Book Review: Gospel Clarity: Challenging the New Perspective on Paul, by Ligon Duncan and William B. Barcley


“When will it become clear to the geocentrists?”

So asks N. T. Wright in his book Justification, likening those who hold the “old perspective” on Paul’s gospel to anyone who insists that the sun revolves around the earth because that’s what they see looking up in the sky (Justification, 95).


In the face of the heliocentric challenge, the geocentrist just shouts louder: “Look there: the sun is moving up, over, and down!” The heliocentrist, of course, is looking at the same evidence that everyone has been looking at for millennia, but he also knows that a new perspective is needed.

In the same way, Wright has been arguing that we need a new perspective on what St. Paul really said. We are reading the same Paul we’ve had for millennia, but when you situate him in the context of what we now know about Second Temple Judaism and not medieval Europe, and when you read him in light of his own larger vision of the biblical covenants, the true meaning of righteousnessand justificationemerge.


To be sure, Wright is justified in his exasperation with those who merely point to texts and say “See!” as though there is some large swath of Paul’s teachings Wright has never read. That is why William B. Barcley’s latest work, with Ligon Duncan, Gospel Clarity: Challenging the New Perspective on Paul, is very welcome. Barcley and Duncan do not point and shout. Nor do they exclusively consider Wright’s writings. Instead, they evaluate the much larger canopy of the new perspectives on Paul and the alleged first-century Jewish context that informs it before getting into what Paul really said.

For pastors who do not have the time to search out the many streams and tributaries of this river, Barcley and Duncan provide a concise yet thorough guided tour. Only then do they weigh in with their critique of Wright and company. Therefore, their conclusions are informed, balanced and weighty.


Barcley and Duncan begin by providing a very accessible overview of the “New Perspective on Paul” and compare it to the “Reformed Perspective on Paul” (chs. 1 and 2). The rest of the book is then devoted to understanding and evaluating three contemporary scholars: E. P. Sanders’ work on Second Temple Judaism (ch. 3), James D. G. Dunn’s understanding of “the law” (ch. 4) and N. T. Wright’s narrative reading of the Bible and definition of justification (chs. 5 and 6). I’ll leave it to the reader to inquire into chapters 1 and 2.[1] Here I will summarize what I find to be Barcley and Duncan’s important contributions to Pauline scholarship in their evaluation of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright.

Exposition and Evaluation of E.P. Sanders’ Work

Sanders’ 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism was a landmark on several levels, not least in its summary of the Jewish conceptual environment in which Paul was reared, educated, converted, and would eventually preach. Sanders contends that first-century Judaism was marked by a “covenantal nomism”: an understanding of Israel’s status before God based on grace in which law-keeping followed graceout of thankfulness and as a means to maintain membership within the community of God’s elect. This is significant because Reformed theologians have read Paul as the champion of a salvation by grace in the face of legalism. If, however, first-century Judaism was not legalistic, then the Reformed reading is misguided and a new perspective is needed.

Barcley and Duncan bring three lines of argument against this historiography. First, they evaluate a handful of Second Temple Jewish texts and the work of scholars who dissent from Sanders. They conclude that first-century Judaism was more legalistic than Sanders’ definition allows. Next, Barcley and Duncan contend that regardless of the name applied to it, any soteriology that incorporates good works into it (as the way in or the way to stay in) is still semi-Pelagian. And finally, the authors do not want to allow an historical reconstruction to dominate their interpretation. Paul’s own words should tell us with whom he battled.[2] When they do, texts like Romans 3:27–4:8, Romans 9:30–10:8 and Philippians 3:2–11 show that Paul’s theological foil was legalistic, regardless of what the rest of the first-century landscape may have looked like.

Exposition and Evaluation of Dunn and Wright’s Work

Two very influential scholars have built upon Sanders’ covenantal nomism and have provided new definitions for key Pauline terms: “works of the Law” and “justification.” Dunn (followed by Wright) argues that “works of the Law” in Paul does not mean a program whereby sinners earn their status before God. First-century Judaism was not legalistic after all, as the theory goes. Instead, “works of the Law” are ethnic identity badges that sequester pure Israel away from the unrighteous Gentile world.

Paul’s chief concern in Galatians and Romans, therefore, was not to establish how sinners could be in the right with God, but why such barriers must come down in order to incorporate all whom God has called to be his people—Jew and Gentile. In short, Paul does not look up but out. His concerns are horizontal not vertical. The question on the table is not how can sinners stand before God but how uncircumcised Gentiles can sit with Sabbath-keeping Jews.

Barcley and Duncan concede that this is where the new perspective on Paul is probably at its strongest, but where it also presents us with a false dichotomy. Must we read Paul as an evangelist or a churchman? Does he care about soteriology or ecclesiology? Are the concerns of reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other even that far removed? Barcley and Duncan contend that Dunn’s definition of “the works of the Law” (and therefore the false dichotomy) is the result of misreading the relationship between the biblical covenants. Dunn flattens the covenants without giving due credence to the covenant of works—under which Adam could have, yes, earned salvation for himself and his posterity had he kept God’s command. While the Mosaic covenant is indeed gracious, given under the auspices of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, it nonetheless “contains the principle of the covenant of works” (84). It “re-exhibits” the covenant of works for the purpose of pointing sinners to the one who would succeed where Adam and Israel failed: the Lord Jesus Christ. It does, therefore, teach sinners that salvation indeed must be earned and that we cannot earn it ourselves.

Paul’s concern with the “works of the Law,” then, is firstly vertical. One’s relationship to the law acts as a badge that defines one’s relationship with the God of the covenant. Thus, the gospel which people need describes how to be reconciled to God—how to be declared righteous before him. The good news is that Jesus Christ was the perfect covenant head. Additions to Christ’s active obedience through one’s own merits (“works of the Law”) is, therefore, what Paul opposes.

Now we have come full circle. As Dunn misunderstands the relationship between the covenants with Adam, Abraham, and Israel, he equally misunderstands the role of the law in Paul’s theology.

Ironically, it is over this very point—how Paul understood the OT covenants—that the disagreement between Wright and Barcley/Duncan comes to a head. It is ironic because Wright argues that the strength of his reading of Paul is precisely in his account of the covenant. According to Wright, the covenant with Abraham, from which the entire Old Testament takes its cue, was God’s plan to set the world back to pre-fall Edenic conditions which involves creating one people out of all the nations (Gen. 12:1–3). It is a glorious plan—one that Barcley and Duncan certainly promote. The problem is that a covenant is not a plan, it’s an agreement. The Abrahamic covenant, then, is God’s agreement with Israel, though surely the nations benefit from that agreement when God makes good on his end of the agreement (Gen. 12:3).

In other words, Wright is right on the plan but wrong to equate the plan with the covenant. The covenant is part of the plan, not the plan itself. Narrowly speaking, the covenant with Abraham was the matrix of the relationship between God and Israel. And, as mentioned above, that covenant relationship is further defined by the addition of the Mosaic covenant which “re-exibits” the covenant of works. This is not a medieval imposition, but ancient Near-Eastern covenantal logic.

Wright’s novel reading of the Abrahamic covenant also enables him to redefine justification and reject the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is where many critiques of the new perspective begin. But that will not do because, as Barcley and Duncan note (109, 111), Wright’s understanding of justification fits within his larger covenantal narrative reading of the whole Bible. Thus, one cannot engage with Wright on these issues unless it’s on the level of the metanarrative.

So, because Barcley and Duncan have first considered first-century Judaism, and then the larger covenantal logic for understanding the law within Wright’s narrative framework for reading Paul, their critique carries weight. In short, to Wright, the problem in need of resolution in Israel’s story is the way in which they are ruled by Gentiles in the first century. The forces of evil are opposed to the kingdom of God. Jesus triumphs at this very point and his now-oppressed people will be vindicated (Wright’s gloss on “justified”) on the last day for their lives that overcome evil with good. Barcley and Duncan’s primary contention with this reading—as might be expected given their understanding of the covenants and the law—is that “the primary problem for Paul in seeking to carry out his task as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ is that God is the enemy,” not other people (117).

Human beings in their sin are cut off from God. They have become God’s enemies (Rom. 5:9–10; 11:28). This was one of the things that Saul of Tarsus came to recognize on the road to Damascus when the ‘Lord’ said to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Saul had believed that he was among ‘true Israel,’ zealous for Torah, devoted to doing God’s work. He was God’s friend. But he came to see that he was God’s enemy, as is true of all Jews who reject Christ (Rom. 11:28). The solution to the problem, then, is that individual human beings must be reconciled to God, and this happens only as they repent of sin and trust in Christ to save them. When they do this, they are ‘justified’, declared to be in right relationship with God, and thus have peace (reconciliation) with God (Rom. 5:1). (117)

Thus, “[s]alvation in the New Testament is first and foremost salvation from the wrath of God” (118), not from the (broadly and vaguely defined) forces of evil. To arrive at this point one’s narrative reading of “God’s plan” must see problems that predate Abraham.

Human beings were created to glorify and delight in God. This requires fellowship with God, the precise state that Adam and Eve enjoyed. But their sin ruptured that fellowship. God had warned them, ‘in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). This death, of course, was not immediate physical death—they lived on earth many years after their sin. It was primarily spiritual death—separation from God, under God’s condemnation—which was also the cause of later physical death. If there is a fundamental ‘story’ for Paul, this is it. (118)

The Climax of the Argument and the Heart of the Disagreement

For my part, I believe these extended quotations get to the pith of the disagreement. Another way of getting at the same issues is to ask, what was it that Christ propitiated?What did he accomplish on the cross? Once that is answered with clarity and precision, I believe other parts of the puzzle fall into place. (In addition to the above quotations, see also pages 126–28 and 141.)

Barcley and Duncan bring their argument to a climax by considering Christ’s imputed righteousness, the rejection of which they regard as the “most dangerous departure from Reformation teaching” (148). Given the larger biblical story and relationship between the covenants a la Barcley and Duncan, there is no reason to abandon the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. To the contrary, in light of the demands of the covenant of works (cf. Rom. 5:12–21, but see also Rom. 4; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21), there is every reason to keep it. One does wonder, however, why something on the covenantal notion of an exchange between covenant members and their covenant head is not more clearly emphasized on pages 150–55.


While I’ve got a few minor quibbles with the book, [3] I believe that Barcley and Duncan’s work is a valuable contribution to the debate. They are fair to their opponents and see the big picture of the issues involved. Therefore, when they move in to evaluate the details, their observations and critiques are trenchant and relevant. I look forward to seeing the fruitful conversation that should follow.[4]

For pastors, I would think the most valuable part of the book might be chapter 3—the overview of first-century Judaism—for this is not a topic commonly covered in seminaries, nor typically discussed in books whose target audience is local church leaders. Yet, it is the foundation of the whole debate.[5] I for one do not see how anyone could think well about the new perspective without some knowledge of first-century Judaism. Barcley and Duncan serve the church well at this point with their concise yet thorough review.

Finally, the book is well organized and easy to navigate. While a reader will feel the strength of its argument most by reading the book cover to cover, the book wil also serve as a helpful reference for considering the many questions that orbit around this huge Pauline-centric universe.


The following list is far from exhaustive. It provides only a helpful starting point for pastors who would like to dig into these issues further than Barcley and Duncan take them.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Eerdmans, 1955.

R. C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together, Baker, 1999.

John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? Crossway, 2002.

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics, Eerdmans, 2004.

Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation, Crossway, 2006.

John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, Crossway, 2007.

N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, InterVarsity, 2009.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation?: The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology,” pages 235–61 in Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays eds., InterVarsity, 2011.

Thomas R. Schreiner, “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” JETS 54.1 (March 2011): 19–34.

Michael F. Bird, “What is There Between Minneapolis and St. Andrews? A Third Way in the Piper-Wright Debate,” JETS 54.2 (June 2011): 299–309.

[1] Those chapters themselves are already summaries; any further condensation would only do violence to the theological positions discussed therein.

[2] Paul’s own words should also contribute to our understanding of first-century Judaism, not merely serve as the object of inquiry after we think we have figured it out without letting Paul weigh in.

[3] For example: i) it is not helpful on pages 54–56 to reference Second Temple texts without quoting them, and ii) the degree of foreknowledge assumed on pages 121–30 seems higher than the rest of the book.

[4] As I mentioned above, it is my opinion that clarity on propitiation would be the most fruitful way forward, as would further thinking on the mutual exchange which occurs by virtue of our covenantal union between the covenant head, Jesus Christ, and his people where believers inherit all that is his—especially his righteousness.

[5] Perhaps the main reason this is so is that new perspective advocates often contend that even after his “conversion” Paul continued in a covenantal nomistic mindset—another point Barcley and Duncan disprove.

Nicholas Piotrowski

Nicholas Piotrowski is Professor of Biblical Studies at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a member of Walnut Grove Chapel.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.