Contributions of New Perspective on Paul to Pauline Studies and Its Significance to Chinese Christians

Contributions of New Perspective on Paul to Pauline Studies and Its Significance for Chinese Christians

Lung-kwong LO

The importance of Pauline studies in NT studies is indisputable. In Pauline studies, much attention is given to the understanding of the gospel preached by Paul and its essential difference from the gospel preached by Jewish Christians of his time, as well as its impact on subsequent Christian thinkers like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Karl Barth. The interpretation of Paul's gospel has focused on justification by faith since the Reformation and it was heavily influenced by Martin Luther's personal experience. Paul's gospel has been understood in sharp contrast to Judaism in terms of faith, grace and gospel versus works, merits and law. Christian understanding of Judaism was mainly dependent on Luther's interpretation of Judaism, which, in turn, was based on his understanding of Paul's gospel. This has been challenged by Jewish scholars of Second Temple Judaism and some Christian scholars for many years. The most significant challenges were launched by an article published in 1963 by Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran scholar, and, subsequently, by the book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977 by EP Sanders. Sanders coined a new phrase, “covenantal nomism” to describe the pattern of Judaism in the first century of the Common Era as a religion of grace rather than a religion of works. Based on this new perspective of Judaism, James DG Dunn and NT Wright have advocated a New Perspective on Paul (NPP hereafter), which has been very influential in Pauline studies in the last three decades. Nevertheless, Chinese scholars have paid very little attention to NPP. In this paper, NPP, its criticism and defense, as well as its contributions to Pauline studies are introduced. Its significance for Chinese Christians can be summarized in three points: (1) the old perspective on Paul's gospel of justification by faith was introduced to China by western missionaries and the acceptance of this gospel owed much to Chinese culture, which mainly emphasized individual morality rather than social justice. Studies of NPP could correct the imbalance by leading Chinese Christians to interpret Paul's gospel in terms of social and cultural contexts; (2) the old perspective on Paul dichotomizes faith and works, which not only makes good works incompatible with faith on the issue of salvation but also plays down the importance of good works in eschatological judgment. This stands in sharp contrast to Chinese traditions and aroused strong reactions among Chinese in an incident that happened in Taiwan in 1997. NPP corrects this imbalance and affirms the importance of both faith and good works; (3) one of the most important emphases of NPP is to highlight the fact that Paul's gospel was for both Jews and Gentiles, that Gentiles could become a people of God by faith, without having to become Jews. This understanding is essential for Chinese who are pressurized by the teachings of missionaries to denounce Chinese cultures and customs, the identity markers of being Chinese, in order to become Christians . NPP provides a new understanding on this important issue.

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