Michael Kruger on Canon Fodder engaged with an interesting question about whether the New Perspective on Paul is reflective of our current cultural context. In lieu of a “Lutheran” emphasis on sin and guilt, the New Perspective has been influenced by modern-day socio-political concerns about nationalism and ethnocentrism and read those concerns into Paul’s letters. Michael Bird has given a nuanced response, emphasizing the parts of Paul’s letters that don’t fit within the standard Reformed theology. The implication of Bird’s post is that there are good reasons for considering the NPP as a better option than that of Lutheran-Reformed hermeneutics.
However, for me, I want to challenge the implicit assumption in the question that suggests if one’s hermeneutics has been influenced by one’s culture, then one is no longer reading the text in its appropriate historical context. It rests on one of the ‘sacred’ principles of modern biblical criticism: one best understands a Biblical text by reading it in the context of the history in which the text was originally composed.
I am not about to challenge the value of the principle in theory, but present a challenge to our understanding of the principle in practice. Many post-modern/post-structuralists critiques might be readily applied in rejection of this historical emphasis that inform my own understanding, but I don’t want to reject the task of biblical criticism or the possibility of understanding a text from its original historical context. Instead, I present a “cognitive myth” that has formed based upon our way of speaking about hermeneutics and communication: the myth of perspective-taking.
The perspective-taking myth operates on this basic idea: that in order to understand someone, we should try to see things as they see things in order to rightly understand. A noble idea that undergirds much of understanding of empathy, morality, and even interpretation. But the reason for the myth is this: we can never truly take on another person’s perspective. We are always, inescapably seeing things from our own perspective. I am always egocentric in a cognitive sense. This egocentricity doesn’t entail that I am always absorbed with my own concerns. For instance, I am perfectly capable of making judgments based upon what I think would be better for another person than what I know would be good for myself. Or, I am perfectly able to imagine what someone might seem like from another person’s perspective, even if I am not presently in that perspective. But at no point in my focusing on another person am I doing anything but changing the perspective that I myself operate from. What is true is that my own perspective can change through engagement with other people. I can be influenced by someone else to see things differently. But it is always my perspective.
I never directly access the cognitive perspective of another. Rather their words, actions, facial expressions, etc. can impact me in such a way that my own perspective is changed in such a way that we express the same things, act in concert with each other, etc. Rather than taking on another person’s perspective, it is more strictly a matter of being (a) being able to perceive what another person says and does by (b) cognitively flexible adjust how we construe things and (c) patient enough to receive that feedback so that we can adjust our construal.
Furthermore, there is no way of thinking about our thinking (meta-cognition) that will deliver us a successful understanding of another. Many of the practices we have been encouraged to engage in to check in our own thinking on the matter doesn’t actually deliver understanding to us. Meta-cognition can impact the way we understand when we judge that our thinking can and/or should have been different, but this judgment does not deliver us understanding itself. Instead, our meta-cognitive self-assessment can create the conditions by which our own perspective changes. Nevertheless, it is our perceptions of another that can deliver a change of perspective that more functionally resembles another person’s perspective.
Now, when it comes to Biblical exegesis, our methodologies operate as a form of meta-cognition that regulate our thinking about the Biblical texts themselves. For instance, in my research on 1 Corinthians 2, I am particularly concerned about having a coherent reading of 1 Corinthians. I originally interpreted the actions of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2, which is described by power, revelation, training in speech, and discernment, as referring to interior, cognitive events, but then I notice similar language in 1 Corinthians 12, 14 that refers to people’s actions empowered by the Spirit, then my methodology leads me to reconsider my understanding of those actions in 1 Corinthians 2. My methodology allows me to recognize that I should perhaps think about the passage differently, but I didn’t ‘magically’ gain Paul’s perspective by my metacognitive methodology. Rather, in my concern about coherence, I assumed that 1 Corinthians 2 is referring to the same things that 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are, and I reread 1 Corinthians 2 in light of my understanding of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. What is my point here? It is that my methodology cognitively catalyzed the capacity to change my interpretation because I recognized one perspective was inconsistent with my methodology. But I never ceased to escape my perspective, even as I changed my perspective.
This seems pretty fundamental and intuitive when spelled out, but we readily forget this process. Every time we judge the insufficiency of a biblical interpretation because we can identify how interpreters are simply reading their own personal and cultural concerns into the text, we work under the myth of perspective-taking, that we can somehow take another person’s perspective.
This doesn’t capitulate to some sort of absolute relativism. The possibility of rightly understanding is still perfectly possible, but we can never verify our right understanding apart from anything other than by our perspective being changed by the words and actions of another. My own meta-cognitive assessment of my own thinking doesn’t deliver an understanding of another person’s thinking, but rather a judgment about my own thinking. Rather, the test of my understanding is how well my ideas reflect the words and actions of the person I am seeking to understand.
This brings me back to the question of the NPP. Yes, certainly, the NPP reflects present cultural concerns. The concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism certainly color readings of Paul. Such an assessment is a cognitive assessment about thinking, which ultimately is a meta-cognitive assessment of one’s own thinking that one imagines another to be using. But the value of such assessments is not in determining whether someone else is right or wrong in our understanding, but simply to help us to be cognitively flexible and receptive to information and feedback.
The real assessment for the validity of the NPP vs. the traditional Lutheran-Reformed reading is how well each understanding makes sense of the text as a whole. How much does one’s interpretation reflect the expressions of Paul as they are presented in his discourse? Does one’s interpretations rely upon complex, cognitive schemas that is rarely, if ever, expressed by Paul? If not, then one has a stronger footing for one’s interpretation. However, if it does, it doesn’t rule out one’s interpretations, but then one needs to show evidence that such a cognitive schema would have been implicit by either a) explicit appeals to other texts that we can consider to plausibly expressing ideas Paul would be familiar with, b) some human universal about thinking, and c) or a combination of the two that allows us to reliably imagine how people might think about something even if it is never directly expressed.
This is where the NPP is superior to the Lutheran-Reformed readings. As Michael Bird’s blog post demonstrates, the Lutheran-Reformed interpretations frequently understand Paul in such a way where the critical ideas they find in Paul seem to go unexpressed by Paul.
For another example, the idea of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the believer’s account is never explicitly expressed by Paul, nor is such a schema present within Second Temple Judaism. Rather, the idea of transferred-and-imputed righteousness reflects more so an attempt of resolving intellectual dilemmas of a system of thinking that takes sin and guilty to be an ontological reality that exists independent of (a) the God-human relation and (b) the feelings of humans that Christ must address; if (a) sin-guilt exists apart from the recognition of it by God and people and (b) sin-guilt has the power to impact one’s future, then one must address this ‘power’ to bring people into communion with God. The tension between the metaphysical belief and belief about the future necessitates a form of resolution of this cognitive dissonance. However, such a portrayal of sin and guilt does not exist in Paul, thereby rendering unnecessary the doctrine of imputation that resolves the dissonance that operates in Protestantism but not Paul. The imputation of righteousness is a niche intellectual problem for the theological systems in which the independent ontological existence is predicated of sin and guilt, but that theological system doesn’t seem to have sufficient “points of contact” with Paul’s own discourse and the milieu he operated in to suggest Paul shared these same convictions.
Meanwhile, I would attribute the superiority of the NPP to the traditional Lutheran-Reformed interpretation based in part on the more universal nature of social identity that undergirds both (a) modern concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism and (b) Roman imperialism and concerns about Jewish identity. While modern and ancient concerns do seem to be different expressions of social identity, they both have a common socio-biological mechanism that permeates all of human life. The NPP is no longer beholden to the more niche concerns about early Protestantism that constrain interpretation but has become freer to read Paul for what he says in light of sociological principles that are more general than the niche nature of early Protestantism.
Now, the proponents of the NPP have not escaped their own perspective, but rather much as Hans-Georg Gadamer talks about, their own interpretation starts from their own perspective. However, because their perspective is less niche but accords more with general experiences of human life, it is better able to understand the Pauline texts from the past than the Lutheran-Reformed tradition. This doesn’t make the NPP correct in all that it states or the Luthern-Reformed tradition wrong in everything. However, it does suggest that the NPP will have readings that are more consistent with the Pauline texts on a whole, and thus a better theological reading if we value sola scriptura rather than the Luthern-Reformed tradition.
However, the strength of NPP and other like-minded readers of Paul can also serve as its weakness, because the specific way we are concerned about social identity can become niche for our own time that isn’t really suitable for Paul. Today, we have a distinctive concern about the social ills of injustices of racism and various social phobias; we desire a world that does not experience the inequalities and divisions that differences of ethnicity, gender, etc. have created. While Paul expresses a desire for unity between people, it is not center-less unity but it is a unity grounded in the person of Christ. Whereas today, we tend to try to address the problems of distinctive social identities and cultures by the virtues of tolerance and the aversion to dogmatisms that leaves people’s own social identities largely intact and unchallenged, Paul sees a new social identity emerging in Christ that takes priority over other forms of social identity. So, while concerns about unity and love today and in Paul can resemble each other in some ways in terms of the goal we seek for, the manner in which Paul then and we today address the problem of social divisions are distinctly different.
Therefore, insofar as the NPP becomes a transmitter of the values of modern liberalism and/or progressivism, it can inculcate a way of reading Paul that misses the vital differences from Paul and us today. Instead, I would say that for Paul, the person of Jesus Christ is the center of reconciliation, not simply someone who advocated for reconciliation, lived and died for reconciliation, or even makes reconciliation possible. Jesus is not some instrument of reconciliation or an authority on the value of reconciliation that we should listen to, but in His own person the way towards reconciliation is realized and embodied that others can participate in and come to embody themselves through active work of the Holy Spirit.
So, the more general perspective of the NPP based upon matters of social identity does not secure an understanding of the vital center of Paul. The more niche concerns influenced by the NPP and our modern contextual concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism can cause us to overlook where Paul differs in favor of where we can find Paul resembling our own concerns. There is a certain danger of a cosmopolitan ignorance with the NPP in virtue of its broader learning and reliance upon a more general, universal concern that touches based with matters of social identity.
Nevertheless, NPP being a product of its own culture that is influenced by an awareness of a wider array of cultures that makes it more concerned about more universal concerns of human life rather than the more niche concerns of early Protestantism. In virtue of this very fact, I would argue the NPP provides a more reliable reading of the whole of Paul to the Lutheran-Reformed tradition, even if the Lutheran-Reformed tradition does get a few things right in my book and the NPP can go off the rails. NPP has a more reliable starting point to understand the Pauline letters than the more niche theological concerns of early Protestantism,