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Threading the Pauline Needle

Paul’s New Perspective
Charting a Soteriological Journey
By Garwood P. Anderson
IVP Academic. Pp. 441. $45

Review by Gene Schlesinger

With this volume, New Testament scholar Garwood Anderson of Nashotah House Theological Seminary enters the fray of the New Perspective on Paul. This new perspective has been with us now for 40 years, and has been a source of great consternation, as it overturns many a cherished table in the temple of assumptions about the apostle to the gentiles. Anderson’s proposal is straightforward and so intuitively plausible that I could not believe no one had thought of this before: “Contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are both right, just not at the same time” (p. 379).

The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and the Traditional Protestant Perspective (TPP) each, more or less, accurately interpret certain Pauline texts, but falter with others. This phenomenon is best accounted for by the thesis that Paul’s thought developed over the course of his oeuvre, and that the differences between perspectives on Paul really elucidate differences in perspectives held by Paul at various stages of his ministry. In general the NPP gets the earlier Paul right (especially in Galatians), while the TPP gets the later Paul right (Romans and onward).

To establish this, Anderson begins, in his three initial chapters, to survey the lay of the land in Pauline studies, beginning with a critical appreciation of the NPP. In four key areas (assessing Paul’s Damascus road experience, the soteriology of Second Temple Judaism, the role of Torah observance/works of the law, and the centrality of the covenant), the NPP has led to a more adequate understanding of Pauline theology, though it has often done so at the cost of overstating its case (pp. 15-56). Anderson surveys three key texts, which do not fit neatly within the competing paradigms (pp. 57-91), and then notes ways in which Pauline studies have developed in the wake of the NPP (pp. 92-152).

The heart of Anderson’s contribution is a trio of chapters that chart the development of Paul’s thought by tracing his use of vocabulary and concepts over the course of the 13 letters attributed to him in the New Testament (pp. 226-378). Anderson’s decision to appeal to a broader corpus than the seven undisputed Pauline epistles is bold, yet borne out by a plausible (and modest) case for the authenticity of the disputed letters (pp. 182-225).

If there is a chink in the armor of Paul’s New Perspective, it is this wider textual basis. If the disputed letters are not authentic, we are left with a very narrow window indeed for Paul’s thought to have developed. If they are genuinely Pauline, though, they represent approximately 15 years of a 30-year vocation, rather than five years toward the end of Paul’s life and ministry (p. 155).

On the other hand, this is one of the most interesting features of Anderson’s argument. Under the assumption that Paul’s thought developed, many of the features that lead the majority of New Testament scholars to judge the disputed Paulines as pseudonymous are reconceived; they are to be expected, and they continue trajectories observable in the undisputed letters All this makes Anderson’s case for their authenticity more persuasive than others I have encountered, and I hope it leads to a wider consideration by the scholarly guild.

In tracing the Pauline itinerary, Anderson makes several key observations. Paul’s protest against “works of the law” in Galatians transitions in Romans to a protest against works, more generically construed, which remains the case thereafter. These phrases are not interchangeable: “works of the law” refers specifically to “boundary markers” for Israel’s ethnic and covenantal identity, and it appears solely in contexts in which Gentile inclusion is at stake. In writing Romans, though, Paul expanded his critique of works of the law to include all human efforts to satisfy God. Similarly, in Galatians grace is a relatively generic term for God’s generous gift. In Romans it becomes God’s solution to the problem of sin, bearing a specific soteriological freight, and, once more, it remains so thereafter.

In a similar manner, justification appears in earlier letters, and specifically in contexts that have to do with the inclusion of Gentiles, but eventually gives way to a more holistic account of salvation that is cosmic in scope. Anderson is particularly strong on this score. He insists, against more expansive accounts, that justification retain its narrowly forensic sense, while still noting that Pauline soteriology is far broader than this legal metaphor can encompass. It is transformative, cosmic, and eschatological. Justification is an aspect of this total salvation, and should neither be excluded from the picture nor made to bear the freight of the whole. Here aid and comfort is given to neither Protestant nor Catholic systematic theological construals of justification. Either may be true enough, but neither finds a particularly strong basis in Paul’s teaching on justification.

In each case, a similar pattern is discernable: a concept has a specific application to the crisis of Gentile inclusion in Galatians, is then broadened to a more universal scope in Romans, is more synthetically articulated in later Pauline letters, especially Ephesians, and is regarded as a settled conclusion in the Pastoral Epistles. This development does not represent an about-face on the part of the apostle, but is a deepening and broadening of earlier views’ implications. Each successive iteration of this dynamic lends greater plausibility to Anderson’s overall thesis, as well as to his case for the authenticity of the disputed Pauline letters.

Anderson’s proposal is another nail in the coffin of justification as the be-all and end-all of Pauline theology. It is important, particularly in the earlier letters, but hardly the center (pp. 384-90). Rather than another center, Anderson proposes a “red thread”: participation in Christ runs throughout Paul’s writings, and drives the considerations at every turn and every stage of development. Participation in Christ accounts for salvation’s forensic, punctiliar, transformative, and dynamic dimensions (pp. 391-97). This is hardly new territory, but it is well-stated, and on the heels of an argument that bolsters it a good deal.

The book is a delight to read: well-written, personal, engaging. Anderson’s ability to craft a metaphor or turn a phrase keeps the 400-plus pages from becoming a slog.  Anderson’s meticulous research gave me a far better grasp of the new perspective than I had before, all while constructing a persuasive argument that moves beyond that perspective’s impasse.

Anderson makes bold claims, and while he establishes plausible cases for all of them, I suspect specialists in the field will demur from some of his proposals. Nevertheless, they would do well to give these claims serious consideration; the overall Gestalt of Anderson’s project reconfigures some of these debates in unique ways. Paul’s New Perspective deserves a wide readership. Those who are persuaded will have gained a better foothold in their understanding of Pauline theology. Those who disagree will be better for their careful engagement with Anderson’s proposals.

Eugene R. Schlesinger holds a PhD in theology from Marquette University. He is the author of Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Theology.


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