Saturday, September 19, 2015

A New Perspective on Paul and the New Church Perspective on Paul

There has been a recent shift with Protestant theologians, in which there is a change on how to interpret the writings of Paul.  This is commonly known in Protestant circles as the "New Perspective on Paul," or NPP.  Historical researchers and theologians have discovered when Paul mentioned "works of the law" he was referring to the external Mosaic rituals of the Jews, and not to good works in general.

This is a big shift within Protestant theology. While NPP proponents agree on this point of definition of "works of the law," there is large disagreement among them on what it implies for Protestant views on faith, justification and salvation.  Much of Protestant theology on justification and salvation had rested on the premise that "works of the law" refers to good works, and that premise has turned out to be false.

So, while this has caused an internal debate within Protestant circles, this is seen as a positive development by not only the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, but also the New Church as well. In the New Church, there is nothing "new" in the New Perspective of Paul - this has been the exact position of the New Church for the last 250 years, and unlike the Protestant view the theology goes back to the early Christian church. So let's review the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from a Protestant view, then we can carry this further with the New Church Perspective on Paul.


So why the recent shift towards the New Perspective on Paul? In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he examined many primary Jewish sources from the period.  Sanders demonstrated that Judaism was not a "merit based" theology.  Instead, Jews believed that they were a covenant race by birth, and one stayed in the covenant by obeying the law, which he termed Covenantal nomism. Sanders focused on two aspects of Judaism: circumcision and dietary laws, which were "external badges" that one belonged to the covenant. This conclusion was not from any theological debate, but rather from factual historical research.

Next in 1982 James D. G. Dunn published The New Perspective on Paul, which is where the name originated:

Dunn states that Paul did not speak out against "merit based" works, but that external ritualistic works of the Mosaic law which indicated one was part of the Jewish covenant.  Moreover "works of the law" had nothing to do good works in general.

The conclusion of the New Perspective of Paul is that Protestants, including the early reformers have misunderstood the writings of Paul.  For if Paul was not talking about good works in general, this affects their theological understanding of faith, grace, justification and salvation.  While it may look minor to outsiders, this change in perspective requires not a minor adjustment but rather a complete paradigm shift.


As most do not question and thus do not willingly change their point of view, the first reaction from many Protestants is to not examine the New Perspective of Paul, but to immediately attack it.  One of the writers and proponents of the New Perspective of Paul is N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop, who was the brunt of many attacks.  From N.T. Wrights speech on the New Perspective of Paul he writes:
"Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War, and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals got tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its proponents together, and nuke them from a great height. That has not made a pretty sight. Speaking as one of those who is regularly thus carpet-bombed, what I find frustrating is the refusal of the traditionalists to do three things: first, to differentiate the quite separate types of New Perspective; second, to engage in the actual exegetical debates upon which the whole thing turns, instead of simply repeating a Lutheran or similar line as though that settled matters; and third, to recognise that some of us at least are brothers in Christ who have come to the positions we hold not because of some liberal, modernist or relativist agenda but as a result of prayerful and humble study of the text which is and remains our sole authority."
There are others who actually question what they have been taught and do the research themselves.  Historically, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have stated that "works of the law" refer to any human effort to do good, and use passages to teach that any human effort to do good does not count as righteousness. According to the New Perspective on Paul, this is not true - by "works of the law" Paul was referring to the external Jewish rituals of the Mosaic law.

This means that the Protestant definition of faith as belief only is false, and that one is saved by faith separate from what one does is also false.  The typical reaction of Protestants is that the NPP view now espouses "salvation by works" and reject it offhand.  The problem is they have been taught the wrong definitions of the words that Paul used in his epistles, taken out of their historical context.  According to the NPP view, the word "faith" should be treated as "faithfulness" - that is, living by the faith. This of course means one can not have faith if one does not live by one's faith.

Next, the NPP view calls into question the Protestant definition of the word "grace" - as to traditional Protestant theology, grace is given the meaning of "unmerited favor" and that righteousness is somehow transferred to use through faith without works.  However internal evidence that grace simply means favor, and Protestants have used their own theological meaning (see The False Theological Definition of the word "Grace"

Finally, the NPP view calls into question the entire theology known as "penal substitution" or "vicarious atonement."  At this point however, there is very little agreement within the NPP proponents.  Its as if the entire Protestant theology has fallen apart like a stack of cards, and now NPP proponents disagree among themselves as to how exactly Jesus Christ effected salvation for humanity.  There are just about as many views here as NPP proponents, and they do not know which proper direction to take. N.T. Wright thus sought to distance himself from many of them, and effectively summed up the situation:
"I say all this to make it clear that there are probably almost as many ‘New Perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and that I disagree with most of them."
This, of course, offers no help to those seeking guidance.


What most NPP proponents do not realize is that a change in view on "works of the law" in the epistles of Paul is not a minor change - it requires a complete paradigm shift on how they view Christianity. This diagram by Tim Gombis shows the dilemma:

It is here where the theology of the New Church can help.  All of these matters have been discussed and explained in full in the doctrines revealed in visions to Emanuel Swedenborg, which he received from the Lord alone while reading scripture.  So lets go through it step by step:


The first problem to recognize is that the definition of "works" in the writings of Paul have different meanings, depending on context.  And Paul switches context without telling the reader, and this is why there is so much debate on the matter.  In the New Church, the qualification of one's action depends on one's intent.  There are three main definitions of the word "works" in scripture, especially in the writings of Paul:
1. The works of the external rituals of the Mosaic law 
2. Self meritorious works, or things done for sake of self credit 
3. Good works done out of love for others, with no thought of return.
New Church theology is in complete agreement with the New Perspective on Paul, that in the majority of cases by "works of the law" Paul was talking about the external Mosaic rituals (#1).  However there are some contexts where Paul does talk about self meritorious works as well (#2), and this is missed by NPP proponents. But the New Church and NPP view both completely agree that the Reformed tradition has completely missed good works done out of love, following God's commandments (#3). Most of the time when Paul mentions the word law, he is not talking about the 10 commandments.  In New Church doctrine the word law has slightly different meanings in scripture, depending on context:
1. The law in the most general sense refers to all things in the Word. 
2. The law, in a more narrow sense, refers to the Torah or first 5 books of Moses. 
3. In a more narrow sense, the law refers to the external rituals of the Mosaic law. 
4. In the most narrow sense, the law refers to the 10 commandments.
In most cases Paul is talking about #3 above when referring to the law, not the 10 commandments (#4).  That the NPP view is correct, can be shown from multiple quotes by Emanuel Swedenborg on the writings of Paul which show that "works of the law" refer to the external Mosaic rituals, and not good works in general:
"[Those who separate faith from charity] do not see that by the deeds of the law are meant the rituals described by Moses in his books, which are everywhere called the law in them; and that the precepts of the decalogue are not meant. Wherefore lest it should be thought that these are meant, Paul explains, by saying, Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law (verse 31, same chapter). They who from this saying have confirmed themselves in faith separate from charity, from gazing at this passage as at the sun, do not see where Paul enumerates the laws of faith as being the very works of charity; and what is faith without its laws? Nor do they see where he enumerates evil works, and says that they who do them cannot enter into heaven." (Angelic Wisdom concerning Divine Providence, n. 115)
"That the works of the Mosaic law which was for the Jews were meant by Paul, we were further confirmed by this, that all the statutes for the Jews in Moses are called the law, and thus the works of the law" (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 417)
Faith must have works of charity - and to be faithful means obedience to the 10 commandments, for all of the 10 commandments are repeated as necessary in the New Testament, including the writings of Paul:
"That faith alone without works is dead, is clearly manifest in James ii. 17, 20; who also says, Be ye doers of the Word, not hearers only; how ye deceive yourselves (i. 22, etc.). Paul says in like manner, Not the hearers of the law will be justified by God, but the doers of the law will be justified (Rom. ii. 13)." (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 828)
"Love toward the neighbor is the love of obeying the Lord's precepts, which are especially those contained in the second table of the Decalogue; and which are, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not testify falsely, Thou shalt not covet the things that are thy neighbor's. The man who will not do such things because they are sins, loves his neighbor. For he does not love his neighbor, who holds him in hatred, and from hatred wishes to kill him; he does not love the neighbor, who wishes to commit adultery with his wife; nor does he love his neighbor, who wishes to steal and plunder his goods: and so with the rest. This also Paul teaches in these words: He who loveth another hath fulfilled the law: for this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not be a false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is comprehended in this precept, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: charity is therefore the fulfilling of the law (Rom. xiii. 8-10)." (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 356)
Moreover, even Paul states that all will be judged according to their works at the last judgment:
"Paul says that in the day of judgment God will render unto every one according to his works (Rom. ii. 6; 2 Cor. v. 10). The works according to which it shall be rendered unto every one, are the life, for the life does the works, and they are according to the life." (Summary Exposition, n. 110)
So how have the Protestants and Reformed treated such passages when they see it?  In order to maintain consistency with their doctrine, many state that the will of the man is passive.  Works happen "spontaneously" as fruits of the Holy Spirit. Each person is a passive subject, in which the only requirement is to just believe.  To argue that each person has a passive will unable to do anything reminds me of the statue garden in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

But this is a logical fallacy: can any work be done without participation of the will? Nothing happens spontaneously without one's free will involved.  If we were not involved, we would not be judged by those works, would we?

In the New Church, it is acknowledged that no one can do good from one self, and yet good is done as if it was from one self.  For all good comes from God alone.  And the New Church places emphasis on the word AS IF.  For many things that we do we think comes from our own self, but this is an appearance or illusion.  The full will must participate in the act, but with acknowledgment that all good within ourselves originates from God alone.  That there is a difference between the good one thinks one does from one self, and the good one does from the Lord, is explained in the following passage:
"That no one can do any good which is good, from himself, the Lord teaches in John: A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven (iii. 27). And again: He that abideth in Me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without Me ye can do nothing (xv. 5). He that abideth in Me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit, signifies that all good is from the Lord; fruit signifies good. Without Me ye can do nothing, signifies that no one can do good from himself. They who believe in the Lord and do good from Him, are called sons of light (John xii. 36; Luke xvi. 8); sons of the bridechamber (Mark ii. 19); sons of the resurrection (Luke xx. 36); sons of God (Luke xx. 36; John i. 12); born of God (John i. 13): it is also said that they shall see God (Matt. v. 8); that the Lord will make His abode with them (John xiv. 23); that they have the faith of God (Mark xx. 22); and that their works are done from God (John iii. 21). These are all summed up in the following words: As many as received Jesus, to them gave He power to become sons of God, even to them who believe in His name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John i. 12, 13). To believe in the name of the Son of God, is to believe the Word, and live according to it. The will of the flesh is the proprium of man's will, which in itself is evil; and the will of man is the proprium of his understanding, which in itself is falsity from evil. They who are born of these, are such as will and do, and think and speak, from the proprium; they who are born of God are those who do these things from the Lord. [And this means,] in brief, that what is from man is not good, but what is from the Lord is good." (Doctrine on Life, n. 17)

So, while there is agreement between the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and the New Church Perspective on Paul, beyond that the NPP proponents do not have a consistent view of the theology of the atonement and salvation.  The problem is, once the definition of "works of the law" changed, and one is judged by their deeds, it was not clear how vicarious atonement or penal substitution fits in with one's salvation. This is of course a large subject, so I will simply summarize it here by quoting a passage from Paul, and explain the New Church theology behind it:
For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:9-12)
By in Jesus Christ dwells the fulness of the Godhead bodily meant that the fullness of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwells in Jesus as the soul, body and spirit of every man.  The circumcision of Christ means that when Jesus was born, His soul was Divine but he had inherited a frail human nature from the virgin Mary, by which he could be tempted.  This human nature was successively expelled and removed until his human was made Divine - he became a Divine human.

When we are tempted and repent, we are buried with him in baptism, for in repentance we die to our old nature, and we are cleansed by the Divine truth through the Holy Spirit in baptism - baptism being an external ritual signifying cleansing by the truth. When we repent, we are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, for we acknowledge only the Lord removes sins within us just as he had removed the sinful nature from his human body and made it Divine by resisting all temptation.  After repentance we live in good works through the Lord in a new spiritual will, which is signified by us being risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. For this is no faith without works, and although we do it ourselves we acknowledge that it is the operation of God.

In other words, there is no such thing as penal substitution or vicarious atonement.  But rather, the Lord atones for our sins by their removal through the process of repentance.  We will still be judged on how we live our lives. Since the Lord conquered all of sin and hell in His human flesh, so he conquers for us during the process of temptation and repentance.  We go through the same process Jesus went through, through repentance.  There is no salvation from belief alone. This New Church view of salvation is very similar to another theological development within some churches known as "Christus Victor."

So why is this true, or how does this salvation work?  Human free will originates from humans living in an intermediate material realm which stands between heaven and hell.  All of our thoughts and influences are not our own, but rather the good thoughts originate from angelic spirits on the one side, and evil thoughts from evil spirits on the other.  By the time Jesus came, hell had gained the ascendancy against heaven for all of humanity on this planet.  In his human he conquered hell, and restored the balance between heaven and hell.  Moreover, each person can now be regenerated through direct contact with the Lord Himself.  It is no longer necessary to depend on angels as intermediaries.

In other words, salvation is directly related to living in faith through good works, for good can only be effected from the Lord.  For the Lord alone is truly Man, and we are merely His images inasmuch as do good according to the truth. For the Lord alone is Good itself, or Love itself, as John declares:

He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:8)

This is thus in summary the New Church Perspective on Paul, which is not only consistent with the New Perspective on Paul but much more comprehensive.  This doctrine of the New Church came not from men, but from the Lord alone while Swedenborg read scripture.


  1. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for a good article on the NPP. You and your readers may be interested in a similar piece I wrote on this subject in an answer to a question at Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange:

    What are the oldest known records of interpretation agreeing with New Perspective on Paul?


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