The Peril of Modernizing Paul

Justification Reconsidered Stephen Westerholm is a helpful voice for those of us opposed to the New Perspective(s) on Paul – perspectives which have been around for forty years or so.  In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul and also gives a biblical defense of the historic or classical perspective.  Since it is only 100 pages, this is a great book for those who want an introduction to this discussion; it is also good for readers who want to review the errors of the New Perspective(s) and be refreshed with a fine defense of the traditional view.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

“The problem comes …with what Stendahl [an early advocate of what is now called the NPP] denies; and, ironically, it was precisely by modernizing Paul that Stendahl made welcome his suggestion that others, not he, had modernized Paul.  Our secularized age has undoubtedly thrust earlier concerns about human relationships with God into the background – if not rendered them completely unintelligible.  Conversely, in our multicultural societies, acceptance of people from ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than our own is more crucial than ever to community peace.  Both negatively and positively, then, Stendahl posits a Paul attuned to modern agendas.”

At the end of the chapter, after discussing the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, Westerholm concludes:

“How can sinners find a gracious God?  The question is hardly peculiar to the modern West; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went.  But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation.  In substance though not in terminology in Thessalonians, in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians, thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), chapter 1.

shane lems


Luther: The Right Perspective On Paul

In a sermon on Isaiah 9.1-7, Luther preached the good news that the Son was born “for us” and “given to us.”   Christ the Lord went to the manger for his people.  This is pure gospel for us.

“He is a Lord who bears us and on whose shoulder we lie.  If he does not bear us, we are lost.  If pope, bishops, monks, and priests believed this, they would deal much differently with this matter.  However, they do not want to be borne by Christ; instead they bear Christ, as they seem to think, and to them Christ is merely a painted Christ.  For in their thinking they believe they are to live in this or that manner, fast and pray, do enough to pay for their sins and appease God’s anger.  But that sort of carrying is contradictory. ”

If Christ does not bear you but you try to bear him, that will be a very heavy load for you, just as if a strayed sheep would say to its shepherd who wanted to carry it: No, dear shepherd, you are not able to carry me; I wish to carry you; sit!  Obviously, that sheep would be crushed by the load.  But if the sheep is to be helped, the sheep must speak like this: Accept my thanks, dear shepherd, for seeking and wanting to carry me; I cannot carry you, but I shall let you carry me.”

“So also in Christ’s kingdom!  Christ wants to carry his sheep, just like a shepherd carries a poor, wretched, strayed sheep.  He speaks to a poor sinner in this manner: You are conceived and born in sin, you have angered God by many sins and are condemned to death; but you are not to suffer anguish on account of this, for your sins are forgiven you; simply lie on my shoulder; I want to carry you before God.”  (Luther’s Sermons [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000], VII.227-8) emphasis mine.

This is certainly Luther’s way of illustrating Galatians 3.1-14: having begun by the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by your own effort?  … For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse … the one who does them shall live by them... cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.

Of course, there are many other topics Luther no doubt had in mind: Christ alone, faith alone, depravity of humanity, saint and sinner at the same time, justification, etc.  Luther got the gospel right, no doubt; he read Paul well.

Speaking of Luther, I’m looking forward to reading The Genius of Luther’s Theology by R. Kolb and C. Arand.  I’ve heard good things about it…it needs to get on my Luther shelf soon.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Paul, Luther, Introspection and the NPP

  Here are a few lines from the summary of a lecture that Krister Stendahl (an early and influential figure in the NPP) gave to the American Psychological Association in September, 1961.  To be fair, in the introduction, the publisher (the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion) noted that this essay, a summary of the lecture, is a “working paper” that was not prepared for major publication (see JSSR, Spring, 1962, pages 261-265).

“…Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experiences of Western man, since Paul’s statements about ‘justification by faith’ have been hailed as the answer to the problems which face the honest man in his practice of introspection.”

“A fresh look at the Pauline writings themselves show, however, that Paul was equipped with a rather ‘robust’ conscience.  He was entirely satisfied with his moral achievements under the Law and there were no signs of frustration in his Jewish obedience.  The sin to him was that he had persecuted Christ and his church, and he had no doubt repented from that sin.  As a Christian he was not plagued by a retrospective or introspective conscience.  While he knew his ‘weakness’ he did not call it ‘sin.'”

“The image of a Paul who struggled with his conscience and who, in introspection, suffered under the inability to satisfy the ultimate demands of God…is copied on the experiences of men like Augustine and Martin Luther.”

More: “It has always puzzled historians that no one in the early church seemed to ‘understand’ Paul….  We would venture to suggest that the West for centuries has wrongly surmised that the biblical writers were grappling with problems which are no doubt ours, but which never entered their consciousness….”

At least Stendahl is clear.  Everyone in the Western church has misread Paul.  The poor guy!  You’d think someone, even one person, would get Paul right before 1961! 

shane lems

sunnyside wa


The Augsburg Confession (1530) and the NPP

I find article 20 of the Augsburg Confession anticipating the NPP in a very real way.  Notice the first sentences below (from art. 20).  I’ve bolded the words that caught my attention:

        And lest any one should craftily say that a new interpretation
        of Paul has been devised by us
, this entire matter is
        supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. For Augustine, in
        many volumes, defends grace and the righteousness of faith,
        over against the merits of works. And Ambrose, in his De
        Vocatione Gentium
, and elsewhere, teaches to like effect. For
        in his De Vocatione Gentium he says as follows: “Redemption by
        the blood of Christ would become of little value, neither
        would the preeminence of man’s works be superseded by the
        mercy of God, if justification, which is wrought through
        grace, were due to the merits going before, so as to be, not
        the free gift of a donor, but the reward due to the laborer.”
        But, although this doctrine is despised by the inexperienced,
        nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by
        experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because
        consciences cannot be set at rest through any works, but only
        by faith, when they take the sure ground that for Christ’s
        sake they have a reconciled God. As Paul teaches Rom. 5, 1:
        “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” This whole
        doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified
        conscience, neither can it be understood apart from that
        conflict. Therefore inexperienced and profane men judge ill
        concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness
        is nothing but civil and philosophical righteousness. 
        Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of
        works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. Some
        persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into
        monasteries hoping there to merit grace by a monastic life.
        Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make
        satisfaction for sins. Hence there was very great need to
        treat of, and renew, this doctrine of faith in Christ, to the
        end that anxious consciences should not be without consolation
        but that they might know that grace and forgiveness of sins
        and justification are apprehended by faith in Christ. 


sunnyside wa


Law/Gospel and the NPP

Krister Stendahl (a huge figure in the NPP movement) began to suggest in the early 1960’s that the whole church has read Paul wrongly (i.e. introspectively) since Augustine.  Stendahl also did some work in the late ’60’s on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity; he was pleading for a new relationship based on a more Jewish and less Western Christian reading of Paul and the NT.  In this article he talked about anti-Semitism and the law/gospel distinction in Reformation theology.

After discussing what he calls the anti-semitist elements in the NT, he mentions a “more subtle…more powerful form of the anti-Jewish element in Christian theology to consider, especially in Protestantism and then most prominently in Lutheranism.  I refer to the theological model “Law and Gospel.” 

Wow.  This has many implications.  For one, he’s charging the Reformation law/gospel adherents of anti-semitism.   Any other implications come to mind?   Stay tuned for more on Stendahl….

Above quote taken from Krister Stendahl, “Judaism and Christianity: A Plea for a New Relationship” Cross Currents (1967: Fall), 450.  It originally appeared in the Fall 1967 Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

shane lems

sunnyside wa