(This post is an excerpt from my working manuscript provisionally titled Holiness in Fresh Perspective or Covenant, Cross, and Kingdom: Holiness in Fresh Perspective. All rights reserved)

For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions. — N.T. Wright

What is the Good News according to Paul? What did Paul, as a first century Jew, see when he looked at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messianic King? When Paul went out as an apostle to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Kingdom of God through Jesus, how did he understand what he was doing? These are the questions that the New Perspective, championed by N.T. Wright, has sought to answer.

The New Perspective sets out to interpret Paul on Paul’s terms, in light of Paul’s unique context. More specifically, the New Perspective seeks to recalibrate the interpretive lens in such a way so as to prioritize Paul’s first century judaic context. What we’re talking about is simply practicing good hermeneutics. It is time to make historical contexts foreign to Paul’s first century context take the back seat in the interpretive process. It’s time to allow Paul and his first century judaic context take the driver’s seat. Once we do this, things become, and continue to become, much clearer in understanding Paul and his thought and theology. As more information about first century judaism becomes available, the lens becomes sharper.

In terms of interpreting Paul, the protestant church has inherited a tradition that reads Paul too much in light of a historical-theological context that is foreign to Paul. The quote from N.T. Wright at the beginning of this chapter is written with those of the Reformed camp in mind (especially John Piper). However, is it not also true of the Wesleyan-Holiness heritage (if you exchange “sixteenth-century” with “eighteenth-century”)? Have those from the Wesleyan-Holiness heritage read Paul and his theology of holiness with Paul’s, or Wesley’s (or some other’s) context in mind? The holiness tradition as it stands today came about primarily as a movement within protestantism in reaction to certain Reformed doctrines, namely, the U-L-I-P of TULIP theology, as well as in reaction to nominal Christianity. This means that the context in which Wesley’s holiness doctrine developed was different than Paul’s first century judaic context. Wesley, as the point of departure for the holiness heritage, developed his own doctrine within a dialogue that is quite foreign from Paul’s. This, in many ways, is similar to Luther and his interpretation of Paul, particularly his interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans, in the sixteenth-century.

This being the case, just as the New Perspective has challenged the Reformed tradition to read Paul on Paul’s terms, it’s time for the Wesleyan Holiness heritage to do the same.  The  ultimate goal is to get precisely at what Paul is saying, over and above any other school of thought.

This is not to say that tradition should be rejected. However, this is to say that tradition should be evaluated in light of new data. More specifically, this is not to say that holiness doctrine is wrong or needs to be thrown out for something different. The question is what fresh insights can the holiness camp gain by putting on the New Perspective lens when reading Paul? What additional contours of Paul’s doctrine of holiness become visible when putting on a different interpretive lens?

Here we have the goal of this book. What is holiness according to Paul? Covenant, Cross and Kingdom: Holiness in Fresh Perspective (CCK), like the New Perspective, seeks to rediscover the concept of holiness in Paul’s terms, in light of Paul’s first-century judaic context. Once again, the goal here is not to prove or disprove Wesley’s holiness doctrine. Let’s be clear about that. To the contrary, the goal is to understand what Paul taught and believed about holiness in the life of the Church and reevaluate our tradition based on those terms. More than anything else, our evaluation will uncover that holiness accruing to Paul, is something much more than a state, it is a mission. We’ve been taught that holiness and christian perfection means having a circumcised heart, means loving God and neighbor. We will see from Paul that this indeed is true, however, it is not the entire story. The story of God’s mission to the world tells us that it is God’s holiness, his selfless love, that drives him to the cross. This is the holiness of the church according to Paul, love that is the fuel for mobilizing the church, the corporate people of God, to fulfill the world renewal project of the Creator.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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