This series of posts will examine covenantal nomism in the New Perspective on Paul and then argue that the New Perspective undermines a correct understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification. The New Perspective on Paul is a new way of reading the Pauline writings of the New Testament. Proponents of this view assert that Pauline writings, most notably Romans and Galatians, have been misread since the time of the Reformers because they, and other Protestants since then, have misunderstood the Second Temple Judaism of Paul’s day.
The term “new perspective on Paul” was coined by James D.G. Dunn in a 1982 lecture and article entitled “The New Perspective on Paul.” However, the basic idea that drove this “new perspective” has its origins with a lecture Krister Stendahl gave in 1961 entitled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.”
In 1977 E.P. Sanders wrote a seminal work entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism in which he introduced a critical idea of covenantal nomism to New Perspective theology.The current champion and perhaps best known New Perspective scholar (especially among evangelicals) is N.T. Wright. Wright, who identifies as an Evangelical, has written extensively on the New Perspective within in the last 20 years.
When speaking of the New Perspective on Paul, it is more correct to speak of the New Perspectives on Paul. There are various points of divergence and disagreement among advocates of the New Perspective. Theologian Francis Watson, who was once a proponent for the new perspective and later returned to the classical Protestant position, helpfully offers five basic tenets the various strains of the New Perspective on Paul have in Common.
- The dominant Reformation and post-Reformation tradition of Pauline interpretation is wrong. Paul has been misread because first century Judaism has been misunderstood.
- The various diverse forms of Judaism practiced in the Christian era did not teach obedience to the law as a way of salvation.
- As a minority group among a dominant Hellenistic culture, the Jewish community was concerned above all else to preserve its cultural identity. Hence the significance of things like circumcision, ceremonial food laws, etc.
- The Judaism of Paul’s day believed in divine election and mercy. Therefore, Paul opposed the Judaizers not because they were teaching salvation by works, but because they were creating external boundary markers excluding Gentiles from God’s covenant people.
- Reformation and post-Reformation interpreters have not fully appreciated the context of Pauline passages on justification in their interpretation. Biblical interpreters continue to misread the biblical texts by anachronistically imposing on them their own theological presuppositions.
This essay will confine itself to examining and offering a critique of the idea that the Second Temple Judaism with which Paul was interacting, most notably in Romans and Galatians, was not a religion that taught obedience to the law as a way of salvation.
This issue will be examined because it is the central pillar of the New Perspective on Paul. The entire system stands or falls on this issue.
Understanding and rightly evaluating the New Perspective is not a mere academic exercise. The implications of this teaching are profound in its effects on the doctrine of justification. For if the New Perspective is correct, justification is not a matter of how sinful people are saved and made right with a holy God. Instead, it is about who is in and who is out of the church.
The New Perspective position sees justification as a matter of ecclesiology, not a matter of soteriology. This position undermines the very gospel itself.
By Justin Nash
(Justin Nash serves as Director of Church Health & Communications for the Advent Christian General Conference)
 Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever, “Justification and the New Perspective with Ligon Duncan,” 9 Marks Leadership Interview and Seminar Series (MP3 podcasts), 9 Marks, 07,30, 2004, https://www.9marks.org/message/justification-new-perspective-ligon-duncan/
 Francis Watson, lecture notes “Not the New Perspective” at the British New Testament Conference, University of Aberdeen, September, 2001.
 Michael Horton, Justification: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 31.