The Peril of Modernizing Paul

In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

 

Stephen Westerholm is a helpful voice for those of us opposed to the New Perspective(s) on Paul – perspectives which have been around for forty years or so.  In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul and also gives a biblical defense of the historic or classical perspective.  Since it is only 100 pages, this is a great book for those who want an introduction to this discussion; it is also good for readers who want to review the errors of the New Perspective(s) and be refreshed with a fine defense of the traditional view.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

“The problem comes …with what Stendahl [an early advocate of what is now called the NPP] denies; and, ironically, it was precisely by modernizing Paul that Stendahl made welcome his suggestion that others, not he, had modernized Paul.  Our secularized age has undoubtedly thrust earlier concerns about human relationships with God into the background – if not rendered them completely unintelligible.  Conversely, in our multicultural societies, acceptance of people from ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than our own is more crucial than ever to community peace.  Both negatively and positively, then, Stendahl posits a Paul attuned to modern agendas.”

At the end of the chapter, after discussing the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, Westerholm concludes:

“How can sinners find a gracious God?  The question is hardly peculiar to the modern West; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went.  But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation.  In substance though not in terminology in Thessalonians, in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians, thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), chapter 1.

Rev. Shane Lems is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his bog and is used with permission.