Book Review: ‘Did The Reformers Misread Paul: A Historicacal Critique of the New Perspective’, by Aaron O’Kelley

Did The Reformers Misread Paul: A Historicacal Critique of the New Perspective‘, by Aaron O’Kelley, Paternoster, 188 pp. $20.00


Did the Reformers Misread Paul? The debate(s) over the new perspective(s) on Paul have largely cooled, replaced by debates over the apocalyptic Paul or the covenental Paul. This cooling has, however, allowed for a bit more breathing room and flexibility when it comes to engaging with the central ideas of the NPP, and the present work is a much calmer examination of these central ideas. The answer to the initial question and title of the book is, as I see it, is twofold: yes, and no. But first, I’ll attend to the book itself and then to its main ideas.


The first chapter gives us a birds-eye view of the life and times of the NPP, as well as detailing O’Kelley’s thesis for the book, which is that ‘the new perspective’s hermenutical presupposition…is a non sequitor…[E.P.] Sanders argument has no bearing on the categories that defined the concepts of grace, merit and justification in the Reformation debates’ (p. 2). I’ll go ahead and say that in this sense, O’Kelley demonstrates this thesis to be correct. In fact, I’ll go a bit further and say that, so far as this central plank of the NPP goes, O’Kelley has completely refuted it. This is the ‘no’ of the ‘yes/no’ answer above.


The second chapter is a tour through medieval Catholic soteriology, where O’Kelley shows that grace was, contra some NPP advocates, an essential part of salvation. Close attention is payed to texts as Lombard, Aquinas, Bonaventure and the Council of Trent each show that contra some NPP advocates, Catholic soteriology was not Pelagian but affirmed the necessity of grace.


The third chapter examines the doctrine of justification proper as it appears in Luther, Melancthon and Calvin. As with the previous chapter, it’s the texts that are consulted and allowed to speak for themselves. Key ideas and doctrines emerge here: alien righteousness, the demand for perfect obedience, and the law/gospel distinction. Crucial for O’Kelley’s thesis is showing that it is these doctrines that set the tone for the Reformation debates, and not the grace/works dichotomy.


The fourth chapter seeks to show that the doctrines set forth in the previous chapter, while keeping their essential shape, underwent some development during the post-Reformation period. While these doctrines were at times more implicit than explicit in the three Reformers discussed in the previous chapter, O’Kelley shows that their successors sought to set, say, the demand for perfect obedience on firmer exegetical ground. Chemnitz, Owen, the Formula of Concord, the Westminster Confession all make appearances here, and O’Kelley shows further that the Reformation debates turned not on grace/works but on alien righteousness and the law/gospel distinction.


The final chapter offers more detailed exegetical support  for the ideas articulated above, particularly on the demand for perfect obedience and the corresponding universal human inability to keep and uphold the law due to sin.


My overall conclusion regarding the ‘did the Reformers misread Paul’ book/thesis after reading this book: the NPP is wrong that the Reformers read legalism into Paul/Judaism, since alien righteousness and not merit was the main context for the Reformers doctrine of justification. This idea has been soundly and thoroughly refuted by O’Kelley. However, I have misgivings still, but I’ll confine my examples to just one. Having granted that the NPP was wrong on this matter of development of doctrine, I still maintain that the Reformers articulation of the demand for perfect obedience is quite wrong, and as such, the NPP still comes out ahead. The demand for perfect obedience seems to be the weakest plank here. O’Kelley seems to have skipped over a central idea of Wright, et al here – that the law isn’t a sort of universal moral standard, but a ‘time and place’ charter for Israel. That this isn’t engaged with is somewhat puzzling, since Wright in particular spends no small amount of time and effort making just this point. O’Kelley’s point has much less force is the ‘universal standard’ view of the law isn’t granted, and there seems to be ample textual and exegetical reasons to contest such a view. Perhaps this shows that while the theological concerns of the Reformers were and are valid, they were motivated less by exegesis than O’Kelley seems to want to maintain.
All in all, this is a superb book. The close attention paid to historical figures and their texts and the generally tight argumentation O’Kelley employs will repay close study. I’m very glad I read this volume, and whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone interested in this particular theological and exegetical debate.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Did The Reformers Misread Paul: A Historicacal Critique of the New Perspective’, by Aaron O’Kelley

    • Joshua February 20, 2017 / 6:42 pm

      There’s nothing especially noteworthy in that particular doctrine – its standard law/gospel presentation, which is why I didn’t elaborate on it. There’s some interesting exegetical support for it, but if you’re familiar with the distinction itself it’s nothing really new or noteworthy.


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