Review: Paul’s New Perspective



Paul’s New Perspective, Garwood P. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016

Summary: Argues that both the traditional Protestant perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are each partly right, based on the idea that Paul’s ideas on salvation developed as he wrote over a period of time and addressed different circumstances.

If you follow the discussions in biblical theology at all closely (something of a personal idiosyncrisy), you may be aware that since the work of E. P. Sanders over thirty years ago (and followed by contributions and modifications by James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, among others), there has been what is called the “New Perspective on Paul (NPP),” It argues that the Traditional Protestant Perspective (TPP), traced back to Luther with its focus on justification not by works of the law but by grace through faith, is a mistaken reading of Paul. Beginning often with the book of Galatians, these proponents argue that “works of the law” are the defining boundary markers of God’s covenant with the Jews that kept Gentiles outside the covenant promises of God. These proponents contend that Paul’s emphasis is that by  faith (or the faithfulness of God through Christ), Gentiles are included in God’s covenant and part of God’s family apart from the boundary markers defined by the Jewish law. Those from the TPP fire back that this ignores the argument of Romans as well as passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 that focus on works more broadly, and for a forensic idea of justification where the righteousness of Christ is imputed by faith to those who believe.

Paul’s New Perspective could be a game-changer in this discussion. Garwood P. Anderson argues that the “contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are both right, just not at the same time.” What Anderson contends against advocates of these contrary schools is that a static understanding of Paul’s thought is not the best way to understand the Pauline corpus as a whole, but that Paul’s thought developed over time and that a developmental understanding (not that Paul changed his mind) best explains the aspects of the Pauline corpus that each perspective has difficulties explaining.

The book divides into three parts. Chapters 1-3 explore the landscape of the discussion between the two perspectives as well as more recent post-NPP contributors. As part of this, in chapter 2 he considers three key passages in which Paul is seemingly uncooperative with either perspective: Philippians 3:1-11, Romans 3:21-4:8, and Ephesians 2:1-22.

In chapters 4 and 5, Anderson then contends for a particular itinerary of Paul’s ministry and the writing of his letters that lends itself to his thesis. He would contend for both an early date, and southern setting for the letter to the Galatians, next the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondence, followed by Romans. He believes Romans is not Paul’s last work but that Philippians as well as the contested letters to Philemon, Colossians, Ephesus, and the Pastorals followed and are genuinely Pauline. While a number of critics would dissent, there is critical support for this chronology and Pauline authorship and Anderson briefly outlines the basis for these judgments, which are critical to his contention that a significant enough period of time elapsed in the writing of the Pauline corpus for Paul’s understanding of the salvation wrought by Christ to develop toward the vision of cosmic reconciliation (carefully delineated by Anderson) apparent in Colossians and Ephesians.

Chapters 6 through 8 then turn to an exegesis of the relevant passages following this developmental chronology, followed by a concluding chapter summarizing his argument. In these he shows particularly how the New Perspective gets Galatians more or less right on “works of the law” but that Paul’s use of “works” in later letters is not equivalent but reflects a developing understanding of the grace of God apart from human effort. He also argues that, while important, justification is not the center of Paul’s understanding of salvation, that the language of reconciliation informs this, and that perhaps most central is the idea of union with Christ.

I’ve tried to summarize in several hundred words a detailed argument that runs to nearly 400 pages in Anderson’s book and thousands of pages of writing over the years. No doubt I’ve glossed over many matters in both his and others’ scholarship. What I appreciated in this work is an effort to listen to the whole canonical Pauline corpus rather than to force it onto the Procrustean beds of either the old or new perspectives, either by ignoring uncooperative passages or dismissing books as pseudo-Pauline. What he proposes is not a compromise between the two perspectives, a via media, but rather a different way of conceptualizing Paul’s emerging perspective on salvation that allows for the intellectual growth of core convictions in a coherent and non-contradictory fashion.

Anderson speaks of having “friends” in both “camps.” I hope that his effort to articulate a “third way” will not result in “unfriendly fire” from both sides but rather promote the kind of theological reconciliation that would seem to be the fruit of the reconciliatory work of Christ, of which he writes, that enriches for all our grasp of the great salvation that is ours in Christ. I found that true for myself in the reading of this work, and trust it will be so for others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

5 thoughts on “Review: Paul’s New Perspective

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