Douglas Moo defines the New Perspective on Paul
One of the difficulties with grappling with the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is coming to terms with the variegated nature of the movement. Despite the build-up of the NPP as one large, monolithic bloc affecting Biblical studies, doctrine, and early church history, the reality is far more complex. Although the leading lights of the NPP share a same interest in research and methodology, their origins and conclusions are quite diverse. This must lead to a chastened humility when outlining the NPP on general terms.
Nevertheless, Douglas Moo’s essay in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 2 – The Paradoxes of Paul offers a profitable introduction to both perspectives: the claims of the NPP and misgivings of the Old Perspective on Paul (OPP). In ‘Israel and the Law in Romans 5-11’, Moo observes that what NPP has attempted is in effect “a rotation of Paul's central theological axis”. That has lead to a flip from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. What does this look like? According to Moo it means an ethnocentric rather than anthropocentric reading, privileging the background over the foreground and the corporate rather than the individual. For Moo this is witnessed in an emphasis of ecclesiology over soteriology or union with Christ over imputation, or a macro reading over the micro. At the risk of caricature, this last point is seen in some NPP’s love of describing the big picture, but failure to engage in close exegesis.
I find Moo’s description helpful because I don’t want to place the weight at the one end of these dichotomies. I don’t want to emphasize the horizontal over the vertical, or focus on the background and neglect the foreground. If Moo is right, this is a helpful corrective of the NPP.
However, I think Moo’s definition also shows-up some of the problems with what I’ve generally described as the OPP. By placing things in such a dichotomised way merely moves the problem towards the other end of seesaw. What arose from the OPP in 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism is people who could provide a theologically apt account of salvation, but then turn around and deny the historicity of Jesus. Surely this is a problem? Surely it’s a problem when Christianity is reduced to a timeless philosophy or morality? But this is what has tended to happen when people have bought into an ‘either or’ dichotomy. Instead of neglecting either the horizontal or the vertical, don’t we want both? Don’t we want both soteriology and ecclesiology (which Calvin’s doctrine of ‘union with Christ’ provides by the way)? Can’t we have both the foreground and the background? Without the background we lose the historical, social, religious and theological context/worldview that the foreground arose in. And without the foreground, the background loses relevancy. Why can’t we have both? Instead of arguing for the anthropocentric over the ethnocentric, does not a reading of Paul push theocentricism center of stage? Likewise the individual verses the corporate; aren’t the two brought together in Christ? He loved me and gave himself for me at the same time that he ransomed for God a kingdom from every nation and tribe and language.
Moo’s definition is very useful in grappling at general terms with the shortcomings of the NPP. But by resorting to such dichotomies, I’m not sure that he leaves us in a better position. Indeed the NPP arose out of the OPP’s reduction of Paul and the gospel to individualism and tendency away from ecclesiology and context. Instead what is needed is balance. Balance because the announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord results in both vertical and horizontal – you might say cosmic – reconciliation. Balance because the gospel was announced in a particular context means it is even more meaningful when it is announced today. Balance because the news that you are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8) fundamentally alters who you relate to your siblings (Ephesians 4:32). Balance, because Christ came to preach to those who far off as well as those who were near, reconciling them both in his body under the on Father.