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Did the Reformers Misread Paul? | Book Review

Reviewed by Luke Todd

41F7tIZ1rlLDid the Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective

By Aaron O’Kelley
Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014
188 pp. | $23.00

 

 

 

 

 

In this book, O’Kelley critiques the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), while not actually engaging much with the NPP itself. He isn’t the only one out to discredit the NPP, but his work here (which is the outgrowth of his Ph.D. dissertation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under Dr. Gregg Allison) remains a unique contribution. Rather than simply swinging a sledgehammer at the NPP, O’Kelley thinks he has found a crack in its foundation, and that he might take down the whole house with one well-placed stick of dynamite.

What, then, is the fissure that O’Kelley has found to exploit? A fundamental NPP premise accuses the Protestant Reformers of anachronistically reading the legalism of sixteenth century Roman Catholicism back into the Judaism of Paul’s day, causing them to misinterpret Paul. In a bit of a twist, O’Kelley steps in at this point to defend late medieval Catholicism against the NPP’s charge of legalism. The Reformers took issue not with a graceless legalism, but instead with a grace-filled, mono-covenantal system that simply failed to distinguish between law and gospel. In response, the Reformers advanced a doctrine of justification sola fide, with a bi-covenantal distinction between law and gospel.

To establish his thesis, O’Kelley examines the doctrine of justification in late medieval theology, in the Reformation proper, and in the post-Reformation period. He finds evidence throughout that the Catholicism in the crosshairs of the Reformers was no more legalistic than the Second Temple Judaism proposed by the NPP, and that, in fact, the two had rather a lot in common on this particular theological question.

While not without its weaknesses, this is an important book, and one with significant strengths. O’Kelley has given us a nuanced take on the theological battle at the heart of the Reformation, thankfully taking us beyond a simplistic caricature of grace versus works. By so doing, he successfully supports his thesis: just as Paul was not out to correct a predominately legalistic Judaism, neither were the Protestants out to reform a graceless Roman Catholicism.

However, precisely in his efforts to make this point, O’Kelley has, perhaps inadvertently, proven the importance of the NPP. After all, it was the pressure placed on the old perspective that has produced a more robust vision of Second Temple Judaism (and now, of late medieval Roman Catholicism), even among those who do not embrace the NPP. The fact that NPP scholars got away with their caricature of the Reformation for so long highlights popular Protestantism’s need to rightly remember its roots. It’s unfortunate that O’Kelley lets this critique of the old perspective remain implicit when he so explicitly critiques the NPP along the same lines.

For a book that targets a presupposition (that the Reformation critique of Catholicism was about grace versus works), it makes significant assumptions of its own. Most evident is O’Kelley’s supposition that the entire NPP is built on this one flawed argument. After the smoke has cleared from his detonation, the NPP appears weakened, though still upright, but his own perspective looks to have taken some collateral damage in the blast as well.

O’Kelley has done a service to the discussion, by forcing both sides to deal in nuance and self-examination, but he has neither destroyed the new perspective, nor wholly vindicated the old. His brief exegetical work at the end—largely a rehearsal of standard arguments—was a startling anti-climax, leaving me hungry for a perspective that is neither old nor new. In sum, I am left longing for a perspective that takes seriously the call of semper reformanda: always digging deeper, always searching for new insight, always striving to hear just a little more clearly the voice of God.

 

Luke Todd is an Elder at Grace Bible Church in downtown Portland and the Enrollment Team Leader for Western Seminary’s Portland and Online campuses. He completed the Master of Arts (Biblical and Theological Studies) and is now pursuing postgraduate studies in the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program.


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