A Response to Luke Todd on My Book

I am grateful to Luke Todd for taking the time to read and review my book, Did the Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective. It is good to know that yes, indeed, someone outside my dissertation committee has read it! The review is gracious in tone and competent in substance.

I am especially appreciative of this paragraph:

While not without its weaknesses, this is an important book, and one with significant strengths. O’Kelley has given us a nuanced take on the theological battle at the heart of the Reformation, thankfully taking us beyond a simplistic caricature of grace versus works. By so doing, he successfully supports his thesis: just as Paul was not out to correct a predominately legalistic Judaism, neither were the Protestants out to reform a graceless Roman Catholicism.

If the book serves to highlight the theological nuances of the Reformation period and bring those into the current discussion of Paul, it will have accomplished its purpose.

I am also grateful for Todd’s words of critique, to which I can respond here. Todd argues that I have “perhaps inadvertently, proven the importance of the [New Perspective on Paul].” Of course, I never set out to prove the NPP’s importance. I took it for granted, which was the reason for writing the book in the first place. If I communicated anywhere in the book that the NPP is unimportant, I retract such an idea here.

Todd further argues, if I follow him correctly, that I have taken on the NPP for allowing a caricature of Reformation/Medieval Catholic debates to drive many of its assumptions while letting the “old perspective” slip by on its faulty view of Judaism. (If Todd happens to read this, I would appreciate receiving any correction if I have misinterpreted the fifth paragraph of the review). To this I can only respond that the “old perspective” does not depend on any particular view of Judaism. To be sure, a certain strand of Protestant (particularly modern German) thought depends on a caricature of Second Temple Judaism, but that caricature has no essential connection to the theology of the Reformation. In other words, the question of the “old perspective’s” perspective on Judaism becomes virtually irrelevant if my thesis stands.

Todd also argues,

For a book that targets a presupposition (that the Reformation critique of Catholicism was about grace versus works), it makes significant assumptions of its own. Most evident is O’Kelley’s supposition that the entire NPP is built on this one flawed argument.

I don’t think I would quite say it that way. Here I would simply refer those interested to my first chapter, where I document the New Perspective’s view of its own origin, which does indeed depend very heavily on the construction of a foil, which turns out to be more a caricature than an actual grasp of historical theology.

I am grateful for the exegetical insights that have come from the NPP. I personally know Paul’s arguments better because of the works produced by N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn, Richard Hays, and others. It would be fair to say that I have benefited from a nuanced perspective that has been supplied in part through the works of these scholars.

But  as I argue in the book, nuance is not the same as a “new perspective,” an entirely new vantage point from which we are told (as N.T. Wright breathtakingly says in one place) that the church’s whole discussion of the doctrine of justification got off on the wrong foot somewhere around the time of Augustine (354-430 AD) and has remained there ever since! And so, he implies, we should all thank God that he and a handful of other scholars got the whole thing back on the right foot the day before yesterday.

To make good on a claim like that, you have to have all of your ducks in a row. On its grasp of historical theology, the NPP has its ducks scattered in every direction, with its ammo left in the truck. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of the book. I welcome exegetical nuances, from wherever they may come. I reject sweeping paradigm changes built on shoddy understandings of what they are seeking to change.

About Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.
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