Book Review – McKnight, Modica, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective

This book is full of cutting edge biblical theology that arises from the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). The primary themes of this book are Paul’s understanding of Christian life in terms of unity, cruciformity and corporate ethics.

The most famous contributors in this book are James Dunn, Bruce Longenecker, Scot McKnight and Tom Wright. Have a look and see that it is good.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 226
  • Difficulty: Medium-Academic
  • Topic: Paul, New Perspective, Ethics
  • Audience: Educated Christians, Ministers
  • Published: 2016

In the introduction the editors give a brief outline of their purpose in writing the book.

What we attempt to answer in this book is this question:

How did the apostle Paul understand the Christian life?

We believe that a new-perspective reading of Paul—however that might be understood today—offers much to an understanding of the Christian life, so we have assembled a collection of essays from new-perspective scholars. (Intro)

In addition to this, in several instances the authors will discuss the NPP, contrasting it to the Old Perspective on Paul (reformed, OPP), and then outline the chief contributions of the NPP in Christian ethics and mission which the OPP might lack.

The book covers a range of topics:

The strength of this volume and the new perspective overall is its emphasis on

  • ecclesiology—life in the church (McKnight and Gombis);
  • pneumatology—life in the Spirit (Mitchel);
  • missiology—life in mission-in-the-world (Wright);
  • Christology—life in Christ (Dunn);
  • soteriology—a “saved”life (Cohick);
  • ethicality—a moral life (Longenecker); and
  • sanctification—a holy life (Leach).


Below I’ve given a brief description of each essay with an interesting quote.

This post is one of my book reviews.


Main points

1. The Christian Life from the Perspective of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (By James D. G. Dunn)

One would expect by things from one of the major players in the NPP. Dunn begins discussing the backstory to Galatians and the underlying problem Paul was addressing. He speaks about Paul’s conversion (not calling) and argues strongly for the centrality of faith in Galatians. He then moves on to argue the gift of the Spirit is counterpart to primacy of faith. His theology echoes much of what he said in Baptism of the Spirit (my review here).

Most surprising in Dunn’s essay is his emphasis on resisting any sort of works, works of law or good works, as necessary for having a relationship with God. He is quite reformed here.

Many good things would flow directly from the immediacy of that relationship (the fruit of the Spirit), but to identify any particular “work” as an essential mark of the Spirit, any particular ritual obligation as an essential condition for having the Spirit, would be to misunderstand and cloud the essential faith-Spirit nexus at the center of Paul’s gospel and theology.

The plain fact is that we do not and will not understand Paul’s theology and gospel unless we recognize this fundamental nexus of faith and Spirit at its heart. Equally important is the point which he insisted on so strongly in this letter: that any additional requirement which clouds or distracts from or undermines this fundamental base of the divine-human relationship is to be resisted with all strength as destructive of the gospel. (17)

I was a bit disappointed with Dunn’s starting essay. I would have expected one of the major players of the NPP to highlight its unique contributions over and against the old perspective on Paul. I couldn’t find much, if anything in Dunn’s essay that would have made a reformed supporter squirm.

2. The New Perspective and the Christian Life in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (By Lynn H. Cohick)

Cohick begins outlining the NPP in Pauline scholarship. She talks about Judaism and Jewish identity in the New Perspective. She speaks about identity in the Greco-Roman World. Then she introduces her discussion on Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians.

Unlike Dunn, she has the typical understanding of works of law in mind and Paul’s underlying thinking behind the expressions use.

Not so with the Torah, which the Jews (including Jesus and Paul) believed expressed God’s revelation. Such ethnic practices as food laws, Sabbath, and circumcision were also religious commands and thus had to be examined socially and theologically by the gospel’s message.

I suggest that Paul theologically shifts the doing of the (ritual and cultic) law from a universal mandate for God’s people to a sociological category representing a cultural display expressing Jewish heritage. The Jewish believers continue to practice their heritage but must refrain from insisting that gentile believers within the same community embrace Jewish cultural practices. (26)

Cohick continues discussing God’s story of salvation in Ephesians and outlines the main themes in Ephesians to do with the NPP. Jews and Gentiles made one in Christ. She helpfully reminds us of adoption and thus Gentile inclusion in the people of God which is God’s great mystery. Afterwards in a similar note to Stendahl she highlights the ‘We’ and ‘You’ language of Jew and Gentile in Ephesians.

She then moves into ethics discussing community life within the church and the place of personal piety in Ephesians. This includes sin and forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

3. Faith, Works, and Worship: Torah Observance in Paul’s Theological Perspective (By Bruce W. Longenecker)

Longenecker is another well known scholar who is NPP. Longenecker essay discusses works in relation to faith in Paul’s Theological Perspective. He notes the distinction to how Paul understands works of law and good works. His essay is devoted to explaining that faith works. Big themes in his essay are love, community, spiritual warfare, and giving glory to God.

This is an inspiring vision, but it is also a challenging one, since it places Christian lifestyle and corporate practice front and center on the eschatological battlefield. In corporate unity nurtured by mutual support, Christian community is the place where the future triumph of God is manifest already, by the power of the Spirit, who fosters the character of the self-giving Christ among Christians, whose similar Christlike profiles are not monochrome but reflect the glorious richness of God’s creative ingenuity. Worship of the Creator comes to its richest expression when all those ingredients are present in Christian communities. (62)

4. The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus (By Patrick Mitchel)

Mitchel begins addressing the major concerns of the OPP and NPP.

The main concerns of the NPP are that the OPP misrepresented Judaism, which led to a bad news – good news form of the gospel, and tended to forge weak connections between justification and sanctification, between faith and works. The OPP is inherently individualistic and tends to ignore narrative theology, focussing on systematics instead.

The major concerns of the OPP revolve around Justification. The soteriological question of how sinners are put right with God and assurance of future salvation. Mitchel discusses issues surrounding divine and human agency and then reflects on what he has brought up.

The main body of Mitchel’s essay could very well have been cut straight of NT Wright’s, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (review here). He speaks about Paul’s storied theology and the Christian life. The main topics he addresses are how Paul’s understanding of monotheism, Torah and eschatology are restructured around Christ and the Spirit.

This is not to say that the OP has ignored broader Pauline themes— Reformed theology especially is, of course, nothing if not strongly covenantal. However, the OP’s persistently narrow focus on soteriology, and the virtual equation of justification with the gospel, has tended to distort the overall picture. This has been especially evident in Protestantism’s historic marginalization of Pauline pneumatology and its struggles to develop a robust ecclesiology that matches that of the apostle. The “anxious Protestant principle” of not importing works into salvation has tended to marginalize what Paul has to say on the Christian life. In other words, the priority of how to “get in” has tended to make secondary the importance of the life lived once “in.” This is despite moral formation being the goal of Paul’s missionary work among his churches. (79)

5. Participation in the New-Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit (By Timothy G. Gombis)

Gombis begins by describing humanity in the narrative of Israel’s scriptures.

God’s work of salvation will be complete only when the state of affairs ruined by Adam and Eve has been restored— humans worshiping God by imaging him throughout the whole of creation. Looking ahead, this narrative trajectory shapes how Paul conceives of the Christian life, both its theological orientation (restoration of worship) and its direction toward others (restoration of communal relations). (108)

Gombis describes how the faithfulness of Jesus Christ brings about God’s redemptive purposes. He lists several points. This leads him into a discussion of baptism into Christ by the Spirit (echoing some themes in Dunn’s book mentioned above). Baptism in the Spirit is the way believers now participate in the new creation people of God. He speaks about membership in the body of Christ, cruciformity and unity. Lastly he discusses how we also participate in God through the Holy Spirit. Drawing out key themes of the temple and empowerment.

6. The New Perspective and the Christian Life: The Ecclesial Life (By Scot McKnight)

The best essay in my opinion was Scot McKnight’s. He gave a good overview of the old perspective, the new and the post-new perspective coming from recent Jewish scholars. (Little mention of the apocalyptic school in the whole book). He tells the story of why he is New Perspective. He explained the contributions the NPP had made. These were the creation of a new community of differents, unity, corporate ethics and love.

My contention is that the apostle Paul can offer to us a whole new vision of the church for America, a vision that centers on the church and that centers on the church as an inclusive, social-boundary-breaking fellowship of differents. My contention is also that the Christian life is shaped by this vision of the apostle Paul: if the church is a fellowship of differents, then the Christian life is about learning to navigate this life in the company of those who are not like us. Let me put this stronger: the Christian life is learning how to love, to live with, and to fellowship with those who are not like us. (139)

7. A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology Meets New-Perspective Paul (By Tara Beth Leach)

Leach is seemed to be an unusual case. Her essay walks us through key elements of John Wesley’s theology. Original sin, prevenient grace, Justification (seems generally OPP), holiness and sanctification.

She explains the heart of holiness stems from transformation and love. She uses this as a starting point to explain that where the OPP focussed on individual holiness, the NPP focusses on the corporate dimension of holiness.

The new-perspective framework dramatically impacts how one understands the Christian life. While the old perspective has a propensity toward individualism, the new perspective has an inclusive and ecclesial framework.

In the new-perspective framework, simply put, “works of the law” does not mean works righteousness or a human attempt to earn merit before God. So, then, if “works of the law” does not mean works righteousness, what exactly does it mean?

A deep dive into Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans reveals that “works” is anything that distinguished Jews from gentiles. “Works of the law” in a new-perspective framework describes behaviors and religious practices that are designed to separate Jews from gentiles. Therefore, Paul was focused on building an inclusive framework, which included gentiles in the people of God. (164)

From this point she speaks about walking in the Spirit and bearing fruits of the Spirit with the corporate dimensions in mind.

At the heart of the old perspective is the need for God to take on the guilt of sinners, hence the focus on personal redemption. Humanity is saturated with the guilt of sin and has therefore fallen short of God’s glory. While this is in so many ways true, when this becomes the starting point or the whole message, there arises an incredible propensity toward individual soteriology. When the emphasis is on individual soteriology, ecclesiology is only an afterthought … The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens. (176f)

8. Paul and Missional Hermeneutics (By N. T. Wright)

Wright begins his essay explaining what missional hermeneutics is.

Paul’s theology is widely agreed to be missional theology; that is, it is theology in service of his vocation as a missionary, specifically, as “the apostle to the gentiles.” That was not a hobby, as though he were a missionary some of the time and the writer of theologically dense letters the rest of the time. His missionary mandate shaped the rest of his life, his writing included. At the same time, most Pauline scholars would agree that in some sense his theology is hermeneutical; that is, he thinks and writes (and, we should add, prays) in constant dialogue with Israel’s Scriptures, drawing on them, engaging with them, selecting and arranging quotations and allusions from them to further his theological, and hence also his missionary, purposes. Thus— since for Paul these two aspects of his work belonged tightly together— we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional. (179)

He says the more he studied Paul, the more he became convinced the symbol of the united and holy community in Christ was itself the mission. Paul sees the church as the powerful sign to the watching world that a new way of being human has been launched upon the world. In the church the world sees the signs of the lordship of Jesus at work. For the rest of his essay he spends time at a deep level in Paul’s thought explaining how he understood the scriptures and the newly created church’s role in God’s purpose.


It was great to see a number of New Perspective scholars, bible college lecturers and ministers getting together to write about the implications of the NPP. The NPP is clearly more than Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn and Wright. It is better to speak of second generation New Perspective scholars taking the baton and moving on ahead.

This book give a good glimpse at the specific implication of the New Perspective, often in contrast to the shortfalls of the Old Perspective. This hopefully will help it readers to see the strengths and advantages of the NPP and a better way of doing church.

It wasn’t to hard to read and it wasn’t full of technical language, Greek or what not. That is, it seemed directed to the wider and popular audience. I didn’t find it overly critical of the OPP either. That should help OPP readers take it on board.

I found the book mainly addressed the theoretical side of ethics and mission. Most of the material seemed to be abstract. It was not very practical. There weren’t many stories and illustrations given. But those that were given were helpful.

The book is full of cutting edge, God honouring theology with the church, mission and holiness in mind. People who read this book will see there is little to fear in the New Perspective and be more likely to embrace it.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2017. All Rights Reserved.