How new is the ‘new perspective’?

I am no expert on the ‘new perspective on Paul’. I’ve read the obvious things – Sanders, Dunn, Wright, &c., although not Doug Campbell’s new book yet – and routinely use commentaries that presume or argue for the position; I’ve even preached and taught in ways that  broadly assumed the correctness of the NPP;  but I’ve never given the arguments the time or attention they no doubt deserve. I have long harboured a suspicion, however, that at least a part of what is going on under the headline is a comprehensive and massive exercise in deconstructing a straw man. From Sanders down to Campbell, the NPP writers have had in their sights an account of pauline soteriology (‘justification theory’) claimed to be dominant in the West from Luther down to today, which needs to be overthrown. Now, it is obvious that this involves a historical claim – that a certain characterisation of soteriology has been normative – alongside an exegetical claim – that this characterisation is inadequate. The first claim is a proper subject for someone who is interested in historical theology and, to the extent that I understand what is being said, I find it profoundly implausible.

It was reading Francis Watson’s review of Doug Campbell’s book that emboldened me to go public on this suspicion. Francis starts with an overview of the new perspective: ‘[d]issatisfied with the traditional Protestant privileging of the so-called “doctrine of justification by faith”, a number of scholars have subordinated justification to participation or union with Christ…’ That was roughly what I had thought was going on, but I trust Francis’s judgement much more than my own on this issue, and so I will proceed on the basis that this is an adequate summary of one part of the argument. For the historical theologian, this statement invites the question, what is the ‘traditional Protestant’ position on soteriology? Does it privilege justification by faith, at the expense of participation/union with Christ?

Let me quote Heinrich Heppe for a rapid demonstration. I choose Heppe for two reasons. First, he claims to be offering a synopsis of the major writers of Reformed dogmatics from Calvin to Schleiermacher – I could point to places where I think he twists the tradition (rarely) or over-systematises a fairly diverse witness (more common), but basically, this is a good witness to a broad swathe of Reformed tradition. Second, Heppe originally published his manual in 1861, so this is not new scholarship or a revisionist account; this is, simply, the tradition as it was received and understood. What, then, does he have to say about soteriology?

He orders his account of soteriology under the classical ordo salutis taken from Rom. 8:30 – justification is consequent and dependent upon vocation, which itself follows predestination. I will pick the story up at vocation, or ‘calling’. ‘According to its real nature the calling of the elect is thus an insitio in Christum or a unio cum Christo, a real, wholesale, spiritual and indissoluble union of the person of the elect with the divine-human person of the Redeemer … At the root of the whole doctrine of the appropriation of salvation lies the doctrine of insitio or insertio in Christum … so the dogmaticians discuss it with special emphasis.’ References to Boquin, Zanchi, Olevian, Witsius, and van Mastricht follow, but he could have cited almost any of the standard manuals of Reformed dogmatics (at least of those I have read) – certainly the point is made abundantly clearly by Calvin, as scholarship has long recognised (Wendel, writing in 1950, assumes the point is standard). Justification is consequent upon union with Christ. That is the foundational claim of all traditional Reformed soteriology.

Sanders, and those who have followed, certainly offered a new perspective on Palestinian Judaism, and (for me, at least – I understand that it had already been essayed elsewhere), a new way of understanding the structure of Romans, and the argument of Galatians; but the idea that traditional Protestant soteriology ought to be replaced with an account that ‘subordinate[s] justification to participation or union with Christ’? Sorry, but that just is traditional Protestant soteriology, at least in its Reformed expression (Lutheranism has not traditionally had this arrangement of union with Christ as the basis of justification).

Why might this matter? Well, it is precisely the claim that the NPP calls for an overthrow or replacement of the Reformation teaching on justification by faith that has led to such vitriol and hostility from traditionalists; most recently and visibly, John Piper’s denunciations of Tom Wright. If I am right – and I repeat that I claim no expertise in understanding what the NPP writers are saying – then the new readings of Paul might be better characterised as upholding the classical Calvinistic/Reformed soteriology against the Lutheran – and Arminian – traditions. Demonstrating that claim might just cool a few overheated arguments…

(If anyone reading this knows more than I do about the NPP (which seems likely…), I’d be interested to know if there is something fundamental missing from the summary I borrowed from Francis above – are there real and basic points of difference that ought to be taken account of? If not, I might even write a paper on this – it seems a point worth making.)


  1. Mike Bird
    Aug 27, 2010


    1. You are right in that the NPP is not new. Read John Locke’s Notes and Paraphrase on Romans and it is flipping scary how much he sounds like Dunn and Wright at points. Here he is on Rom. 3.26: “God rejected them [i.e. the Jews] for being his people, and took the Gentiles into his church, and made them his people jointly and equally with the few believing Jews. This is plainly the sense of the apostle here, where he is discoursing the nation of the Jews and their state in comparison with the Gentiles; not of the state of private persons. Let anyone without prepossession attentatively read the context, and he will find it to be so.”

    2. I fully agree on union and justification. The Calvinistic scheme has been and has always been that union is the basis of justification. However, some chaps in the USA (e.g. Mike Horton) are arguing that imputation precedes union and have the gall to say that this is what the reformed faith has always taught (though recent volumes by Mark Garcia and Craig Carpenter suggest otherwise)! And I think Calvin’s scheme is thoroughly biblical. That said, Bruce McCormack argued for something similar in the Edinburgh Dogs books on justification, that imputation precedes union, though I had a chat with him and I think he might be more flexible on the matter.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2010

      Thanks, Mike – it’s comforting to hear from someone who actually knows what’s going on that I’m not a million miles from the mark.
      Your quotations from Locke are fascinating; two readings seem possible – either Locke is simply a good reader of the text, or he is trying to find a reading that de-emphasises universal sin and guilt for ‘political’ reasons. I wonder which is right?

  2. James
    Aug 28, 2010

    I’ve been reading through Luther’s commentary on Galatians, and the subordination of justification by faith to union with Christ seems to be there. I could be reading this wrong, but for example, on Galatians 2:20 he writes:

    ‘Paul explains what constitutes true Christian righteousness. True Christian righteousness is the righteousness of Christ who lives in us. We must look away from our own person. Christ and my conscience must become one, so that I can see nothing else but Christ crucified and raised from the dead for me. if I keep on looking at myself, I am gone.’

    To me, in the context of the rest of the commentary, it sounds like he’s saying that union with Christ is the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2010

      Thanks, James. There is a view that you can find Luther saying almost anything if you look hard enough, of course…
      Certainly the Lutheran systems of high orthodoxy studiously refuse to make justification consequent on union.

      • James
        Aug 28, 2010

        I suppose the point here would be that I wasn’t looking particularly hard…

      • Mike Higton
        Sep 2, 2010

        You don’t have to be Finnish to note a whole pile of language in Luther about marriage to Christ, with faith as the wedding ring, etc… And, more technically, isn’t the ‘communicatio idiomatum’ between Christ and the believer dependent upon – not a hypostatic union, but some kind of real union, for him? In any case, union and imputation language seem to slop around together pretty cheerfully in his writings (whatever may be true of later Lutheran Orthodoxy).

      • Fearsome Pirate
        Sep 11, 2010

        That’s right. Lutheran orthodoxy makes justification consequent on the Cross. Your standing with God is based on what Jesus did for you 2000 years ago, and justifying faith is acceptance of the verdict rendered outside Jerusalem. If the verdict was rendered based on your union with Christ, then faith would be a matter of self-assessment, of belief that your regeneration really happened. The two different doctrines of justification show up in the difference between Reformed and Lutheran pastoral advice–there is no Lutheran tradition of telling people to do a self-assessment to gauge whether or not the marks of election are there.

  3. Jon
    Aug 28, 2010

    Yeah – you could be in danger of replacing one straw man with another… NPP’s Reformed straw man for Reformed theology’s Lutheran straw man… But you know the issues here…

  4. Steve Duby
    Aug 28, 2010

    I think the emphasis on union is an important one, but perhaps one significant difference between the traditional take and at least Tom Wright’s take has to do with whether justification helps to translate one into the sphere of God’s people (the more traditional view) or is the verdict about who already is within that sphere (Wright’s view).


    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2010

      Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree with your depiction of ‘the more traditional view’ – I could cite sources, but consider the implied logic. Language about ‘the sphere of God’s people’ is not common in the Reformed tradition (it operated a far more ‘mystical’ conception of ontological insertion into the corporate personality that is the risen-Christ-and-His-Church), but, if union with Christ is the basis for justification, then entering the sphere of God’s people must, surely, happen with union, not with some later step in the process.

      • Steve Duby
        Aug 30, 2010

        Thanks for responding, but I think I may have obscured the intention of my comment a bit with the language I used. I meant that in more traditional Protestant thought there is an emphasis on God’s declaration of righteousness effecting something new in our status before God. It’s a dimension of God’s redemptive work that is at least logically prior to our truly belonging to the company of those who are partakers of salvation. In contrast, Wright has tended to stress that justification is an affirmation concerning which persons already are partakers of salvation and thus already belong to that company. Simon Gathercole has made the point in his essay in Justification in Perspective, the volume edited by Bruce McCormack. Kevin Vanhoozer also commented on this in his response to Wright at the recent Wheaton College theology conference.

  5. Andy Goodliff
    Aug 28, 2010

    Doug Campbell is not a NPP person, he is closer to J. L. Martyn, Hays and the apocalyptic crowd. For a more favourable reading of Doug, see Chris Tilling’s posts here:

    a more to come …

    although your point: upholding the classical Calvinistic/Reformed soteriology against the Lutheran – and Arminian – tradition – is not far off, Doug was and is heavily influenced by J. B. torrance’s articles on covenant and contract.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2010

      Hi Andy,
      Whether the ‘NPP’ encompases all ‘anti-justification’ readings of Paul, or whether we should distinguish different strands, and reserve the title ‘new perspective’ for one of them, is not a question I find particularly interesting, although it does seem to exercise some NT scholars endlessly.
      JB Torrance on covenant and contract – you probably know my views on those articles…

  6. Mike Bird
    Aug 30, 2010

    Steve, I think Locke was reacting against Puritan exegesis of Paul’s letters.

  7. Radical Believer
    Aug 30, 2010

    If the NPP is not new, what are those who are so vigorously and vitriolically opposed to it actually defending? Perhaps this is something that evangelical Protestantism needs to ask.

  8. David Westfall
    Sep 4, 2010

    I think that there’s a greater similarity between the NPP and traditional Reformed theology than is often given attention, and I especially agree with your comments on the fact that the NPP’s stress on justification as SUBSEQUENT to union with Christ is nothing particularly unusual – and it ertainly shouldn’t be controversial in Calvinist circles where (ironically) some of the most outspoken critics of the NPP like Piper come from.

    Still, we mustn’t go too far in the direction of stressing their shared underlying assumptions, and by so doing ignore the crucial difference between the NPP and traditional protestant theology (in BOTH its Lutheran and Reformed streams) – that is, the NPP’s denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. That is really what gets people like Piper up in arms, and is a definite point of departure from just about every stream of protestant orthodoxy. If you read a work like John Owen’s “Justification by Faith” or anything Calvin or Luther wrote on the topic, you’ll notice that the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness was absolutely central to their view of how God justifies a sinner. The claim that this does not occur, but rather is a category confusion ignoring the covenant law court context in which Paul uses justification (this especially is the claim of Wright, with which I somewhat hesitantly agree), most certainly IS new (at least within protestantism… if the NPP is right, the claim isn’t new at all – it’s just Pauline theology).


  1. Flotsam and jetsam (8/28) « scientia et sapientia - [...] Steve Holmes discusses the New Perspective, arguing that the criticism that the Protestant tradition has prioritized justification over union…

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