Book Review: The New Perspective on Paul, Kent Yinger.

I read Yinger’s 103-page book on the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) in 2 hours.  It was worth my time.  In this book, Yinger details both the main arguments and the history of the NPP, and directs his readers to further reading should they wish to study the issue themselves.  He is himself pro-NPP, but tries to give an impartial survey of the debate for laypeople and pastors.  But this book was helpful for this graduate student too!

YingerAfter introducing the topic and approach of the book, Yinger examines the 1977 publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which laid the groundwork for the NPP.  Sanders was dissatisfied with stereotypical views of first-century Judaism commonly held in the scholarly community: that Jews believed practice of the law and good works could lead to salvation, that this law was a heavy burden which nobody could uphold.  Sanders instead set forth his view of “covenantal nomism,” a common system of practice and theology in first-century Judaism.  Covenantal nomism holds that God and humans are in a covenantal relationship, a relationship in which humans are obligated to God but God also leaves room for God’s grace anbd forgiveness.  Sanders cited texts from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls showing the individual Jews’ relationship with God as dependent, vulnerable, and loving, rather than merely fearful of a wrathful and unforgiving God.  Sanders laid the foundation for biblical scholars to question the traditional Reformation reading of Paul as an author speaking of salvation through grace apart from works.  He questioned the reading of Judaism as a religion of oppressive legalism.

Chapter three describes James D. G. Dunn’s work in building on Sanders to truly initiate the NPP.  Dunn sought to read Paul in continuity with first-century Judaism and covenantal nomism, rather than opposed to it.  Dunn read Paul’s writings about “works of the law” as not referring to doing good deeds (“works righteousness”) but as referring to specific practices expressing Jewish identity, such as circumcision and keeping kosher.  Hence, Paul was not saying one didn’t have to do good works to be saved, only that specific Jewish cultic practices were not necessary.  The question becomes not “How may I be saved?” but “Who belongs to the company of the righteous?”

Chapter four details other NPP advocates who set forth their own perspectives.  N.T. Wright asks what the problem was that Paul saw Jesus as saving Jews from.  (You know those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer”?  Well, Wright is asking: “What is the question?”)  For Wright, this problem was Jews’ disinheritance of the land, their exile and colonization under the Romans.  Jesus as Messiah reconciled God to Israel for Israel’s sins leading to their political plight.  Other NPP advocates, such as Francis Watson, argue that Paul was more interested in theological legitimation for his Christ-following communities than in working out a systematic soteriology.  Heikki Raisanen argues that we should not try to impose theological coherence on Paul’s occasional letters in the first place.  Paul was interested more in social location and identity than coherent theology.  Other scholars argue that in Paul’s view, the new Christian mode of relating to God did not rule out the Jews’ special place in their covenant, but opened a different covenant to the Gentiles.  Yinger stresses in this chapter that NPP advocates differ greatly amongst themselves.

Chapters five, six, and seven detail the historical, exegetical, and theological-ministerial critiques of NPP.  Historians and biblical scholars take issue with covenantal nomism, saying we should not rule out the possibility that some Jewish groups had fallen into crass legalism.  Exegetes point to passages in Paul that seem to refute the NPP, such as his insistence that he had been a sinner burdened under the law (1 Tim 1:15, Romans 7:15, 18-19).  NPP readings of these texts can seem to flaunt common sense, but at the same time, Paul’s writing can be so rhetorical and opaque that it’s hard to figure out what he is doing.  The chapter on theology and ministry was the most tedious for me.  Yinger details Reformed thinkers who eschew the NPP because it runs counter to Luther’s reading of Paul.  However, most NPP scholars are not concerned with contemporary sectual debates, but with Paul’s thought.  As Yinger says, “trying to get Paul to answer a question he wasn’t asking always produces discomfort for biblical scholars, and usually unsatisfying results for theologians” (86).

Chapter eight, “Let’s Hear it for the NPP,” details several positive effects this new scholarship has led to: a better grasp on Paul’s letters, avoiding modern Western individualist readings of Paul, moving away from stereotyped and insulting depictions of Judaism, drawing more continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, bringing Paul and Jesus together, and bringing Protestants and Catholics together.  Even the critics of NPP scholarship can reap some of these benefits!

Yinger’s book ends with two afterwards, by Donald A. Hagner and Don Garlington.  Hagner critiques the NPP for passing over the uniqueness of early Christianity.  Garlington suggests three areas of future research on the NPP.  Yinger ends with an annotated bibliography of pro- and anti-NPP works for the reader to evaluate the debate for themselves.

Of all the areas of the Bible, I’ve probably had the least exposure to Paul, so this book was very helpful for me to get a handle on some of the current debates.  I’ll most likely be taking a class on Pauline literature this fall, so it’s good to have a head start!  I especially appreciated how charitably Yinger summarized the perspectives of the scholars he disagreed with.  Apparently I’m not the only one who likes it: blogger Chris McElmurray writes, “this slim volume is now THE entry point into the discussion and is one-stop shopping for those who want to apprise themselves of the pro and the con in a quick read.”

Onward and upward!

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