Thursday, January 20, 2005

Responding to the New Perspective on Paul

In the last post, we saw Donald Hagner's summary of the so-called "new perspective on Paul." What follows are some of the main points in his response.

4. It’s not enough to say that the OT was a religion of grace.
  • The exile was widely perceived as the result of Israel’s failure to keep the law; hence, in the postexilic period there was a turning to the law with a new intensity
  • In the rabbinic literature there is not only a lack of systematic thinking but the presence of (and delight in!) contradictory options. There are plenty of legalistic-sounding statements in the rabbinic literature.
  • Friedrich Avemarie has demonstrated that the rabbinic soteriology contains two different—indeed, contrary, models, one based on the election of Israel, the other on the deeds of the individual. It is thus not a matter of either grace or merit but the two together in an unresolved tension.
  • Early Jewish scholars saw a very strong emphasis on works among the rabbis
  • There is a decided preoccupation with works. The line between “getting in” and “staying in” can become a thin line that disappears.
  • There is a natural human tendency toward legalism
  • C.K. Barrett: “He is a bold man who supposes that he understands first-century Judaism better than Paul did.”

4.2 It is debatable whether justification was the “center” of Paul’s theology
  • But justification by faith is indeed important for Paul; it is more than a ploy merely to advance the Gentile mission, but a doctrine indispensable even for the salvation of the Jews.
  • Machen: “Paul was not devoted to the doctrine of justification by faith because of the Gentile mission; he was devoted to the Gentile mission because of the doctrine of justification by faith.”

  • Justification by faith concerns not only the salvation of the individual, but has corporate and cosmic aspects too.
  • We read too much into Paul’s statement that “as to righteousness under the law, I was blameless” (Phil 3:6) when we conclude from it that Paul was fully pleased with both the law and his performance of it. Rather, he was saying that by the standards of practicing Pharisees, he had an exceptionally good performance record (cf. Gal 1:13-14).
  • Tim Laato: Paul is critical of Jewish soteriology on anthropological grounds. Paul views human nature as dominated by sin and the flesh; therefore Paul abandoned Jewish soteriological synergism for the monergism of total dependence upon the grace of God in Christ. Paul thus repudiates the Jewish understanding of righteousness and the Jewish soteriology.
  • Westerholm: “Students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy.”

5.2 Conversion is the right word to use for Paul’s rejection of Judaism and turning to the faith of the Christian community he has been prosecuting. But this does not mean that Paul converted to a new religion or that he ever would have thought so. Christianity, for Paul, is nothing other than the faith of his ancestors come to an eschatological phase of fulfillment before the final consummation. Christianity is fulfilled Judaism.

5.3 Paul’s gospel addresses not merely the plight of the Gentiles, strangers to the covenant, but that to of the Jews. He addresses a human condition (Rom 1:18–3:20). The gospel is universally relevant.

5.4 What about the claim that Paul had no quarrel with the law?

  • This involves both complexity and paradox. Paul both does away with the law and upholds the law (in different senses).
  • The law has come to an end (Rom 7:4-6; Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-5)
  • Those free from the law who follow the teaching of their Lord fulfill the righteousness of the law apart from the law; i.e., they fulfill the moral law, esp as summarize in the love commandment

5.5 What did Paul mean by “works of the law”?

  • In 1975 Daniel Fuller suggestion that works of the law = a legalistic distortion of the law on the part of the Judaizers.
  • James D.G. Dunn suggests that works of the law = boundary markers or specific indicators of Jewish distinctiveness that have essentially the same motivation
  • Dunn is right that there is a sociological dimension to works of the law. But Paul’s polemic cannot be reduced to this.

6. How do the proposals explain the pertinent texts?

  • Proponents of the new perspective must explain texts like Rom 3:20, 28; 4:4-6; 5:20; 11:6; Gal 2:16; 3:10-14, and convince us that “works of the law” in every case refers only to boundary marks and the social function of the law

7. Some valid insights have emerged in the new perspective. But it remains doubtful whether the new perspective constitutes a major breakthrough to a truer estimate of Paul and Judaism. This Copernican revolution is taking us down the wrong path.