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James White: The New Perspective on Paul

James White gave a review and response to E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul (NPP) at Calvary Santa Fe’s Discern 2010 conference [mp3|stream]. There are other NPP writers; White focused on these two.

This was an unexpected delight; not White’s response, necessarily, but the fact that NPP merited inclusion in the conference. Paul Scozzafava, the executive pastor at Calvary, handed out the topics, and White mentions that he was surprised that Scozzafava asked him to handle this topic. I was surprised, too: I have my doubts that there are many people at Calvary Santa Fe who know anyone who has even heard of NPP, much less understand it. I had personally heard very little about it, and unlike e.g. Open Theism or some of the Alternate Gospels stuff had never heard someone who isn’t a believer mention it.

The basic idea is this: the Reformers misunderstood Paul (that’s the Old Perspective) and based their theology on their misunderstanding to all of Protestantism; this misunderstanding can now be corrected because modern scholars understand Second Temple Judaism (Judaism in the time of Jesus, Paul, the Pharisees, etc.) better and differently. These corrections include the following points:

  • The gracious nature of the Covenant; Judaism did not include a “works-righteousness”
  • Paul believes that Judaism remains a fully valid religion
  • Righteousness is not imputed to the believer by faith or by anything else; imputed righteousness is a “legal fiction”
  • Paul was really a political writer and his political writings were misunderstood as being religious; the (Jewish) Exile is the key to understanding Paul
  • Justification is eschatological

There is of course more to it than that, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice.

Before I delve into White’s response, I’d like to note that much of his discussion dealt with the continuity between Sanders and Wright, and included excerpts from their books. I got the feeling that White had, due to the difficulty of the topic, and the fact that it lies outside the bulls-eye of his expertise, did the best he could but ran out of time. I’d recommend listening to the audio above; unfortunately he didn’t read all the excerpts he showed the audience, so some of his presentation gets lost in transcription.

White’s major points were these:

  • Wright doesn’t understand what the Reformers said
  • Wright’s ecumenical tendencies pollute his analysis
  • Wright’s a liberal
  • Wright sells out systematic theology and the theological harmony of Scripture

This first point seems to be an obligatory figure for anyone coming from a Reformed perspective responding to anyone who believes differently. It’s a claim that’s cheap to make if the speaker isn’t willing to then summarize what he thinks the Reformers really said. White doesn’t do the heavy lifting here, so there’s no point in dealing with this.

White responded to Wright’s ecumenicism with scorn, suggesting that because it’s impossible to reconcile Catholic and Protestant theology anyone who suggests something that might do just that is delusional or worse. This was not White’s finest moment; scorn is a poor stance for a gentleman and a scholar, especially given biblical suggestions that studying Scripture will keep one from “the seat of the scornful.”

The last two points are linked; he says Sanders and Wright don’t believe Paul wrote all the books attributed to him, that there’s no need to harmonize Paul’s writings amongst themselves, let alone with the whole of Scripture, and if they felt the need to do this they wouldn’t draw such silly conclusions about Paul. This struck me as a weak argument. The problem with White’s response generally was that it didn’t respond to the heart of the NPP argument, but rather at some of its implications. I’m accustomed to this sort of argumentation from fundamentalists, but I’m still surprised when I hear it from Reformed types.

Still, White’s last point is worth examining. There is a tendency in modern Christianity to behave as if the Bible itself were a systematic theology text, so that an attack on systematic theology is an attack on the very Word of God itself. It isn’t. Systematic theology is a tool people developed long after the time of the Apostles to help them understand Scripture, and it’s dangerous to think we know what Paul or any of the other authors thought apart from what they actually said.

I still have no idea whether Sanders and Wright and their ilk are right or wrong; I suspect they’re wrong, but White didn’t really give me good reasons to suspect that.

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  1. September 23, 2010 at 9:03 am

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