Moving Past the New Perspective on Paul

Recently a couple of biblical scholars wrote interesting articles on their blogs discussing the state of current Pauline scholarship. Scot McKnight and Michael Bird both claim that we are entering into a new stage in Pauline scholarship – we have moved past focusing on the NPP vs. Old Perspective and moved into discussions about Redemption-History vs. Apocalyptic.

McKnight makes the bold claim that:

The old perspective Paul vs. the new perspective Paul is now over. The new debate will be between the new perspective Paul vs. the apocalyptic Paul.

Bird seems to think the same thing:
The big and messy debate in Pauline studies at the moment in “salvation-history” vs. “apocalyptic” interpretations of Paul.
So what marks this apocalyptic reading of Paul? McKnight suggests several things:
  1. The primary word is “apocalyptic” but this term is not being defined by Jewish apocalypses so much as it is almost equivalent to a cosmic, universalist redemption that has now invaded the world in Christ (the old age is shattered by the new age). Apocalyptic is associated closely with soteriology, cosmic soteriology, in this reading. God’s acting in history is heavily emphasized; the divine action is at the core of the apocalyptic Paul.
  2. Second, theological terms are turned into cosmic powers in upper case letters: Sin, Law, Flesh, Grace (Barclay’s essay develops this), Love, Redemption. The world is the stage of a cosmic soteriological battle now won by Christ in his death and resurrection.
  3. Third, humans are agents in this moral cosmic battle but the battle has shifted from the days of Bultmann, where it was so individualistic, to cosmic proportions. Adam is the key man, not Abraham; Law and Sin and Flesh are the categories, not the Torah of Moses; the alternatives are Christ vs. Adam and Life vs. Death.

So where should we stand in this debate? Bird is probably right when he says that:

For me the big thing is that it is not either/or since one can easily find salvation-historical and apocalyptic motifs across Paul’s letters.

I wholeheartedly agree with Bird. Both motifs certainly seem to be there. If you are looking for a great article regarding some of the concerns about the apocalyptic Paul, but concluding that both are in fact there check out Bruce McCormack’s (What! A systematic theologian!) essay “Can We Still Speak of Justification by Faith? An In house Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul” for an excellent example of how these can be drawn together. You can find the essay in the new book Galatians and Christian Theology (published by Baker Academic).


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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