Archive for April, 2012

Were James and Paul united?


I was recently reading a section of James Dunns book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and I came across a comment that I disagreed with in regards to Paul’s relationship to the Jewish church headed by James inJerusalem. Here is what I thought:

Dunn explains the depth of the division between the Gentile and Jewish Christians in the first century by comparing the Jewish Christian’s faithfulness to the law with the Gentile Christians non-observance of it and also by the Jewish Christian’s denigration of Paul and exultation of James.[1] This division is evident in the New Testament, and it was enough of an issue that the church leaders met on several occasions to discuss a way forward. Firstly, they met at the council of Jerusalem[2], and when Paul travelled to Jerusalem before being arrested by the state he met with James[3], and lastly, Paul mentions other meetings, or possibly recounts the meetings previously mentioned, in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1. On all of these occasions the Bible presents us with James and Paul in unity with one another, because it was evident that God was working through the Holy Spirit and Paul’s ministry, and therefore James and the elders at Jerusalem were happy to accept him.[4] However, Dunn questions whether this amicability ran down to the grass-root believers in the Jewish camp. He emphasises the fact that there were no Christians that came to Paul’s aid when he was arrested in Jerusalem[5] (Acts 21) coupled with the fact that James had previously warned him that there were rumours in the Jerusalem church that Paul taught Gentile Christians to ‘forsake Moses’[6]

Where were the Jerusalem Christians? It looks very much as though they had washed their hands of Paul, left him to stew in his own juice. If so it implies a fundamental antipathy on the part of the Jewish Christians to Paul himself and to what he stood for[7] 

Dunn never suggests that there wasn’t an understanding between Paul and James themselves, but he does very much question whether there were not groups in the Jerusalem church that were hostile to Paul. He even suggests that the disagreement between Paul and Peter recorded in Galatians 2: 11-14, which we read about from Paul’s perspective, and for which we are not given a narrative resolution, was in fact an event where the church at Antiochsided with Peter against Paul. Therefore Dunn writes: This episode would thus mark the end of Paul’s specific association with Antioch and his emergence as a fully independent missionary.[8] If this were the case, we would expect there to be a difference in theology between the Gentile and Jewish believers, because this would effectively mark a point in canonical scripture where the two camps disagreed, and potentially didn’t come to a resolution, which is shocking.             

            If this is historically correct, then it would not seem unlikely that Paul and James’ understanding of justification differ (Romans 4, James 2), because Paul worked primarily with the Gentiles, and James with the Jews. However, there is evidence from the New Testament that James, Paul and Peter did agree, and discussed this very matter, at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. The question that then remains is whether or not the Jerusalem Council took place before or after Peter and Paul’s disagreement in Galatia. If the dissagreement took place before Acts 15 then it is possible that the disagreement was not resolved, as Dunn uses the later meeting between Paul and James in Acts 21 as almost superficial, and certainly does not refer to it as a resolution. If the Jerusalem Council took place after the stand-off at Galatia, then Acts 15 proves that there was an understanding between the apostles,[9] and even suggests that the incident atGalatia was, in fact, resolved amicably.

However, I would argue that there is good evidence that the book of Galatians was written before the Jerusalem Council. Although the dating of Galatians is closely linked with whether Paul was writing to the Ethnic Galatia or the Roman Provincial Galatia, the main reason for believing that Galatians was written before the Council is because the Council is never mentioned in the letter to the Galatians. The whole of Galatians is an argument as to why the Gentiles do not need to perform ‘works of the law’, or need to be circumcised. Seeing as these were precisely what was discussed at the Jerusalem Council, it is shocking that it was not mentioned if it indeed had taken place before the letter was written. The fact that it isn’t mentioned points to the better explanation: at the time of writing, it hadn’t yet happened.[10] Therefore, I can assume that there was theological agreement between the apostles, and can also agree to disagree with Dunn that the Galatian episode would thus mark the end of Paul’s specific association with Antioch and his emergence as a fully independent missionary. Having said this, on many other points I agreed with Dunn, but on this specific issue I had to get my thoughts on to paper and ague my point!

[1] Dunn, p.282

[2] Acts 15

[3] Act 21

[4] Acts 15:8, Acts 21:19-20

[5] Dunn, p. 277

[6] Acts 21:21

[7] Dunn, p. 277

[8] Ibid. p. 274

[9] Gidley, James, James and Justification by Faith. 2011. James and Justification by Faith. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 November 2011].

[10] ESV Study Bible, P. 2241



Christians – ever wondered if Muslims organise their ‘evangelism’?

I have certainly wondered. in fact, I had been so interested in this topic I wanted to study it for a postgraduate course. I thought  anyone interested in this question too might be interested in my Research Proposal:

Research Proposal: The intellectual religious history of Christian and Muslim apologetics in Britain in the last Century.

Ruth Preston

I present here a preliminary review of my ideas. They are the broad brush stokes from which I later hope to focus on a few key thinkers and issues. My ideas must, after more research and study, be reduced, redefined, and perhaps changed in ways that I cannot as of yet foresee. However, with this in mind, the starting point of a research project should enable the researcher to progress to the point where he/she is able to make necessary adjustments, and adapt to the availability and content of his/her sources. Therefore, presented here is the groundwork from which I hope to develop a more specialised research topic.

When approaching this topic, one has to consider the definition of the terms involved. Firstly, by inserting ‘apologetics’ into the title I have already adopted a Christianised perspective, as ‘apologetics’ is word generally used within the Church to describe a discipline devoted to defending or vindicating the faith. In Greek apologetikos is the word from which apologetics originates, and can be translated as ‘defensible’[1]. Alternatively, Apologia means ‘speech of defence’[2]. The role of apologetics has long been understood in the Christian church, Justin Martyr being a famous Early Church figure who crafted his Apology in defence of Christianity for the emperor Antoninus Pius in 151 A.D[3]. Therefore, apologetics is the means by which one builds a defence against objections to the Christian faith.

Although Muslims must also defend their faith by necessity, as Christians do, ‘apologetics’ as a category does not exist in quite the same form. ‘Da’wah’ is the concept in Islam that might be considered to parallel ‘apologetics’ in Christianity. Da’wah can be translated as ‘invitation’ or ‘summons’. Thus, da’wah is an invitation to submit to A’llah[4]. Defending Islamic faith certainly comes into this, but it could be argued that da’wah has a broader remit. Although the literal meaning of the word is ‘invite’, the shari’a meaning is closer to ‘propagation’. Therefore, da’wah is involved in the entire process of proclaiming, developing and spreading an Islamic worldview. Apologetics within the Christian tradition is generally understood to be justifying one’s faith in respectful argument, and therefore is just one facet of evangelism. Thus, da’wah could possibly be more correctly paralleled with the concept of evangelism.

Although da’wah and apologetics differ in definition, they are not categorically different. I would like to work with both concepts, respective to each religion, and hope to concentrate on the reasoned defence given by both faiths. This discipline is named ‘apologetics’ in the Christian tradition, and which is a part of, although not the entire scope of, da’wah. For this reason I have used the word ‘apologetics’ in the title of this proposal, rather than ‘da’wah’.

Approaches to apologetics and daw’ah can be vastly different when considering the audience to which they are issued. I would like to focus on Britain in the last century, as Britain has changed from being nominally Christian to largely secular. Comparing Christian-Muslim dialogue, within the context of British intellectual sea change, will create an interesting juxtaposition of both faiths that I hope will provide innovative perspectives on the evolution of apologetics.

I would like to study those that are da’at Al-A’llah (inviters to A’llah), who have either lived in Britain or are english-speakers who have had an influence on da’wah in Britain through their contribution to Islamic thought. I am particularly interested in looking at David Benjamin Keldani, an early 20th century convert from Roman Catholicism, who proceeded to proclaim Tawhid though his writing in works such as Muhammed In World Scriptures. Equally, William H. Quilliam contributed significantly to Islamic thought in the late 19th early 20th century, and would have greatly influenced the public image of Islam in Britain at the outset of the 20th century. He was a founder of the Liverpool Mosque and Institute (LMI) of 1891. The LMI presented its views in two publications The Crescent and The Islamic World. The Crescent was an eight-page publication that dealt primarily with Muslims in Britain, which was issued weekly. The Islamic World was issued monthly and it focused on worldwide Islam, though the articles were often on various topics[5].

Likewise, men such as Khwaja Kamaluddin, Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Syed Ameer Ali, who initiated the creation of the Woking Mosque founded in 1912, could be analysed through their journal the Islamic Review. Interestingly, their approach to defending their faith was to accommodate the predominantly Christian culture by highlighting theological similarities[6], an approach that has not always been adopted in recent times. Similarly, Sheikh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi’s arrival in Britain in 1936 caused the establishment of the Zaouia Islamia Allawouia Religious Society of the United Kingdom, which I may also consider in my study.

In the second half of the 20th century one of the da’at al-A’llah whom I would like to study is Isma’il al Faruqi who wrote Christian Ethics (1968). and Trialogue of the Abrahamis Faiths (1982). He also gave a lecture on da’wah to the 1976 to the World Council of Churches[7]. Also, Khalid Yasin who operates a da’wah organisation in Manchester has contributed considerably to this discipline, and the study of his works will certainly aid my research. Ahmed Deedat has had an enormous influence on recent proclamations of Islamic faith. One particular debate can be highlighted: in 1981 in South Africa he debated with Josh McDowell a well known Christian writer and speaker. Such events as these would have had a lasting effect on the communities of Britain. Other contemporary thinkers could include: Yusuf Estes, Shabir Ally, Jamal Badawi, Zakir Naik, Zais Shakir, Hamza Yusuf and Ehteshaam Gulam.

I could also consider Islamic theological works that have been translated into English within the 20th century, and analyse the effect these texts had upon Muslim, Christian and secular audiences. An essential example would be Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s Kitab Al-Tawhid.    

Similarly, some of the figures within Christianity that I would like to study, progressing from earliest to latest, would be Karl Gottlieb Pfander, Louis Masignon, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and C S Lewis. More recently, Cornelius Van Til, Kenneth Cracknell, Jay Smith, Patrick Sookhdeo, William Lain Craig, John Hick, Colin Chapman, Nick Chatrath, Mary Sharp and Josh McDowell. Although not all of these men and women were or are British, they are likely to have had an affect on the content and methodology of apologetics in Britain.

Again, I would like to focus on the contemporary, but men such as Karl Pfander who lived in the 19th Century hold a fascination because of the legacy and lasting effects of their works. Pfander was born in Germany, and was educated at an evangelical institute in Switzerland. He trained in Arabic and the Qur’an, which equipped him for missionary travel and interfaith encounters. He wrote a book titled Mizan ul Haqq (The Balance of Truth), his chief legacy, which was designed to resemble Muslim theological works so that they might be more accessable for an Islamic audience. It would be an important preliminary study to trace the effect the English translation of this book (1866 – 1867, Revised. 1910) had on British Muslim and Christian apologetics.

Towering apologists in recent Christian history would have to include C S Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. These men did not specifically provide an apologetic for Muslims, but rather to an increasingly secular Britain (or America). Yet, their influence in Christian intellectual circles was remarkable, and therefore an analysis of their perspective on apologetics may highlight certain methods employed by later Christians who sought to present Christianity to a Muslim audience. There is much more contemporary apologetic literature written by Christians for Muslims in the late 20th Century, due to various factors. These include migration, politics and changes in attitudes towards apologetics as a discipline.

I hope to analyse both Christian and Muslim apologetics in terms of their intellectual development. Therefore although I wish to record the landmarks of the last century, while focussing on the contemporary, I also wish to evaluate the context of different styles of apologetics. For example, it would be necessary to understand the influence of Deistic philosophy, Unitarianism and the psychological effects of the First and Second World War to understand how effective Quilliam’s articles were in the early 20th century.

Similarly, moving on to consider the contemporary world, apologetics in Christian circles have been employed more and more frequently in recent times. This is true not only because of the increasing secularisation of society, but also because of the effect of multiculturalism. Christians have been forced to think about why they believe in Christianity as opposed to any other religion. Indeed there is an emerging phenomenon arising, that as a result of multiculturalism and increasing access to different worldviews afforded by the Internet, all theology should be considered a part of a greater and unified theosophy. In other words, all contradictory theological beliefs are considered part of a complex but whole metaphysics. This common belief has various forms and shapes, but has had a great effect on Christian and Muslim apologetics. A leading figure in this type of approach would be John Hick. I would like to examine the affect pluralistic thinking has had on apologetics in both Christian and Muslim camps in the second half of the 20th century. This course of investigation could involve a study of ‘postmodernism’. Apologists emerging from both modernist and traditional institutions could be compared by context, influence and content. ‘Emergent Church’ apologetics could be paralleled with liberal Islamic scholars such as Farid Esack in their approach to defending their faith to a postmodern audience. Likewise, apologists trained by the traditional schools, such as Ravi Zacharius and Khalid Yasin could be analysed together to provide a comparison between the liberal and the conservative.

Consideration should also be given to the recent political/philosophical ideas termed ‘religion and the public square’. This belief system has had an effect on public opinions of shari’a law, and likewise, has prevented any Christian appeals to religious justification of their public policies. Political issues such as these have had a great effect on the public perception of religion, and thus apologetics and daw’ah have developed to accommodate and counteract the prevalent views in society. Consequently, I hope to study the not only content, but also the context and methodology of apologetics in Britain.

Considering my research material, I am expecting to devote most of my time to textual analysis. Because I aim to focus on the intellectual history of apologetics in Britain in the last century, I believe that I will be able to find much of the material in books that were published in that period. I have supplied a preliminary list of books below.

In addition to the books that have been published in the last century, I hope to have access to newspaper and magazine publications such as The Crescent, Islamic Review and The Islamic World from the first half of the 20th century, and more recently Islamic Voice. Journals such as Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations would also be an invaluable study.

In conclusion, I hope to be able to study this topic not only because of my own fascination with it, but also because of the crucial need for genuine interfaith dialogue in the present age. One way this can be achieved is through an understanding of previous interfaith dialogue, so that we can learn and build upon the work of great thinkers that have gone before us.

Bibliography/Source material

Isma’il al Faruqi, Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths, (Amana publications, 1982)

Goddard, Hugh. A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, (Edinburgh University Press, 2000)

Ansari, Humayun. The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800, (Hurst, London, 2004)

Matthews, Daud. Presenting Islam in the West, UK Islamic Academy

Seyyed Hossein Nasr Traditional Islam in the Modern World, (Kegan Paul, 1987)

Patrick Sookhdeo Islam: The Challenge to the Church, (Isaac Publishing, 2006)  

Gilchrist, John., The True faith of Abraham, (, Sharing the Gospel with Muslims, (Life Challenge Africa, 2003,

Carl Gottlieb Pfander The Balance of Truth, (Revised 1910)

Dye, Eric R., The Apologetic Methods of Isma’il R al Faruqi and Cornelius Van Til, Dissertation, (School of Oriental and African Studies, September 2000).

Allamah Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di’s explaination of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s Kitab Al-Tawhid.

Raza, Mohammad S., Islam in Britain: Past Present and Future, (Volcano, 1991)

Deedat, Ahmed., The Choice: Islam and Christianity Volume 1, (1993)

Chapman, Colin., Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam, (Inter Varsity, 1995)

Geisler, Norman. & Saleeb Abdul. Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross, (Baker Books, 1993)

Esack, Farid., The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, (Oneworld, Oxford, 2005)

Khalidi, Tarif., The Muslim Jesus, (Harvard University Press, 2001)

Maqsood, Ruqaiyyah Waris., The Mysteries of Jesus, (Sakina, Oxford, 2000)

Jukko, Risto., Trinity in Unity in Christain-Muslim relations: The Work of Pontifical Council for interreligious Dialogue   

Siddiqui, Ataullah., Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Twentieth Century, (Antony Rowe, 1997)

Keldani, D. B., Muhammed in World Scriptures (1928)


Newspapers and Journals

Islamic World

The Crescent

Islamic Review

I.D.C.I (Islamic Dawah Centre International)

Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations


[2]  Boa, Kenneth. ‘What is Apologetics?’, The Apologetics Study Bible, Holman Bible Publishers, p.xxv 

[3]  Chadwich, Henry. The Early Church, Penguin Books, p.75

[4]  Matthews, Daud. Presenting Islam in the West, UK Islamic Academy, p.7

[5] Ansari, Humayun. The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800, (Hurst, London, 2004), p. 123

[6] Ibid. p. 129

[7] Goddard, Hugh. A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p.161


Brighton Marathon


I’m so glad to be part of a church that wants to help the local community, and does so. The Brighton Marathon is a great community effort, and generates a lot of money for charity. What a great thing to support! So, as a church hundreds of us got up, some as early as 530, and served as support team for as long as 8 hours – for free. Well done to all involved!

Here are some photos from the event:


My brothers at the 22 mile point


My brothers at the 22 mile point







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RE: What is the ‘new perspective on Paul’?

I received a very interesting response on facebook to my post on the New Perspective on Paul:

I thought I would record it here:

Please note, this is copied from facebook, so has not been proof read.

Anon: Just regarding what you say about Romans 3 – ‘He argues that the definition of justification/righteousness is God’s ‘covenantal faithfulness’ declaring one righteous on the basis of works empowered by the Holy Spirit.’ I dont think thats his interpretation of Romans 3 God isnt declaring us righteous on the basis of works.. Gods covenant faithfulness are his actions in faithfulness towards Israel (in this case by bringing the Messiah), so if we read that into much of chapter 3 ‘saving faithfulness’ of God .. and instead of faith ‘in’ Jesus’ its rendered the faithfulness of Jesus.. and then verse 28 we maintain a man is declared a member of Gods covenant people (im translating connotation of the word here rather than literal Greek).. we are justified by the faithfulness of the Messiah to Gods saving plan through his covenant to Israel (which benefits Gentiles also)..

i think the problem i have with shall we say ‘reformed’ views like Pipers (a man who i have great admiration for) is that it very much treats the Bible as a kind of theological abstraction (maybe like the Islamic Koran, the Platonic Word which comes from heaven above).. Paul hardly mentions justification by faith outside of Romans & Galatians, which to me says alot.. the situations in both cities were to do with Jew-Gentile relations.. in this case Romans the whole concept of righteousness and justification is framed within the narrative of Israel, which is essentially also Gods dealing with humanity.. the kind of traditional ultra-individualistic ‘justification’ and moral abstract view of righteousness just bypasses this – in some respects its a kind of gnostic reading because the story of Israel becomes almost irrelevant and I find it hard to see what the point of it is.. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and through Gods faithfulness to His covenant with Israel the blessings for the entire world promised to Abraham have come – blessings for the Gentiles.. this also ties in with what Romans 9-11 is about.. many traditional interpretations have struggled to see what those chapters are about, i think it was c.h. dodd who said it was just some ‘old sermon’ paul chucked ontop of the important bit of Romans 1-8.. actually i think if the letter is read in this way 9-11 is actually the logical climax of the entire letter because the letter isnt a kind of abstract theological treatise on how we indiviually ‘get saved’, but its about Gods covenant with Israel, essentially and the kind of ‘historical gnosticism’ protestant read the Bible through is sidestepped.. Paul is a Jew and recognized that Israels Messiah had come, Jews in the first century were living out a narrative with massive symbols at the heart of it – temple, torah, sabbath etc. Paul is reworking many of these themes in light of Jesus – I just find it hard to believe he suddenly has an encounter with the Risen Lord and ignores the story of Israel and starts espousing this highly individualistic path of salvation – to me thats imposing foreign thought-forms on a first century Jew (which may have occurred, perhaps he became the first western individual in history).. that would be my other problem with the sort of reformed reaction to this – alot of the first century data is just ignored or brushed off as irrelevant.. but how far do we take this kind of docetic reading of the text – is it honestly some kind of timeless work of metaphysical abstraction or is it a historical letter written to a historical context for a particular purpose? obviously there is tension here because you want to affirm its the Word of God on one hand, but to totally deny its historical nature on the other seems irresponsible..

when Wright says I didnt write Romans Paul did, hes in essence saying what would the historical Paul have written, not when individualistic, guilt ridden twenty-first century westerns think he wrote: if we look at second temple Judaism what were the concepts of righteousness, covenant faithfulness, justification etc. that were being bandied about.. Dunn uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to come up with his idea of ‘works of the Law’ being a technical term for sabbath, kashrut and circumcision, which are boundary markers for the covenant people – which makes so much sense historically because of the Maccabbean crisis in the inter-testimonal period.. since then Jews were obsessed with demarcating themselves from the pagans and building fences around the Torah and it lead to the boastful attitude Paul speaks of.. anyway sorry rambling on abit here – the point being I dont find alot of interaction of this level with people who try and counter the NP its more along the lines of this kind of individualistic-hermeneutic and treating the text in such a manner

to me it seems as if its always being framed as some kind of question of works-righteousness, which seems to be some kind of protestant obsession.. but that doesnt bother me, if first century Jews werent concerned with it then we need to stop trying to frame everything in those terms.. i think all wright is saying is that we become members of Gods covenant by grace and we stay in it by living lives of faithfulness (not ‘faith’ as in some kind of one-time decision) to the covenant..

anyway yeah sorry please feel free to give me your thoughts on that

i would also say youve missed out the apocalyptic or echatological aspect of ‘righteousness’ in wright – in essence hes saying that the declaration of righteousness (ie a member of the covenant people of God) has been transposed from the end-time into the midst of history (abit of inaugurated eschatology).. this is perhaps to do with romans 1-2 where Paul is talking about the sinfulness of the Gentiles – a common second-temple trope of Jewish literature, the evil of the pagans who God will judge at the eschaton and vindicate Israel.. Paul’s essentially then turning it round onto Jews and saying youre no more faithful to Gods covenant, leading into chapter 3 where he speaks of being made a member of that people via the faithfulness of Israels Messiah to Gods covenant faithfulness/saving actions.. again this would line up with the anti-individualistic theme – the point isnt about individual souls being saved (ala trad. protestant reading) its about Gods covenant people being vindicated on the last day, a declaration which has now been brought forward into the present.. to me this seems more natural for the first century because they didnt have the kind of ‘individualistic’ categories we do and it seems to fit in, again, with the story of Israel coming to its climax (as Wright would say, though i’d perhaps phrase it differently)..

i would also say regarding Pipers criticism of the concept of righteousness as Gods covenant-faithfulness: from what i got Piper was saying that yes that is true – Gods saving-deeds are an aspect of Gods righteousness and are an outworking of Gods righteousness but it cant be identical with Gods righteousness per se because there must be something about Gods nature that leads him to act in such a saving manner.. in this case Gods saving acts are caused by Gods nature as righteous ie his perfect/moral nature, his deeds flow from that.. i see what hes getting at and, yes, God must have a ‘nature’ which includes moral/perfection (though Im not quite sure why that would lead to saving acts?).. no doubt.. but the point here would be did first century Jews think in such abstract terms? i would strongly argue otherwise – Jewish thinking was highly concrete, it wasnt abstract greek metaphysical speculation about the nature of the divine essence or something.. it was about what God did which, again, is why righteousness and salvation are so often parallel words in the Old Testament (Psalms etc.) and inter-testimonal literature – it is what God does, not who He is essentially.. if we have a hard time thinking that way then its our issue because we’ve inhereted very abstract ways of thought especially as regards about issues like this but, again, it doesnt mean a first century Jew would have thought primarily in these categories – so Pipers criticism, again, doesnt deal with the historical context.. and to tie in with us being righteous – once again, perhaps its not an issue of our moral ‘natures’ in the abstract – its also a concrete definition, its the life we live in faithfulness to the covenant (empowered by the Holy Spirit), as Gods righteousness is what He does in faithfulness to the covenant..

there were Hellenistic Jews such as Philo who were trying to merge Greek philosophy with Judaism but works like that have a very certain abstract character which I would argue is totally missing from Paul (as would be evidenced by the lack of scholars reading Paul in such a fashion)

sorry the point here being simply that i think alot of wright’s critics (or NP critics) often seem to be missing the bigger picture hes painting and it seems to get bogged down in this individualistic works-righteousness thing, whether or not wright is teaching it etc. but this to me comes across like protestant hang ups being brought back to the text i.e. paul could never have been saying that because we know that luther found out otherwise.. but the question to me would be was any of this pelagian-heresy stuff such an issue for first-century Jews or Gentiles wishing to join the covenant people? (btw just for the record im not sure i go along with NP all the way or not, but im fairly convinced about several issues – one is Sanders’ thesis of covenental nomism which to me straight away alleviates all this works-righteousness worry and the re-emphasis on Israel and the Jewish people, which rewrites alot of the de-historization of Paul’s thought)

just to make one final point: when you quote Westerholm: ‘in brief “God’s righteousness” need not mean his “covenant faithfulness”; given Paul’s inattention to matters covenantal, it is unlikely that it would do so; and nothing from the contexts in which he uses the term requires such a sense.’

id have to massively disagree with that because covenant is all over his thought – again look at 9-11 as the climax of the letter, what is it doing there, why mention it if Israel isnt central to his thought? you cant see covenant in his epistles because the terms hes using are covenental (like righteousness) but youre so used to reading it in abstract moral terms that it doesnt seem that obvious.. i think thats part of the problem – the way youve described the NP seems very systematized, as in this bit of doctrine plus that bit of doctrine – but dont view it like that, view it as a narrative through the story of Gods covenant with Israel then it has a much more organic feel.. i think if you read the first chapter or so of Romans straight away we’re into covenental territory because of the pagans being judged for their unrighteousness (ie their unallegience to the covenant with Israel).. i would say the whole letter is covenental.. also (a little tidbit) with Sanders you say he saw room for imputed righteousness – im not quite sure he did, his actual idea was Christ Mysticism – we become ‘one’ with Christ in some mysterious way, i think thats somewhat different from the kind of moral imputation protestants believe in..

but going back to righteousness and covenant, i also think vanhoozer’s ‘compromise’ position also fails to do justice to this point.. i think framing it in any kind of law court maybe going down the wrong road – though i still think wright’s construction is better.. as i said above i think the problem is not recognizing a) covenantal but b) the eschatological and apocalyptic aspects of Pauls thought.. to that extent theres a new book (or 800+ page tome) thats come out in the past year or two by a scholar called douglas campbell called ‘the deliverance of God’ which is an apocalyptic reading of Paul.. i havent read it, just blurbs and reviews etc. but i think hes building on the NP and Wright etc. to say righteousness is an apocalyptic term (not just law-court forensic/legalistic etc.) and its covenental because its to do with Gods deliverance of his covenant people on the last day, and his judgement of the pagan nations (again read romans 1-2).. righteousness has to do with joining that covenant people (maybe some of that filial overtones of Vanhoozer?) as he states in Ephesians and Romans 9-11 (the wonderful grafted into the olive tree metaphor), who will be vindicated as His covenant people on that last day.. i think using such lawcourt terminology though perhaps helpful in many respects loses the actual eschatological nature of Paul’s use (and id say the first century use) of the term.. in essence, as i said above, Paul is reworking Jewish theology around Jesus the Jewish Messiah – in this case covenant as a key Jewish concept.. so when God finally and decisively acts on behalf of His covenant people to vindicate them on that last day (ie His righteousnes/saving acts) those who have faith in Messiah and are faithful to the covenant which has been redrawn around Him (as the King of Israel) will be vindicated – the pagans will not..

i think this is perhaps part of a larger problem within the church and its to do with how we think of God in universal, abstract, general terms on one hand (ie creator, absolute being, king of the universe etc.) – which is all true.. and how we think of him as particular, historical, revealed etc. (the God of Israel, the Messiah of Israel).. theres a tension because as westerners we tend to think in abstraction and universalization.. i think this is playing itself out in various debates in the church about the status of Israel and Jewish people today and Gods covenant with them (whole other topic which i dont want to go into now), but this tension is alive.. the point here is we tend towards such absolute and universal/general thought about God that it seems hard to reconcile that to His choice of and covenant with one nation, and we also seem to brush over the fact Jesus was a Jew and he is also King of Israel – we see him as the risen, universal Lord (which He is)..

im sure youve read it but right at the very top of what i first said.. when im using faithfulness instead of faith and ‘of’ instead of ‘is’ (so faithfulness of Messiah instead of faith in Christ) its playing on the ambiguity of the Greek (the objective/subjective genitive thing).. in one case its an act we do (faith in Christ, imputed righteousness), in the other case its what the Messiah has done in being faithful to Gods covenant plans (just in case youre wondering how i got that translation)

Me:I have written some points down in note form as I read through the above:

I Only had 1,750 words – so I couldn’t get everything in! So there is a lot of stuff that I wasn’t able to include in this essay. I wrote this essay for my course at London School of Theology.

There are many things that NPP really makes sense off: the fact the Jews did not have a work-righteousness attitude in the 1st century which I believe is true – and makes sense on so many levels. It makes clear the issues of Galatians, and aspects of Romans and James. It also massively helps me understand that Paul didn’t just write off the old covenant as now redundant because of the new: it helps me understand that Paul saw the old covenant as fulfilled in the new. These are a lot of things you have mentioned, and I wasn’t able to fit into my essay – because I was purposely trying to focus on the contentious points of the argument – to make for better dialogue within the essay. I understand that you say you would like more interaction with NPP on the other points that NPP seem to get right, rather than focusing on an ‘individualistic-hermeneutic’. I would also like to see more interaction on that level. However, as we are individuals, even if we were to start thinking of salvation as a corporate affair, I still think each person would be most interested in ‘how that is going affect me’ – i.e individualism. So I think, as our culture leans that way, we as a western culture will need answers to the individualist questions.

The comments about Wright’s comment ‘I didn’t write Romans, Paul did’, I said was ‘beside the point’ because it doesn’t help counter the tradition argument. By saying this Wright is just saying that Paul fits in with his interpretation and not Old Perspective (OPP), but that is what the debate is itself about, Wright brings no knew evidence to the table. OPP believe that their interpretation also fits with the historical Paul.

Your point about Dunn using the Dead Sea Scrolls to define ‘works of the law’, I have not problem with, and I do agree with you that it is very helpful for our exegesis.

‘Members of God’s covenant by Grace, and we stay in it by living lives of Faithfulness’ – so do you believe that one always gets in, or get back in (if one went astray for a while), by Gods grace, repenting and living a life of faithfulness to Christ. I.e. is it our faithfulness that keeps us in the covenant, or Gods?

Your ideas about inaugurated eschatology, and the faithfulness of the messiah fulfilling God’s covenant and vindicating God’s people, how is the traditional protestant divergent from this? This is something I have always believed, even before I read about NPP.

Your question about whether or not 1st century Jew or gentiles were as worried as we are about the Pelagian- heresy stuff? I don’t think so. BUT, perhaps the Gentiles might have been. Moral issues were certainly a problem inCorinth! Perhaps it may have been interesting to them – but of course it wasn’t around at that time!

Westerholm: I think what Westerholm was saying is that if you were to replace ‘God’s righteousness’ with ‘covenant faithfulness’, it might make sense to NPP scholars, but if that is what Paul meant, why didn’t he just say it? It was within his vocabulary. Plus, he might talk about covenant all the way through Romans, but no where is ‘works of the law’ explained, or ‘God’s righteousness’ explained as ‘Covenant faithfulness’. Seeing as Paul was writing to Gentiles and not Jews, it is strange that he does not explain this – as I’m guessing they would have been a clueless as we are.

However, when you ask me not to see NPP as a bit of doctrine, but as a narrative – I assure you I do – and the narrative is what I find very helpful – but it is finer points of doctrine that I have a few issues with – hence why they are discussed in the essay.

Perhaps you are right about Sanders not giving room to the protestant idea of imputed righteousness. I didn’t research Sandres as much as I did Wright and Dunn.

When you are talking about reading Paul in an apocalyptic way – I guess you mean that ‘righteous’ is defined by who is in the covenant people at the end of time? And reading Paul in this way is helpful? I’m sorry but I don’t think im picking up the nuance – how is that different from the idea of imputed righteousness? Because the covenant is designed and held by God, and as one in the covenant, you are declared righteous – and hence are in the covenant. I would love and explanation of this – because I do find it difficult to get my head around! J

As I said in my essay my poison at the moment is to agree with Andrew Wilson: ‘Andrew Wilson helpfully comments that the NPP has brought new insight to passages like Galatians 2: 11-21, but that other passages of scripture, such as Ephesians 2, are still more naturally interpreted in an ‘Old Perspective’ framework. (Wilson, ‘Learning to Discern’, Newfrontiers: Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].) Ephesians 2: 8-9 do seem to imply that Paul is talking about ‘good works’ (v.10) as opposed to ‘works of the law’. Therefore in this passage I believe in the OPP, but I do think that the NPP applies to Galatians, for example. So I’m in the happy half-way house.

Thank you so much for your comments! I enjoyed reading them!

Anon: In response to a few points: ‘Westerholm: I think what Westerholm was saying is that if you were to replace ‘God’s righteousness’ with ‘covenant faithfulness’, it might make sense to NPP scholars, but if that is what Paul meant, why didn’t he just say it? It was within his vocabulary. Plus, he might talk about covenant all the way through Romans, but no where is ‘works of the law’ explained, or ‘God’s righteousness’ explained as ‘Covenant faithfulness’. Seeing as Paul was writing to Gentiles and not Jews, it is strange that he does not explain this – as I’m guessing they would have been a clueless as we are.’ I cant see as he defines righteousness as abstract moral nature either – does that mean he didnt mean that? the argument from non-definition works both ways. The fact you’re suggesting he needs to spell it out probably isnt fair to the first-century context, to which ill refer you an article (but youll have to pick these points out as they arent essentially about this): essentially the first century was a ‘high context’ culture, as opposed to ours which is low context, essentially i think this means that words, phrases and concepts were said and written about without the need to go into great depth about their connotation – it was just assumed (and this follows from the group-oriented society where they lived out their concepts and categories). so if paul doesnt ‘spell out’ his connotation of righteousness it doesnt follow that he didnt mean it as covenant faithfulness (or abstract morality either). the point here would simply be we have to historically reconstruct the best definition or connotation of righteousness – and as far as i can see the NP have done the most work in this area and the argument for covenant faithfulness is a fairly strong one given its usage in other first century (and inter-testimonial) Jewish literature.. to argue otherwise youd have to make a case for righteousness, justification and related concepts referring to what protestants have traditionally held it to be in the first century (and before).. im not aware anyone has done this which is why the NP holds more water for me.. now Paul may have totally redefined righteousness from this first century usage – but then the argument can be turned back around: if hes totally using a new connotation of the word then why doesnt he spell it out in his letters? after all its a radically new usage and the likelihood is that many of the gentiles in Rome were previously Godfearing Gentiles who perhaps didnt go all the way to conversion, in which case they would have had a very good grasp of Jewish covenental concepts such as righteousness (which perhaps also explains why Paul doesn’t have to spell it out – they already knew).

‎’Your ideas about inaugurated eschatology, and the faithfulness of the messiah fulfilling God’s covenant and vindicating God’s people, how is the traditional protestant divergent from this? This is something I have always believed, even before I read about NPP. ‘ Do traditional protestants read the word ‘righteousness’ in this manner? i thought that was what the whole debate was about? are we talking about ‘righteousness’ here – if we are then no protestants havent read it in covenental terms. ‘When you are talking about reading Paul in an apocalyptic way – I guess you mean that ‘righteous’ is defined by who is in the covenant people at the end of time? And reading Paul in this way is helpful? I’m sorry but I don’t think im picking up the nuance – how is that different from the idea of imputed righteousness? ‘ you seriously cant see the difference between righteousness as a primarily moral category and righteousness as a covenental category? im not sure if i can explain the ‘nuance’ more than i have (ie read the Piper part again).. to me there isnt much of a nuance because we’re talking in totally different conceptual categories ie one is abstract, the other is concrete – it is about Actions not Being (and, again, there is the point Piper makes about actions flowing from being, but as i said in the post before whether or not that is true we’re talking about how first century Jews viewed the concept).. lets look at it from a totally different angle – Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 says that for us there is One God, the Father, and One Lord, Jesus. Hes explicitly stating the Shema (to a Gentile audience in Corinth – again high-context) but notice here he isnt making some abstract divulgence of the essential ontological nature of the Trinity, hes identifying Jesus within the Godhead of Israel’s Shema.. it isn’t so much about ‘what’ Jesus is, as ‘who’ He is – identity is more important than ontology if we can put it that way.. and why is Jesus identified in the Godhead of Israel – in the most crucial statement of monotheism in probably the entire Bible? Because of what He has done (as Paul spends most of his epistles expounding) – identity and action are what were important for Jews, not ontological categories of being or essence.. Gods actions in his covenant faithfulness to Israel are what righteousness connotes – not some kind of ‘nature’ that God possesses explained in fairly abstract terms – He is known as the God of Israel because of what He does for them, not because of something He is.. again if you cant understand actions without nature or being lurking in the background (as Piper cant) then id say once again thats only our hang up as western scientifically/ontologically concerned individuals – to us essence and nature is alot more important than action (which also perhaps ties into some of the criticism Wright gets as he doesnt think it means anything to talk about our natures changing in the concept of ‘imputed righteousness’ if we dont actually do anything in response – which is faithfulness, our faithfulness to the covenant, ’emunah’ in hebrew – when Paul says in Romans 1 gospel of God is from faith to faith thats the reason why it would be better translated faithfulness to faithfulness – or Messiah’s faithfulness to the covenant to our faithfulness to the covenant).. youre right about we’re western individuals and we have individualistic concerns, but the kind of existential dilemmas we experience are a fairly modern phenomena – people throughout history (and the majority of people alive in the non-western world today) have identified themselves first with the social group they belong to (which is why paul can say all cretans are liars and, to us, it sounds very sterotypical and inflammatory – to a first-century cretan they took pride in their deceitfulness as it was seen as a group trait).. we’ve totally reversed the process – we consider ourselves first individuals and, secondly, members of a social collective.. the strength of the NP is its massive picture of covenant and community – it allows us to transcend the notion of self which id argue the OP doesnt, because its inherently concerned with the salvation of an individual. another strength of the NP is that in Jewish thought creation and covenant were inextricably linked – so the vindication of Gods covenant people on the last day is also the essence of recreation – the covenant was meant to deal with the problem of sin and evil in the world.. once again this explains the flows of Romans – how we get from the early chapters of judgement on the pagans through to righteousness/justification (defined as membership in the covenant people) and through to new creationin romans 8 (where Jewish creation & covenant is again redefined through Messiah) and then onto the covenant people Israel in 9-11 – its covenant all the way.. but the issue of recreation tied in with the covenant more naturally allows for a grander picture of the entire cosmos being redeemed – without wishing to overstate my case the OP comes across as too concerned with my individual eschatology and salvation.. this is a grander picture.. and as for ephesians 2 – im not quite seeing how that best interpreted as OP? youre talking about the fellow heirs with israel bit? this fits alot better with the NP simply because by saying righteousness in being made part of the covenant it explains how paul can say we are now fellow heirs with Israel – we have joined the covenant God has made with them (again the olive tree metaphor in Romans 9).. cf. 2:15 – the Law was the barrier because of its barriers.. maybe youd like to explain how it fits the OP more? essentially it seems like what you (or andrew wilson) is suggesting is that Paul is using OP conceptual categories in the first half of chapter 2 but then switches over to covenental language in the second half. even so im not seeing that the OP explains verses 9-10 any better – works may well be the technical term for covenant boundary markers (and the boastful attitude first century Jews held against the pagans because of them) and im sure wright would be fairly happy with saying we do good works. i cant see this is that clear cut, it certainly isnt jumping out of the page and screaming OP at me – i would say if anything chapter 1 makes me think OP more (well it makes me feel like a Calvinist everytime i read it).

and works of the law also works for the high context explanation – youre basically assuming that righteousness and ‘works’ are more naturally connotative of morality and ‘works-righteousness’ – but id argue thats only because thats the context in which youve learned it.. words change meanings and connotations over time and this is certainly the case here.. why would gentiles in the first century have ‘naturally’ assumed righteousness was moral and not covenental? its not like the word ‘righteousness’ has some fixed eternal meaning which always connoted morality unless specifically stated otherwise by first century Jews (i.e. Paul).. and just to answer the top of the second reply post part again: ‘Your ideas about inaugurated eschatology, and the faithfulness of the messiah fulfilling God’s covenant and vindicating God’s people, how is the traditional protestant divergent from this? This is something I have always believed, even before I read about NPP. ‘ the answer is no – protestants dont read righteousness eschatologically or covenentally – they primarily read it morally.. if you believed it before you read the NP then im not sure how/where you go it from the word ‘righteous’? for me the way protestants have read, say Romans, is all about how God vindicates individuals – not his covenant people.. this is what i mean by the de-historicizing of the old testament narrative, its like theres this story of Israel, Jesus comes along and then we suddenly switch to a kind of a-historical ‘salvation’ to heaven by Gods righteousness – the historical narrative of Israel & the nations (and by that token the entire created order) is suddenly side-stepped and we’re into something else.. this is why i refer to it as a kind of historically ‘gnostic’ theology – if not ontologically gnostic.. we suddenly begin speaking in universal and abstract terms as opposed to Jesus the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel.. btw it was a good essay – i enjoyed reading it!

Me: Hi

Westerholm: ‘God’s righteousness’ vs ‘covenant faithfulness’; I wasn’t trying to argue that Paul does not mean covenant faithfulness, as your arguments, and Wright’s, are good in persuading me that he did mean covenant faithfulness, as A PART of his definition of righteousness. Certainly, Paul does indeed talk in covenantal language. I suppose what I am saying (I’m unsure if Westerholm holds this view) is that ‘Righteousness of God’ or ‘Righteousness’ I believe hold both definitions. I.e. ‘Righteousness’ = ‘In the covenant, and judged righteous, not on the basis of good works’ I think Romans spells this out most clearly in Ch 6. After Paul has argued for righteousness apart from works of the law, Ch 6 asks the obvious question: ‘are we to continue to sin so that grace may increase?’ and ‘are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ – Therefore highlighting the fact that Paul has been talking about ‘righteousness’ in moral categories. This is not to say that it is not also referring to a form of corporate covenantal salvation – but it does certainly mean ‘morality’ is a part of its definition. (I don’t know if I have expressed that very well! Hope it makes sense!!!)

I take your point about Paul not having to spell out what he meant by ‘righteousness’; because the recipients of the letter already knew – I think you may be right. BUT I do still question whether places like Corinth would have known? They seemed pretty unsure about a lot of things, especially when you think about the questions they must have asked Paul to receive 1 Corinthians as a response to their questions.

‘you seriously cant see the difference between righteousness as a primarily moral category and righteousness as a covenantal category?’

I can in abstract terms, sure. But I was asking this question in practical terms: How does this affect the practical and pastoral running of a church. Most people to whom I try to explain NPP seem to say ‘well that’s not much different’, to which I respond, ‘it is in terms of how you see Gods continuity between the Old and New covenants’, but practically, to most people, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious difference. However, I do think NPP would require one to believe in once saved not always saved, because once saved always saved is based on the idea of imputed righteousness. (I believe – this is just the result of my own thinking on the matter – I may be wrong). So what I was trying to ask here, was not what the academic or theological difference, but the practical difference it makes to individual salvation.

‘identity and action are what were important for Jews, not ontological categories of being or essence.. Gods actions in his covenant faithfulness to Israel are what righteousness connotes – not some kind of ‘nature’ that God possesses explained in fairly abstract terms – He is known as the God of Israel because of what He does for them, not because of something He is.. again if you cant understand actions without nature or being lurking in the background (as Piper cant) then id say once again thats only our hang up as western scientifically/ontologically concerned individuals’

I see what you are saying here, and again, I would say that action and being are linked, so I guess I am like Piper. But which of the NPP guy such as Dunn, Salnders and Wright say that one’s identity does not change when they become a Christian? (I see identity and being as synonymous) I guess OPP thinks Being is primary, whereas NPP would think Action is primary? But I don’t think OPP see righteousness as ONLY Being, and I don’t think NPP see righteousness as ONLY Action. Both believe in a mix of both, but use a different frameworks to place emphasis in different places. So I believe you are right in saying that identity and action was important to Jews. But because identity was important, so was ‘being’, being a Jew was important. Action was also important, as it still is for OPP, because works evidence faith . . . (James 2).

‘its covenant all the way.. but the issue of recreation tied in with the covenant more naturally allows for a grander picture of the entire cosmos being redeemed – without wishing to overstate my case the OP comes across as too concerned with my individual eschatology and salvation.. this is a grander picture..’

I agree, and I think that picture is valid. But I think individual concerns are important. Perhaps they were not as important in other generations, but I very much doubt they were not important at all?

‘maybe youd like to explain how it fits the OP more? essentially it seems like what you (or andrew wilson) is suggesting is that Paul is using OP conceptual categories in the first half of chapter 2 but then switches over to covenental language in the second half.’

I think Paul is talking in covenantal and moral categories – so its not that he jumps from one to the other in Eph 2, but that he is talking about different aspects of the same thing. I believe that the v 9-10 say clearly that it is by grace that one is saved, through faith (or faithfulness), and not a result of works. He then goes on to say that that good works are prepared for us. Therefore, it seems to me that he could be using NPP, but that the context of ‘good works’ used in v 10 seems to imply that ‘good works’ is what is being talked about in v 9. So vs 9-8 could read ‘You are saved by grace, through faithfulness, not as a result of good works’. Hence, it may be read in an NPP, but with an OPP twist. I.e it differentiates between our faithfulness, and our good works. Basically my issue with NPP is the place of good works, or moral actions. Do they become a BASIS of our salvation and a BASIS of our faithfulness to the covenant? Or are they EVIDENCE of our membership in the covenant? I’m happier with the fact that they are evidence, as v 10 says that he had prepared good works for us to do. But that they are not the basis, as it is by grace we are saved, through faithfulness. But faithfulness is distinct from ‘works’ or ‘good works’.

In short – perhaps OPP doesn’t jump out at me either, but OPP does seem to make sense of the passage as well as NPP . . . to me anyway

‘the answer is no – protestants dont read righteousness eschatologically or covenentally – they primarily read it morally.. if you believed it before you read the NP then im not sure how/where you go it from the word ‘righteous’?’

Well I did read it morally, but morality itself (or ‘righteousness’) would have an eschatological and covenantal effect. So I did see ‘righteousness as defining the covenant people of God, and what would happen at the end of time.

‘its like theres this story of Israel, Jesus comes along and then we suddenly switch to a kind of a-historical ‘salvation’ to heaven by Gods righteousness’

I totally agree – and that’s one reason why I agree that NPP is very helpful. I would agree with it here. The only think I am contesting is the role of morality in God’s Covenant people today. As Jesus has been sacrificed once for all time.

I’m please you liked my essay – I thought it was OK, I got 65% so not too good, not too bad . . . .

Anyway, I’m studying 40 from 1st year degree, 40 from 2nd year, and 40 from 3rd. I’m a ‘personal development’ student, which means I pay as I go for each course, and can do what I like!

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What is the ‘new perspective on Paul’?

1.         Introduction

The Reformation caused a revival within Christian theology. It is very well-known that Martin Luther found great relief from a guilty conscience in discovering that salvation was by grace alone, a gift of God not dependent on works of the law. By ‘works of the law’ Luther understood this to be works-righteousness, or in laymen’s terms: doing good acts. Therefore, he developed an understanding of first century Judaism, justification and church governance that was built upon these assumptions. Theology since Luther has used his understanding of these concepts as presuppositions for developing church doctrine. Generally speaking such theologians are today labelled ‘Reformed’ and would be thought to be ‘Old Perspective’. [1]

The New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP) claims that Luther had an incorrect understanding of first century Judaism, and related it too closely with the unreformed Catholicism of his day.[2] With a fresh understanding of first century Judaism one begins to understand Paul’s polemics with the Judaizers in Romans and Galatians (and other books) in a different light. By changing the definition of the foundational tenets of the Christian faith, the ramifications are vast, affecting many areas of theology, doctrine and church practice.

2.         Brief History of NPP

Initial murmurings of an NPP were published in 1963 in an article by Krister Stendahl that questioned the traditional understanding of Paul’s writings.[3] However, this article is not frequently cited as the beginning of NPP scholarship, but rather E. P. Sanders’ work: Paul and Palestinian Judaism published in 1977 is more widely recognised as the ground breaking piece of scholarship in this area. Sanders is the first member of what is known as the ‘big three’ in terms of NPP studies. In this book he argued for what he names ‘Covenantal Nomism’, which I will expand upon below. Later, in the 1980s, James Dunn joined the chorus of authors espousing a form of NPP, the second of the three. Lastly, N. T. Wright completes the trio, with the well known book entitled What Saint Paul Really Said published in 1997. NPP has, since the publication of Wright’s book, become increasingly well known. This is due to Wright’s ability to write on a popular level, which has also brought the debate into the ‘public square’.[4]        

3.         Areas of Debate

As I mentioned in the introduction the NPP has ramifications for all aspects of theology. As such, I have only highlighted below what I believe to be the main areas in which NPP has changed our interpretation of Paul’s writings.

3.1.            Covenantal Nomism

‘Covenantal Nomism’ is a phrase Sanders uses to describe first century Jewish understanding of the means of salvation. Sanders questioned Luther’s work-righteousness model, primarily by analysing first century extra-Biblical Jewish sources. He argues that Jewish understanding of the means of salvation was primarily by their faith in Covenant:

Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments.[5]

Jews, he states, therefore believe in salvation by grace; grace by which God chose them to be in the Covenant through Abraham, and in which each Jew needs to ensure he/she stays, by being righteous.[6] This is different to a system of legalism because through covenantal nomism the aim is to stay in the covenant, where legalism aims to get into the covenant.[7] As a result, salvation-history was thought to be nationally defined. Symbols of membership to the Jewish race were circumcision and adherence to the Jewish law, which have been called identity markers by James Dunn.[8] Wright also agrees with Sanders’ hypothesis, but believes that he has not followed his argument through to its logical conclusions in regard to the doctrine of justification, which we will come on to review below. [9]

However, John Piper questions the foundational tenets of Covenantal Nomism by highlighting the irony that NPP scholars ‘bring their assured interpretations of extra-biblical texts to illumine their less sure reading of biblical texts.’[10] Piper attacks Covenantal Nomism because it has such (negative) far reaching effects on the rest of theology – which we will move on to look at below.

3.2.            Justification

As stated above, the aim of this essay is not to analyse all the issues arising from the NPP, certainly not to analyse all of Paul’s writings. Therefore, I hope to look at two sections of Paul’s epistles, one from Galatians and one from Romans, in reference to the doctrine of Justification.

3.2.1.   Identity Markers: Galatians 2:12-21

Dunn believes Sanders made Paul make an ‘arbitrary jump’[11] from faith in the law to faith in Christ. Dunn fills in the gaps with an exposition of Galatians, and argues that Paul was not breaking with the law, but rather broadening the concept of covenant by focussing on the Abrahamic covenant, rather than the Mosaic covenant, because it was promised to Abraham that ‘through your offspring shall all nations be blessed.’[12]

A pivotal passage in NPP studies is Galatians 2: 11-21. Here Paul recalls a crisis in the church inAntioch. Peter and Barnabas had withdrawn from eating with the Gentile believers when a group of Christians ‘came from James’, presumably from the church inJerusalem. Paul opposed Peter publically: ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ He goes on to substantiate this remark by arguing that ‘we know’ that no-one can be saved by works of the law, but rather by faith in Christ. Dunn argues, due to the content of the wider letter, that what Paul is arguing against is a presumption that God will judge according to whether or not one observed the Sabbath, was circumcised and other laws including abstinence from unclean foods:

When Paul denied the possibility of ‘being justified by works of the law’ it is precisely this basic self understanding that Paul is attacking . . . the idea that God’s verdict of acquittal hangs to any extent on the individual’s having declared his membership of the covenant people by embracing these distinctively Jewish rites.[13]

Due to the context of Galatians 2: 11-21 I am inclined to agree with Dunn. Andrew Wilson helpfully comments that the NPP has brought new insight to passages like Galatians 2: 11-21, but that other passages of scripture, such as Ephesians 2, are still more naturally interpreted in an ‘Old Perspective’ framework.[14]

3.2.2        Works of the law: Romans 2:12-16

Paul argues that salvation is found by faith in Christ alone, not by works of the law. But Covenantal Nomism has changed our perception of what ‘works of the law’ are. This has a direct impact on our understanding of Justification. For if we are saved by faith as opposed to Jewish national/covenantal participation Paul may not be arguing that one cannot be saved by work-righteousness. No NPP scholar claims Paul is saying we are saved by works, but rather that the emphasis changes with our understanding of Covenantal Nomism, and therefore works might play a more prominent role than Luther and those since have believed.

Wright has successfully popularised the issue causing Piper to respond directly, due, he states, to his responsibilities as a pastor. [15] Wright argues that final justification is ‘on the basis of an entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is . . . on the basis of ‘works.’’[16] This has caused a torrent of accusations that Wright is proclaiming a salvation apart from faith in Christ. He responds:

When, by clear implication, I am charged with encouraging believers to put their trust in someone or something ‘other than the crucified and resurrected Saviour’, I want to plead guilty – to this extent and this extent only: that I also say, every time I repeat one of the great historic creeds, that I trust in the Holy Spirit.[17]

Piper, however, also says that he believes in the necessity of a transformed life by the power of the Holy Spirit, but argues that Wright’s phraseology is misleading. By claiming that Justification is on the basis of good works Wright implies that one can rely on good works as well as Christ’s sacrifice for one’s Justification. Piper writes that it is better ‘to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ.’[18]

Wright and Piper’s exegeses of Romans 2:12-16 are enlightening. Wright looks at the smaller details of chapter 2, while Piper takes an interpretation from the broader meaning of the passage, which is ironic since both theologians tend to work the other way around. Wright places a lot of weight on verse 13, claiming that he answers his critics saying ‘I did not write Romans 2; Paul did’[19], which, arguably, is quite beside the point. However, since verse 13 says; ‘the doer of the law will be justified’ Wright claims that Paul is laying out the first principles for Justification by works, in which those born by the Spirit will be seen to be justified by the works that they have performed in this life. Wright sees the ‘doers of the law’ as Christians at the final judgement. He argues that those who believe that Romans 2:12-16 is an ‘elaborate charade’, that is, hypothetical because chapter 3 tells us that no-one is a doer of the law, put forward a ‘desperate suggestion exegetically’[20]

On the contrary, Piper does not believe that hypothetical language in Romans 2 at all constitutes a ‘charade’, but rather provides foundational teaching for Romans 3. At the beginning of chapter 2 Paul claims that all will be held accountable to God. Romans 2: 12-16 deals with the question: how can the Jews and the Gentiles both be judged impartially if only the Jews had the Law? Paul’s answer across chapters 2 and 3 is to say that both Jews and Gentiles had a form of the law, and neither kept the law. Piper follows Tom Schreiner’s careful analysis of the arguments and points to verse 14 and comments that if indeed the passage is referring to Christian Gentiles; it would imply that believers are a ‘law to themselves’, which seems unlikely.[21]

Interestingly, the comparisons made by Paul between the Law and Gentile conscience in this passage imply that the ‘law’ is primarily a moral code. As such, when Paul says that no-one is saved through works of the law later in Romans, is he not also implying that no-one, especially Gentiles, is saved through moral works? NPP scholars state that ‘works of the law’ are primarily identity markers which include moral precepts. However, this passage implies that Paul is teaching that a Gentile is not saved by their works of the law; Gentiles cannot be saved by following their conscience, by doing good. This is clearly stated by Paul: ‘they are a law to themselves’. Therefore, Covenantal Nomism can only go so far, and cannot rule out the possibility that Paul treated the law and conscience as synonymous.

4.         Conclusion

Kevin Vanhoozer very helpfully summarises the debate on justification, and provides a promising conclusion. With reference to the debate surrounding ‘works of the law’ and the ‘righteousness of God’ he says that Piper and Wright have been using different types of law court constructions in which to mould their views that has lead to considerable confusion. Piper models a criminal court where individuals are acquitted, Wright a civil court where you are shown to be a part of God’s people[22]. Vanhoozer suggests that perhaps we should use a family court where Christians are adopted and imputed filial status. This construction is the ‘best of Wright and the best of the Reformed tradition.’[23] This model does justice to the truth of Wrights position that morality and covenant matters, in that one is shown to be in the family of God. It also does justice to Piper’s position in that filial status is imputed to the individual.

Therefore in conclusion, the NPP has revealed many new and helpful insights into scripture, especially Galatians, which has shakenup the protestant world. Although, as I have shown above, some of the conclusions made by the NPP scholars, in my opinion, go too far. In the end, I believe Vanhoozer’s position will provide the happy balance in which Paul’s writings will be best understood.

Appendix 1:    Righteousness of God

Wright has suggested that the reformed understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans 3:21-26 is incorrect. He supplies a very helpful table that can be viewed in appendix 2. Wright argues for a righteousness that is part of God, both subjectively and possessively, A1b in the table. And thus, the righteousness of God, Wright explains, is a forensic term taken from the law courts. Dikaiosune can mean ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice,’[24] and therefore Wright is thinking here of Justice being distributed in court. He argues that the definition of justification/righteousness is God’s ‘covenantal faithfulness’[25] declaring one righteous on the basis of works empowered by the Holy Spirit, rather than imputed righteousness. However, Sanders did not take this line of argument as far as Wright, for he still saw warrant for Imputed righteousness in scripture. [26]

Piper criticises Wright for ‘stretching Paul’s language to breaking point.’[27] He is joined by Stephen Westerholm who states that God’s righteousness and God’s promises are not synonymous.[28] He goes on to explain:

In brief “God’s righteousness” need not mean his “covenant faithfulness”; given Paul’s inattention to matters covenantal, it is unlikely that it would do so; and nothing from the contexts in which he uses the term requires such a sense.[29]

As such, although Wright may have helpful ecumenical motivations for his position on Romans 3 and the ‘righteousness of God’, it is by no means watertight.

Appendix 2:    Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 101


A. God’s   own righteousness

A1.   Righteousness as a moral quality (‘of God’ – possessive genitive)

A1a. Distributive   justice.

A1b.   Covenant faithfulness.

A2.   Righteousness as God’s salvation-creating power (‘of God’ – Subjective   genitive)

A2a. Acts   of covenant faithfulness

A2b. Non-covenantal   world-defeating actions

B. A   righteousness given to humans

B1.   Righteousness as a righteous standing ‘from God’ (‘of God’ as a genitive of   Origin)

B1a.   Imputed righteousness

B1b.   Imparted righteousness

B2.   Righteousness as a quality ‘which comes before God’ or ‘avails with God’ (‘of   God’ – objective genitive)

B2a. A   natural quality recognised by God

B2b. A   special gift from God, then recognised as such.



  1. Dunn, James, The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, MohrSiebeck Tubingen,Germany, 2005
  2. Dunn, James, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Eerdmans, 1998
  3. Sanders, E. P., Paul, Past Masters Series,OxfordUniversity      Press, 1991
  4. Wright, N. T., What Saint Paul      Really Said, Lion Publishing, 1997
  5. Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s plan and Paul’s Vision, SPCK Publishing,      2009
  6. Piper, John, The Future of Justification, Inter-Varsity Press, 2008
  7. Gombis, Timothy, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed, T&T      Clark International
  8. Westerholm,      Stephen, Perspectives Old and New on      Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his critics, Eerdmans, 2004
  9. Dunn, James, “The New Perspective on      Paul”, Bulletin of the John Rylands      Library, Vol. 65, 1983, pp. 95-122


  1. Wilson, Andrew, ‘Learning to      Discern’., Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers :      Training Tracks. [ONLINE] Available at:      [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  2. Wilson, Andrew, The Wright-Piper Debate:      Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. The      Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters |      Newfrontiers UK.      [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 22 November 2011].
  3. Five Views On Justification | Blog |      Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. Five Views On      Justification | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. [ONLINE] Available      at:      [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  4. New Perspective on Paul – Theopedia,      an encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity. 2011. New Perspective on      Paul – Theopedia, an encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity. [ONLINE]      Available at:      [Accessed 08 November 2011].
  5. Interview with Piper on Wright, Pt 5      – Desiring God. 2011. Interview with Piper on Wright, Pt 5 – Desiring      God. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].

[1] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 November 2011].

[2] Ibid

[3] Stendahl, Krister., ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’ in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 199-215

[4] Notably the Wright-Piper debate of the last few years.

[5] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p.75

[6] Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, pp. 261–262

[7] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p.75

[8]  Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 November 2011].

[9] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p.18

[10] Piper, Future of Justification, p.35

[11] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 November 2011].

[12] Genesis 22:18

[13]Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 November 2011].

[14] Wilson, ‘Learning to Discern’, Newfrontiers: Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].

 [15]Piper, Future of Justification, p. 27

[16] Wright, New Perspective on Paul, p. 260

[17] Wright, Justification, pp.163 -164

[18] Piper, The Future of Justification, p.101

[19] Wright, Justification, p. 160

[20] Ibid, p. 159

[21] Piper, The Future of Justification, p.107

[22] Wilson, ‘Learning to Discern’, Newfrontiers: Training Tracks. 2011. Newfrontiers : Training Tracks. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 November 2011].

[23] Vanhoozer, Kevin., video found at: The Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. 2011. The Wright-Piper Debate: Resolved by the KJV? | Blog | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 22 November 2011].

[24] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 95

[25] See appendix 2

[26] Sanders, Paul, p.48: ‘When they were ‘righteoused’ they were made one person with Christ (Galatians 3:28), or, as Paul put it in another letter, they made become part of a ‘new creation’ . . . The passive of dikaioun does not easily bear this meaning – changed, transferred, incorporated into another person – but Paul forced it to do so’

[27] Piper, The Future of Justification, p.40

[28] Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, p. 292

[29] Ibid, p. 293


Why is the Canon Canonical?

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet finished my research in this area, so my thoughts below may change with further study. Or it is possible that some of the info needs to double checked before I’m happy to publish it as ‘finished’

Historically, the books that are inspired by God are called ‘Canonical’ books, or books that are in ‘the Canon’. The questioner is therefore asking about the nature of the canon, in terms of is composition and content. The word ‘Canon’ originally came from the root word ‘reed’ or ‘cane’ (point 16 in Bibliography). The cane was used as an ancient form of measurement; therefore the ‘canon’ can also mean the ‘standard/measurement of faith’. In other words, the books that are in the Bible are recognised to be the standard for our faith and practice, which is instituted by God.

The phrase ‘inspired by God’ means that each book was written in accordance with God’s design, even though they were written by different men at different times in history. God is both transcendent and immanent, which means he is both totally different to his creation, but also intrinsic to it. Therefore, this being true, he is able to create a book (or collection of books) that record his acts in history as a testament and documentation for us, and he can do this through human will and design. However, the phrase ‘inspired by God’ goes beyond mere historicity, these books represent the standard of God’s truth. The Bible also describes itself as . . . alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). As such, God the Holy Spirit often communicates through the words of the Bible, as they are synonymous with his own words and truth.               

The answer to this question will be determined by your presuppositions in approaching the topic. If you do not believe that God exists, it is likely that you will think the books that are in the Bible came to be recognised as ‘inspired by God’ through a mixture of religious politics, preference, and subjective opinions/feelings. However, if you believe that God exists and that he is able to act in human history then the development of a collection of books that are divinely inspired is not only possible, but also probable (especially if this God loves us and wishes to communicate with us). If God is able to inspire the recording of his acts in history, he is also able to cause their recognition within the church (and equally cause the church to recognise those books that were not inspired).

The Bible records God’s acts in history

The Old Testament is a collection of literature produced within and about the history of Israel, and the events therein. Likewise, the New Testament is a collection of books produced about the life, events, and purpose of Jesus Christ and his fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. For Christians it is the connection between the historical events and the words of scripture that hold so much meaning. You cannot have one without the other. For example, the physical death of Jesus would not have the same meaning if it were just a story, as it is the power of what God has actually caused to have happened in human history that restores our relationship with God. This is what makes Christianity different to a philosophical system, namely, that it is not based on just theory, but also events. These events caused the production of much literature; some of which are contained in the Bible. It is important to recognise the connectedness between firstly, the events, and secondly, the literature which was written in response to those events; because not all of the literature that was produced was recognised as inspired by God.

Because of the historical nature of the Bible, and Christian theology, the likelihood follows that there were more books written about the events that took place than are in the Bible. If such extraordinary events were really happening, one would imagine a lot of people (who were able) would have recorded what they saw/experienced. And this is precisely what Luke records at the opening of his Gospel: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us (Luke 1:1)

Old Testament Apocrypha 

Therefore other Christian and Jewish authors wrote books both about Israel’s history, and about Christ’s life and works. However, not all are considered canonical, some because although great Christian or Jewish writings, they were not considered inspired by God, and some because they were not Christian but instead Gnostic writings. I will discuss this is more detail in the third part of this article.

A question that is often asked when approaching the topic of the Old Testament canon, is the place of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a collection of books that have been included in copies of the Old Testament from before the time of Christ, but although having been recognised as important, they were not considered inspired by God. These books are a mixture of different types of writings, some recording the history ofIsraellike the books of the Maccabees, and others containing proverbs and wise sayings such as books like Ecclesiasticus. There is evidence from both within the Bible and outside of it that these books known as the Apocrypha were not, and should not, be considered the inspired word of God.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament contains 39 books in our Bibles today. In past centuries some of these book were joined together, and therefore we find Josephus in the first century writing about the ‘two and twenty, and containing the record for all time’ (Bib. Point.6, p.35), which is referring to the same 39 books but with different divisions. This statement, among others (see bibliography), excludes the Apocrypha from the Canonical writings. As mentioned above the Apocrypha is a collection of books that the Jews did not recognise as part of the divinely inspired scriptures. Neither did the early church including Origen and Jerome, but they included them in the written copies of the Old Testament in Greek for edification. Likewise, there are many great Christian writers today, that Christians do read and consider extremely influential, but we would not consider them divinely inspired on a par with scripture. So it was with the Old Testament Apocrypha.

There was a progressive recognition of each book of the Old Testament right from inception; this can be deduced from certain passages of the Bible. Such as Daniel 9:2 written in sixth century B.C., which confirms that what Jeremiah wrote was ‘the word of the Lord’.

Moreover, he (Daniel) uses the article in the original Hebrew when he says, ‘I, Daniel, understood from the books (or the scriptures), according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.’ This is most instructive, because Daniel placed Jeremiah in a group of ‘the books’ that he regarded and received as ‘scripture’ almost contemporaneous with the time of its writing (i.e within some seventy five years of its composition) (Bib. Point.6, p.33)

Additionally, a book called Ecclesiasticus written sometime around 200-180 B.C. showed that the Old Testament has been organised into three sections: the Law, the Prophets and ‘the other books’ (later known as the Wisdom writings), which is a collection of writings that we have in the Old Testament today. Lastly, building on this point, Jesus mentions the three sections of the Old Testament canon, ’the law, the prophets and the psalms’, which teach about him (Luke 24:44). This further authenticates the 39 Old Testament books as inspired by God, in the same way that Josephus recognised the three sections of the Old Testament.

It is interesting that Jesus never mentions or quotes from the Apocrypha, as he often does from the Old Testament. This is further proof that the Apocrypha was not, and should not, be considered a part of the collection of ‘Scriptures’. Furthermore, in Matthew 23:35 Jesus makes mention of the death of Abel (the first person killed in the OT) and Zechariah (killed in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the OT according to the Hebrew order). He makes no mention of the many people killed in the Apocrypha, thus implicitly denying the authenticity of those books.

In short there is good evidence that the books we have in the Old Testament of our Bibles today, corresponds to the books that were recognised as inspired by God from before the time of Christ. As Walter Kaiser describes the process: there was a progressive recognition of certain books as being canonical right from there inception by readers and listeners who were contemporaneous with the writers and who were thereby in the best position to determine the claims of the writers. (6, p.31) 

New Testament Apocrypha and Gnostics Texts

A lot of the confusion that can surround this topic is largely due to unclear definitions. This can be a result of placing Christian and Gnostic texts under the same category of ‘Christian’ (this is precisely what Bart Ehrman has claimed, see point 4 in Further Reading). Equally, the difference between Christian non-canonical works and Gnostic works is very important.

New Testament

When considering the books that are not included in the New Testament Canon, one has to distinguish between New Testament Apocrypha and the Gnostic texts. New Testament Apocrypha is much like the Old Testament Apocrypha; they are Christian writings that were considered good to read in the church for general instruction, but were not inspired by God, and therefore not to be used to form doctrine. Gnostic texts, on the other hand, are quite different. They are texts written by a group of people who subscribed to a different religious system, and therefore were never considered for the canon (In fact often Christian leaders would speak out against such teachings, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian). The reason that these text have sometimes been misunderstood as part of the New Testament Apocrypha is due to the fact that Gnostic teachings were very much influenced by Jewish spiritual writings, and later Christian writings. Therefore Gnostics produced texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and On the Origin of the World. However, the differences between the New Testament Apocrypha and the Gnostic texts is only to clear with a basic comparison (which you can do with by following the links in the bibliography. Compare Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and On the Origin of the World, with NT Apoc 1 Clement and the Didache)

In fact, the early churches were extremely stringent in their requirements. Books were not accepted if they could not be historically verified.

Muratorian Canon (latter half of the second century): Contains all the books that we consider canonical today, But also the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepard of Hermas, though the Apocalypse of Peter was not considered fully canonical by some churches, and the Shepard of Hermas was universally rejected. They were included in the list of books, because they were to be used to encourage and teach the church, but were not to be read publicly.

Origen (185-254) mentions all the books we now have in the Bible, and in addition the ‘Epistle of Barnabas’, Shepard of Hermas, Didache and ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’. Of these books, the four already mentioned were under dispute (this can also been deduced from the Muratorian Canon mentioned above) as well as Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude.

Athanasius (367) sets out the books that we now have see in the Bible as alone canonical.

From available information, the gradual process which led to full and formal public recognition of a fixed canon of the twenty-seven books comprising the New Testament takes us down into the fourth century of our era. This does not necessarily mean that these scriptures were lacking recognition in their century before that time, but that a need for officially defining the canon was not pressing until then (9, p.67)

Bibliography/Further Reading

1. Bray, Gerald., Creeds, Councils & Christ, (Inter-Varsity, 1984)

2. Thiede, Carsten., The Dead Sea Scrolls and Jewish origins of Christianity, (Oxford, 2000)

3. McGrath, Alister (Ed)., The Christian Theology Reader, (Blackwell, 1996)

4. Ehrman, Bart., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament, (Oxford, 2003)

5. Shelley, Bruce., Church History in Plain Language, 2nd Edition, (World, 1995)

6. Kaiser, Walter Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable and Relevant?, (Inter-Varsity, 2001)

7.Logan, Alastair., Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy, (T. T. Clark, 1996)

8. Chadwick, Henry., The Early Church, (Penguin, 1967)

9. The Origin of the Bible, Bruce, F F., Packer,JI., Comfort, P., Henry, Carl F H., Editors, (Tyndale, 1992)

10.Dunbar, David., ‘The Biblical Canon’, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, (Inter-Varsity, 1986)

11.Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, (William Eerdmans, 1981 sixth edition)

12.On the Origin of the World, The Nag Hammadi Library.

13.Gospel of Thomas.

14.1 Clement.


16.McDowell, Josh., Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Volume One, Scripture press, 1990.

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Why was St Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians prohibited from submission to the Bible by Bishop Athanasius?

What is ‘St Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians’?

A man named Paul authored much of the New Testament. The Bible is a collection of books inspired by God, but written by humans from various backgrounds and differing contexts. Often the name of a book of the New Testament is either the author or recipient of the text. For example, Mark is thought to be written by John Mark who was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of Peter, who knew Jesus and was an eyewitness to the events surrounding his death and resurrection.

However, as there are a large quantity of letters written by Paul in the New Testament, his letters are often named after the recipient rather than Paul himself. Therefore both 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians are letters written to the Church at Corinth, a large and influential Greek city. In these letters there are hints that Paul may have written other letters to the Corinthian church, although this is not conclusive. The particular verse is 2nd Corinthians 7:8, which reads: ‘For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it – though I did regret it, for I see that it grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repentance.’ The letter referred to could arguably be 1st Corinthians, as there are many parts of the book that are directly critical (1:26, 3:1-4, 4:7-15, 5:1ff, 6:5,8, 11:17-22). In a culture that revolved around the concept of honour and shame, these parts could be interpreted as harsh. However, whether or not these sections are enough to warrant the statement ‘it grieved you’, it is hard to tell.

There is one text, separate from the New Testament documents, which is know as the Third Letter to the Corinthians. This text is part of a larger work called the Acts of Paul, which also contained a text known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The Acts of Paul are written in a similar format to the Biblical book Acts, the latter was written by a man named Luke who travelled with Paul for some of his missionary journeys. The texts comprising the Acts of Paul are likely to have circulated independently (See the Catholic Encyclopaedia). Therefore the Third Letter to the Corinthians was possibly, at some point, accessible as a single work.

The section from 2nd Corinthians quoted above, is unlikely to refer the Third Letter to the Corinthians because its tone and content is direct but affable rather than rebuking. It is likely that several letters were exchanged between the churches and Paul, therefore it is probable that this section refers to a separate latter.

The question in discussion is why the Third letter to the Corinthians is not in the Bible. However, to assess this, we will need to look at the historical reliability of the Acts of Paul (and by extension the Acts of Paul and Thecla), as this is the source of the text in question, and will have much to say in regard to the context, reliability and authenticity of Third letter to the Corinthians.

Bishop Athanasius and the Third Letter of Paul to the Corinthians

Bishop Athanasius was an influential figure in early church history for many reasons, one being the role he played in the formation of the Biblical canon. The ‘canon’ basically means the books that are accepted by the church as being inspired by God and therefore considered authoritative.

Athanasius lived in the 4th Century A.D., at which time the books that we see in the Bible today were generally considered canonical, however, they had not been made so officially. Athanasius was one of the forerunners in officiallising the canon. His famous letter: 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius references all the books we see in the Bible today, and acknowledges them all to be inspired by God.   

Therefore when it is asked, ‘why did Bishop Athanasius prohibit the submission of the Third Letter to the Corinthians to the canon?’, the question may imply that the Canon is a result of the decision of one man, or a group of Bishops (this idea has been circulated on a popular level in recent publications such a Dan Brown‘s DaVinci Code). However, in contrast, the vast majority of the books comprising the New Testament today were recognised by Christians as inspired by God at a very early stage (see references applicable to the canon). The development of a fixed Canon took a process of centuries because there were a few books that were contested. However, even though contested these books were held with great regard, and Christians were encouraged to study them. This would be true of books like The Shepherd of Hermes and the Epistle of Barnabas. Therefore it is fair to interpret the question as enquiring about the canonical status of the Third Letter to the Corinthians, rather than focusing too heavily on the specific involvement of Bishop Athanasius.

The Third letter to the Corinthians’ omission from the Bible

The main reason that the Third letter to the Corinthians was not included in the New Testament is because it was not historically reliable. The Acts of Paul, of which the Third Letter to the Corinthians was apart, was discredited by Tertullian (c.155 – 220 A.D.).

Tertullian writing in his tractate de Baptismo states: ‘But if the Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named . . . Let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position.’ (translated in The Acts of Paul and Thelca A Critical Introduction and Commentary, Jeremy W Barrier, 2009, Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, p. 21). It should not be thought that it was not recognised because Paul did not author it, but rather because it had been created deceptively and claimed a different source to that which it had.

Additionally, the Acts of Paul were not written in a vacuum. The Church was combating Gnostic ideas in the second century, and The Acts of Paul are thought to reflect this struggle. To the point that on some theological themes of the Acts of Paul are in contradiction with the general thrust of the New Testament. For example, the issue of sex. The Acts of Paul champion sexual abstinence and singleness, which was a popular idea in early Christianity. However, this contradicts Paul’s writing recorded in the New Testament, Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4: 2-4). It was also considered to contradict Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church.

The Bible was never intended to be only a spiritual guide, without historic referent. If a book was considered inspired, and therefore canonical, because of its early Christian popularity, its historic reliability was of great importance. Therefore, if its reliability was in question it was not considered. Which is true for the Third Letter to the Corinthians.


  1. Rev Ken Collin’s Web Site: ‘Could we discover additional parts of the Bible’:
  2. The Acts of Paul, (part of often know as The Acts of Paul and Thecla), Translation by M. R. James:
  3. ‘The canon of the New testament’ By Rich Martinez:
  6. The Acts of Paul and Thelca A Critical Introduction and Commentary, Jeremy W Barrier, 2009, Mohr Siebeck Tubingen:
  7. The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thelca, Jan N Bremmer, 1996, Kok Pharos Publishing House:
  9. Bruce, F. F., Packer, J. I., Comfort, P., Henry, C. F. H., The Origin of the Bible, 1992, Tyndale House
  10. Dunbar, D. G., ‘The Biblical Canon’, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ED. Carson, D. A.,Woodbridge, J. D, 1968, Inter Varsity