Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics

By Stephen Westerholm
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2004). xix + 488 Pages.

Reviewed by Preston Sprinkle
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 275-277

With the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, the year 1977 was a decisive turning point in Pauline studies. This monumental work challenged the traditional “Lutheran” reading of Paul regarding scriptural themes such as justification by faith, Paul’s view of the Law, and the background of Paul’s critique of Judaism. This so-called “new perspective” on Paul (a term coined by James D. G. Dunn) has gained many adherents (e.g., Dunn, N. T. Wright, Terence Donaldson), but continues to arouse many critics (e.g., Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid, Andrew Das). Stephen Westerholm has summarized the current debate and offered a modified traditional reading of Paul. No matter where one stands on these important issues, his book helps greatly toward a clear understanding of an often misconstrued discussion.

Westerholm originally intended to revise his previous work on Paul—Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith, published in 1988—but saw a need for a more expanded work (xi). The book divides into three major sections: (1) “Portraits of the Lutheran Paul” (3-97); (2) “Twentieth Century Responses to the Lutheran Paul” (101-258); and (3) “The Historical and the ‘Lutheran’ Paul” (261-445), which is Westerholm’s own reading of Paul.

In the first section, Westerholm summarizes the views of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, regarding the various Pauline themes significant in the current debate. He labels these 4 men “Lutheran” since “their reading of the apostle [is] as one for whom the doctrine of justification by faith is central and deliberately excludes any role for human ‘works’” (xvii). Westerholm is quite familiar with the writings of these four as he weaves in and out of many sources. The bibliography records 16 sources on Luther alone. He summarizes each man in about 20 pages, with a helpful summary of all at the end (88-97). In the end, though they may differ on various doctrines, all 4 represent a composite picture of the “Lutheran” Paul who has undergone various attacks in recent years (88).

The second section summaries the works of many Pauline interpreters in the last 100 years, such figures as Schweitzer (108-16), W. G. Kümmel (135-46), Krister Stendahl (146-49), Rudolf Bultmann (150-54), and, of course, E. P. Sanders (129- 33, 159-63). The bulk of the section is virtually a reproduction of Westerholm’s previous work (chaps. 6-10 are chaps. 2-6 of Israel’s Law), but the latter part of section 2 is a helpful summary of the last 30 years of scholarship on Paul. Not only does he review the works of “new perspective” advocates such as N. T. Wright (179- 83) and James Dunn (183-200), but he also looks at Tom Schreiner (208-12), Mark Seifrid (219-25), and C. E. B. Cranfield (201-8), who have offered a contemporary defense of the traditional “Lutheran” Paul. Westerholm goes further in summarizing “other perspectives” on Paul, ones that defend neither a traditional reading nor a “new perspective” reading on the apostle. He summarizes such scholars as Tim Laato (226-28) and J. Louis Martyn (235-40) in this section. The final pages of section two give a valuable summary of various critiques of the “Lutheran” Paul (249-58). The most helpful aspect of this section is that it compiles various quotes from different authors concerning Paul’s critique of Judaism (250-53) and his doctrine of justification by faith (252-58).

These first two sections are very helpful, but over 250 pages summarizing over 25 scholars are wearying to the reader. Commendably, Westerholm refrains from gross caricature of his opponents by saturating himself in their works. Clarity and honesty are the hallmarks of this tedious part of Westerholm’s book.

Section 3 begins the author’s presentation of his views on Paul, keeping a keen eye toward the current debate regarding the “new perspective” and its critics. The first part of this section is the most helpful, focusing on the various facets of Paul’s concept of “righteousness” (261-96). Westerholm believes that justification involves both ‘making righteous’ and ‘declaring righteous’ (277 n. 39), though “declare righteous is as good a rendering as any” (286). He says that in theory, humans would be okay if they upheld God’s moral standard of righteousness (283), but due to humanity’s moral depravity such a goal is impossible. He affirms an already/not yet tension in justification, though does not discuss it at length (274 n. 29). He believes the much debated expression “righteousness of God” is an objective genitive in Phil 3:9, Rom 10:3, and “could be meant in Romans 1:17 and 3:21-22 as well” (284-85), though the last texts contain an element of both God’s act of salvation and man’s possession of the gift of righteousness (cf. 390). He also gives a severe critique of those (e.g., N. T. Wright) who take “righteousness of God” as meaning “covenant faithfulness” (292-93) and the term “righteousness” as meaning “covenant membership” (286-91). “Part of the righteousness of the righteous is that they keep their commitments, and Paul certainly believed that God made promises to the patriarchs.… On the other hand, ‘righteousness’ itself does not mean ‘covenant faithfulness’” (292). To sum up, “God’s righteousness in Paul is, explicitly, the act of divine grace by which, through the sacrificial death of his Son, he declares sinners righteous—thus championing ... the goodness of his creation” (293).

Another issue covered in this third section is the definition of the terms “Law” and “works of the Law” (297-340). He takes “Law” to refer most often to “the Sinaitic legislation” rather than Scripture as a whole (299-301). “W orks of the Law,” then, are simply “deeds demanded by the Law” (313, cf. 429-30) and not social boundary markers (so Dunn) or a legalistic misuse of the Law (so Cranfield). He also offers a cogent critique of E. P. Sanders’ definition of “grace,” which is believed to be pervasive in early Judaism (341-51). “Sanders has shown that Judaism did not generally believe that salvation was earned from scratch by human deeds of righteousness; the point is well taken, but it by no means differentiates Judaism from the classical opponents of ‘Lutheran’ thought.… What the opponents of ‘Lutheranism’ emphatically did not do, however … was to suggest that humans can contribute nothing to their salvation” (351). He wraps up the book with a lengthy section on justification by faith (352-407), and finally discusses the function of the Law in salvation history (408-39).

Westerholm has given a thorough discussion on various issues surrounding the “new perspective” on Paul. His writing style is clear, witty, and at times downright hilarious. His “Whimsical Introduction” (xiii-ix) along with his various comical snippets (e.g., 23, 164, 202, 214) will cause the stiffest scholar to laugh aloud. A few deficiencies include his lack of interaction with Tom Schreiner’s recent work on faith and works (The Race Set Before Us) which would probably alter his representation of this author (cf. 211-12). Westerholm also fails to interact with a popular view regarding the interpretation of “works of the Law,” promoted by Scott Hafemann, Don Garlington, and J. Christiaan Beker (cf. 313-30). Most seriously, Westerholm (with the majority of Pauline scholars today) does not take Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thesselonians, and the Pastorals to be authentically Pauline, though he does discuss briefly the epistles as representing Pauline thought. Nevertheless, this book is a significant and persuasive defense of a fairly traditional view on Paul (for statements signifying a more mediating position, see 383, 388-89, 400-401). For anyone wishing to familiarize himself with the web of issues regarding Paul, this book is a must.