The New Perspective on Paul, perhaps one of the most moving and shaking theological conversations of our generation, has found itself a stalwart scholar in the thinking and theology of N.T. Wright. If you’re at all invested in this issue, you’ve probably gotten your hands on Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision as well as Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
But what if Wright has said more on the issue? Logos has recently assembled 48 of N.T. Wright’s writings going back to 1992—just after the New Perspective started gaining traction. Not all of these works address the issues concerned with the New Perspective, but I want to take a few moments to surprise you about how thoroughly the themes of New Perspective span throughout Wright’s theology.
Let’s open up Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision—another key text in the dialogue of NPP. Since the New Perspective on Paul is primarily a theological conversation concerned with soteriology, I want to discuss Wright’s analysis of God’s plan to save the world through Israel (while he establishes a Jewish interpretation of Paul’s theological insight). From Justification:
The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was that Israel had failed to deliver. There was nothing wrong with the plan, or with the Torah on which it was based. The problem was in Israel itself. As we shall see later, the problem was that Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’. This lies deep at the heart of Paul’s theological insight, and it is the reason why so much of his theology appears so intractably complex to those who have not even grasped its first principles. God’s single plan was a plan through-Israel-(even-though-Israel-too-was-part-of-the-problem)-for-the-world.
Because of being “in Adam”, Israel failed to come through for the rest of the world. I’m curious about this “in Adam” phraseology. Pulled from 1 Cor. 15:22 (and perhaps Romans 5:12-21), “in Adam” refers to the ethnical-sin heritage of the Jews—the same heritage that, as we’ve seen, prevented the Jews from properly bringing God’s salvation to the world around them.
Wright also addresses the interesting “in Adam” phraseology of Paul in his volume on Romans in the New Testament for Everyone series—and here, we can trace Wright’s New Perspective thinking in a verse-by-verse manner. His commentary on Romans 7 contains his discussion of the “in Adam” issue:
You might suppose, if you had been following the argument of the letter carefully, that he is writing this chapter because sooner or later he was going to have to tell us what exactly he meant by all those sidelong references to ‘the law’ (such as 3:20; 3:27–31; 4:13–15; 5:13–14; 5:20; and 6:14–15). He has hinted again and again that the law of Moses, though he believes it was given by God and bore witness to the gospel (3:21), nevertheless plays a negative role in God’s overall purposes (5:20), and that the Christian is not ‘under the law’ (6:14–15). Why not? According to this view, chapter 7 is written to answer these residual questions. And it’s true that Paul does at last address them in a fuller way. But that’s not the whole story.
Some people simply read Romans 5–8 as a description of the Christian life. That leads them to suppose that the picture of moral wrestling in 7:14–25 is a picture of what it’s like trying to lead a Christian life, halfway (as it were) between the bracing commands of chapter 6 and the final goal as set out in chapter 8. That gives the chapter a role within an overall reading of the section of the letter, but it seems to ignore the fact that the main subject of the chapter is not the Christian life, but the law itself—and that Paul says again and again that the Christian is not ‘under the law’.
The clue to the present passage, which introduces the long discussion of the law, lies in a combination of 5:20 and 6:6. Paul is still thinking in terms of the two types of humanity, Adam and the Messiah; and he understands the Christian as someone whose ‘old man’ (6:6) has been crucified with the Messiah. Each person is thus to be seen as a composite being, like a woman married to, and hence (in that world at least!) identified with, a husband. And the role of the law is to cement the bond between the person who is ‘in Adam’ and the ‘old man’, or ‘old Adam’, to whom they are ‘married’.
This explains verse 4, which is at the heart of this passage. ‘You died to the law’ refers to the same event as 6:6, where ‘the old man’ was crucified with the Messiah in order that ‘we’ might be rescued from the solidarity of sin. Paul is making the striking and controversial claim that the law, when given to Israel, formed a bond between Israel and … not God, as one might have supposed, but rather Adam. This explains his otherwise baffling statement in verse 5, and frequently in the rest of the chapter, that the passions of sins were ‘through the law’ (he means, presumably, ‘were aroused through the law’, but I have left the translation reflecting his somewhat abbreviated Greek).
The law, then, appears to be part of what is wrong. Given to Israel by God, it reminds Israel constantly that it, too, is ‘in Adam’. It does not lift Israel out of the mess. It simply informs Israel that it, too, is in the mess.
Wright supposes that Paul writes about the “law” of Romans 5-8 as the “law of Moses”—not necessarily (at least not explicitly) a modern conception of works-righteousness, but a conception of the completion the Messiah and the Spirit bring to the old Jewish covenantal laws. Being “in Adam” is akin to being subject to those old covenantal laws; juxtaposed with that (according to Paul) is being “in Christ”—that is, free from those laws, or, more accurately, being in fulfillment of those laws through Christ. How does Christ fulfill the law? Through a Roman and Jewish sponsored crucifixion. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright merges this idea with the Jewish anticipation for a messiah to bring political freedom (“physical forgiveness of sins”). This political freedom (mirroring the Exodus) couldn’t have come at a more turbulent time. The Minor Prophets warned that exile was the punishment for Israel’s sins; so the forgiveness of sins would be a homecoming for Israel. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, Wright argues, God fulfills all of this:
[Jesus] would bring Israel’s history to its climax. Through his work, YHWH would defeat evil, bringing the kingdom to birth, and enable Israel to become, after all, the light of the world. Through his work, YHWH would reveal that he was not just a god, but God.
What matters is that, in the Temple and the upper room, Jesus deliberately enacted two symbols, which encapsulated his whole work and agenda. The first symbol said: the present system is corrupt and recalcitrant. It is ripe for judgment. But Jesus is the Messiah, the one through whom YHWH, the God of all the world, will save Israel and thereby the world. And the second symbol said: this is how the true exodus will come about. This is how evil will be defeated. This is how sins will be forgiven.
So Wright establishes that the Christian, according to Paul, is no longer under the mandate of the ethnic-ecclesiology of Israel to pursue the works of the covenant (of circumcision, for example, as excessively established by Galatians), but is under a new mandate—no longer “in Adam.” At the same time, God enacted his ultimate plan of bringing salvation to the world of Jew and Gentile both—that is, the forgiveness of sins (i.e. “in Christ”). One of the main points of New Perspective on Paul is just that: that there is a distinction between the forgiveness of sins and the mandate of the Jewish law. Wright’s writings are rife with this perspective.
And this is just one facet of the discussion, as seen from multiple vantage points across the landscape of Wright theology. Needless to say, if you want to have an eagle-eye view on New Perspective theology, this collection will not disappoint.
Brandon Rappuhn is a product specialist and strategist at Logos Bible Software. An amateur theologian (in the truest sense of the word), his favorite authors are N.T. Wright, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and Pope Benedict XVI. Brandon is a voracious reader and an avid baseball fan.
 Together with Surprised by Hope, these volumes provide a practical, down-to-earth application to the meaning of the discussion of the New Perspective on Paul, though the New Testament for Everyone series is the more exegetical and analytical of the two and less explicitly NPP.
 Matthew 5:17