Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Perspectives on Paul (I)

Been reading quite a bit on (St.) Paul and his theology of late.

[For a brief intro on some of these newer trends in Pauline theology here here and here].

These three links deal with the so-called New Perspective on Paul. The authors most associated with this trend are E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and NT Wright (the same Wright I wrote about on resurrection here).

The Old Perspective is the traditional Lutheran strict duality between the Law on one hand the Gospel on the other. Or Slavery/Freedom, Judaism/Christianity, Works/Faith, etc. The Law is a religion of slavery, works, oppressive hardship, while The Gospel is a religion of Grace, Freedom, and Joy.

These ideas come directly from Luther and set a major backdrop to the Holocaust and German anti-Semitism. Luther's writings are also prophetic, mystical, and use the language of paradox, emotionally charged.

The other great Reformer, John Calvin represented a different tradition. For him the main Biblical theme was election and covenant; Calvin had a much stronger sense of the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Luther and later Lutherans more especially at times bordered on Marcionism (the OT god=Evil, NT God=Good). Calvin and the Reformed (not Lutheran) brand of Protestantism also emphasized that after election, life in the Spirit was one of discipline and work (Protestant Ethic, Max Weber, etc.).

What the Old Perspective taught was the Post Exilic Judaism taught the Christian heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagianism taught that humans could achieve salvation by their own works--not instead by the grace of God alone.

Along came EP Sanders who in the late 70s argued that in fact Second Temple Judaism did not teach works-righteousness (works salvation, Pelagianism) but rather than God choose freely and graciously Israel and his chosen people and then gave the Commandments.

The Book of Exodus: "I am the Lord your God who led you of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me." Gracious action of God then commandment. So for Sanders, the commandments and the Torah/Law (Torah is better translated as "Instruction" than "Law") were not a means of gaining salvation or adoption into the Jewish world but rather the way of expressing such covenant relationship. Sanders called this position "covenantal nomism". Nomos is the Greek word for Law/Custom. Interesting he choose a Greek word for Judaism, covenantal torah-ism might have been better, but so be it. So covenant + instruction law/commandment.

There are conservative theologians who do not accept the New Perspective on Paul--arguing for the Old. But Sanders has basically won the day. There are differences between Sanders, Wright, and Dunn, but that basic point unites them. So we see in covenantal nomism more the influence (in Christian terms) of Reformed Theology. Wright makes this point specifically. It is still negatively a Christian way of bringing Judaism back to a positive view--hence the Calvinist-like tone of covenantal nomism. Wright the cerebral professor much more Calvin-like than the fiery mystical-prone Luther.

It is still thinking in terms of grace/free will Augustinianism/Pelagianism; it has just said that it was incorrect to equate Pharisaic and Second Temple Judaisms with Pelagianism. It is right so far as it goes, but still is a fairly "from our point of view" view as it were.

And to the second (via Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran interestingly) major point in New Perspectives on Paul: sola fide (only by faith) or justification by grace through faith alone. What Paul meant by this according to Stendahl was that Gentiles who came to Christ needed only faith not to become Jews or take on Torah regulations. Stendahl further argued (correctly) that Augustine misread Paul adding a layer of introspective guilt and anxiety not in Paul at all.

That was broadened by the Reformers to mean that one needed only hear the proclamation of Christ and believe--not being held in by Roman Church--but it became a weapon used against other Christians, a dogma....one had to believe in belief alone. Justification by faith nor justification by grace through faith. It was simply about God accepted all who believed in him. Period. No extras, no prerequisites.

Another point following up on those, stressed by Wright, is that the Gospel of Paul is not an abstract theory of salvation but a proclamation, a summons to obey and believe. Justification for Wright is not what happens at the moment one is saved, but rather happens after being saved. Or rather incorporated into Christ.

This goes down a whole long road about whether individuals-communities can fall away from Christ after being saved or not.....Methodism, Calvinism, perseverance of the saints, etc. Don't want to go there. But the main point is this from Dunn and Wright in their conversation linked above:

Wright: I am totally in agreement with that and I too have challenged my Roman Catholic friends with this. Justification by faith is not simply a doctrine about which we ought to be able to agree, it is the doctrine which says we are one in Christ, that all those who believe in Jesus belong at the same table. I do not see that as the El Dorado, the reward at the end of the ecumenical endeavor. I see it as a necessary step on the road of ecumenical endeavor, and I expect there will be warm agreement in some quarters in this room, and probably strong disagreement from other quarters.

Dunn: But I think the point has to be pressed even more. There is only the one thing necessary for us to worship together, to work together, to mission together, and that is that God accepts us, has accepted us, and accepts others on the same terms, by grace through faith.

Here's Wright once more on justification as vindication (and not conversion):

My proposal has been, and still is, that Paul uses ‘vindication’ language, i.e. the dikaioo word-group, when he is describing, not the moment when, or the process by which, someone comes from idolatry, sin and death to God, Christ and life, but rather the verdict which God pronounces consequent upon that event. dikaioo is after all a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for making something happen or changing the way something is.
The phrase "righteousness" then is about God not humans---it is God's faithful adherence to the covenant (covenantal nomism, Gentiles brought into covenant by faith in Christ not Law but Law still good for Jews, see Paul's Letter to the Romans). Wright and Dunn are right this is Paul for an ecumenical Christian (and Jewish-Christian dialogical) age.

All of this creates an important base for later explorations of other aspects of Paul. Topics to include: Paul as missionary to the Gentiles; Paul's Political edge (if Christ is Lord, Caesar is not); his apocalypticism.

tags technorati :
tags technorati :
tags technorati :
tags technorati :


Post a Comment

<< Home