Saturday, December 9, 2006

New Perspective On Paul I

Evaluate the “New Perspective” on Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone


Since the groundbreaking work in E. P. Sanders’ monograph, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”, a paradigm shift had taken place within New Testament scholarship with regards to the center of Pauline theology. Although by no means a monolithic movement, the New Perspective represents a fundamental rethinking of what the gospel really means. The present paper sought to analyze and evaluate New Perspective views on the doctrine of justification sola fide primarily through interaction with major proponents.

Some common characteristics among New Perspective interpreters are the serious attempt to place Paul within his socio-religious framework in first century Palestine, offering a more positive evaluation of Judaism and response to Schweitzer’s agenda-setting question about the center of his theology as understood from the epistles. [1] In this discussion, we would proceed by interacting with Stendahl on hermeneutical presuppositions, Sanders on Jewish socio-religious context and finally, N.T. Wright on exegesis of key passages related to justification sola fide . [2]

Before tracing the historical development of New Perspective, we must say a word about the classical perspective on Paul. Traditionally, Reformed interpreters like Luther and Calvin have painted a portrait of Paul as self-righteous Pharisee who strived to earn his salvation by observing the law and amass good works with his own effort. This form of legalism was characteristic of the Judaism of his day. On that fateful road to Damascus, Paul had a conversion encounter with the resurrected Christ. As expounded most fully in Romans, Paul came to understand that one’s legal or forensic standing before God was not based on works of the law, but justified freely through faith alone. The Law-Gospel antithesis described the function of the Law as a means to terrify the sinner with God’s justice so as to seek refuge in the imputed righteousness of Christ sola gratia (Luther) or primarily a revelation of the perfect, divine will (Calvin) . [3] Previously regarded as the orthodox article of faith on which the Church either stands or falls, the doctrine of justification sola fide was the material cause of the Reformation movement.

The Quest for the Historical Paul

However, this consensus among Paul’s interpreters has been steadily eroded over the past thirty years. Perhaps the herald of the new interpretive paradigm was Swedish Lutheran theologian, Krister Stendahl. In his essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”, Stendahl argued that since Augustine’s Confessions, Christians have misunderstood Paul through the lens of the inward-looking, individualistic mindset of Western culture . [4] Thus, the apostle’s original concerns about the communal relationships between Jews and Gentiles were obscured. The result is nothing short of an expose of the conceptual baggage carried by the Reformers as they approach the text. In relation to justification sola fide, Tom Wright also pointed out that the church’s understanding of justification was forged in the battlefields of Pelagius against Augustine in the fifth century and Erasmus against Luther in the sixteenth century . [5] If we can’t approach the Pauline corpus with an introspective, guilt-ridden conscience in search for a gracious God, how then shall we read?

After Stendahl heralded the impending paradigm by exposing the presuppositions of Reformation paradigm, the floodgates were opened with the publication of Sanders’ influential “Paul and Palestinian Judaism.” In the preface, Sanders spoke of his attempt to “compare Judaism, understood on its own terms, with Paul, understood on his own terms.” Based on his research on ancient literature on Palestinian Judaism (as in non-Diaspora), Sanders argued that the caricature of Judaism as a legalistic religion was a historically false “straw man”. He proposed that within the pattern of religion found in Second Temple Judaism dubbed covenantal nomism, “obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such .” [6] Obedience is required to “stay in” God’s covenant but “getting in” was always based on God’s electing grace. In His mercy, God has chosen Israel and given them the law. Transgression is punished. However, the law has provided means of atonement for the restoration of covenant relationship. Salvation is therefore not earned but solely by grace alone. While qualifying the drawbacks of using the term “soteriology ,” [7] Sanders wrote that:

"When a man is concerned to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’, we may consider him to have a ‘soteriological’ concern, even though he may have no view concerning an afterlife at all… covenantal nomism is the view that one's place in God's plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man, his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression ." [8]

Granted that Paul the Pharisee had reoriented himself to a new Christian community whom he had previously persecuted, there was essentially no change in his “pattern of religion”. There was no radical, salvific discontinuity between the post-Damascus, Pauline doctrines of justification by faith and the tradition of his fathers. If Sander’s historical analysis is correct, how then shall we understand the polemics of Paul that “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law”? If Paul was interacting with covenantal nomism, a religion of grace, what do we make of his doctrine of justification by faith?

Here, Sanders argued that Paul began with a prior conviction that Jesus is the universal Savior of all, and any reference to human plight is the necessary, rhetorical outworking from that dogmatic conviction . [9] He didn’t start with any plight of humanity or a pre-conversion dissatisfaction with the Law. [10] The only problem Paul had with Judaism was: It is not Christianity. If Sanders’ solution does not appear simplistic, many New Perspective scholars were nonetheless dissatisfied with his reinterpretation of Pauline theology despite standing upon the revolutionary foundation which he laid.

Eschewing a Lutheran Law-Gospel antithesis yet discontented with Sanders’ proposal, N.T. Wright offered a more promising alternative for understanding the doctrine of justification by faith. He argued that nationalistic “boundary markers” like circumcision, Sabbath and food laws marked out the pious Jews as evidence of being God’s covenant-keepers, in anticipation of the Yahweh’s eschatological vindication of their status as true Israel . [11] Since Paul never abandoned Judaism, his fiery polemics against the works of the law should be understood within his new vocation as the apostle to the Gentiles. James D.G. Dunn, another New Perspective scholar argued rather similarly that the Damascus Christophany was primarily Paul’s calling to the Gentile mission while remaining within covenantal nomism . [12] The apostolic herald of the Christ was on a crusade to remove such culture-specific badges that separated Jews and Gentile Christians as a covenant community. We shall look more closely how Wright reformulate the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith.

To begin with, Wright argued that God’s righteousness should be understood as His covenant faithfulness to His promises to Israel, instead of the distributive justice of God . [13] Thus Luther’s notion of iustitia Dei is ruled out as a Latin irrelevance. Wright framed God’s righteousness as “that aspect of God’s character because of which He saves Israel despite Israel’s perversity and lostness… thus cognate with His trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. [14] Carried over to a forensic law court setting, Israel comes before the divine Judge pleading her case against her pagan oppressors. God is righteous when He is faithful to His covenant to vindicate Israel’s case as promised. Israel is righteous or justified “as a result of the decision of the court” in an eschatological fulfillment . [15]

Although Wright stresses the forensic dimension of justification, it was not about how someone might enter God’s covenant community but of “how you can tell who belongs to that community” before end-time Judgment. Justification was “God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of His people… It wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology, not so much about salvation as about the church. ” [16] The issue of salvation at the heart of Pauline theology centers on Jesus and the proclamation of His kingship. Justification is not about getting in or staying in a covenant relationship with God, but the boundary markers that indicate to us in the present who would be part of the vindicated Israel in the future.

The Case for Paul, the Apostle of Faith

If the New Perspective on Paul is right, then the article of faith upon which the Church stands or falls is shaken to the core. While some evangelicals eagerly jump on the bandwagon, other theologians offer knee-jerk response against it by pointing out its radical departure from historic creeds. Ultimately we need to evaluate these views in the following order – presupposition analysis, socio-historical context and exegesis.

To begin with, we could examine Stendahl’s thesis that Paul’s “robust conscience” necessarily precludes an acute, introspective awareness of sin as a peculiarly Western idea . [17] For example, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 seems to suggest that a contrite spirit is the requirement for being “justified”. David, the Eastern Psalmist, may have a robust conscience (Psalm 17: 1 – 5) but he is also known for struggling with inward guilt in Psalm 51. These two themes seem to interplay in tension throughout the Old Testament until they find a resolution and harmony at the event of Jesus’ crucifixion. Philippians 3:6 should not be taken as proof-text that Paul considered himself to have kept the law perfectly. Colin Kruse commented, “This verse is found in a context in which Paul deals with externals, the evidences of his Jewish pedigree and piety… It is better then to understand Philippians 3:6 in terms of misplaced pride in which the apostle indulged in pre-Christian days. It does not reflect his views about the possibility of perfect obedience. ” [18]

In another significant contribution, Frank Thielman proposed that ancient Jewish literature, canonical or otherwise, contained a common pattern in which Israel’s inability to keep the law (the plight) will be cured in the eschatological future where God will free Israel to obey His commands (the solution) . [19] Instead of being plagued by personal sins, Paul was burdened by Israel’s corporate failures, which resulted in Gentile oppression. Thielman also argued that there were Jews who believed in a synergistic relation between human effort and divine grace as the means of eschatological vindication. Against such beliefs, the post-Damascus Paul wrestled valiantly in Philippians 3: 2-11 and Colossians 2:13-14. Paul’s movement “from plight to solution” could then make a lot of sense within his own Jewish milieu, not as an imposition of Western categories.

We could also note that New Perspective is itself not based on ‘presuppositionless’ exegesis. The new Paul has emerged from the terrible aftermath of Auschwitz. The Nazis’ propaganda in support of the Holocaust was shockingly dressed in Christian garb. Isn’t it tempting to construct a Paul who could easily evade charges of anti-Semitism by opposing mere boundary markers yet essentially in agreement with Judaism? Following Schweitzer’s critique of the historical Jesus project, the quest for Paul is also in danger of becoming a self-reflection of the spirit of the age . [20] Our prevailing postmodern mood in general is intolerant of religious exclusivism. In the face of imposing challenge from secularism and naturalism, N.T. Wright’s proposal to undercut the central Catholic-Protestant debate on justification, as a peripheral issue of ecclesiology, is attractive to sensitive believers who long for unity in Christ’s Body. However, if justification by faith is essential to Paul’s apostolic gospel as asserted by the Reformers, compromise would be too high a price to pay for such perceived tactical advantage . [21] As responsible exegetes, we need to identify the lens with which we ourselves interpret the data otherwise the meaning of the text is skewed. While exegesis cannot be done without a perspective provided by one’s presupposition and reading community, the text can address and even change our lens if necessary . [22]

At this point, it would be well for us to consider the socio-religious background of Paul in connection with first-century Palestinian Judaism. More recently, scholarly research into the soteriological pattern found in diverse Jewish literature from apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other rabbinical traditions had cast doubt on whether “covenantal nomism” was an adequate description of Palestinian Judaism. In volume 1 of “Justification and Variegated Nomism”, the contributors’ findings seemed to suggest that Second Temple Judaism was much more complex and lack uniformity. [23] In a review, Craig Blomberg listed some texts especially 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, Testament of Abraham and 2 Baruch that seem to favor a more legalistic theology. The data gathered by Sanders’ study can also be interpreted in support for a legalistic Judaism. For instance, the sheer number and minute detail of laws in Mishnah, that the covenant is not even mentioned in Tannaitic writings and the rabbinic explanation of God’s election on the basis of Israel’s choice to accept the covenant or on the merits of their forefathers . [24] Friedrich Avemarie’s investigation showed that rabbinic Judaism tends to hold the emphasis of “electing grace” and “works” in tension without any neat, unified system as what Sanders proposed . [25] In light of this correction, we cannot readily dismiss Paul’s admission that his pre-conversion status before God was not only based on electing grace, but also his zealousness for the law, circumcision, ancestry and legalistic righteousness (Galatians 1:14, Philippians 3:5-6).

In reality both Romanism and past/present Judaism could be more accurately categorized as “semi-Pelagian”, instead of what Wright described as “proto-Pelagian”. Both patterns of religion teach that man and God are “co-operators in salvation, that grace could complement and supplement human nature ”. [26] The issue ever hinges on the little word “sola” in sola fide and sola gratia. Hence, a more variegated construction of first century Judaism allows Paul’s polemics against the law to be understood in soteriological terms.

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