Who’s Really Influenced by Their Cultural Situation?

A Deep Irony in the New Perspective on Paul

In sum, Matlock is arguing that NPP has (possibly) reinterpreted Paul in such a way that he seems to reflect the concerns of our modern cultural moment. Put bluntly, Paul, according to NPP advocates, sounds like a liberal protestant.  He downplays personal sin and guilt, emphasizes social action, and does it all with a dab of grace.


Ever since Krister Stendahl’s seminal essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” one of the foundational arguments for the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) has been that the traditional protestant/reformed view of justification is largely due to the cultural influence of “the West” and its emphasis on individualism and subjectivism.

Paul is not really concerned with individual sin, guilt and forgiveness (we are told).  Reformed folks are simply reading that issue into the text due to their cultural situation.

Indeed, this is precisely what Stendahl says about Luther himself.  The Reformed view of justification is largely due, argues Stendahl, to Luther’s individual struggle with is own conscience:

In Protestant Christianity–which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and the piety of the Middle Ages–the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther’s struggle with his conscience (Stendahl, 79).

In place of the reformed view of justification, NPP advocates have suggested that Paul is really working on a more corporate/community level.  Paul’s struggle is not over how a sinner stands before a holy God, but his struggle is how to unify Jew and Gentile into one community.  Thus justification, it is argued, is really about overcoming ethnocentrism and nationalism.

So convinced are the NPP advocates of their correction of reformed/protestant readings of Paul that they use the entire issue as a lesson of how hermeneutics can be affected by cultural contexts.  And apparently NPP folks are the ones that finally see Paul clearly without being clouded by their cultural situation:

Luther read Paul and the situation confronting Paul through the grid of his own experience…Now, however, in the light of Sanders’ contribution the scales have fallen from many eyes (James, Dunn, Partings of the Ways, 14).

But is this really the case?  Is it true that NPP folks have somehow been able to do what reformed folks have not, namely throw off the shackles of cultural influence and see the realPaul?  Are they able to rise above their cultural circumstances and engage only in objective exegesis (whatever that might be)?

In a fascinating (and oft-overlooked) article, R. Barry Matlock answers these questions in the negative.  His article, “Almost Cultural Studies? Reflections on the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul” (inBiblical Studies/Cultural Studies, ed. J. Cheryl Exum and Stephen D. Moore, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, 433-459) argues that the NPP is actually a product of its own cultural moment.

In other words, according to Matlock, there is a deep and biting irony in the NPP.  While chiding reformed folks for being culturally bound, the NPP folks themselves seem influenced by their own cultural and theological climate.

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