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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 n.3 Pretoria Jul./Sep. 2008





Dunn, J D G, 2005 - The new perspective on Paul: Collected essays
Publisher: Mohr Siebeck. Hardcover 536 Pages. Price: Unknown
Reviewer: Dr Gys Loubser (University of Pretoria)

Since the early eighties Dunn has established himself as the most prolific proponent of the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Before him there were scholars such as G F Moore, J Parkes and, of course, the one from whom he profited most, E P Sanders (pp 5-6).

It was Sanders who introduced the concept of covenantal nomism to explain Israel's understanding of its relationship with God. Israel could not initiate or create the relationship with God. This, only God could do in his divine grace. They did, however, have the responsibility to live up to their obligations as decreed in Torah. Thus, living according to Torah was not about getting in, but about staying in the relationship with God. Sanders' aim was to indicate that it was not true that Second Temple Judaism, from which Paul stemmed, was stripped of grace and was wholly a meritorious religion. In fact, it even allowed for imperfection, atonement and forgiveness for repenting sinners.

For Dunn this is a timely correction to too staunch a Lutheran view of Jewish justification. Having said this he, however, still felt that Sanders' Paul does not make sense. "If the Judaism of Paul's day also gave such a place to divine election, atonement and forgiveness, then what was Paul objecting to?"(p 7). His position is basically "that Paul's own teaching on justification focuses largely, if not principally, on the need to overcome the barrier which the law was seen to interpose between Jew and Gentile, so that the `all' of `to all who believe' (Rm 1:17) signifies in the first place `Gentile as well as Jew'" (p 15). Further: "It suggests that `works of law' became a key slogan in Paul's exposition of his justification gospel because so many of Paul's fellow Jewish believers were insisting on certain works as indispensable to salvation" (p 15).

The book is a compilation of twenty of Dunn's articles from 1983-2004, dealing with subjects such as the New Perspective on Paul, Torah, works of law, covenantal nomism, law in both Galatians and Romans, continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Early Christianity, Paul and justification, et cetera. As such it is vastly beneficial to New Testament scholarship, making it that much easier for Pauline scholars and students to follow his writings in a (chrono)logical sequence within a single volume.

However, the publication is more than a mere compilation. The book's added value is to be found in its introduction of 88 pages: The New Perspective: Whence, what and whither? in which Dunn attempts to give new direction to the debate. He takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the Pauline landscape as he sees it. He indicates to his fellow travelers how different aspects of the landscape relate to and fit into one another.

The first section provides a brief orientation to the reader on how he came to accept and develop the New Perspective. This is followed by a section: "Clarifying confusions and misunderstandings," in which he urges critics to "focus on the central thrust of the case and not allow itself to be distracted by phrases which might have been chosen more carefully, or by specifically directed comments taken out of context" (p 16). He deals with the following criticisms: that the New Perspective was set up as a repudiation of the traditional Lutheran view of faith and justification (pp 17-22); that he had reduced "works of law" to a few "boundary markers" (pp 22-26); that Paul's objection to law was merely about a certain attitude (pp 26-33); and that he had reduced Paul's view of justification to a pragmatic solution to a relationship problem amongst Christians (pp 33-37).

He should be credited for his thoroughness in dealing with different texts, as well as his willingness to enter into debate with fellow scholars who have challenged - even severely criticized - his thesis, as much as he is willing to take comfort in and acknowledge those who have supported him. He takes pains to acknowledge criticisms that have been aired, especially those of the last decade. He tries to react in a balanced way, also acknowledging that "there is some justification for these critical comments since my early formulations were not sufficiently refined. So at least some restatement is called for" (p 17). In this regard the footnotes in his introduction are extremely important. It is his reactions to these criticisms that really take the debate forward.

It has to be said that although the Dunn who writes this introduction is willing to deal fairly with criticism and to reformulate more carefully, he does make comments that do not fit into this picture. On page 21 he remarks: "I am astonished by and repudiate entirely the charge that `the new perspective on Paul' constitutes an attack on and denial of that Lutheran fundamental. Anyone who reads that from my writing is reading in what he wants to see, not reading out what is there. The point I am trying to make is simply that there is another dimension (or other dimensions) of the biblical doctrine of God's justice and of Paul's teaching on justification which have been overlooked and neglected, and that it is important to recover these aspects and to think them through afresh in the changing circumstances of today's world" (21). Dunn probably had not intended to attack the Lutheran position, but rereading the relevant articles, such an impression is created. It most definitely is the impression shared by the very elaborate list of "responsible scholars" he refers to (21). It would have been more fitting not to question the intentions of his critics, but simply to use the opportunity to set the record straight.

In the third section of his introduction, Dunn acknowledges that the past decade's scholarly debate has brought him "to a sharper and more nuanced appreciation of what was at stake for Paul" (p 38). In this section he tries to take the debate forward, focusing on Galatians: 3:10-14 (pp 38-41); Romans 3:19-20, 4:4-8 and 9:11-12 (pp 41-47); on the issue of whether Paul broke with the law (pp 47-50); and the later writings of the Pauline corpus (pp 51-54). He adds a fourth section in which he deals with the question of whether Sanders' point of view is possibly an exaggeration (pp 55-63); whether justification by faith is complimented by some kind of a process (pp 63-72); the role of works in God's judgement upon believers (pp 72-80); and participation in Christ leading to transformation (pp 80-86).

This book should certainly be added to the libraries of all individuals and institutions with an interest in Pauline studies. Not all students across the world have access to the relevant journals and publications in which these articles originally appeared. Whether or not one agrees with Dunn in everything he proposes, or even as far as his main thesis is concerned, is beside the point. His position has become so prominent, articulated and influential, that no Pauline scholar can proceed without taking due cognizance of Dunn's perspective. The publishers and author should be thanked for providing in this need.

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