Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004.

The amount of material published on Paul has grown exponentially over the past two decades, due in no small part to the explosive popularity of the New Perspective on Paul.  In Perspectives Old and New on Paul, Stephen Westerholm (McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario) surveys contemporary Pauline interpretations, critiquing the New Perspective and advocating a traditional perspective of Paul.


Traditional understandings of Paul, which saw Paul’s opponents as focused on salvation by works, were challenged in 1977 with the publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders argued that Palestinian Judaism held to “covenantal nomism,” a belief that salvation was by grace, though only to those who participated in the Sinaitic covenant. Sanders saw Jewish Christians as believing that Christianity was simply the next stage of the Sinaitic covenant, and Gentile Christians were, fundamentally, Gentile proselytes to a grace-centric Judaism. Since, in Sanders view, Gentile proselytes to historical Judaism also believed in salvation through grace, the “works of the law” described by Paul were simply “boundary markers” which demonstrated faith in the God of the Sinaitic covenant. Paul’s opponents, then, were Jewish Christians who saw themselves as saved by grace but who failed to recognize that the Sinaitic covenant had ended—rather than evolved—through Christ’s work on the cross. Christ had come to put away the law and fulfill the primordial covenant to bless all nations and ethnicities through Abraham’s seed. Sanders believed that Paul sought to dispel his opponents’ Judeo-centrism and desired to show that God was now reaching out to the broader world, beyond ethnic Judaism, in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham. Proponents of one variety of covenantal nomism or another have come to view their position as the “New Perspective on Paul” (or NPP) and have—for a variety of reasons—labeled the traditional understanding of Paul as “Lutheran.”

While traditional interpreters of Paul may voice assent to a number of points in the NPP interpretation, they fundamentally differ with the NPP in their understanding of Paul’s opponents. It follows from this essential distinction that traditional interpreters also disagree with the interpretation of many passages in which the NPP sees Paul as arguing against ethnic exclusion. Those passages are viewed by traditional interpreters as arguments against salvation by law-keeping. Westerholm has added his opposition to the NPP in this greatly-expanded update to his 1988 publication, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith. In Perspectives Old and New on Paul, Westerholm advocates a traditional interpretation while accommodating several proposals from the New Perspective.


In part one, Westerholm begins with a historical survey of interpretation leading up to the twentieth century and the emerging New Perspective on Paul. A humorous imaginary vignette in the book’s introduction is followed by helpful summaries of the soteriology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. The chapters move through the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption, reflecting the story through the eyes of each theologian. Since so much of Christian theology emerges from the writings of Paul, this first section comprises more than an introduction to Pauline theology, serving more broadly as a historical overview of the Christian doctrine of soteriology.

In part two, the author follows the development of Pauline theology through the twentieth-century in a globe-trotting, roughly-chronological fashion as each generation of scholarship interacts with the work of the preceding generations. Westerholm traces threads of Pauline theology from William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer through Claude G. Montefiore, Hans Joachim Schoeps, E. P. Sanders, W. G. Kümmel, Krister Stendahl, Rudolf Bultmann, Ulrich Wilckens, John W. Drane, Hans Hübner, Heikki Räisänen, N.T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and Terence Donaldson.  Through this historical survey, Westerholm shows that the New Perspective on Paul is the product of successive stages of New Testament scholarship throughout the twentieth century, the tenor of which became increasingly resistant to the Reformation perspective of Paul and, in particular, against Luther’s perspective. Several “Lutheran” responses from the last two decades are brought in toward the end of the section (C. E. B. Cranfield, Thomas Schreiner, Andrew Das, Frank Thielman, and Mark Seifrid), as well as several alternative twentieth-century views of Pauline theology (Timo Laato, Lauri Thurén, Jean-Noël Aletti, J. Louis Martyn, and Jürgen Becker).

Westerholm’s treatment of these writers is refreshingly objective, and one gets the impression that Westerholm has really gone out of his way to give his readers the arguments with as little filter as possible. At times this is a distraction, because one wonders whether each thinker will play positively or negatively into Westerholm’s later arguments for his own position. Many of his subjects are left without rebuttal or appraisal, even when Westerholm moves into his own theology in part three.

In the third section, Westerholm lays out his own explanation of Paul, an interpretation trending generally toward the traditional perspective. However, Westerholm modifies the historical interpretation by admitting a more positive appraisal of Rabbinic Judaism (350-351). Westerholm concedes to the NPP that Paul’s fellow-Jews may very well have viewed themselves as being saved by grace. In fact, Westerholm goes so far as to say that Paul himself, pre-conversion, seemed to share this view with his contemporaries. As a consequence of his salvation, Paul was pushed to re-examine his Judaism asking why it was that, if righteousness could have come by the law, Christ would have had to have died. What problem was his death was solving? Westerholm’s admission that Paul moved in this way—“from solution to plight”—is a generous concession to NPP proponents. Westerholm says, “To this extent E. P. Sanders is certainly correct in insisting on the movement of Paul’s thought ‘from solution to plight’” (421). However, Westerholm explains this movement in such a way as to shore up the correctness of traditional Pauline theology: rather than fabricating the lostness of the human race and the powerlessness of the law as an answer to his dilemma, Paul read back through the scripture, and, for the first time, realized that he and his contemporary Jews had a self-confidence in their righteousness which was unsupported by the biblical narrative. Westerholm contends that Paul read the answer out of the text rather than into the text (as is sometimes contended by NPP proponents): “Like the reader of a novel with an unanticipated ending, Paul may well have felt that he first grasped the seriousness of scriptural appraisals of human sinfulness when he returned to ponder them in the light of the story’s climax” (421). In the closing pages of the book, Westerholm states, “Paul’s arguments bear all the marks of a Christian reevaluation” (438). This acceptance of a basic concept in the New Perspective—“the occasion that elicited the formulation of Paul’s doctrine” (445)—is commendably authentic, and it does not jeopardize the ultimate “Lutheran” outcome of Westerholm’s theology.

Key to Westerholm’s Lutheran interpretation is his view of righteousness and the law. Explaining that the New Perspective views righteousness as “transfer terminology” depicting justification through membership in the covenant, Westerholm counters by explaining that Paul viewed righteousness in two ways: first, as blamelessness through law-keeping (“ordinary” righteousness, found in the Old Testament) and, second, as a declaration of blamelessness for those who do not keep the law (“extraordinary” righteousness, found in Christ). Paul, according to Westerholm, viewed all humanity—Jew and Gentile alike—as incapable of achieving full justification before God without the advent of this second kind of “extraordinary” righteousness. The law, while given to man as a gift and accompanied by promises for obedience, did not help the Jews achieve any more righteousness than the Gentiles around them: only the law’s curses—not its blessings—befall those who follow the law. Reviewing NPP literature and alternative views of the law, Westerholm moves through the Pauline epistles (particularly Romans and Galatians) and develops his portrait of the law as something given to highlight human sinfulness and to contain the impact of sin—not as an avenue to achieve full justification before God.
Westerholm says,

The law, in the divine plan, is not an alternative competing with the promise that God would justify the nations by faith (3:21a); still less does it set that promise aside (3:17-18). Rather, it sets the stage for the promise’s fulfillment: it is precisely those confined by the law to the rule of sin who are to be declared righteous by faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Extraordinary righteousness, made possible through the death of God’s Son, comes into play where ordinary righteousness, demanded by the law, is demonstrably silent. (378)

Westerholm holds the reformation perspective on the multiple functions of the law, arguing that the law contains principles of righteous living drawn from an internal moral compass which outlive the law and in respect of which the Christian life is to be lived.

Westerholm closes with a final chapter clarifying the basic distinction between NPP and traditional interpretations: “Grace Abounding to Sinners or Erasing Ethnic Boundaries?” His own position is neatly summarized in the final paragraph of the book: “As I see things, the critics have rightly defined the occasion that elicited the formulation of Paul’s doctrine and have reminded us of its first-century social and strategic significance; the ‘Lutherans,’ for their parts, rightly captured Paul’s rationale and basic point” (445).


Westerholm’s book contains an open-minded appraisal of the New Perspective and a willingness to work with elements of that research program, including acceptance of facets of the solution-to-plight argument. Yet his doctrinal core, argued from the text with extensive interaction with the history of interpretation, is traditional. The fact that Luther saw so much of his own opponents in Paul’s opponents was not, in Westerholm’s position, Paul’s fault: the “Lutheran” Paul was not Lutheran—Luther was Pauline. To assume Luther read his own opponents—the self-righteous Romanism of Renaissance Europe—back into the text is to argue from the conclusion rather than from the evidence.

Several gentle critiques may be offered. First, while the book’s doctrinal summary would have been strengthened by a more extended treatment of Paul’s interpreters, including a few paragraphs of positive or negative assessment from Westerholm himself, it remains a helpful primer on Pauline theology. Second, some readers will be unsatisfied with Westerholm’s promising, but unexplored, both/and approach to Romans 7, in which Westerholm argues that neither a believer nor an unbeliever is in sight: “To seek to define whether he has in mind the Christian or the pre-Christian struggle with sin is probably to ask a question he did not intend to answer; indeed, his account seems to mix elements from both” (397). Third, many readers will be left wondering how Westerholm viewed the salvation of the lost before the Cross. Westerholm’s passing reference to this topic on page 284 leaves the reader looking for more. While at first glance it may appear that Westerholm is simply responding to the fact that Paul himself makes little reference to this topic, this does not elsewhere stop Westerholm from pushing into topics on which Paul provides only rare comment. Since Westerholm likely has his own position on the matter, one gets the impression that Westerholm was not prepared to discuss that topic in this book. That is unfortunate, as this book would have been an appropriate context for that discussion.

Nevertheless, the value of this book, both in terms of its historical survey and Westerholm’s own interpretive work, far outweighs these minor inconveniences. The clear writing found throughout the book is aided by the book’s scope and its fairness in treatments of opposing points of views. Additionally, the reader will enjoy the humorous elements Westerholm has scattered throughout the book, from a “Whimsical Introduction” describing Martin Luther’s surprise appearance in the Religion aisle of “The World’s Biggest Bookstore” (xiii) to the understated humor found in several footnotes, one of which mentions, as a matter of course, Paul’s Baptist affiliation (358, n.21; Westerholm himself is a Baptist).

Tightly argued and thoughtful in its presentation, Westerholm’s comprehensive, honest treatment of Pauline theology will likely remain¬ for some time a standard primer into Paul’s view of redemption-history for those who adopt the “Old” perspective of Paul.