This will be a series of posts about Paul, properly understanding his message and times, and the so-called New Perspective on Paul. I remind everyone from the outset that there is not one view of Paul that is called the New Perspective on Paul. Sometimes people read something they do not like in one writer and decide the whole New Perspective on Paul movement is bogus. There are some common points to the New Perspective writers, but they go from that commonality into some very different theologies. With that in mind, let’s take a New Look at Paul on the Gospel:
In 2003, N.T. Wright read a paper called “New Perspectives on Paul.” I have said before that Wright is the best New Testament scholar I have read. I am well aware of his inadequate views on Israel’s continuing role in God’s plan. But the man is simply a genius and he gets it. If we had not been blinded by 2,000 years of theological red herrings (sorry, Church Fathers, but I wish you had given more respect to the historical context of the Bible), then I would think we would have arrived at many of Wright’s positions a long time ago. Of course he does not deserve credit for all of the positions that I will mention, but he is one of the first to bring them all together and articulate them in a theology that is truly faithful to the Bible.
Wright offers five crucial points about Paul necessary to the ongoing conversation about a New Perspective on Paul. The first of the five is the Gospel.
Gospel happens to be a word from Old English, God-spell. It is a misnomer. I don’t like thinking of the message of Yeshua as Lord as a spell that throws its hearers into a trance of salvation. The preferred term in Messianic Judaism and maybe someday all of English-speaking Christendom is good news. It comes from the Greek evangelion. Messengers used to deliver news and sometimes it was a good message or an evangelion (I probably used the wrong case in Greek — I am weak in that area). Well, the message that Yeshua is Lord is a good message, the very best.
Here’s the thing, when you say Gospel or Good News, many Christians think, “A message about how you can be saved.” I think our perception has been warped by revivalism (late 1800’s and early 1900’s) and Campus Crusade and Billy Graham pamphlets. They may have done a lot of good, but they took something precious and made it an American, pragmatic how-to diagram. We should resist following their example on that particular point.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of an American evangelicalism where “getting saved” is the pinnacle of life in Messiah. Let’s be honest: many think that coming to faith is graduation. It isn’t. It’s barely kindergarten. So I object to the equivalence of “gospel” and “how to be saved” from the get-go as far too shallow. Yeshua did not live a life worthy of poets and die a death worthy of endless gratitude so that we could merely “get saved.”
More than that, “how to get saved” is not at all on Paul’s mind when he uses the term so many times in the New Testament. As Wright says in his lecture, the gospel is:
the proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and thereby demonstrated to be both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. ‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
Can you see the great difference here? The good news is a fact, not a how to. I am not saying that there are no how to suggestions in the Bible for becoming right with God. I do object to them being listed as four steps or a diagram. Life and God are more complex than that. There are many situations people find themselves in and no one-size-fits-all how to list is adequate.
The concept of good news and its relation to Messiah comes from Isaiah 40 and 52 (”How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news”). In Jewish circles saying “Jesus is Christ” or “Yeshua is Messiah” was the good news. In Roman circles it took a similar form, but one more fitting to the culture: “Jesus is Lord.” It is good news because at long last the Redeemer of Israel and the world has come. The Days of Messiah are upon us. It is not Caesar, nor the High Priest, who is Lord, but Yeshua.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives the message more specificity: Yeshua died for our sins and rose from the dead. That is what we mean when we say Yeshua is Lord and Messiah. That is the gospel. It is not four steps. It is not a how to at all. It is a fact that can never be changed and is appraisable only by the Spirit of the God of Israel.
Next time: The Righteousness of God. This one might be controversial, but think about it before you respond.