“To be Right with God”: An Exploration of the New Perspective View on Paul -- By: Rich Hagopian

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 37:0 (NA 2005)
Article: “To be Right with God”: An Exploration of the New Perspective View on Paul
Author: Rich Hagopian

“To be Right with God”:
An Exploration of the New Perspective View on Paul

Rich Hagopian

Rich Hagopian (B.A, Ohio State University) is an M. Div. student at ATS.


In 1977, with E. P. Sanders’ publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, a major upheaval took place in Pauline studies.1 Sanders’ main thesis was that the long-held view of looking at Paul through “Lutheran-colored spectacles” was incorrect.2 Luther believed that much of Paul’s theology was grounded in an attack against Jews trying to be justified through works, thereby earning their “right-standing with God”—a conclusion that has been influential in nearly all post-Reformation New Testament scholarship.3 Sanders radically proposed that this was not a concern of Paul’s at all; that in fact this scenario was not a reality at the time of Paul. 4 Instead, Sanders saw Judaism in Paul’s time as a “covenantal nomism,” in which Israel was graciously given membership in God’s covenant, which required obedient action while providing atonement for sin.5 These conclusions have been a substantial challenge to traditional understandings of Pauline thought, which have been based on Luther’s understanding of first-century Judaism. As McGrath has written, “If Sanders is right, the basic features of Luther’s interpretation of Paul are incorrect, and require radical revision.” 6 That revision, both positively and negatively, has been the main emphasis of a spectrum of scholarship that Dunn has labeled “the New Perspective on Paul.” 7

This paper will attempt to trace the argument set in motion by Sanders’ work. The intention of such a survey is to bring together various components and viewpoints within the New Perspective in order to answer the question, “What does it mean to be ‘right with God?’”

The Religio-Historical Context

There does not seem to be a “New Perspective School” in New Testament studies.8 There is, however, what might be called a “spectrum of appropriation,” in which theologians accept Sanders’ basic conclusions concerning covenantal nomism with varying degrees of enthusiasm over their usefulness or implications.9 Seyoon Kim has noted that those who accept Sanders’ conclusions about t...

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