A New Perspectivist Response to Simon Gathercole’s Christianity Today Article

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How do the results of a debate that raged more than three centuries after the New Testament was written affect the way most Westerners read Paul’s theology? Put briefly, Augustine effected a revolution in understanding what the human predicament is, how Christ saves us from it, and what the role of justification is within the larger understanding of salvation.

The August 2007 issue of Christianity Today contains an article by Simon Gathercole purporting to give an objective review of the so-called “new perspective” on Paul (hereafter “NPP”), which is a way of reading Paul in the light of NT scholarship’s improved understanding of ancient Judaism.[1] Unfortunately, the article is filled with a number of misrepresentations and gross exaggerations. While readers on both sides of the debate should appreciate the tone of the article (the debate has seldom been so irenic), a number of items need to be revisited, especially in view of the fact that most readers will not have been in possession of the facts prior to reading Gathercole. The purpose of this short note is twofold: (1) to call attention to some respects in which Gathercole’s remarks are unfair or misrepresentative of the view(s) he engages, and (2) to situate his own understanding of justification as a Pauline commitment within the wider array of biblically-based soteriological theories.

Some of the problems with the article per se are not the direct fault of the author. For example, when the caption to a drawing of Beza, Luther and Calvin on p. 24 refers to those three as “Old School” and states that they “found in Scripture a doctrine of justification different from what the medieval Catholic church taught,” the apparent implication is that the three facing figures (new perspectivists James D. G. Dunn,[2] N. T. Wright and E. P. Sanders) found something else there. Whoever penned the caption apparently concluded from what Gathercole wrote that new perspectivists must think that Scripture teaches a doctrine of justification similar to that of the medieval Catholic church! (They, of course, do not think that.) The author of the article is not nearly as misinformed as the writer of the caption, but his discussion of the new perspective still leaves a lot to be desired, and it is not surprising that misunderstandings as great as that in the caption should be the result.

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  • [1] Simon Gathercole, “What Did Paul Really Mean?,” Christianity Today (August 2007): 22-28. The editorial introduction to the article tries to make it appear that Gathercole is an objective third-party observer of the fight between the NPP and its opponents, but in reality Gathercole has been a vocal critic of the NPP, setting out to refute it even in his doctoral dissertation.
  • [2] There is something really strange about the drawing: the depiction of Dunn is so completely wrong that the artist must have used a photograph of someone else.

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
    [Read more about author]

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