole tradition of interpretation of Paul which involves the Apostle wrestling with his bad conscience and failing to meet the strictures of the law was misguided. It sounded a little too much like Luther’s inner struggles in the early sixteenth century and — given its formulation by the heirs of the Reformation — one might even suspect that anachronistic beliefs were being superimposed on Paul’s letters. In fact, claims Stendahl, Paul had a “robust” conscience, and actually thought he was doing rather a good job in terms of the Jewish law (200).
What changed everything for Paul was a cosmic shift: the arrival of the Christ. Everything changed “in the light of the new avenue of salvation, which has been opened in Christ, an avenue which is equally open to Jews and Gentiles, since it is not based on the Law, in which the very distinction between the two rests” (201). So, argues Stendahl, Paul’s rants against the Law have to do with “the relation between Jews and Gentiles”, not any internal feelings of failure or guilt that we might conjecture Paul had (202). Stendahl explains exactly what he means when he refers to Paul’s concern about “the relation between Jews and Gentiles” when he later says, “Paul’s problem is how to explain why there is no good reason to impose the Law on the Gentiles, who now, in God’s good Messianic time, have become partakers in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham” (206). The Law is no longer in effect, as Stendahl discusses with reference to Gal 3.24 — and a new age of salvation is available for both Jew and Gentile (206).
Stendahl realises that his new interpretation is greatly different from that of the Reformers (and that of their theological offspring such as Stendahl’s contemporary, Ernst Käsemann), but closer to Paul’s original framework of thinking. Stendahl views this difference as “drastic”:
“So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute” (207).
So, for Stendahl, Paul’s primary concern is to show that a new age has dawned, which brings the Law to an end, and thereby brings all difference between Jew and Gentile to an end, as all were to be now judged according to their place ‘in Christ’. Stendahl again refers to his discussion of Gal 3.24 in reiterating the centrality of salvation history for Paul. It is this fundamental shift which Stendahl, in 1963, dubs the “new perspective” on Paul:
“The framework of ‘Sacred History’ which we have found to be that of Pauline Theology (cf. our comments on Gal 3.24 above) opens up a new perspective for systematic and practical theology. The Pauline epiphax (‘once for all': Rom 6.10) cannot be translated fully and only into something repeated in the life of every individual believer. For Gentiles the Law is not the Schoolmaster who leads to Christ; or it is that only by analogy and a secondary one at best. We find ourselves in the new situation where the faith in the Messiah Jesus gives us the right to be called Children of God (1 Jn 3.1).” (214-215)
Stendahl’s essay truly brought in a new perspective on Paul. It relegated the issue of justification by faith to a secondary place, amongst other issues in Pauline theology. It highlighted the centrality of salvation history, in particular how Paul imagined everything had changed with the coming of the Messiah at the end of the age. The essay demonstrates how little Paul was concerned with the ways Jews performed the law, with ‘boasting’, or with any contrast between Jewish and Gentile failure (for all had failed…) — and that Paul was fundamentally unconcerned with the historical Law because of his overwhelming belief that the eschatological Saviour had arrived in the days before the Eschaton and changed the whole ballgame. Salvation was now to be had exclusively by aligning oneself with this eschatological Saviour. And nothing else — Law, works, election, nationality — mattered.
In short, Stendahl presents what should be recognised as the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.
A decade or more later, Ed Sanders even convinced a few evangelicals — traditionally champions of ‘justification by faith’ — that the approach pursued by Stendahl and others was correct. Some of these evangelicals themselves announced that they were pursuing a ‘new perspective’. For example, in 1978, N. T. Wright offered what he considered was “a new way of looking at Paul which provides, I believe, not only an advance in the debate between Stendahl and Käsemann but also a new perspective on other related Pauline problems” (“The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith”: The Tyndale New Testament Lecture, 1978, Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978), 61–88). In 1982, James Dunn delivered the T. W. Manson lecture at the University of Manchester, in which he also followed in Stendahl’s footsteps. Both articles mention Stendahl’s programmatic essay, and it is the point of departure in Wright’s 1978 essay.
But, is there any genuine ‘new perspective’ offered by the evangelical heirs of Stendahl’s salvation-history approach? Both Wright and Dunn focus not on what Stendahl recognised to be crucial to Paul (the new age dawning in Christ), but on what they believed Paul was arguing against (in particular, nationalistic boundary-markers). But in picking up on one negative aspect of Paul’s arguments, they wrongly minimise what is truly radical about Stendahl’s new perspective on Paul. That is, it is the positive fact of the cosmic change that occurred in Christ that drives Paul’s theology. One wonders whether, given the long centuries of polemic against Jewish legalism, the evangelical heirs of Stendahl just couldn’t leave it at something that positive, but had to instead focus on something negative. In doing so, they have unfortunately interpreted the whole of Paul’s corpus through the lens of that which did not matter (nationalistic boundary-markers) — that which was of secondary concern to Paul — failing to interpret Paul in terms of what did matter (the salvation history Christ-event). As a result, their exegeses of Paul are skewed and off-centre. For example, Wright’s commentary on Romans is a tortuous, and frequently tendentious, attempt to make nationalistic boundary-markers central. Discussion of nationalistic boundary-markers intrudes in his exegesis even in passages of the book in which it is clearly irrelevant for consideration.
Stendahl is responsible for coining and, to a large extent, formulating the new perspective on Paul. Those later evangelical scholars who claimed they themselves were putting forward a ‘new perspective on Paul’ have focused in on what Stendahl identified as matters made insignificant by the Christ event, to the detriment of the proper emphasis of Stendahl’s original insight.
Stendahl should be remembered as putting forward the ‘New Perspective on Paul’. His insights provide a genuine alternative to any over-emphasis on justification by works in the Pauline letters. On the other hand, the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ which is touted as such in Anglo-American evangelical circles could instead be dubbed: ‘The Wrong Turn on Paul’.