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[I wrote this post almost exactly six years ago, September 14, 2011. Howard Pepper asked some good questions in a recent post about the idea of conversion, so I thought I would re-publish this as part of the recent series of posts on Paul’s background.]

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus?  Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  In fact, I recently summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.  Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl.  Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification.  In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.  Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism.  Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period.   For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism.  In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.

According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not Paul!  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?

When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew?  Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.

Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists 7 possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:

  1. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
  2. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
  3. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
  4. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
  5. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
  6. That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
  7. That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.

Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14.  The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2.  The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option.  The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness.  The order of the sentences argues against 2-6.  If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.

The Wretched Man

There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others.  This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law.  I suppose  it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.

The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state.  He notes that it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing.  If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin.  Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.

What is the significance of this passage to the believer?  We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin.  In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God.

The sin of complacency is far more dangerous than we might think.

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There are a number of other topics which could be included in a discussion of the New Perspective. The “faithfulness of Christ” or “Christ’s faithfulness” debate is very important although the details are a bit arcane. Wright’s view of the Exile is important, but not something that is at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul. Let me close off this series with a few observations why I think that dispensationalism and the New Perspective can be closely allied.

dispensationaismBy dispensationalism, I do not mean the quirky stuff (people predicting the end of the world, etc.) The dispensationalism I have in mind here is represented by writers like Darrell BockCraig BlaisingRobert Saucy or Dale DeWitt. There are quite a few ideas in the New Perspective which resonate with dispensationalism. I do not mean to say that the NPP is dispensational, only that the two are often “on the same page.” A few examples will suffice.

First, dispensationalism has always had a strong view of progressive revelation which lends itself to a narrative of salvation history. Scripture is the unfolding story of redemption. God is working through a series of “steps” or stages to redeem creation from the effects of sin. Wright has particularly emphasized “story” as a way of understanding Jesus and Paul, often using the analogy of a five act play. His oft-cited world view questions are important, Paul is answering the question “what time is it?” Dispensationalism highlights the fact that Paul is describing the current age as distinct from the last.

Second, dispensationalism has never been particularly anti-Semitic and has always done a good job emphasizing the Jewishness of the writers of the New Testament. This is may be a result of Dispensationalism’s late development as a system of thought, but it is also true many of the earliest “dispensational” thinkers were interested in Jewish evangelism. That the New Perspective says Jesus, Paul, Peter and James reflect Second Temple Period Judaism is nothing which should shock a dispensationalist! I think that there is a great deal more to be learned by studying Paul and Jesus in the light of our growing understanding of the Second Temple Period.

Third, dispensationalism has always emphasized Paul as the central figure for the present age. He is the “founder of the church” and his letters are usually emphasized over other writers in the New Testament. Paul claims his revelation is unique, and dispensationalists frequently develop this claim to mean that Paul is the only one to whom God revealed his plan for the current age (Eph 3:1-6, for example). The New Perspective also emphasizes the radicalness of Paul’s message in the context of Second Temple Period Judaism. For all of his connections to Judaism, Paul says things that would be considered radical within any form of “biblical” Judaism of the first century.

Fourth, with respect to the Justification debate, dispensationalists are a bit confused. Dispensationalism developed out of the reformed tradition, continuing the reformation in terms of ecclesiology and eschatology. Dispensationalism is in fact a development of covenant theology whether either side wants to admit it or not. As such there is a interest in the soteriology of the Reformers, but the anti-denominationalism of dispensationalists prevents them from fully embracing confessions and the like. As a result, there are dispensationalists who represent all the various “flavors” of the reformation, Calvinist or Arminian. Soteriology is not the primary motivation for most dispensationalists, so this debate might very well pass them by.

I do think that the New Perspective is correct in their description of justification as one of the many metaphors of salvation and that the reformation stream theologies have elevated it to such an extent that the word “justification” now means “total salvation.” For me, the fact that Paul uses “in Christ” to describe our salvation far more often makes it a more viable overarching metaphor for salvation. It also seems to me that the division between justification and sanctification in Systematic theology misses the point that Paul uses the same language for both the beginning of our salvation and our on-going experience of salvation.

Obviously someone like N. T. Wright is not a dispensationalist in any sense of the word, but it is remarkable how many of his basic ideas resonate with dispensationalist foundations. I think this is why Wright goes out of his way to separate himself from dispensationalism, although he has in mind the goofy popular forms. The New Perspective certainly does not go so far as to separate the church from Israel in the way that dispensationalists do, nor is there any sort similarity in eschatology. There is much to be learned from reading the New Perspective on Paul.

The literature on the New Perspective on Paul is vast, to say the least. There are volumes supporting and extending Sanders’ work, there are others critiquing his work. Some are aimed at N. T. Wright as a particularly popular proponent of the New Perspective, others championing the classic Reformation view with zeal worthy of Elijah. Since Wright has sold quite a few books and has attracted a strong following, it is somewhat fashionable to reject him ought of hand with a sneer usually reserved for Rick Warren. This does not seem fair to me since Wright is a brilliant scholar, careful researcher and entertaining writer.

Keep calm and BurnAmong the most valuable responses is the collected essays in Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 1 – The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001); Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 2004). This material covers the same material as Sanders (and even more). Each chapter takes a section of the literature and evaluates Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” in the light of that literature. In most cases, there is something which can be used as support for Sanders’ view of Second Temple period Judaism, but the evidence is far from uniform. Some Jewish writers may have thought of election and boundary markers as Sanders described, but others did not. The situation is far more varied than Sanders allowed for in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

Mark Seifrid has been a strong voice in favor of a more or less traditional view of Paul. His Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2000) is a brief treatment of the topic but among the very best and most accessible for the layman. Seyoon Kim engages James Dunn in his Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002). Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives New and Old on Paul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004) surveys Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley as well as the “Lutheran” interpreters of Paul in the twentieth century before turning to Paul’s view of the Law and Justification in the final third of the book. This historical approach seems backwards to me, but it really does “work” in practice. Francis Watson recently revised his Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), attempting to break through the false dichotomy between either the Traditional “Lutheran” view nor the New Perspective. In many ways, Watson’s work draws the best from both views of Paul and attempts to build a biblical theology of Paul. I would also add Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), although it has been severely critiqued. Matlock, for example, called the book an “impossibly forced argument” (R. Barry Matlock, “Zeal for Paul but not according to Knowledge: Douglas Campbell’s War on ‘Justification Theory,’” JSNT 34 (2011): 115-149.  See also Joshua Jipp, “Douglas Campbell’s Apocalyptic, Rhetorical Paul: Review Article,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 32(2010): 183-197; Douglas J. Moo, “The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading Of Justification In Paul By Douglas A. Campbell, Review Article,” JETS 53 (2010): 143-50.)

While studies challenging Sanders’ position are not unique, they are almost always from the Calvinist side of the Reformation and are intent on defending the reformation view of justification by faith in Paul. Chris Vanlandingham has charted a new course in that he approaches Sanders from a decidedly Arminian view of salvation and the last judgment. For Vanlandingham, Sanders is guilty of the very sins of which he accused scholarship in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism – he reads the Reformation view of grace and works back into the literature of the Second Temple period and finds a robust view of election. Vanlandingham contends that Jewish literature of this period uniformly describes the final judgment as a judgment by works, including the Apostle Paul. (See Chris Vanlandingham, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006.)

Another dozen titles could be added to this list if I included responses from systematic theology, but these are among the best which I have read on the New Perspective and are all worth reading to balance the more polemical books out there. This is far from a complete list of responses to the New Perspective; please feel free to suggest others in the comments.

Anrgy Calvinists

Justification is one issue which has invigorated critics of the New Perspective, sometimes to new heights of rhetorical which would make Luther himself proud. (For example, The Trinity Review opines: “Are Evangelicals so enthralled by Bishops and Brits that they are blind to the realities of the situation?” “Wright fabricates his theology.”) N. T. Wright has been at the forefront of this discussion with is Justification, answering John Piper’s pre-emptive strike on Wright’s views.

Piper JustificationFirst some perspective. When Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of his major burdens was to show that the traditional (Lutheran) view of Paul was a distortion. Luther read Paul and the Pharisees in the light of his own struggle against Rome. Sanders amassed the evidence which showed that Judaism was a religion of grace and was not proto-Pelegian. Jews in the first century did not think that they earned their salvation; rather they were “right with God” because they were the elect of God.

The problem with Sanders is that he destroyed the assumptions of a stream of theology without providing any real replacement for it. His goal was not to create a new “theology of Paul” but to correct a misunderstanding of Paul. It was James Dunn and N. T. Wright who have built on the foundation of Sanders and attempted to describe a Pauline Theology which attempts to read Paul in the world of Second Temple period Judaism. I personally think that Dunn’s chapter on Justification in his Pauline Theology (334-389) should be required reading for anyone who wants to study Paul. However, Wright’s Justification takes priority because it has brought the discussion of the New Perspective’s view of justification to the general public.

Wright is clear about his method. In Justification he proposes to study the vocabulary of justification in the context of the first century (90). This is more difficult that it appears because of the massive theological weight various streams of Reformation systematic theology has placed on the word. He does not want to create a new term; Wright wants to define justification using a historical-grammatical method.

Wright Justification

Briefly put, for Wright, justification is a statement about the status of the believer. When one is “justified” in a legal sense (with a Second Temple Period context) they are given the status of “in the right” on that particular legal situation. It does not matter if they are really “in the right.” the judge has found in their favor and they obtain that status before the court.

Wright states that the word does not mean “declare righteous” nor does the term mean that the person is righteous with respect to their character (91). The real problem for Wright is the “imputation of righteousness” as theological extension of justification. Reformed streams of theology says that God “imputes Christ’s righteous” to the believer. In the same way that Adam’s sin is counted against all those “in Adam,” all those “in Christ” have Christ’s righteousness counted for them. Wright finds no evidence for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. It is a theological construct built on the foundation of Reformation theology, not the Bible and ought to be abandoned.

In summary, Wright believes that Justification is a statement about the status of the person who has been vindicated in the court (92). The term cannot be used to describe the whole process of salvation; it is only one metaphor of many which Paul uses to describe salvation. James Dunn makes this point as well in his Pauline Theology (328-33). Dunn observes that there are many metaphors for salvation in Paul, although he highlights justification by faith, participation in Christ, and the gift of the Spirit as the primary statements of Paul’s view of salvation.

The Protestant Reformation elevated the legal metaphor found in some of Paul’s writings to the status of primary metaphor and loaded onto that metaphor the whole of Paul’s salvation theology. The New Perspective attempts to temper this by using the language of justification more biblically.

By the second century B.C., Jews were becoming increasingly Hellenistic. Some even turned away from the most basic of Jewish distinctives such as circumcision and food traditions. The literature of this period are not evangelistic tracts, they are aimed at the Jewish considering further Hellenization. A text like the Letter of Aristeas is aimed at keeping the young men from leaving their ancestral faith altogether! It is for this reason that characters from the Hebrew Bible like Joshua, Phineas, Levi and Simeon become popular – they fought back against assimilation with violence!

Jewish PersonA major factor in the development of Second Temple Period Judaism was the failure of Deuteronomic Theology. The Law seems to promise that if one keeps the covenant, then blessings will follow. The ultimate blessing is the hope for Jerusalem found in the Hebrew Bible, that it would truly become the center of the world and gentiles would flock to Mount Zion to worship the God of the Jews. If the Jews are keeping the law properly, why is it that their role is shrinking on the world stage? One reaction is to drop the cultural boundary markers, or downplay them considerably. The opposite reaction is to increase the commitment to these markers, to really and truly do the Law as it was meant to be done, and the few who do will be “saved” (i.e., the Qumran community and the author of 4 Ezra.)

To survive the exile, the Jews re-emphasized their religious traditions as embodied in the Torah. John Collins emphasized the following four key elements: Monotheism, Revelation, Election, and Covenant. Monotheism and Revelation are not good boundary markers (you have a God who reveals himself to you, so does everyone else!) All of the Jewish literature of this period clearly accepts as foundational : “God is One” and the Torah is his revelation.

Dictionary Series - Religion: JewElection and Covenant can be boundary markers. You can adequately define who was elected to participate in the covenant, who is “in” and who is “out” of the covenant. Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question – in 1 Maccabees it is Sabbath, Circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries. In Jubilees1 Enoch and Qumran literature proper calendar is included as a boundary marker. In Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect. E. P. Sanders’ conception of Second Temple period Judaism under the rubric of “covenantal nomism” is an application of these last two emphases. Election is what gets one into the Covenant, if you are Israel then you are “in.” What is it that maintains that relationship with God is the performance of the boundary markers: circumcision, Sabbath and food laws.

How does this impact Pauline theology? When Paul says “works of righteous,” the New Perspective on Paul hears “boundary markers,” not Torah. The traditional view would hear “The Whole Law.” Dunn uses Galatians 3:10-14 as a “test case” (“‘Works of the Law’ and the ‘Curse of the Law,’” pages in 215-36, Jesus, Paul and the Law). A traditional reading of this text would understand the statement “everyone under the Law is under a curse” in the light of the book of Deuteronomy and the curses and blessings. Not so, says Dunn, the “works of the Law” here ought to be read in the context of Galatians, circumcision and food traditions. These are the very things that make up the “boundary markers” of Second Temple Judaism. Michael Cranford has argued that the “works of the Law” as ethnocentric boundary markers ought to be applied to Romans 4 as well (“Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe,” NTS, 41 [1995], 71-88).

Rather than a polemic against the whole Law, Paul is stating that Gentiles who are “in Christ” cannot take on the boundary markers of Judaism. Does this mean that the New Perspective sees Paul as embracing the Law for Christians? Not really, it would seem strange to say that Paul was rejecting the boundary markers as unnecessary and dangerous, but embracing keeping the Torah. These things are not Pharisaical traditions added to the Law (the types of things that Jesus reacted against, for example). They are at the heart of what it means to be a Jew in the Second Temple period. New Perspective writers are emphasizing what Paul emphasized, that one’s status in Christ is what matters, not keeping traditional signs of separation.

Dunn’s view of “works” in Romans 4 as nationalistic boundary markers has not gone unchallenged. In a recent monograph (Paul and Judaism Revisited, IVP 2013), Preston Sprinkle summarized the problems with reading ethnocentric boundary markers in Rom 4, although he interacts mostly with Cranford’s 1995 article. Sprinkle argues that Paul’s use of “works” in Rom 4 refers to obedience in general, rather than the boundary markers (p. 153).  For Sprinkle, the metaphor of wages/reward does not really work if the “works” are limited to the ethnic boundary markers. Sprinkle may be correct, but it may be possible that the ethnic boundary markers are in view in Galatians but not in Romans.

In summary, the New Perspective has suggested that a reading of the “works of the Law” in Paul that is consistent with Second Temple Judaism limits those works to the ethnic boundary markers. These are the practices that separate Jews from Gentiles. Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, therefore they ought not be required to keep those boundary markers.

There are a few battleground ideas and texts on which the New Perspective differs from the traditional view. First and foremost is the nature of Judaism in the first century. From the traditional perspective, Judaism was a legalistic religion which required works for salvation. This was often stated but rarely proven, especially in popular presentations. The Pharisees are described as hand-wringing legalists who sought to burden others with onerous laws which made little sense. Perhaps there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism here, but more often than not this mischaracterization is simply the result of ignorance of what Jews actually believed in the Second Temple period.

At the WallSanders turned the assumption that Judaism was a legalistic religion on its head – Judaism was in fact a religion centered on God’s grace, as demonstrated in his election of Israel as his people and his gracious gift of the covenant. Of critical importance is the election of Israel as God’s people and the covenant He made with them. Philo states: “Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Spec. Laws 1.303). Similar statements of Israel’s election are common in nearly all the literature of the second temple. Equally common are statements about the covenant God sought to initiate with the people he had chosen. Sanders cites Pseudo-Philo: “I will give my light to the world and illumine their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f, JBP, 264).

Israel’s election is confirmed by God’s gift of the Law and his requirement of obedience to that law. Everything we know about Judaism in the Second Temple Period is predicated on the fact that God gave the law and he required his people to obey. Because Israel is chosen and given a Law and the responsibility of obedience, she is liable for both rewards and punishment; to experience both God’s justice and mercy. God cannot let an evil-doer escape. He is all-knowing and punishment is certain (Antiq. 1.14; 3.321, 4.286).

Perhaps the most controversial point in Sanders’ view of common Jewish theology is that Judaism was a religion of grace. As noted above, the Christians often describe Judaism as a works-salvation in contrast to Paul’s salvation by grace alone. Everything in Jewish religion seems to point to the grace of God in this life. Whatever one has, whatever one is, it is only by the grace of God. One did not do the various “works of righteousness” (circumcision, food traditions, but also shema, prayer, wearing tefillin, etc.) in order to receive grace; rather one did them in response to the grace already received.

If this is a correct understanding of Judaism, then it seems to me that it is rather a” Pauline” way of expressing ethical obligations. Or maybe Paul is rather still Jewish in his ethical teaching! Paul never says one can be right with God on the basis of good works, it is only by God’s sovereign choice to adopt the believer as a member of his family that we can be saved: by grace through faith. But it is well know that Paul also gives many ethical and moral commands which he expects from his churches. These are not requirements to be saved, but the natural response of those who are “in Christ.”

To summarize this point for Sanders: Election is what placed the Jews “into” the covenant; obedience is what “keeps them in.” There are a number of mechanisms which are used to deal with disobedience, all of which are expressions of God’s grace. There is nothing Israel did to merit this election. Israel is given every help possible by God’s grace to assist them in the “keeping in” element.

Bob TefillinBut is this a wrong view of Second Temple Judaism? Perhaps Sanders has overstated his case in some respects. For example, a book like Fourth Ezra demands that the Law be kept perfectly and the Essenes certainly are an example of a group that demands rigorous attention to the demands of the Law. In the New Testament, Jesus does describe the Pharisees as legalists (Matt 23) and Paul is arguing against some form of legalism in Galatians. In addition, there is a certain attraction to legalism since it defines the steps one must take in order to be right with God. There were Gentiles who converted to Judaism and tried to keep the Law as perfectly as possible. That Paul must deal with Gentiles wanting to keep the Law in several letters ought to be evidence of the attraction of legalism.

On the whole, I think Sanders is correct that Judaism in the first century was a religion of grace, but there was also a strong attraction to legalism among both Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism (and later, Christianity). A major cornerstone of the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the gracious loving-kindness of God, his hesed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we read of someone who claims to be burdened down by the impossibly heavy load the Law. Rather, keeping the law is the proper response to a gracious God. The big difference between Paul and Second Temple Judaism is his view of Gentiles keeping the Law.

F. F. BruceThis series on the New Perspective on Paul has generated several conversations (online and in real life). I was chatting about F. F. Bruce with a colleague today and he asked me if F. F. Bruce could be considered “New Perspective.” My initial thought was that Bruce did most of his work before the NPP was well-known, although I notice that he cited E. P. Sanders 23 times in his commentary on Galatians, Dunn appears a few times, but Bruce wrote on Galatians well before Dunn’s commentary was published in 1993.

Commenting on Galatians 3:10, Bruce sees Paul’s conversion as a decisive break from legalistic Judaism:  “Paul’s confrontation with the risen Christ on the Damascus road after his grounding in Judaism, and the new understanding of salvation-history which sprang from that confrontation, compelled him to see the legal path to salvation closed by a barrier (which he would not have refused to identify with the cross) which carried a notice reading: ‘No road this way.’”  F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 160.

I would say that is solidly “Old Perspective”!

F. F. Bruce was a careful exegete and he is certainly not importing his personal conversion experience into his reading of Paul. It is simply the case Paul saw his own Gospel as a major break from his previous way of life in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period.

That is not to say that Paul rejected Judaism, however. In may very well be that he thought of himself as reforming Judaism with a “new understanding of salvation-history.” As I said in the previous post, Paul’s experience is unique in salvation history.

Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church. Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt.

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)For many readers, this might sound like a foolish question.  Acts 9 describes Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a dramatic conversion from chief persecutor of the church to evangelist for the Church. In Phil 3:4-11 Pau describes his previous way of life in Judaism as worthless in comparison to his new life in Christ. That seems like a “conversion” experience from “being Jewish” to “being Christian.”

Another classic text that seems to describe a conversion experience is Romans 7:7-25. In this text Paul describes his struggle as the Wretched Man who tried to keep the Law but failed, and only found salvation in the freedom that comes through Jesus Christ. The traditional view reads this text as referring to Paul’s own spiritual and psychological conversion. If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion. Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law. His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

The New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question. James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another. Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. The Damascus Road experience was a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry. Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah. (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)

Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90). This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. Paul may not have changed parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.

Young LutherThe problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law. His Law-free gospel for the Gentiles was a radical change, and a change that was wholly unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is the key for grasping how radical Paul’s gospel was. When Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without being circumcised, the Jews vigorously oppose Paul, attempt to have him arrested and (later in Acts) they attempt to kill him for what they see as a radically blasphemous revision of the basics of the Jewish faith.

I think that Phil 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century. While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)

But it is also problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians and in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul never “joins the Jerusalem church” nor does he receive his commission from them (again, see Gal 2). He seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

It is therefore probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. I agree that Luther and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience. But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake; Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.

Bibliography: There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107. See also Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

Before examining the challenge of the new Perspective on Paul, it is important to have some understanding of what the traditional on Paul view is. At the foundation of Sanders’ critique of the standard view of Paul is that Luther read Paul through the lens of his own struggle with sin and his battle with the Pelagian / semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic Church which claimed one could earn merit before God by preforming good deeds.

Luther Nailing ThesesI will start with the observation that I find much of what is written on the traditional view is more or less Systematic Theology with respect to method. This is not necessarily a bad; Luther and Calvin simply did not “do biblical theology” quite the same way it is done today. They were simply unable to examine the historical and cultural background to Pauline literature. They did in fact return to the text of Scripture, but they did so in order to serve a developing theological reformation. In addition, they were waging a theological (and political) battle. For two centuries following the Reformation, church scholars were busy shoring up the theological edifice of the Reformation and not particularly interested in “what Paul really meant.”

DSSAnother factor is the vast wealth of material modern scholarship has available for study as compared to even the last century. A great deal of literary evidence from the Second Temple Period has been published in the last fifty that was unknown to the Reformers or anyone studying Paul prior to E. P. Sanders. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an obvious example, but the publication of Charlesworth’s two volumes on the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha have allowed students of Paul to read Jewish texts that were popular when Paul wrote his letters. All of that literary evidence needs to be read and evaluated as potential background to Paul’s letters.

With this in mind, I want to use Stephen Westerholm seven-point summary of what he calls the “Lutheran” Paul. He arrives at these points after examining the Pauline theology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. I summarize his points here and offer some commentary.

  1. Human nature was created good, but has become corrupted by sin and is unable to please the Creator. This entails the idea that all those who are in Adam are also in his sin. As Romans 5 clearly indicates, Adam’s sin is somehow imputed to his descendants so that all humans have a sinful nature which separates them from a holy God.
  2. Humans must therefore be “justified by divine grace” through faith, apart from works. This is the cornerstone of the Reformation: since humans do not merit salvation, they can only be saved by a sovereign act of a gracious God.
  3. This justification by faith leaves humans with nothing to boast before God. A text like Eph 2:8-9 shows that Paul’s view was that no person could stand before God as their judge and claim to have done anything to merit salvation, either before or after they were justified.
  4. Even though humans are justified by God’s grace, they are still expected to do good works. There is an unfortunate misunderstanding that some theologians in the reformed tradition think that after justification, a believer may sin all they want. It is clear from Paul’s letters that he expects believers to behave in a certain way, but does he ever threaten them with the loss of salvation?
  5. The Law was given to awaken the awareness of sin in humans. The role of the Jewish law is the burden of Galatians. Paul argues there that the believer is not required to keep the Law since it only functioned as a guide until God acted decisively in Jesus.
  6. Sin is still a reality in the life of the believer. Westerholm comments that there is a different in the way Wesley or Luther deal with the problem of sin, nevertheless they recognize that humans still sin even after they are justified before God.
  7. Divine grace may or may not be irresistible. Again, this varies between Luther / Calvin and Wesley. The very act of having faith may constitute a “work” which can be seen as a human contribution to salvation.

For the most part, I read this list and want to shout “Amen!” after the first five points, and I have some strong opinions on the last two where there is divergence in the various streams of the Reformation. These theological points, when properly defined, are a solid theological response to the growing influence of Pelagianism in the church in the sixteenth century (or the early twenty-first century for that matter). With respect to the first five points, I believe I could support each statement with enough proof-texts in Paul to show that this general outline is “Pauline.”

The challenge of the New Perspective is to start with the text in the proper historical climate. Is it possible that this tight outline of systematic theology is not what Paul intended at all?

Bibliography: Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his Critics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 88-97.

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