James D. G. Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review Article -- By: Nijay K. Gupta

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 41:0 (NA 2009)
Article: James D. G. Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review Article
Author: Nijay K. Gupta

James D. G. Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review Article

Nijay K. Gupta*

The discussion arises out of one small, but certainly complex, question: “What was it that Paul was reacting against in his letters with regard to the law?” This is the question that launched a thousand articles, as it were. The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) is a “new” response to this very old question. Or, at least it was “new” in 1982 when James D.G. Dunn coined the phrase “New Perspective on Paul” in the Manson Memorial Lecture at the University of Manchester. Almost a quarter of a century later we have a reflection on the discussion and a collection of the work of Professor Dunn in this New Perspective on Paul volume, though he is still publishing new research prolifically. This review essay endeavors to summarize the book, as most book reviews do, but also to reflect on how the NPP has progressed, what the reactions of others have been, and to get a sense for the persistent impact it will have on scholarship. Of course the work of James Dunn on this topic, almost all of which usefully appears in this book, will be at the center of the discussion.

In order to understand and appreciate why the NPP has been so revolutionary in scholarship, one must get a sense for how Pauline research has developed throughout history. From one point of view, the NPP is a direct reaction against what some consider a misunderstanding of Paul by Martin Luther. What scholars like Dunn have attempted to do is to correct and complicate the prevailing presumption that Paul was “the great exponent of the central Reformation doctrine of justification by faith” (p. 101). Those who challenge this traditional reading of Paul have issued a caution to readers of Paul not to perceive his theology wholly through “Reformation spectacles” (p. 203). Dunn is especially concerned with how Luther looked at the problems and issues in his own time and appeared to read them into the background of Paul’s letters. This appeared to generate a reading of Paul that saw law in tension with faith and that the crux of salvation was largely an individualistic concern.

What Dunn had sought out to do, following the lead of E.P. Sanders1 and Krister Stendahl2 was to audit this default Lutheran reading by looking more closely at the Jewish influences on Paul, the specific context of his law-discourses, and the nature of Judaism at Paul’s time. What emerged from this investigation is a set of discussions, not just on Paul and his theology, but also on early Judaism and the function and purpose of the law...

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