Was Paul “Predisposed to Conversion”?

[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)?

The New Perspective on Paul: Dispensationalism and the NPP

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 New Perspective on Paul: Scholarly Response to the NPP

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

The New Perspective on Paul: Defining Justification

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.

The New Perspective on Paul: Works of Righteousness

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.