The crux of the fierce criticism of the New Perspective on Paul is what I will call an Augustinian anthropology. Here me out because I think this is behind nearly every criticism I’m hearing of the NPP, and many times I’m not hearing that it is this that is actually prompting the criticism.
Behind the Reformation is Augustine; behind much of modern evangelicalism, especially in the Reformed circles today, is the Reformation. Therefore, at the bottom of the evangelical movement in the Reformed circles is Augustine and his anthropology. The New Perspective, by and large, probably does not adopt a fully Augustinian anthropology but it is rare that such an issue arises in the discussion. At times I hear the NPP doesn’t have an adequate theory of sin — well, I think NPP would say “Neither does the Reformation. So there!” So, let’s dig into this just a bit today and see if we can shed some light on the NPP and help us all.
What is Augustine’s anthropology? (I’m no specialist on this, but this is how I understand it. Experts chime in.)
1. Humans are born in original sin.
2. Humans are bound to their sinful natures.
3. Humans have an incurable itch to justify themselves and seek merit.
4. But humans cannot please God because they are bound to those sinful natures that cannot please God.
5. Humans are therefore “naturally” condemned before God.
6. They are in need of God’s awakening grace and new life — through the Holy Spirit.
7. The only way out of this condition of self-justification and merit-seeking is to surrender that selfish, proud self-image and cast oneself on God in the mercy of Christ through the regenerating power of the Spirit.
[A friend and colleague, an Augustinian scholar, reworks my points into this:
I think Augustine would agree to some form of each of the statements you have listed. However, I don't think it quite gets at the core of Augustine's thoughts or concerns. or to put it differently, it identifies Augustine's positions as they emerged in his debate with Pelagians and not so much with the rest of his thought.
I think he always remained a rhetorician rather than a systematic thinker, so the images he employs are often more fundamental than an abstract statement of his doctrine. In the Confessions, the guiding image is that of the prodigal son (kind of overlaid on some semi-Plotinian metaphysics). I don't think Augustine's first word in his anthropology is "sin". I think it is "love." Sin is just love gone bad -- as evil is good gone bad. So maybe to rephrase it, using the vocabulary of the earlier Augustine.
1. Humans, like God, are lovers.
2 and 3. Humans though are bad lovers, redirecting their love from God to the good things God made. This creates in them disordered desires.
4. Humans have become incapable of loving God for himself (instead of themselves) and loving other things "in" God.
5. Humans are incapable of being happy, like the prodigal son who exchanged his father's table for eating husks with the pigs.
Each of these elements shapes the Reformers’ perception of the gospel, salvation, and how to understand Paul. But there is more…
Standing next to Augustine’s anthropology is the way to attack the human [is this too strong?] in preaching the gospel: show that human that they are selfish, merit-seeking people who are in need of seeing their sinfulness and need of grace. Show them they need to trust and give up on their own works. The starting point for Reformed gospel preaching is an anthropology; that anthropology for many is Augustinian; that anthropology is pure selfishness.
The Law factors into this as far as I can tell in this way: the Law is how corrupted humans seek to earn favor with God; they climb the Law to find their way to God.
But, Paul is interpreted to say that’s not the way; that way is legalism and death. The gospel, which this view tends to pit over against the Law in the severest of ways, is the way to redemption — through grace, by faith, and faith alone.
If the New Perspective teaches — rightly or not — that neither the opponents of Paul nor Jews in general were merit-seeking humans, then the central foil of the gospel — how to understand the human condition and how to attack human nature — is undercut and the entire framework of the gospel is changed. Thus, the critics of the New Perspective are aiming at the soteriological framework of the NPP that they (critics) have assumed to be right, that they have inherited from Calvin-Luther-Augustine, and which they believe was at the heart of Paul’s theology. I am not saying that all of the Reformed contention here is what I sometime ago called “grace grinding” (talking about grace but doing so only to grind a human into selfish dust), but what I am saying that the Reformed tradition operates with a self-conscious anthropology that derives from Augustine (who provided an interpretive grid for the NT texts).
Stendahl and Sanders laid blame on Luther for seeing in the Judaizers the Roman Catholic Church. That may or may not be the case. What to me is the case is that the real opponent of Paul for the old perspective is not the Catholic Church but Pelagius. NPP folks need to harp less on Luther and his Catholic polemic and start focusing on Augustine and Pelagius. Did Augustine get it right? Did Augustine get it right when he saw in Pelagius the human condition writ large?
The question is this: Was this the anthropology of Paul? Of Judaism? of the Old Testament? Was Paul’s gospel shaped by this anthropology?
There are, of course, other elements, and one of them is central and I’d beg you to listen to this one: if one finds an element or two in the NPP inaccurate that does not mean that the whole thing has to be tossed overboard. I’m seeing far too many “all or nothing” approaches to this issue — from both sides.