The New Perspective on Paul, falsely so-called, is not a recent phenomenon. I doubt I have any “new” light to shed on the topic. On the other hand, I think I can pinpoint the key issues in the New Perspective and why the Reformed tradition reacted so wildly against it.
Obviously, there are many areas of contention between the NPP and Reformed camp, but I will only pick one area. It concerns the phrase “works of the law.” Does “works of the law” equal “man’s attempt to gain righteousness before God on his individual works” or does it mean “the ethnic boundary markers of Judaism”?
I maintain, with the NPP, that “works of the law” means “ethnic boundary markers.” This reading actually makes sense of the whole fuss on circumcision in Galatians. On the other hand, if Paul truly wanted to combat works-righteousness, then he wasted a lot of (precious) ink talking about Jewish rites. Rather, if we say “boundary markers,” then the narrative (deliberate use of the word) of Galatians (and Romans) flows more smoothly.
The problem is not “how can I find a gracious God?” but “Given the mess Israel and the world are in, and the strange events of Jesus the Messiah, how can God be in the right?”
In Galatians 2:18 Paul says “if I rebuilt what I tore down I make myself out to be a sinner.” The language of “rebuilding” and “tearing down” implies some kind of fence or wall. What do fences and walls do? They demarcate boundaries. They say, “this and not that.” What is Paul fussing about in Galatians? He is dealing with the problem of circumcision and Jews and Gentiles eating at different tables. In other words, he is angry because men are acting like they have different identities even though there is one Messiah. Nobody is trying to “earn” his or her salvation by “merit” ala Pelagius.
Therefore, when Paul is rejecting works of the law, he is doing so in the context of circumcision. But what was circumcision for in the Old Covenant? It demarcated the identity of the covenant people of God. If we keep this reading in mind, Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 12, 17, and 18 in Galatians 3 actually stays relevant to the point (on the other hand, insert “works righteousness” and it’s hard to see how the nations being blessed before Abraham was circumcised makes any sense).
Therefore, “works of the law” = “circumcision” = “Jewish identity rites.”
But why does the Reformed faith get so angry over the above exegesis? While I reject sola fide the way Calvinists define it, nothing I’ve written above contradicts even their reading of justification. Nothing above advocates earning “medieval merit” (in fact, I think the above reading refutes that). Sure, they have to change the mindset of their systematic theologians, and perhaps need to start asking different questions, but since they chant “sola scriptura” even that should not be a problem).
So what is the problem? The problem is if they accept this reading they can’t immediately start bashing Roman Catholicism. (Yes, I reject Catholicism, too, but not for those readings.) This is a big deal because Calvinism, being formed in the Augustinian dialectic, necessarily demands Catholicism as an antithesis. (Keep in mind that Hegelianism isn’t simply thesis versus antithesis = synthesis. Rather, the thesis posits it’s antithesis while simultaneously remaining the thesis. I’m accepting Charles Taylor’s reading of Hegel on this point). Therefore, if Galatians wasn’t written as the blast against Roman Catholicism, then Calvinists are in trouble.
I think it is more than that, though. All traditions and communities have metanarratives. Calvinism’s metanarrative, in its more honest moments, is that Roman Catholicism teaches merit-righteousness and Galatians and Romans refutes precisely that.
I think it is even more personal than that. We can’t admit our heroes were on the wrong track. The hagiography surrounding Luther and Calvin would put any Orthodox monk-author to shame. Some go so far to identify their experiences with Luther even to falsifying their own childhood experiences (God pulled me off of a Harley at age 9, etc). If Luther’s reading of Galatians is wrong, so the argument goes, then Luther is wrong.
While I do think Luther was wrong, the above argument is logically fallacious, and even when I was a Calvinist I told them as much. They didn’t listen, though. Narratives are powerful stuff.