One damaging strand of theological modernism in exegesis attempts to dismiss Paul as an immensely influential but flawed figure whose work and writings distorted Christ’s “pure” message. But do Paul’s epistles truly render Christ’s gospel lost to sight?
The traditional Protestant perspective in New Testament scholarship claims that Paul advocated justification through faith in Jesus Christ, in contrast to a view of justification through works of the Law. This latter view, called “legalism,” is seen as the characteristic failing of first-century Second Temple Judaism.
This approach reflects a characteristic Reformation view of Paul as arguing that the good works done by Christians would not effect their salvation: rather, their faith alone was what counted.
In reaction against this, proponents of the “New Perspective” on St. Paul, such as the liberal theologian E.P Sanders in his 1977 work Paul and Palestinian Judaism, argued that Second Temple Judaism was not in fact legalistic, nor was Paul purely reacting against legalism. Today, Pauline scholarship is sometimes referred to as “pre-Sanders” and “post-Sanders”; such was the book’s influence.
Sanders and others argued that Paul’s epistles do not really address general good works, but rather question observances such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath laws, which were simply markers to set Jews apart from the other ethnic groups. Thus, Palestinian Judaism was not on this view a “legalistic community,” oriented to “salvation by works.” Instead, the Jews of Paul’s time held that by virtue of being God’s chosen people, the Jewish people were under his covenant. Thus, following the Law was not a way of entering the covenant, but rather of staying within it.
It is in part against this school of thought that N.T. Wright makes his distinction also between faith as acquired through birth or merit (which is to say by or for Jews) and faith that is a gift from the Holy Spirit; an act that Christians then embrace when welcoming Jesus into their lives and living according to his commands. As he writes in his book, Pauline perspectives: Essays on Paul 1978–2013:
Faith is not something someone does as a result of which God decides to grant them a new status or privilege. Becoming a Christian, in its initial moment, is not based on anything that a person has acquired by birth or achieved by merit. Faith is itself the first fruit of the Spirit’s call. And those thus called, to return to Philippians 1:6, can be sure that the one who began a good work in them will complete it at the day of Christ. (p. 257)
Wright then adds:
… if we are thinking Paul’s thoughts after him, we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. If, in addition, we believe in justification by faith itself, we believe that, amazingly considering what God knows about us, we are now and forever part of the family to every member of which God says what he said to Jesus at his baptism: you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased. (p. 261)
This focus on the object of faith—Christ himself—deepens our understanding of Paul’s soteriology and reminds us why the Apostle to the Gentiles holds a place of honor as a New Testament author. Far from distorting Christ’s message, Paul points us back to Christ as the Alpha and Omega of our salvation.