A Reformed Perspective on the New Perspective

A Review Essay of Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspective: A Review and Response (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004).
Nicholas Perrin

A story is told of an American tourist, who just having returned from his first trip to Europe, gathers his friends together to tell them of his travels. “Upon my word,” the man began excitedly, “sometimes it was difficult to deal with the Europeans. When I sat down for soup in Paris, they called for une cuiller. When I did the same in Berlin, they gave me ein Loeffel. And the whole time all I wanted was a spoon, which is of course what it is.” In some ways, entering into the conversation of contemporary New Testament studies, and within this field the sub-specialty of Pauline studies, is like going abroad. One cannot get very far without soon finding that the vast array of theological judgments and ways of speaking about Paul are rooted in and informed by an equally broad and diverse spectrum of assumptions, faith-commitments and worldviews.

This reality poses two sorts of challenges for the critically-responsible exegete of Paul. In the first place, the Pauline student must be willing to learn how different scholars use different terms in different ways. The student must, in other words, get at least as far as the tourist who in recounting his travels remembered the French and German equivalents for the English word “spoon.” But there is a second requirement in faithfully interacting with the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature, one that is just as important as the first: the ability to understand others on their own terms. The annoyed American tourist wants to correct the German and French waiters, because they failed to use familiar language. He strikes us a naive not only because he in effect collapses the distinction between the sign (“a spoon”) and that which the sign signifies (an implement used in eating soup), but also because he believes that his linguistic system is the one to which all other systems are relative.

In reading Guy Prentiss Waters’s Justification and the New Perspective: A Review and Response, I find on analogy that the author has both succeeded where our tourist has succeeded and failed where he has failed. He has in general terms accurately represented many of the essential points of the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP), just as the tourist correctly rehearsed the individual French and German words, but the work is ultimately unsatisfying in that the author fails to assess the NPP according to its own objectives and context, before addressing how certain of its implications impinge on his own concerns. Put otherwise again, insofar the objectives of Justification and the New Perspective are to offer a “Review and Response” (as the subtitle implies), Waters fulfills his obligation on the former, but neglects to do justice to the latter. The remainder of the essay will correspondingly deal with these two objectives…

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