Hermeneutics Of The New Perspective On Paul -- By: Robert L. Thomas

Journal: Masters Seminary Journal
Volume: TMSJ 16:2 (Fall 2005)
Article: Hermeneutics Of The New Perspective On Paul
Author: Robert L. Thomas

Hermeneutics Of The New Perspective On Paul

Robert L. Thomas

Professor of New Testament

Recent changes in evangelical hermeneutical principles have opened a wide door for new-perspective (NP) proposals on Pauline literature and more basically NP proposals about second-temple Judaism. Setting aside the time-honored ideal of objectivity, the proposals have raised questions about longstanding views of Augustine and Luther and of the nature of first-century Judaism. E. P. Sanders has been a major figure in raising these questions. The questions arise in part through an allegorical versus a literal handling of God’s OT covenants with Israel, i.e., through devising a system known as “covenantal nomism.” The NP system also seeks support through a neglect of the established principle of single versus multiple meanings for a given passage and through disregarding the importance of immediate context in interpretation. The NP builds on an erroneous base of wrong-headed conclusions about first-century Judaism and commits multiple hermeneutical errors in its approach to Pauline literature.

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As one has appropriately put it, the new perspective on Paul is more accurately termed a new perspective on second-temple Judaism,1 which inevitably results in a new perspective on Paul. This new perspective brings to the surface a number of hermeneutical principles that twenty-first-century evangelicalism desperately needs to avoid if it is to maintain a high view of biblical inspiration.

Preunderstanding Versus Objectivity

Elsewhere I have dealt with the highly significant change that occurred in evangelical hermeneutics in the 1970s and early 1980s, a change which most basically incorporated a new first step in biblical interpretation.2 That new beginning point is the preunderstanding of the interpreter that then theoretically undergoes correction as he studies a biblical text. Until the 1970s, traditional grammatical-historical principles dictated that the interpreter repress whatever opinion about what he thought the text should teach and adopt a firm goal of letting the text speak for itself, in other words, the goal of objectivity. As harmless as the difference in starting points between traditional evangelical hermeneutics and the new evangelical hermeneutics may seem, it has wrought havoc in the way many evangelicals are now reading and interpreting the Bible.3

New-perspective proposals offer a classic example of the drastic effects of preunderstanding on the interpr...

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