Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Krister Stendahl and the New Perspective on Paul

Long before E. P. Sanders stood the traditional understanding of first-century Judaism as a "religion of legalism" on its head in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), the late Krister Stendahl—professor at Harvard Divinity School and later Bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden—had already laid the foundation for the New Perspective on Paul with his masterful essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (1963). [Most of us read this essay in the collection Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Fortress, 1976).]

Click here to download a copy of this important essay.

Against the longstanding (Augustinian-Lutheran) interpretation of Judaism as a "religion of legalism" which promoted self-righteous efforts to merit salvation before God through human good works, Stendahl—later followed by Sanders and the rest of the New Perspective on Paul writers—argued that Judaism was always (and still is) a religion of grace, faith, and forgiveness.

Nothing in the Hebrew scripture ever called humans to self-salvation—meritorious acts that would earn God's favor. Biblical religion was always a religion of covenant, rooted in the free, undeserved election of Israel by God. This covenant faith was structured by moral and purity laws and underpinned by a sacrificial system specifically designed to provide a means of atonement/forgiveness for men when they fell short of covenant obligations.

Specifically, Stendahl attacked the persistence of the guilty conscience in western culture rising from Augustine's (and furthered by Luther's) reading of Paul. Augustine saw Paul in Romans 7 as a man languishing in guilt, paralyzed by his moral shortcomings, and given to the "unrelenting introspection" that has come to characterize the western mind.

In contrast, Stendahl held that while Paul genuinely felt the weight of his chief sin—persecution of the church—he put any crippling guilt behind him and lived triumphantly in the grace and forgiveness of God. (Stendahl offers a parade of Paul's autobiographical statements to support his interpretation.) Romans 7, Stendahl shows, is part of Paul's larger argument about the role of the law in demonstrating the power of sin over "the flesh."

Paul happened to express this supporting argument [in Romans 7] so well that what to him and his contemporaries was a common sense observation appeared to later interpreters to be a penetrating insight into the nature of sin. (Mark A. Mattison, A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul)

Stendahl argues that Protestants should no longer assume Paul was battling against Jewish legalism—since Paul's opponents never taught that salvation was merited/earned by human works. Rather Paul and his "Judaizing" opponents both shared the Jewish religion rooted in grace, election, and covenant. Romans 7 must be understood as something other than a sinful man consumed and wallowing in his guilty conscience.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for the reminder about Stendahl. I remember reading this essay years ago in the mid-1980s in grad school, and he was the first scholar in my experience to regard Paul as "called" but not "converted". His point, of course, was that on the Damascus Road Paul did not change Gods (or necessarily religions), but rather, received a calling to non-Jews that they, too, could belong to the family of God. At this early stage it is probably fair to say that the Christian faith was still a subset of Judaism and would remain so for some time. E. P. Sanders, as you have pointed out, followed in kind by reclaiming the Jewishness of Jesus (and Paul, too, for that matter).

    While this part of the new perspective on Paul was a much needed corrective, I would add a small qualifier. If Judaism did, in fact, include strong elements of grace, faith and forgiveness, I still think Paul may have had something to say about legalism as a way of salvation at least for some Jews. By analogy, we can say that Christian evangelicalism embraces salvation by grace through faith, but we all know there are subsets within that larger tent which are quite legalistic, the formal acceptance of grace and faith notwithstanding. Along this line, for instance, there were elements even within ancient Judaism that tended toward legalism. In the Psalms of Solomon, for instance, one finds that "the righteous...atones for [sins of] ignorance by fasting" (3:7-8), and later, "Our works [are] in the choosing and power of our souls... The one who does what is right saves up life for himself with the Lord" (9:4-5) and later still, "The Lord is faithful...to those who live in the righteousness of his commandments, in the law, which he has commanded for our life" (14:1). In 2 Baruch one finds, "But only prepare your hearts so that you obey the law... If you do this...you will not fall into the torment" (46:6), and later, "...we know that we do not fall as long as we keep your statutes" (48:22) and still later, "...as for...those who proved to be righteous on account of my law...they may acquire and receive the undying world which is promised to them" (51:3) and finally, "Miracles, however, will appear...to those who are saved because of their works and for whom the law is now a hope..." (51:7). The somewhat infamous Dead Sea Scrolls text (4QMMT) reads, "Now we have written to you some of the works of the law... And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness."

    Hence, it seems to me that Luther and Augustine were not entirely wrong in their perceptions, at least for some elements within Judaism, but I am equally sure, as you pointed out, that they were far too sweeping and failed to recognize major elements in Judaism that certainly were there, notably grace, faith and forgiveness.

  2. Excellent observations, Dan.

    A religion of grace does not preclude the human tendency to legalism. The examples of this throughout church history and in the contemporary faith are too numerous to ignore.

    But, of course, a religion of grace also invites the human proclivity to antinominanism - the downplaying of moral obligations in light of divine initiative in human salvation.

    Thus, Calvin corrected some Reformation thought with his emphasis on the third use of the law. Calvin argues that the law, in addition to revealing human unrighteousness before God's righteousness and restraining the behavior of evil men through the certainty of punishment, also "admonishes believers and urges them on in well-doing."

    We need to have a healthy discussion of the mandate of good works within the Christian covenant - not just the relation of well-doing to gracious salvation, but also place of well-doing as the criteria for ultimate judgment which both Jesus and Paul repeatedly emphasized.