For quite some time now I've been both attracted by, and frustrated with, the New Perspective on Paul. It's primary proponents, including James Dunn, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and Krister Stendahl, do biblical interpretation that is fresh and faithful, and I have gained much reading their work.
On the other hand, their constant reference to the "Lutheran" understanding of justification and the law betrays a lack of nuanced understanding of the development of Lutheran theology and the living voice of Lutheranism within the Christian eocumene.
So, it has been a joy to read Erik M. Heen's essay in the Autumn 2010 issue of Lutheran Quarterly, "A Lutheran Response to the New Perspective on Paul." I appreciate his essay for at least the following reasons:
1) He has done his research, reading thoroughly the work of all the main proponents of the NPP. Having read only some of each of their work, I've had the suspicions and reactions he has, but not the time or energy to engage them all critically and carefully.
2) He offers a nuanced view of the law and justification in contemporary Lutheran perspective.
3) He has helped me see precisely where and in what ways the NPP veers from the understanding of justification Lutherans have learned from Paul.
While reading the essay, I kept hoping Wright, Dunn, and others would read Heen's essay. I think they would find him a friendly reader of their work who could help them clear up some of their misunderstandings of Lutheran theology. He might not convince them to re-think Second Temple Judaism and Paul, but I hope they would understand Lutheran theology in a new way, and perhaps use a different term to label the kind of misunderstanding of Pauline justification they are lamenting.
What do I hope they would understand concerning Lutheran theology. First, that Lutherans approach the law not from the perspective of what it is or says, but what it does. Lutherans tend to talk about the "uses" of the law (I tend to think there are two, Melanchthon thought there were three, the Lutheran orthodox thought there were four).
Second, that Lutherans do not (at least in general) tip towards the kind of antinomian understanding of the law that Wright and others lament. Lutherans steeped in their tradition will tend towards the dialectic Luther offers in his The Freedom of the Christian (1520). “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Finally, if they spent some time reading Lutheran theology, they would find out that Lutherans have never, even during the period of Lutheran orthodoxy, only held to a narrowly construed "forensic" justification. I especially wish they'd read more material from the Luther renaissance, what Heen dubs "The New Perspective on Luther."
I think what is at issue, at least for Wright, who is the scholar I have read the most closely, is the shape or nature of sanctification in relation to justification. For Luther, justification simply IS sanctification.However, many Lutheran scholars have moved to understandings of the relationship between the two that develop it, such as the Finnish interpretation of Luther and the emphasis on participation in Christ.
I love this quote in Heen: "At least for this Lutheran, when I read NPP characterizations of Lutheranism or the 'old perspective,' I do not recognize them as adequate, even for paraphrases. Often, the proposed alternatives to the Lutheran position on any number of issues seem more Lutheran than what they presumably critique" (285).