Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica, eds, Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019)

Great new book on the “old” vis-à-vis “new” perspective(s) on Paul
A brief synopsis by R. Todd Mangum, PhD, Clemens Professor of Missional Theology


Hot off the press and well worth the read is this book that does a masterful job of laying out the topography of “perspectives” on Paul and illustrating (with sample sermonettes) the difference the various perspectives make in preaching (and applying) “the real point(s)” of Romans. If you are anything like me, I was aware of the major differences between “old perspective” and “new perspective” on Paul, but soon could get lost in some of the intramural discussions among Pauline scholars. In about 100 pages, the book lays out the lay of the land, the topography of “perspectives” in a clear way that tells you who is what and who goes where on the spectrum.

Of the “four” perspectives, three would fall under “new perspective”; meaning one of the “four perspectives,” then, is the“old” perspective (called in this book the “Lutheran” or “Reformational” perspective).  I was surprised to find Michael Bird under that (chastised and nuanced but still ‘old’) Lutheran/Reformational perspective.  (Thomas Schreiner and Carl Trueman were no surprise – but Michael Bird? . . . And how does he get to be the guy making videos with Tom Wright, then? . . . No wonder I couldn’t keep the actors straight!)  Richard Hays is among the contributors, Michael Gorman, James Dunn, Tim Gombis, Will Willimon – i.e., a regular hall-of-fame of Pauline scholarship!  N.T. Wright’s work is “ever present” though he himself never makes an actual “appearance” among the contributors.

Honestly, before reading this book, I could not have outlined with any confidence or clarity what are some of the differences AMONG PROPONENTS of the so-called “new perspective.” (I could have done pretty well comparing and contrasting “old” and “new” perspectives, but this book is what gave me any sense of clarity and confidence in some of the difference AMONG “new perspective” proponents. . . . )

So . . . what are the “four perspectives”? Here goes:

  • The “old perspective” (the “Lutheran/Reformational” perpective and the reading of Romans/Paul most commonly advocated by Protestants over against Catholicism): In this book, the “old perspective” is nuance and chastened – yes, yes, antinomian tendencies have been too high and too pronounced in traditional Protestantism (in evangelicalism, particularly), but still: to hear Paul in Romans as arguing that one does not earn one’s way to heaven by what one does, that one’s sins are forgiven through what God did in the atonement and one’s eternal destiny with God is made sure by placing one’s faith in Christ and the cross work of Christ is not a misreading of Paul.  (And that laborious way of stating it – this “is not a misreading of Paul” is the way it’s often put by advocates of ‘the old perspective” in this book.)
  • “New Perspective 1” (the original “new perspective”): Paul is actually a Jew, the gospel he proclaims more Jewish/OT grounded (rather than OT [moral] Law) repudiating), than what Luther and the Reformers and Christian scholarship ever since has thought and claimed.
  • “New Perspective 2”: the gospel/justification by faith Paul forwards is a gospel, not of “believe these historical/theological truths about Jesus’s Person and Atoning Work and what you do doesn’t matter, your sins are eradicated so you can go to heaven” but rather: Christ is Messianic King/Lord and accomplishes and invites participation in the Trinitarian relationship, life, and mission – most notably: in the death (to self) and redemptive resurrection Kingdom work accomplished and being accomplished by God at great cost (and with great mystery)
  • “New Perspective 3”: the gospel Paul conveys is a message of Christ’s bringing apocalyptic revelation and inaugurating apocalyptic (eschatological) redemption into human history.  Thus, the “apocalyptic” version of “new perspective” brings in both senses of the term “apocalyptic”: “revealing” (mysteries previously and/or otherwise unknown re God, His character, work, and purposed) and in the eschatological sense. The messianic King’s invitation is participatory (too), but in this version the emphasis is on participation in the apocalyptic mission, which displays and forwards the loving character of God and brings justice and reconciliation shalom wherever it Spirit-empoweredly goes.

Many of the writers note that overlap and mediating positions are possible (up to and including with the “old perspective,” so long as that “old perspective” is nuanced sufficiently).  Also of note: the first half of the book is the real substance (and what I found most helpful); the second half are samples of how Romans is “preached” (differently) with the varying emphases of the above.  Still some top NT scholars doing some of those “illustrative sermons”; I found the second half both “Oh, that’s nice; yeah, good – NT theology should be homiletical/practical not just academic” and also (as, admittedly, an academic myself . . . ) a little bit of a letdown after the densely written and intensely helpful first half. . . .

This really is a good read – and helps lay out the issues of what’s involved – and what is the spectrum (and who’s on it, and where) – regarding the “new perspective(s)” on Paul and how scholars’ “perspective” on Paul is impacted by such key hermeneutical and interpretive issues as what Paul means, exactly, by “justification by faith,” pistis Christou, being “in Christ,” etc.