Acts 9 – Introducing Rabbi Saul

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

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I 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)?

Gentiles and the Jewish Law

Acts 15 concerns the first major controversy in the early church, although the issue seems strange to modern readers. Unlike later theological debate over the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity, or modern concerns over how to properly worship in church or who can (or cannot) be ordained as a minister, the earliest church struggled to know what to do with Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Are these Gentiles “converting” to a form of Judaism? If that is the case, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God fearers Gentiles,” people welcome in the synagogue without having to fully convert? If they are fully keeping the law, does this imply a secondary status for Gentile believers?

Primarily as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission, the percentage of Gentiles was growing in Christian communities. Some Jews thought that it was necessary for the Gentiles to keep the whole Law, starting with circumcision.

Based on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision. Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora. After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice. Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew nor Gentile), gender (neither male nor female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.” This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later. One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

To me, this is what makes Paul unique in the early church (or to use Michael Bird’s recent phrase, Paul is an “anomalous Jew”). Although Gentiles could convert to Judaism, and many did, no other Jewish writer in the Second Temple Period would have said Gentiles can be right with God without keeping any of the Law. In Acts 10, Cornelius was accepted without circumcision but he was already considered a righteous man because he was doing the sorts of things the Law commands. Yet Paul is teaching his Gentile converts to not submit to circumcision since it implies they are becoming Jews. The Church is not a new Israel, Paul’s churches are neither Jew nor Gentile.

There are many ramifications of this new teaching and we will return to many of these things when we get to Galatians. What is the practical benefit for Gentile believers if they are not expected to keep the Jewish Law? Does this help Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles? Certainly he has success among the God-fearers who were already attracted to the ethical content of the Law, but would this Law-free gospel of Jesus attract Gentiles who were not already interested in Judaism?

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)?

Book Review: Bandy and Merkle, Understanding Prophecy

Bandy Alan S. and Benjamin L. Merkle. Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2015. 264 pp. Pb; $21.99. Link to Kregel

There have been several introductory handbooks for the Prophets have appeared recently. Most of these recent textbooks focus on the background and theology of each individual book. Rather than survey the Old Testament prophetic books, Bandy and Merkle present a study on how prophecy works in the whole canon of Scripture, including the New Testament.  In fact, the main theme of the book is not the prophetic books themselves, but how messianic prophecy functions.

4271 cvr final CC.inddWhat makes this book different is the diversity of views represented by the authors. Bandy identifies himself as a Historic premillennialist, while Merkel calls himself an amillennialist. Both are committed evangelicals who believe the Bible is God’s word and is a divinely inspired message from God. In addition, both agree the Bible has a unified message that centers on Jesus, his death and resurrection. This means that all prophecy is to be read Christologically.

In part one of the book, Bandy and Merkle offer three chapters on how to interpret prophecy. Everything in the prophets concerned with Jesus’s death and resurrection as the climax of redemptive history. While it is true the prophets do look forward to a messiah and the eschatological age, there are whole sections of the prophets which have very little to do with the coming Messiah. For example, Amos and Hosea are more concerned with social ethics and the unavoidable exile of Israel. It is hard to make Ezekiel 16 into a messianic prophecy! In fact, it is possible to argue much of prophetic literature refers to the immediate context of the prophet and the coming judgment on either Samaria or Jerusalem, the exile or the future return from exile. This prophetic “forth-telling” is overlooked in this book, although in practice the authors do often recognize prophecies which do not refer to a future messianic age (conditional and fulfilled prophecies in chapter 4, for example).

The focus of part two is on Old Testament prophecy. First, the authors examine unconditional prophecies (such as the Abrahamic Covenant), conditional prophecies (such as Jonah’s announcement of the destruction of Nineveh), and fulfilled prophecies (such as the prophetic condemnation on Babylon in Isaiah 13). Here is the recognition that some Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the Old Testament itself, but that is not the focus of the book.

There are many Old Testament texts which predict a restoration of Israel in the future. These “restoration prophecies” are problematic since they seem to be unfulfilled with the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 5 therefore discusses the possibility these prophecies were fulfilled in the church in a literal future (Jewish) kingdom. They conclude the prophecies of a restoration of Israel were never meant to be interpreted in a literalistic way, therefore any interpretation that expects a literal Israel to rebuild a literal Temple in the future simply minimizes the finished work of Christ on the cross (123).

Possibly, but did not the Jewish followers of Jesus continue to worship at the Temple well into the present age? Even Paul worshiped in the Temple as late as Acts 21 and James leads a church in Jerusalem which is still “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). Presumably these zealous Jewish Christians worshiped in the Temple, perhaps without making sin offerings. There are many ways to worship at the Temple besides making atonement for sin.

In chapter 6 Bandy and Merkle survey various Messianic prophecies. After a short discussion of what “counts” as a messianic prophecy, they conclude some of these prophecies have a direct fulfillment in the life of Jesus, others are partially or typlogically fulfilled (149). That the messiah was to be a prophet, priest and king are examples of typological fulfillments (since Jesus was not actually a king). But this chapter also includes passages such as Micah 5:2, predicting that messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Zech 9:9, fulfilled when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday.” Unfortunately there is no method offered for sorting out what prophecies are “direct predictions” and which are typological.

In the third part of the book, Bandy and Merkle focus on two aspects of New Testament messianic prophecy. First, they discuss prophecies of the coming of the Messiah (chapter 7). This includes examples like Zechariah’s prophecy of the birth of Jesus as well as elements of Jesus’ message such as the kingdom of God. The point of this section is to show that “Jesus did not come unannounced” (170).

Chapters 8-10 focus on predictions of the return of the Messiah in the Gospels and Acts (chapter 8), the Epistles (chapter 9) and Revelation (chapter 10). Here is where the views of the two authors diverge the most, since it is possible the Olivet Discourse refers to the Second Coming of Jesus (premillennialism) or to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (amillennialism), or a balance between these two extremes (the already/not yet” view). Too much of this chapter is devoted to an attack of the “left behind” interpretation of Matthew 24:41. Many dispensationalism rejected this passage as referring to the rapture long ago and Merkle is entirely correct that the reference is to judgment not a rapture of the church. But not a single dispensationalist is cited in this section, making me wonder what the motive for attacking an outmoded and abandoned view might be. The book includes an appendix on the problematic phrase “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.

Conclusion. This is not a textbook on the prophetic books, and as such does not discuss the prophets as iconoclastic voices calling Israel and Judah back to covenant faithfulness nor is the book interested in the social ethics of the prophets. While the authors do state the prophets do address their own times, but emphasis in this book is on prophecies of the coming eschatological or messianic age.

There is a conscious effort in the book to interpret prophecy in a way that is as distant from dispensationalism as possible. Bandy makes this clear in the appendix where he indicates he does not want to be associated with the Left Behind style of millennialist. Earlier in the book he uses Tim LaHaye as an example of overly literal interpreters of prophecy (58). Even Charles Ryrie is used as an example of someone who warns against straying too far from a literal interpretation, although I do not recall Ryrie engaging in the sort of wild-eyed interpretations one finds in the Left Behind series.

Fair enough, some dispensationalist have engaged in overly-literal interpretations of prophecy (and looked foolish for doing so). But much of what this book argues resonates with the more rational, ecclesiological form of dispensationalism (Darrel Bock, Robert Saucy, Dale DeWitt). In fairness, the authors cite Kevin Vanhoozer’s distinction between the “literal sense” and literalism. The literal sense is what the author intended to mean when he originally used symbols for symbolic language. In my experience, few serious interpreters of prophecy attempt pure literalism when reading prophecy.

Despite my misgivings, this is a useful introduction to how OT messianic prophecies are interpreted in the New Testament, although the title implies the volume is more comprehensive than it actually is. Bandy and Merkle achieve what they have set out to accomplish, although not all readers will be happy with the results of this dialogue between millennial views.

This volume could be improved by the addition of a subject and Scripture indices.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Book Review: Allen and Linebaugh, Reformation Readings of Paul

Allen, Michael and Jonathan A. Linebaugh, eds. Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 280 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP

The so-called new perspective on Paul often complains that Luther read his own situation into the apostle Paul. It is often stated that Luther misunderstood Paul because he did not understand second temple. Judaism, and he was imposing his own struggle with the Roman Catholic Church on the text of Galatians and Romans. But how Luther or any of the reformers actually read Paul’s writings is never explored. This book attempts to fill this missing link in scholarship. This book is something of a supplement to the growing collection of reformation commentaries also published by IVP academic.

Reformation Readings of PaulIn his introduction, Jonathan A. Linebaugh suggests there is a disconnection between the “Lutheran Paul” and Martin Luther as a reader of Paul. Perhaps Luther’s reading of Paul was not a good one, but the only way to determine this is to actually read Luther’s exegesis of Paul’s writings. The goal of Reformation Readings of Paul is to “catch the reformers in action as exegetes” (15). The book is sort of a “there and back again” tale in which the reader passes through the reformers to the more distant Paul, but always with the goal of returning to the present to understand how these important texts still have meaning today.

In order to achieve this goal the editors have selected five reformation scholars for which the exam in one particular section of the Pauline writings. Each section has a pair of chapters, the first by a historian who describes how the particular reformer read Paul. The second chapter in each section is written by a Pauline scholar and attempts to fit the reformers reading of Paul into a larger Pauline theology. The second essay in each section is not a response but rather an interaction with the data collected by the historian. Perhaps the analogy of a dialogue is best, these chapters attempt to describe a dialogue between Paul and Calvin for example.

The editors selected the following pairings: Galatians and Martin Luther, Romans and Philipp Melanchthon, Ephesians and Martin Bucer, 1 & 2 Corinthians and John Calvin, and finally Thomas Cranmer and the whole Pauline collection. This is not a book focuses solely on Luther, or even Luther and Calvin. The inclusion of sections on Melanchthon and Bucer make this a more diverse collection, and a section on the English reformer Thomas Cranmer is remarkable.

Gerald Bray’s conclusion to the collection reminds us that even though the reformers were “fully engaged in the Renaissance humanism of their time,” the heart of the Reformation was a theological crisis ignited by the Gospel (264). Late medieval theology was preoccupied with paying off the enormous the debt of sin owed to a righteous God. In that world Luther’s interpretation of “the just will live by faith” was both radical and liberating. For Bray, modern critics of the reformers miss the spiritual dimension that makes sense of Luther and Paul (272). Certainly we know more today about Second Temple Judaism that the Reformers, but they connected with Paul in their own time in order to bring the light of the Gospel to a very dark world.

 

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Logos Free Book – Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme

WesterholmLogos Bible Software has outdone itself for the “Free Book of the Month” Promotion.  Logos partners with Eerdmans to offer Stephen Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. This book is a good overview of Paul’s view of justification by faith and the role of the works of the law. He summarizes the “New Perspective on Paul” (Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and Douglas A. Campbell). Westerholm recognizes some of the critiques of the traditional view of Paul, but does not find the New Perspective persuasive either. If you are curious about what the “New Perspective on Paul” is, I wrote a series of posts two years ago covering many of the key points.

Campbell DeliveranceAs a bonus, Logos has an “almost free book of the month,” Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. This is a great value at only 99 cents (the book is more that 1200 pages!) Campbell’s views on Paul are challenging since he recognizes the New Perspective but pushes beyond it to a noncontractual, ‘apocalyptic; reading of many of the apostle’s most famous—and most troublesome—texts.” He want to avoid the theological rhetoric which usually pervades discussions on Justification (ie., the John Piper/N. T. Wright exchange a few years ago). In order to do this, he attempts to isolate Paul’s view of justification, works, and law from post-reformation theology. The book was controversial and generated a few articles in direct response, including Douglas J. Moo,  “The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas A. Campbell.” JETS 53 (2010): 143-150.

As always, Logos has a “giveaway” related to their free book, this month you can enter to win a set of  the Two Horizons Commentary (10 vols., $174.95 value). I reviewed the Pastoral Epistles commentary by Robert Wall and Richard Steele, and concluded it was a “helpful contribution to the study of the Pastorals which will be profitable for both layman and pastor.”

Both of these books are excellent additions to your Logos library, so make sure to add them to your library before the end of the month.

Paul’s Experience on the Damascus Road

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion.  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.

Road to DamascusLike the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is cited here; Paul 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.

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, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into Paul.  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is built on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

In the end, Polhill is correct when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (p. 55).  By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.

If the New Perspective is correct about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, how would this change our understanding of Paul? What are the ramifications of Paul as called” to a prophetic mission rather than converted to a new religion?