Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The New Perspective on St. Paul and the Catholic Apologist

In an essay on his web site Bob Sungenis has this quotation from me and his own comment:

Sippo: Scott is very well read in the Patristic literature and is on the cutting edge of modern biblical scholarship. Anyone who has tried to keep up with the field knows that the movement for "biblical theology" is a new and exciting area of study that crosses confessional lines and participates in the New Pauline Perspective which has been systematically dismantling the classical Protestant interpretation of Scripture in favor of a view of soteriology that is more favorable to the traditional Catholic position.

R. Sungenis: Thanks for proving my point. In case you didn't catch it, Sippo has admitted by the statement "crosses confessional lines and participates in the New Pauline Perspective," that he and Hahn have received their newfound ideas on soteriology from Protestants. Need I say more?


In good conscience, I cannot let this comment pass. It betrays not only Mr. Sungenis' narrow prejudices with regard to what he feels is Catholic orthodoxy but it also betrays his refusal to join in full dialog with real scholars struggling to understand St. Paul's sitz im leben as a 1st Century Jew. This latter endeavor must be the spear head of any modern attempt to engage Protestants is serious ecumenical dialog on the merits of their foundational beliefs about justification. If it can be shown by the best of ECUMENICAL scholarship that Luther was wrong and that the Catholic objections to the Protestant religions were justified, then we have a most powerful argument with which to lead our Protestant brethren back into the Church. The New Perspective on St. Paul (NPSP) can be a part of this endeavor.

Among the Catholic concerns are to preserve the integral necessity of good works in Christian salvation (Matt 25:31ff, Romans 2:7, James 2:20ff), the transformative power of Sanctifying Grace through Baptism (Romans 6:1ff) , love of God and neighbor as fulfilling the requirements of the Jewish Law (Luke 10:25ff, Romans 13:7-10), and good works as the final cause of our justification (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The NPSP has its roots in the early 20th Century when Protestant and Jewish scholars began to seriously reflect on the Jewish background of Jesus. Many times in debates during the Deformation, Catholic exegetes had argued that St. Paul was not as concerned in his writings about Pelagianism as he was about Judaizing. These arguments generally fell on deaf ears. But men like Alfred Edersheim, George Moore, Adolf Schlatter and C. G Montifiore started to discuss them openly challenging the narrow views of Protestant orthodoxy. At that time, Protestant exegesis was still strongly influenced by apologetic concerns and confessional theology. And we must also recognize that a nascent theological anti-Semitism made it had for Christians to find anything worthwhile in Judaism. It just made sense in that context that St. Paul was attacking Judaism per se as a religion of "works righteousness".

In the aftermath of WWII, Christian scholars took a more positive and sympathetic look at Judaism, both ancient and modern. The pioneer work in this field was "Paul and Rabbinic Judaism " by W. D. Davies. While this book would be considered somewhat dated by today's standards, it was a break through for Christian scholarship about Judaism. Then in 1960 Swedish scholar Krister Stendahl gave his seminal talk "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." In this talk, he showed that the performance anxiety that concerned St. Augustine in his Confessions and Luther in his Tower Experience was not present in the writings of St. Paul. Paul had a robust conscience and was not tortured by fears of his own inadequacy or the impossibility of pleasing God. St. Paul was more concerned with living the "new life in Christ" and continued to do so while remaining a practicing Jew.

The next major milestone was the book "Paul and Palestinian Judaism" by E. P. Sanders. It was the first in a series of books exploring the interface between Jesus, St. Paul and the Judaism of the first century. James D. G. Gunn contributed his insights in his Romans and Galatians commentaries and in a series of Books on Jesus and St. Paul. The central theme of these books was a systematic critique of classical Reformation exegeses of the Scriptures across the board but most centrally on the issue of justification. They made it clear that IN CONTEXT the Protestant idea of a purely forensic justification existed neither in the Bible nor in the Pseudepigraphal literature. In fact righteousness in Judaism was inseparable from orthopraxis and Jesus and St. Paul reaffirmed this.

In the book The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith by James D. G. Dunn and Alan M. Suggate, this idea is fleshed out in detail. Some scholars thought that they had gone too far towards the Pelagian end of the Spectrum (e.g., Scott Hahn). But in my opinion we were seeing the pendulum swinging back towards a more robust and Catholic understanding of the integral nature of works with faith.

Other authors like N. T. Wright, Don Garlington, John Gager, and Brendan Byrne S. J. have continued to develop NPSP and thereby undermine the credibility of the Protestant system. Some of the Protestants in this movement have tried to deny the "Catholicity" of this new turn (e.g., N.T. Wright), but Dr. Francis Beckwith on his return to the Catholic Church made it clear that the coherence of the historic Catholic witness on justification with the Bible was one thing which motivated him to revert.

We are in the midst of an apologetics revolution. Protestant scholarship is sawing off the limb it has been standing on and we are seeing the beginning of what I anticipate to be a ground swell of Protestant theologians returning to Catholic orthodoxy.

Mr. Sungensis sadly cannot see this. He is not alone among Catholic scholars in not following the NPSP. Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer S.J. also does not accept it. But Bob seems to forget that Catholicism is not a theological monolith and that good Catholics may disagree on some matters of theology. Sadly, I am concerned that part of Bob's motivation in rejecting NPSP is an excessive antipathy to Judaism which does not allow him to see much good even in the Judaism of the 1st Century. In this attitude he is way out of touch with the teaching Church from VCII, JPII, and BXVI.

In any case, the idea that Dr. Hahn and I "get" our soteriology from Protestants is ludicrous. We get it from God's Inspired Word, the Tradition of the Catholic Church, and the Magisterium. Whenever we find a matter of exegesis where we can agree with our Separated Brethren, we rejoice in it as another opportunity to draw us closer together so that as Jesus wished we might be one even and he and the Father are one.

ADDENDUM: It has recently come to our attention that two Protestants scholars have recently reconciled with the Catholic Church: Dr. Francis Beckwith and Dr. Robert Koons. Both of them have made it clear that recent scholarship which has called into question the traditional Protestant interpretation of St. Paul was instrumental in their decision. I think NPSP is starting to bear fruit!



Shane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shane said...

This is an area that is of great interest to me. I understand Mr. Sungenis' points in this regard, and his concerns, and to a certain degree I agree. Many of his points regarding why the NPSP is incorrect are valid, in my sight, particularly the fact that the approach of Trent (and previous Councils) on the matter is different altogether.

However, I also believe that many of the points you make, Art, in your responses to Mr. Sungenis are valid as well. After having studied the issue a bit, I have come to the conclusion that the reality is somewhere in between.

I believe that St. Paul is (usually) speaking specifically about the Mosaic ceremonial law in his epistles (particularly Galatians where it is very hard to argue he is not seeing as that he essentially states that he is) but that he is using it to make a more general point about law in general, as Mr. Sungenis states. Unfortunately, he seems, at least in my reading of him, and I apologize to him if I have failed to catch something in his work, to insist that this is the only thing St. Paul means. I've expressed my overall understanding inthis piece.

InCatholicTruth said...


I don't follow Sungenis at all and only own one of his books Not By Faith Alone, which I understand was written before he went off into whatever he has become of late.

Up until 11 months ago I was a Calvinist and I often posted on a "Puritan Forum" (my posting privileges were terminated when I announced that I was becoming Catholic). The principal players on the "Puritan Forum" (not its real title) insisted that the NPP/FV is a heresy and were constantly asserting their Reformed views in a variety of ways to show the errors in the "New Perspective".

Well, this was enough to motivate me to read some N.T. Wright, because how else could I be objective about these matters?

I read several short selections of Wright's on the WEB as well as some of his work "The Climax of the Covenant".

This and many other readings, in conjunction with simply READING the Gospel of Matthew caused the blinders to fall from eyes. It became progressively clear to me that only ONE VISIBLE CHURCH on this Earth is totally faithful to Matthew and the other Gospels in both Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy.

That would be the Roman Catholic Church. I reasoned that if the Catholic Faith is faithful to what Jesus Christ teaches in the Gospels then IT MUST be the Visible Church that Christ founded, because there was far too much rationalization of the Gospels going on every place else I searched.

Well the look on my PCA Pastor's face was interesting to say the least when I informed him that I was becoming a Roman Catholic!

Art Sippo said...

To Shane:

The NPSP crowd do not think that St. Paul was a Pelagian, but in their view (and I agree with them) St. Paul dealt PRIMARILY with the Judaizing problem and one argument he employed against it was that one could not earn one's salvation before God. As such, the critique of "works righteousness" was a consequence of the critique of Judaizing.

But St. Paul never intended to teach -- as Luther and many modern Protestants have -- that human works were not required for salvation. Romans 2:7 makes this abundantly clear as does Galatians 5:6.

So I agree with you that we should not take either extreme view about St. Paul. Rather we must understand him IN CONTEXT as a Jew preaching the culmination of the promises in the OT which recognized the equality of (Torah observant) Jews and (Torah non-observant) Gentiles before God in Jesus Christ. By this he saw the prophecies fulfilled from Isaiah 49:6, 60:3, & 66:19-22 and Jeremiah 31:31-34.


I am so happy to have you with us, my brother. We need to pray for those whom you have left behind who could not follow you.

I think that your story is very similar to Dr. Beckwith''s and I anticipate there will be many more people like you who will follow the NPSP and even the FV (Federal Vision) to return to Catholic unity.

BTW it is curious among Protestants that they refer to the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP). As a Catholic, I like to refer to the "New Perspective on SAINT Paul" (NPSP).


InCatholicTruth said...


Thanks for your kindness and great wisdom both here and over at the Envoy Forum.

Well, can't claim a background that even approaches Dr. Beckwith's, but I appreciate your comments!

In fact, I design/write Computer Software for a living and kind of "fell into" going to an Evangelical Sect's "Bible College" part-time 11-12 years ago. Looking back, I now realize that much of this was motivated by the guilt I felt over having been divorced, yet with the knowledge that "something had never been right" in that failed marriage from the very beginning.

I won't elaborate further on the marriage issues as I have done over at "Speak your Mind", except to say God's moral law cannot be violated by anyone who truly desires to follow Christ! No amount of Soteriological gamesmanship (like the Calvinist and DEFINITELY the "free grace" Fundamentalists like to play) can change this fact.

Without a visible, authoritative Church to infallibly interpret Scripture and adjudicate complex Moral issues, what are we left with?

EXACTLY the subjective mess we see in Protestantism.

And yes, we can only pray that I our separated brethren will "come home" to the visible, organic unity found in the Eucharist, in submission to the Holy Father, and in the embrace of the Mother Church.

Apolonio said...


I would recommend Daniel Boyarin's book The Radical Jew. He is an orthodox Jew and a bit radical himself. There are some things in the book that I find problematic such as Paul being a platonist of some sort, but overall, it's a great book. Paul did not even tell the Jews that they cannot do the works of the law. What we need to do is to read Paul in a sacramental way, what is important is what circumcision signifies (circumcision of the heart) not circumcision itself.

And again, Chris VanLandingham's new book is great. I think it refutes covenantal nomism. Sanders' book was very influential but there were many flaws in it. For example, one should not use rabbinic literature when we are trying to see what a first century Jew thought of. That's simply problematic as any 2nd temple Jewish historian will tell you. VanLandingham has shown that the Jews of Paul's day did believe in some sort of legalism. At the same time, he has argued that Paul believed that works were necessary for justification. Also, he refuted the notion that dikaioo is necessarily forensic.

As for Catholics, what we need to do is to read Paul within his context. That is what the NPP scholars do.

Kyle said...


I'm glad that you included the works of Brendan Bryne SJ in your list of current scholars motivating the NPP drive of late. Usually he is not included in this list, but I think that much of his work on divine sonship in his dissertation and commentary on Romans adds a lot to the idea that justification is about the covenant family and not strictly the law court.

once you have made this shift from looking at your standing before God as not being strictly in the courtroom but in the family room..the game is basically over.