(This is an excerpt from my working manuscript, Holiness in Fresh Perspective). All Rights Reserved.
The New Perspective highlights the corporate people of God as a central point of reference of Paul’s theology and thought. For Paul, God’s redemptive mission is for a people, through a people. This interpretive posture is set against the tradition of interpreting Paul with individual, personal salvation primarily in mind. It’s important to note here that the New Perspective does not reject that dynamics of individual salvation are found in Paul, they certainly are. What they do reject, however, is that Paul’s central purpose in writing is to answer questions about how individuals are saved. Rather, Paul’s fundamental frame of reference for theology is the corporate people of God.
If corporate Israel as the covenant people of God is a central pillar of pauline thought and theology, then all that Paul says should flow in and out of this concept. It is not only Paul’s soteriology that hinges on the concept, but also his christology and eschatology. In terms of christology, Paul understands Christ primarily in terms of his mission as the fulfillment of God’s mission to the people of God for the people of God. In terms of eschatology, Christ is the timely fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Israel, and David (more on this below), through whom, the mission of God would reach the world.
Just through a quick overview of some of Paul’s priorities that come out in his letters we can see corporate Israel as the covenant people of God functioning in this central role for Paul’s theology. In 1 Corinthians, the first problem Paul addresses with the church is unity.. Paul accentuates not only the importance, but the necessity of unity among new covenant members because through Jesus they have been made a part of the corporate Christ in whom there are no divisions. In Galatians, Paul builds the case that circumcision (obeying the letter of the Law of Moses) is not the identifying mark of the people of God, rather, it is faith in Jesus the Messiah. Again, Paul is much less concerned with what makes one “saved” than he is with what makes one a member of the corporate body of Christ through the new covenant stipulations (faith). In other words, to be saved is to be a member of the corporate Israel, they are on in the same.
The book of Romans, which we will consider in more detail later, has long been interpreted as the systematic theology explaining how individuals are saved. Once again, these soteriological angles and dimensions are certainly present in Paul, but they are not the central thrust of Paul’s message, they are secondary. Dynamics of individual salvation serve the master of ecclesiology for Paul. The thrust of Paul’s message in Romans is to distinguish how the new covenant fulfills the old, how the new covenant impacts the eligibility of individuals to become members of the corporate people of God, and most centrally, how the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power by which what was once exclusive (excluding non-Jews) is made inclusive the old covenant, which excluded non-Jewish ineligible, by inclusive for all. So once again, individual salvation is certainly a part of the dialogue, but the greater framework for the dialogue is the corporate people of God. Essentially, the New Perspective contends that ecclesiology operates as the fundamental framework for Paul’s thought and theology.
Unfortunately, this concept is far removed from the thought life of the average Christian interpreter of the pauline corpus. We have inherited our interpretive posture from our Reformed tradition (including those of the holiness heritage). Rather, dynamics of individual salvation has been the default point of reference for reading Paul. The average reader of Paul is looking for answers regarding how a person is saved, or sanctified. Paul’s letters, especially the letter to the Romans, undoubtedly responds such questions related to individual salvation, however, what Paul offers is a rather indirect response to that question.