The rethinking doesn’t simply centre around the ‘new perspective on Paul’ and justification, but this encompasses both the whole letter and the multiple parts of the whole.
Author’s such as Andrew Perriman are challenging us to read Romans in its first century, city of Rome context, which was prior to establishment of what became known as western Christendom (I say ‘became’ knowing that Christendom has fallen in western Europe).
Still, Perriman is asking us to consider what is going on for Paul, a second-temple Jew writing to a Jew-Gentile church in the capital city of a majorly pagan empire. What did it mean then? Not what did it mean to Luther as he stood against the imperial Roman Catholic Church of his day, nor even what it means from a ‘new Pauline perspective’.
Perriman’s book is entitled The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, of which I posted a review of the book here.
Whether one agrees with the new Pauline perspective, with Tom Wright being its most popular, but not the only, proponent, I believe he offers some great thoughts in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
With the quote below, he offers a ‘thought experiment’, asking this: What if the Reformation had started with Ephesians and Colossians, rather than Romans and Galatians?
Suppose we conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we come to Ephesians first, with Colossians close behind, and decide that we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in the light of them instead of the other way round. What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10; compare Colossians 1:15-20). And we will find, as the means to that plan, God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 1:11-12, 13-14) in and through the redemption provided in Christ and by the Spirit, so that the Jew-plus-Gentile church, equally rescued by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:1-10), and now coming together in a single family (Ephesians 2:11-22), will be Christ’s body for the world (Ephesians 1:15-23), the sign to the principalities and powers of the “many-splendored wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10).
Supposing that had been the vision that gripped the imagination of the Reformers in the sixteenth century; supposing they had had, engraved on their hearts, that close and intimate combination of (a) saving grace accomplishing redemption in the once-for-all-death of the Messiah and putting it into operation through faith, without works and (b) the proleptic unity of all humankind in Christ as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world; and supposing they had then, and only then, gone back to Romans and Galatians – the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29. No marginalization of Romans 9-11. No scrunching of the subtle and important arguments about Jew-plus-Gentile unity in Galatians 3 onto the Procrustean bed of an abstract antithesis between faith and works. No insisting, in either letter, that “the law” was just a “system” that applied to everyone, and that “works of the law” were the moral requirements that encouraged people to earn their salvation by moral effort. In short, the new perspective might have begun then and there. Or perhaps we should say, the new perspective did begin – when Ephesians was written…But why should that apply to conservative readers for whom it is every bit as much Holy Writ as Romans or Galatians? (p44-45)
In the end, I’m quite certain the Tom Wright would agree that Romans and Galatians are very important, equally important as Ephesians and Colossians, and other New Testament writings. But his call is that we read them within a first century, second temple, Jewish context – rather than through the eyes of Martin Luther and other 16th century reformers such as Zwingli and Calvin.
Of course, these reformers have much to offer, as do those stalwarts of the next centuries leading up to the present. But I would argue that application of Scripture is best understood in a 16th or 18th or 21st century context when first understood in its first century context. What were they processing in their day as they wrote under the guidance of God’s Spirit?
That question might lead us to some fresh outworkings of the biblical data in our world today.