The New Testament and the People of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 1)

Book Review

N.T. Wright, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992, 560 pp.

This massive undertaking lays the epistemological, literary, and historical foundations for Wright’s projected five-volume series (now stretching into six) entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Breathtaking in its scope and innovative in its methodology, The New Testament and the People of God is a must-read.

Wright begins by grappling with the knotty issue of hermeneutics (broadly defined) and authority, arguing that theology must be worked out in conjunction with history and literary criticism. He recognizes, however, that epistemology must be addressed first. Epistemologically, Wright rejects not only the naïve positivism which imagines that texts and events can be interpreted “objectively,” but also the subjective phenomenalism which undermines public discourse. The middle road taken by Wright is that of critical realism: Whereas initial observation must be challenged by critical reflection, nevertheless it is possible to grasp something of reality. Though not advocating postmodernism, Wright nevertheless, in good postmodern fashion, makes much of stories as windows into worldviews.

The literary analysis Wright uses is a modified version of A.J. Griemas’ narrative analysis, mapping out initial sequences, topical sequences, and final sequences of biblical stories. Using this tool in the context of critical realism, Wright proposes to study ancient worldviews, mindsets, aims, intentions, and motivations. He is quick to add that this is the discipline of historical study, not psychological speculation.

Wright rejects naïve approaches to Scriptural authority, including the terms of the popular debate about which aspects are “culturally conditioned” and which are “timelessly true,” since after all: “All of the New Testament is ‘culturally conditioned'” (p. 20). The model of authority which Wright proposes is best illustrated as “a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost” (p. 140). Acts 1 through 4 include Creation, Fall, Israel, and Jesus; the fifth act is to be worked out ourselves in a way consistent with the first four.

Wright then proceeds to map out the worldview of first-century Judaism (or Judaisms), considering its symbols: Temple, Land, Torah, and racial identity. This worldview is explicated in Israel’s core beliefs of creational monotheism, election, and eschatology, understood in a covenantal context. But what is innovative about Wright’s treatment of first-century Judaism is his starting-point in the political turbulence of the time rather than in abstract questions of timeless truths. Before even attempting a description of the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees, Wright outlines the story ofIsrael’s struggle against imperial oppressors from Babylon to Rome, paying particular attention to the Jewish revolt. He writes:

Any suggestion, even by implication, that Jews led untroubled lives with leisure to discuss the finer points of dogmatic theology must be rejected. Jewish society faced major external threats and major internal problems. The question, what it might mean to be a good or loyal Jew, had pressing social, economic and political dimensions as well as cultural and theological ones….the pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation — from oppression, from debt, from Rome. Other issues, I suggest, were regularly seen in this light. The hope of Israel, and of most special-interest groups within Israel, was not for post-mortem disembodied bliss, but for a national liberation that would fulfil the expectations aroused by the memory, and regular celebration, of the exodus and, nearer at hand, of the Maccabaean history. Hope focused on the coming of Israel’s god (pp. 169,170).

The corollary for our understanding of Torah and “works of Torah” is that the traditional Protestant caricature of Judaism as a legalistic religion is simply wrong. He writes, for instance:

Torah provided three badges in particular which marked the Jew out from the pagan: circumcision, sabbath, and the kosher laws….Debates about sabbath and purity, therefore, occupied an immense amount of time and effort in the discussions of the learned, as we know from the Mishnah and Talmud. This was not, it should be stressed, because Jews in general or Pharisees in particular were concerned merely for outward ritual or ceremony, nor because they were attempting to earn their salvation (within some sub-Christian scheme!) by virtuous living. It was because they were concerned for the divine Torah, and were therefore anxious to maintain their god-given distinctiveness over against the pagan nations, particularly those who were oppressing them. Their whole raison-d’être as a nation depended on it….it was Torah, and particularly the special badges of sabbath and purity, that demarcated the covenant people, and that therefore provided litmus tests of covenant loyalty and signs of covenant hope….the ‘works of Torah’ were not a legalist’s ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity (pp. 237,238).

These observations about the role and function of Torah within Judaism are foundational for Wright’s work on the historical Jesus (volume 2, Jesus and the Victory of God) as well as for Paul (planned for a future volume).

Before sketching out the history of the first-century church in light of this background, Wright argues that Israel’s apocalpytic hope has been grossly misunderstood by many scholars. What Israel hoped for was not an end to this space-time universe, but the end of her exile under foreign domination. Apocalpytic language about the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky are vivid metaphors, not literal expectations. The purpose of the language is not to describe the end of history, but to invest historical events with their theological meaning, to convey the importance of “earth-shattering” events. Regarding the meaning of salvation in this context, he writes:

A word is necessary at this point about the meaning of the term ‘salvation’ in the context of the Jewish expectation. It ought to be clear by now that within the worldview we have described there can be little thought of the rescue of Israel consisting of the end of the space-time universe, and/or of Israel’s future enjoyment of a non-physical, ‘spiritual’ bliss….Rather, the ‘salvation’ spoken of in the Jewish sources of this period has to do with rescue from the national enemies, restoration of the national symbols, and a state of shalom in which every man will sit under his vine or fig-tree. ‘Salvation’ encapsulates the entire future hope. If there are Christian redefinitions of the term later on, that is another question. For first-century Jews it could only mean the inauguration of the age to come, liberation from Rome, the restoration of the Temple, and the free enjoyment of their own Land (p. 300).

The “kingdom of god” in this historical context was not an abstract ethical ideal or timeless truth, but the expected defeat of Caesar, Herod, and every other tyrant by Israel’s god of justice. When Wright turns to his sketch of the early church, he capitalizes on this insight, uncovering anessentialy Jewish revolutionary underpinning for the Christian confession that Jesus, not Caesar, is the real lord.

After surveying early Christianity and the New Testament in this light, Wright turns his attention to proposing a revised theory of form-criticism which turns the Bultmannian approach on its head: longer narrative units, including particularly controversy stories, likely evolved into shorter apophthegms, not vice versa. So, for instance, even though the Gospel of Thomas likely does contain Jesus sayings independent of the synoptic Gospels, nevertheless as a whole Thomas represents a later development from Jesus’ essentially Jewish message rather than an earlier and more accurate reflection of an essentially non-Jewish Jesus.

In concluding his massive work, Wright outlines the implications of his overall approach. Among his conclusions is that the “two-covenant” approach to Judaism and Christianity advocated by Gagerand Gaston is actually patronizing to Judaism. On the other hand, apart from arguing that early Christianity was no more “anti-Jewish” than any other Jewish sect (like the Pharisees and theEssenes), it does not seem to be sufficiently clear in this volume how Wright can avoid asupersessionist position. Nevertheless, no matter where one stands on these issues, The New Testament and the People of God is a formidable work to be dealt with.

Mark M. Mattison

The New Perspective on Paul – Revised Edition

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008, 551 pp.

When James D.G. Dunn delivered his Manson Memorial Lecture in 1982, he set out to sketch an emerging paradigm in current Pauline studies. Though it wasn’t his intent to label that paradigm or coin a phrase, nevertheless his description of “the new perspective on Paul” struck a chord and became the catchphrase for the new paradigm.

However, the term clearly had some inherent weaknesses. For one, it wasn’t very descriptive; it didn’t convey anything about the content of the emerging approach to Paul. Second, “the new perspective” isn’t so “new” anymore, leaving other scholars to articulate more recent proposals with descriptions like “the fresh perspective on Paul” (Wright, 2000) and a “newer perspective” on Paul (Das, 2003). Thankfully, no one has yet proposed “the new and improved perspective on Paul”! Finally, the prevalence of the label itself has apparently enabled certain critics, primarily conservative Presbyterians, to imagine an entire systematic theology which they awkwardly dub “new perspectivism”!

Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses, the term stuck, partly because it’s still helpful as a shorthand way of describing the seismic shift in approaches to Pauline studies since E.P. Sanders’ monumental Protestant reevaluation of the Second-Temple Judaism with which Paul would have been familiar. Now in his 2008 book The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition, Dunn sums up the history of this new perspective and provides a thorough reevaluation. In his opening Preface, Dunn comments on the terminology itself insofar as he chose it as the title of his new work:

I need to add at once that the title should not be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as though that was the only ‘new perspective’ possible or accessible to students of Paul; given the brief history of the title, it would have been more misleading to entitle the volume ‘A New Perspective on Paul’. Nor should it be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as implying that any and every old perspective is thereby rendered passé or condemned to the dustbin; quite the contrary, as the opening essay should make clear. Nor should it be read as a claim to provide a definitive statement of ‘The New Perspective on Paul’; in the pages that follow, I speak only for myself, not as representative of some kind of ‘school’. Nor, perhaps I should add, is ‘the new perspective’ some kind of ‘dogma’ which is somehow binding on its ‘adherents’; that is not how properly critical (including self-critical) exegesis and historical scholarship goes about its task (ix, x).

This anthology of Dunn’s key contributions to the new perspective includes twenty essays published between 1983 and 2004, including his original Manson Memorial Lecture “The New Perspective on Paul,” several follow-up essays on “The Works of the Law,” his 1991 article “The Justice of God,” and “In Search of Common Ground,” his summary of the Third Durham-TübingenResearch Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism on ‘Paul and the Law’ in 1994. Of particular interest, however, are the brand new chapters prepared for this volume: a concluding chapter on Philippians 3.2-14 and the New Perspective on Paul, and a new 50,000-word introductory essay (expanded for the Eerdmans Revised Edition) which alone is worth the price of the book.

That introduction, “The New Perspective: whence, what and whither?” is divided into five parts. In the first section (1-17), Dunn provides a personal account of the evolution of his thought on Paul, including the impact of Sanders and further insights from Qumran, including notably 4QMMT. This section ends with a helpful summary of what Dunn means by “the new perspective on Paul”: It builds on Sanders’ reappraisal of Second-Temple Judaism; it observes that the social function of the law in separating Jews from Gentiles was integral to that Judaism; it notes that Paul’s teaching on justification and “works of law” belong in that context; and it protests that the church, in its failure to recognize the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, “may have ignored or excluded a vital factor in combating the nationalism and racialism which has so distorted and diminished Christianity past and present” (16,17).

In the second section (17-41), Dunn provides a gratifyingly spirited counter-response to many of his critics, including Seyoon Kim, Simon Gathercole, Mark Seifrid, Mark Elliott, and a host of others, including more caustic critics such as Carl Trueman (who has since acknowledged his misrepresentation) and Lee Gatiss, who incorrectly surmised that Dunn has no firsthand knowledge of the writings of Martin Luther.

The third section, “Taking the debate forward” (41-58), is an important reappraisal of current issues, including particularly Dunn’s continuing reflection on Galatians 3.10-14 in light of further criticism and “the later Paulines, particularly Eph. 2.8-10, but also 2 Tim. 1.9-10 and Tit. 3.5-6” (41), which have not received enough attention by scholars working through the new perspective.

In the fourth section (58-95), Dunn addresses what he considers to be the most substantive issues, which revolve around the tension between election and judgment both in Second-Temple Judaism and in Paul. In this section he emphasizes Paul’s teaching regarding final judgment according to works, but even here he strives to preclude misunderstanding by those who would characterize Dunn as anti-Lutheran:

Critics, please note: my concern is not to argue that Paul’s understanding of salvation was synergistic; I have no desire to promote a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian interpretation of Paul; I have no doubt that I and all other believers in Christ will be saying ‘the prayer of humble access’ throughout our lives and to the end. My concern is rather twofold: (a) to question whether the charge of synergism should be laid so confidently at the door of Judaism when some of Paul’s language seems vulnerable to the same charge; and (b) to ask proponents of Pauline ‘monergism’ to take more seriously and with due seriousness the other Pauline teaching and exhortations referred to above. In the latter connection, I have to insist that it is Paul’s own teaching and urgings which force the issue upon us. According to 2 Cor. 5.10, the judgment on each will be according to what each has done. Even if done by (the indwelling) Christ or in the power of the Spirit, the doer is the individual and judgment will be in accordance with that doing. It is that Pauline understanding of final judgment which has to be integrated with the Pauline understanding of justification by faith (88,89).

Most importantly, in his consideration of whether the new perspective’s reevaluation of the law diminishes the need for Christ, Dunn helpfully demonstrates how Paul’s christology precludes the polarization (articulated so forcefully by Schweitzer) between the categories of “justification” and “participation in Christ.” Specifically, Dunn argues that “the forensic metaphor of justification” is only one of three models of salvation in Paul, the other two being the gift of the Spirit and identification with Christ – identification with Christ, that is, “as a process to be worked through and not simply astatus to be accepted” (93).

In Dunn’s fifth and concluding part (96-97), he reiterates that Christian scholars cannot return to the old caricature of Judaism as a religion of dry legalism and that while the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is still necessary, it is equally important to recover the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, particularly its social and corporate dimension. Paul’s tension between justification by faith and judgment according to works needs to be maintained, as well as the fundamental point that for Paul, the eschatological significance of Christ was the primary difference between his gospel and the traditions of Israel.

Overall, Dunn’s latest volume is an exceptional contribution to the ongoing dialogue. One of its few shortcomings might relate to the scope of its counter-criticism. Dunn’s principal dialogue partners are clearly those conservative Christian reactionaries whom Pamela Eisenbaum has described as “neotraditionalists”; particularly notable is his lack of engagement with important contributions by Jewish scholars on Paul, like Eisenbaum herself and most notably Mark Nanos (although references to Daniel Boyarin and Alan Segal do turn up in a few footnotes).

Returning to the comments with which this review opened, one final question remains for this reviewer. Clearly, during the last thirty years the new perspective on Paul has become the consensus position for a majority of biblical scholars (remaining an issue only for the “neotraditionalists” mentioned above). Given that, and given subsequent developments, such as the more recent trend in Pauline studies which considers Paul’s writings in the political context of imperial Rome, might it not be appropriate at some point to speak less of “the new perspective on Paul” and to speak in a more precise (and historically useful) way of “the quest for the historical Paul,” of which the Sanders revolution and the trend of Paul and Empire may be considered different phases along the way? That, of course, is for others to decide; the question is here simply posed.

At any rate, for the present no student of the new perspective on Paul can afford to overlook Dunn’s latest monumental contribution to the ongoing discussion. The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition belongs on the bookshelf of every Pauline scholar.

Mark M. Mattison

The New Perspective on Paul – Book Review

Book Review

Michael B. Thompson (Cambridge: Grove Books Unlimited), 2002, 28 pp.

This little booklet from the Grove Biblical Series is probably the best introduction to the new perspective published to date in evangelical circles. Thorough yet accessible, Thompson’s book surveys nearly all of the relevant issues.

Like most treatments of the new perspective, Thompson begins with a description of the “old” (primarily “Lutheran”) perspective on Paul (pp. 4-7), followed by a description of the work of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright (pp. 8-12). To this point, Thompson’s study reads like a hundred others (including several on the Paul Page). However, at the heart of his booklet (pp. 13-17) Thompson presents his own plausible synthesis, followed by a discussion of potential concerns and theological pitfalls (pp. 18-21) and finally practical benefits of the new perspective (pp. 22-24).

Several concerns are dismissed as unfounded: The concern, for instance, that the new perspective compromises the doctrine of justification by faith (pp. 18ff) or the doctrine of the atonement (p. 19). However, Thompson addresses more substantive concerns as well. He provides a brief critique of the “two-covenant” approach to Judaism and Christianity (pp. 20,21), albeit with sensitivity to the problems posed by the Holocaust (pp. 21, 28, n. 29). He also admits shortcomings in the areas of anthropology and eschatology (p. 21) in a balanced, nuanced assessment.

Thompson addresses the issues of Protestant-Catholic dialogue (p. 19) and Jewish-Christian dialogue (p. 22) in a way consistent with the approach of N.T. Wright. Finally, a stellar bibliography of significant books and articles rounds out this highly informed little volume.

It’s easily read, and the layout is pleasant. The text is broken up by several well-placed pull quotes. One pull quote on page 14 is a little puzzling, taking on an entirely different meaning when pulled out of context, but the other quotations are well chosen.

As an introduction and explanation of the new perspective for evangelical Christians, this booklet is invaluable.

Mark M. Mattison

The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West

Essay Review

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, pp. 78-96. First published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215.
Reviewed by Bill DeJong

Legend has it that the apostle Paul was “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” This physical profile of Paul, found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and composed by a second century presbyter fromAsia on the basis of circulating traditions, was seriously doubted by Tertullian, but ardently believed by his contemporary, Hippolytus of Rome.

This early lack of consensus regarding Paul’s physical profile also characterizes current depictions of his psychological profile. Whereas since Augustine Christians have generally regarded Paul’s conversion as the transformation of a troubled conscience, convicted of sin by the law, to a comfortable conscience, soothed by Christ and His remedy of forgiveness, Krister Stendahl proposes that Paul’s conscience, according to the biblical presentation at least, was remarkably robust and rarely if ever plagued.

The former professor at the Divinity School of Harvard University first presented this critique of the traditional analysis of Paul’s conscience, not insignificantly, at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association on September 3, 1961. Stendahl’s thesis, which was first published in Swedish (1960), then revised and published in English (1963), has taken its place in Pauline scholarship as one of the pivotal essays in the formation of what James D.G. Dunn has dubbed “the new perspective on Paul.”

According to Stendahl, the quest of the plagued conscience began with Augustine whoseConfessions are “the first great document in the history of introspective conscience” and climaxed with Luther (p. 85). Prior to Augustine, the church had read Paul accurately in terms of the question, what does the Messiah’s arrival mean for (a) the law (not legalism) and (b) the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? Since Augustine, the church has misread Paul in terms of the question, how can I find a gracious God?

Luther and the subsequent reformers read Paul’s statements about faith and works, law and gospel, Jews and Gentiles “in the framework of late medieval piety” (pp. 85-86) such that the law quickly became associated with legalism. “Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament” (p. 86).

To illustrate what he means, Stendahl appeals to Luther’s understanding of Galatians 3:24 to illustrate the second use of the law. Whereas Paul clearly envisioned the law as the custodian for the Jews until the arrival of the Messiah, Luther reversed the argument to assert that the law is the schoolmaster for everyone to crush self-righteousness and lead to Christ (pp. 86,87). Furthermore, the law is no longer the law of Moses which has become obsolete, but God’s moral imperative as such.

Stendahl concludes, “Paul’s argument that the Gentiles must not and should not come to Christ via the Law, i.e., via circumcision, etc. has turned into a statement according to which all men must come to Christ with consciences properly convicted by the Law and its insatiable requirements for righteousness. So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute” (p. 87).

Stendahl derives central support for this thesis from Phillippians 3:6, where Paul alleges that prior to his conversion he kept the law blamelessly. What he regards and discards as refuse in his prior life are not his shortcomings in law-keeping, but his achievements and distinctions as a Jew, from circumcision to persecuting the Christian church. This interpretation, alleges Stendahl, finds support in the narrative of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 which is not portrayed in terms of the restoration of a plagued conscience (p. 80), but in terms of his calling to apostleship (p. 85).

Paul’s chief sin, according to Stendahl, was his persecution of the church, the climax of his dedication to the Jewish faith (Gal.1.13; Phil.3.6). When Paul says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom he was chief, he is not expressing contrition in the present tense, but referring back to his career of blaspheming and persecuting. God, however, had revealed to him his true Messiah and made him an apostle and a prototype of sinner’s salvation (cf. Rom.5:6-11).

But what about Romans 2 and 3 which deal with the impossibility of law-keeping? Stendahl rightly indicates that the law never expected perfection of the Jew but made provisions for repentance and forgiveness. Paul’s objective in these chapters is simply to show his readers that the law was helpless to Israel because ultimately it pronounced upon her the same guilty sentence under which the Gentiles already lived.

Paul makes these remarks, Stendahl observes, to introduce the new avenue of salvation for Jews and Gentiles which has opened up in Christ, a salvation not based upon law, which formerly distinguished the two. The old covenant, with its provisions of forgiveness and grace, is no longer valid; salvation must be found in Christ. Christ, therefore, is not the answer to a plagued conscience, but the new avenue of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (p. 81).

That a plagued conscience was a problem for Paul is true neither prior to, nor after, his conversion. It is difficult to find “any evidence that Paul the Christian had suffered under the burden of conscience regarding personal shortcomings which he would label ‘sins'” (Italics original, p. 82). Forgiveness is the term for salvation used least of all in Pauline writings and not at all in the “undisputed” Pauline epistles (footnote 4, p. 82).

Paul knew that the baptized were not free from sin, but such sin apparently did not trouble his conscience. In fact, in Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (cf. 24:16). He did struggle with his body (1 Cor. 9:27), but the tone is one of confidence. Romans 9:1 and 2 Cor.1:12 both witness to his good conscience, the confidence of which reaches its highest pitch in 2 Cor.5:10ff., where Paul expresses certainty that the Lord will approve of him. His “robust conscience is not shaken, but strengthened by his awareness of a final judgment which has not yet come” (cf. 1 Cor.4:4; p. 90).

To search for a statement in which Paul would speak about himself as a sinner is futile, argues Stendahl. He does often speak of ‘weakness’ (2 Cor.11.21ff; 2 Cor. 12.9-10), but weakness is unrelated to sin or conscience (v. 7), with the exception of Romans 5, where ‘weak’ is synonymous with sinner (p. 91).

The last section of the essay is devoted to Romans 7 about which Stendahl asserts that Paul is involved in an argument about the law, not man’s ego or predicament. In fact, the ego is acquitted in the words: “Now if I do what I do not want, then it is not I who do it, but the sin which dwells in me” (Stendahl’s italics). If Paul were describing man’s predicament, this line of thought would be impossible. The human impasse has been argued in Romans 1-3 and every possible excuse has been carefully ruled out.

Paul is using the familiar anthropological distinction between what one ought to do and what one does to distinguish good Law from bad Sin, thereby enabling Paul to blame Sin and Flesh and to rescue Law as a good gift of God. Subsequent interpreters did not struggle with law in the sense that Paul did and thus reduced this passage to anthropology and the nature of man and sin. “This is what happens when one approaches Paul with the Western question of an introspective conscience” (p. 93). “The West for centuries has wrongly surmised that the biblical writers were grappling with problems which no doubt are ours, but which never entered their consciousness” (p. 95).

Stendahl’s essay, which weaves together biblical exegesis, historical interpretation and sociological analysis, is delightfully provocative and demonstrative of a brilliant mind. He is entirely correct in his assertion that Western interpreters of Paul have all too often reduced the real dynamic in his polemic, i.e., the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, to one of morbid introspection and individual psychology and thereby all too eagerly exchanged historia salutis for ordo salutis. His remarks about Galatians 3:24 are entirely to the point.

Nevertheless, Stendahl’s contention that consciences troubled by sin have their origin in Augustine and the subsequent Western mind is untenable. King David, hardly a Westerner, enjoyed a robust conscience for the most part (cf. 2 Sam.22:22; Pss. 7, 17, 18, 26), but also repeatedly sought forgiveness to ease his plagued conscience. In Psalm 32, he laments, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old, through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me … I acknowledged my sin to you” and in Psalm 51 he cries out, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Jesus presents this latter petition as the sine qua non of the believer in his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. It was the tax collector who went home justified because he humbled himself, beating his breast and crying out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Luther and traditional Western interpreters, therefore, are correct to depict the forgiveness of sins as the remedy for consciences troubled by sin (the apostle John certainly does in 1 John 1:5-2:2); they are not always correct in locating the biblical basis for this depiction. Stendhal is largely on track when he accuses Western interpreters of losing sight of Paul’s chief polemic regarding the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in their quest to find timeless truths about the law, sin, repentance and forgiveness.


A Response to “Not the New Perspective”

by Kevin Bywater

Professor Francis Watson (currently at the University of Aberdeen) has migrated from being a rather energetic, if a bit eccentric, proponent of “the new perspective on Paul” to being a vocal and determined critic of the same. Though he recognizes that the Christian caricature of Judaism in days past is something that needed to be put to rest (an accomplishment he attributes, in part, to the work of E.P. Sanders), in his article Not the New Perspective he argues that such a project need not bring an end to the gospel-law antithesis — an antithesis Watson sees as shared by the Reformation heritage and the apostle Paul himself.

In some ways, Watson’s online critique is a healthy reminder of what we can and cannot expect of ourselves. While we may seek complete objectivity in our exegesis of Paul, such objectivity is an ideal, something not easily accomplished, and something not likely achieved through our own efforts; hence the need for regular consideration of the proposals of others. Watson concludes his essay with these words:

After every allowance has been made for its [the new perspective’s] genuine and valuable insights, the verdict must be a negative one. By imposing its own pseudo-theological agenda on the Pauline texts, the new perspective has hindered our access to Paul’s own theology — that is, to his complex elaboration of the gospel’s simple announcement that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has acted definitively and unconditionally for the salvation of humankind, as the law and the prophets bear witness.

Watson does put his finger on the interpretive missteps of some advocates of the new perspective (see his “4. Critique (III): point 4”) when he notes the mantra-like appeal to Sanders’ work, as though Sanders was correct in any and all regards. Such appeals need to be mitigated by the texts themselves, as well as through the works of Sanders’ dialogue partners. Even Sanders acknowledged some diversity in the material he surveyed (though one may be forgiven for seeing Sanders as promoting his thesis at times without such qualifications being pronounced).

But Watson’s constructive proposals need a bit of assessment as well. Personally, while I have been uncomfortable with some of the proposals and readings put forth by Watson in his doctoral thesis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge, 1986 — proposals put forth when he was a vigorous advocate of an eccentric version of the new perspective), I’m at least as uncomfortable with some of the proposals he now sets forth as foundational for how we might recapture Paul’s actual theology. For example, Watson writes:

Paul’s understanding of the law is an attempt to resolve a fundamental scriptural anomaly. On the one hand, God commits himself unconditionally to future saving action on behalf of Abraham and the world. On the other hand, the law sets the divine-human relationship on a different basis, in which divine saving action is conditional on prior human obedience to the commandments.

Is this really the way the law is presented in the Pentateuch (or anywhere else in the Scriptures)? I suspect that Watson has misunderstood the way of the Torah. For the simple fact that even the law of the covenant is prefaced with a proclamation that God is the Deliverer of his people, the one who rescued them from bondage, places the law’s commands and demands within the purview of Divine initiative and grace. On the other hand, while we may suppose that God’s promise to Abraham was “unconditional,” this is qualified by the fact that not only do we find post-Sinai reasons for upholding conditions (at least with regard to those who may enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant; cf., e.g., Deut. 27ff), we find such conditions explicit or implicit within the pre-Sinaitic Genesis narratives themselves (e.g., 17:1; 18:19; 22:18; 26:5).

Watson continues:

The one who does them shall live by them: that, in essence, is the law’s project. The entire book of Deuteronomy is the message of Leviticus 18.5 writ large. How may Genesis and Deuteronomy be reconciled? The answer, for Paul, is that the law itself declares that its own project is a dead-end. It teaches that the one who does these things will find life thereby, but it also teaches that this quest is doomed to failure, leading inevitably to the execution of the curse that the law itself proclaims against transgressors (Gal.3.10-11, cf. Rom.3.9-20, 7.7-12).

But this reading of Paul seems not to get to the heart of Paul’s project. By no means does Paul hold that all Israelites, throughout all generations, fell under the curse of the law due their disobedience. The examples of pre-Sinai Abraham (Rom. 4; Gen. 12-15) holds forth hope for subsequent generations of Israelites. Paul’s exemplary appeals to David (Rom. 4; Ps. 32), Elijah, and the 7,000 faithful in Elijah’s day (Rom. 11; 1 Kings 19), illustrate that God’s grace has been operative even in the lives of some who sought to express fidelity to the law’s commands. As Watson acknowledges, the “curse of the law” is something that the law “itself proclaims against transgressors.” But given what we’ve already noted, regarding those who exhibited fidelity to God in their faithfulness to his commands, it would be strange to read Paul as simply sweeping all pre-Christ Jews to the dustbin of “transgressors” — as though the fundamental distinction between the righteous and the wicked no longer played for Paul. What would that make of Abraham? What of Noah? And to speak to a post-Sinai context, what would that make of the likes of Joshua, Caleb, Phineas, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon, or John the Baptist? What I’m getting at is the fact that if we read Paul the way Watson does, I fear that we will be putting Paul in the precarious position of assigning to these faithful individuals condemnations quite contrary to the judgments put forth in the Scriptures themselves. Is Paul really an historical revisionist? Simply put, while Paul sees sin as a universal issue, he also testifies that God graciously has saved sinners in days gone by.

And certainly Watson would not be among those who suppose that it is in the seeking to obey that one’s fleshly “human agency” is quintessentially expressed. For the thought of passive or active lawlessness can in no way, at no time, be conflated with virtue and faith, neither in the Old Testament, the gospels, nor in the theology of Paul. For this would not be a solution to an alleged “Scriptural antinomy” but a blatant expression of unfaithfulness. It would reveal Paul as one who in seeking to solve an alleged “Scriptural antimony” was willing to revisit some of the judgments made by God himself. What a precarious project that would be. I cannot but doubt the hoped for success of Watson’s most recent reading of Paul.

Watson continues:

The law places responsibility for ultimate well-being in human hands, offering the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. But it also acknowledges that, through human sin, the inevitable outcome of its offer is not life or blessing but death and the curse. In that way, by acknowledging the failure of a project based on human agency, the law confirms the gospel’s announcement that God in Christ has taken the human cause entirely into his own hands. ‘Faith’ is the acknowledgment, elicited and enabled by the gospel, that all this is indeed the case.

It is strange that while Watson would seek to expose the theologically-invested exegesis of new perspective advocates, he himself tips his theological hand so much. For his theological abstraction regarding “human agency” reveals, I would suggest, something quite foreign to Paul’s project regarding the law and its relationship to faith. This can be seen in the way Paul himself continues to set forth “the choice of life or death, blessing or curse” in such passages as Romans 8. While Paul ascribes to God the way of salvation from sin and the flesh, and acknowledges that it is through God’s gift of his Spirit that one may be enabled to walk Divine paths, Paul himself also rings the tone of human responsibility (read, “human agency”) with regard to the follow-through. For even those invested with the Spirit are not passive with regards to their response of lives of faith, nor is the dichotomous threat of life and death no longer to ring in their ears. True faithfulness, given definition by the law, has always been embodied in those who place their hope in the Lord, trusting him for forgiveness and salvation.

It would seem that Watson’s overall reading of Paul fails to appreciate the full force of Paul’s ethical imperatives as they are applied to Christians, not to mention the attendant chorus of the threats of death, wrath, judgment and destruction (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 10-11). In other words, if Paul found the promotion of “the choice of life and death” essential to the failed project of the law, it is awfully strange that he himself would propagate it within the gospel context. In other words, while Paul does indeed proclaim that the gospel accomplishes deliverance from the curse of the law, the curse of God remains a real threat upon any within the Christian community who would fail to abide by the ethics thereof (not to mention the fact that Paul’s ethical prohibitions of idolatry and immorality are the very prohibitions that hung over the heads of the Israelites in times past).

Watson continues:

What I am suggesting in these all too brief remarks is that the primary location of the antithesis of divine and human agency in Paul is his scriptural hermeneutic, his interpretation of scripture in the light of the gospel and of the gospel in the light of scripture. If so, then his own evangelical construal of scripture can be compared and contrasted with the readings of Jewish contemporaries or predecessors for whom the covenant established through Moses at Sinai remains normative and intact. Paul and his fellow-Jewish interpreters are all reading the same texts. They share a marked bias towards the Pentateuch, believing that it is in the writings of Moses that the fundamental dynamics of the scriptural revelation come to light, and that the role of the prophets is to repeat, confirm and amplify what has already been said through Moses. They believe that their message to their contemporaries is inseparable from their construal of the scriptural texts. Yet for Paul these texts attest a definitive, unconditional divine saving action, whose scope is universal and whose glory quite eclipses the glory that once irradiated Moses’ face. That is what differentiates him from his non-Christian contemporaries and predecessors, who all assume — in their different ways — that the law’s project remains intact, and that those who observe it will find it to be the divinely ordained way to life and salvation.

Again, Watson presumes that Paul’s problem with the law is located in the law’s demands. He construes this as promoting “human agency” as antecedent to salvation. Yet the law does no such thing, we’ve already noted. And while it may be the case that some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries promoted such a false agenda, and while it also may be that Paul speaks to them in some regards, that does not seem to be Paul’s primary focus throughout his epistles. For, as already noted, Paul, no less than Moses, calls both for the necessity of human allegiance to God and his ways of deliverance, as well as for the human response of fidelity to God’s promotion of communal or social ethics. Even so, it is clear that Paul does hold that in his day the curse of the law has fallen uponIsrael, such that the way of escape is through the faithful realignment of the people toward allegiance to the Messiah rather then to the projects of the pre-Christ era’s older covenant. But this seems a very different agenda that the one ascribed to Paul by Watson. The simple fact that both Moses and Paul set forth ethical imperatives, and that with the attendant threats toward those who would live ungodly lives, should tell us that the contrast is not simply between Divine initiatory agency and human agency. Rather the latter’s quality of fidelity is determined, according to Paul, precisely with regard to one’s fidelity to Christ and his law. We can in no way regain access “to Paul’s own theology” by muting the significance of Pauline ethics and their attendant promises or threats. To do so would be to reduce Paul to something less than the full-orbed apostle of Christ he was enslaved to be.

In the end, while some of Watson’s notes of caution should be heard and heeded, and while I too believe that some of the proposals of the chief advocates of the new perspective (e.g., Sanders, Dunn, Wright) need to be revisited, I find that Watson’s presentation of his own project leaves me cold. I too desire to uncover and reclaim Paul’s real theology. But I refuse to believe that such an endeavor can be accomplished in any significant way if our theological convictions cause us to construct false dichotomies, or to reduce Paul’s convicting and consoling theological ethic to something less than it is in all its gospel glory.

Watson’s brief critical presentation is alleged to be a foretaste of a much larger discussion of Paul’s hermeneutics and theology, a discussion promising to be critically postured against ‘the new perspective.’ One can only hope (though it may be in vain) that in the larger work Watson retracts some of his most recent proposals.

All rights reserved by Kevin James Bywater. Published here with permission.

An Evening Conversation on Paul with James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright

Editor’s note: This article is an edited transcript of the second of a two-part conversation recorded on October 25, 2004. The original audio file can be downloaded from New Testament Seminar: Audio Archives, and the complete Conversation can be downloaded in PDF format from the N.T. Wright Page. Special thanks to James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright for graciously taking the time to proofread and further revise the manuscript to enable a more effective transition from the spoken word to the written word.

Wright: Jimmy began the last session by quizzing me about the phrase “the third quest for the historical Jesus,” which I coined, and so I’m going to begin this session by quizzing him about the phrase “the new perspective on Paul,” which he coined.

Jimmy and I go back a long way when it comes to the new perspective, but the phrase “new perspective” comes from a lecture in 1982 which was published in 1983. So, Jimmy, where is the new perspective now? And in a nutshell, because obviously we could talk about it all night, how do you see the debate sitting now?

Dunn: Let me go back and set the scene a little.

The new perspective was an attempt to set the record straight in reference to the traditional or Lutheran perspective. That perspective tended to operate with a view of Judaism as very legalistic, narrow, and bigoted, so that what Paul was objecting to was the idea that you could “earn” your way to salvation – that you paid your way to heaven – and that this is what all Israel taught. “Works of the law” were works that you did to prove to God that you were deserving of entry into the new age.Your “boasting” was boasting in your achievement, in good works.

The new perspective really begins by asking whether this is the case. In Judaism it doesn’t appear that it was assumed that you had to “earn” your way to become acceptable to God. It was E.P. Sanders who made this breakthrough, but before him there were many Jewish scholars, very sympathetic to Christianity, who were quite puzzled by this presentation of the Judaism that Paul was attacking because it wasn’t the Judaism they knew.

E.P. Sanders started with the observation that Judaism begins its soteriology with the conviction that Israel had been chosen by God to be God’s people. The ten commandments begin: “I am theLord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2, NRSV). The act of salvation – the act of deliverance – is God’s prior choice of Israel. Then comesthe ten commandments, the statement of what God expects of his people. So the commandments are not a way of earning God’s favor but a way of showing how the people of God should live. That’s the basic point that had to be made in terms of the new perspective.

The other key feature of the new perspective begins from an observation made particularly by KristerStendahl in the last generation: that Paul’s theology of justification emerges as his attempt to explain how it is that Gentiles are acceptable to a Jewish God. Prior to Paul it was characteristically assumed that in order to be acceptable to God they had to become Jews. But Paul discovered – the early Gentile mission discovered – that the gospel of Jesus preached to Gentiles was received by faith, by faith alone. Gentiles received the Spirit, God’s sign of acceptance; so that was that! Paul’s whole concern, as apostle to the Gentiles, is to defend thisgospel, this understanding of how the gospel works. This gives a quite different twist to the old debate about justification by faith. It’s not just about the problem of individuals trying to earn salvation by pulling their bootstraps. It begins as a statement of the way in which God accepts all who believe. The gospel is for all who believe, as Paul again and again emphasizes.

Those were really, I think, the two basic starting points.

Wright: Would you agree with the following analysis of how all this happened? The mainstream of New Testament studies from the Reformation until very recently – certainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – was being led by German Lutherans who had a very definite law-gospel antithesis. Had it instead been led by people in the Reformed as opposed to the Lutheran tradition, the new perspective would never have been necessary. If you take the theology of someone likeRidderbos or Charles Cranfield, you find exactly the same idea in principle, which is that the law was never given as a ladder of good works up which people ought to climb to save themselves; if anyone ever thought that, that was an abuse of the law, because grace and particularly the covenant precedes obedience.

I find this very ironic, because if you were to go on to Google and were to type in “Tom Wright” +”justification by faith,” you would turn up many American web sites from the Presbyterian Church of America and various other strongly Reformed centers like Westminster Seminary which are extremely rude about the two people sitting on this platform tonight for having sold Paul down the river and given up the genuine Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. This is really quite bizarre, because I think that what we have both done in taking forward Sanders’ proposal theologically – Sanders is really not a theologian, he’s more of an historian – I see what we’re doing as actually much more on a Reformed map than a Lutheran map, precisely because of the emphasis on the covenant and grace as basic, and on the Law from the start as being the way of life for the redeemed people. This corresponds to Luther’s tertiary use of it, if you like, but it’s much easier to do it in a Reformed or Calvinist framework. Would you be happy with that?

Dunn: That’s entirely so. I rediscovered, as it were, my Reformed heritage in all this because I was brought up Presbyterian. I was a strong Calvinist in my youth, and one of the impressive things about Calvin is that he sees the continuity of the covenants. The covenant of grace is the dominant category running through the Old and New Testaments.

Wright: Grand narrative, you mean.

Dunn: Well, a motif, shall we say. And likewise, a very important point: Calvin’s work is systematic – Luther was never systematic like that. Calvin is able to integrate better what is typically called now a “participationist” soteriology (“in Christ”) and the forensic emphasis. One of the sad things about this rebuke coming from many in the States is that they want to operate entirely in forensic categories. They haven’t really integrated the en Christo, the “in Christ” motif, which is so fundamental to Paul. The term “in Christ” occurs far more frequently in Paul than justification language.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: It’s absolutely crucial – the whole sense of Christian life as being conformed to Christ, becoming like Christ in his death and resurrection. This is a way of understanding how it is that Christians can be expected to do good works. This is a very important motif that a law-gospel antithesis almost prevents you from getting into. It really snarls you up in your Christian theology and in its outworking.

Wright: Yes. I would just be interested to hear your comments on this, Jimmy. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer was writing in Paul and his Interpreters about, and then developing further inMysticism of Paul the Apostle, this same antithesis between “juridical” categories, as he called them, and “mystical” categories. He would say Romans 1 to 4 is juridical because it’s all about justification and the law, and then Romans 5 to 8 is what he called “mystical,” it’s about being “in Christ.”

Now we could argue whether “mystical” was actually the right word to use, but there’s a great divide between those two, and there’s an oddity already about that in that if you look at Galatians 3 and 4, you get all the material which is in Romans 1 to 4 and 5 to 8 scrunched together as though it’s all about the same thing. It’s not a different set of categories at all; these two belong together. But then between Schweitzer and Sanders you get much more Lutheran exegesis, not least from interpreters like Käsemann and Bultmann, for whom justification (whatever they mean by it) is still the primary thing. Everything else is just kind of an outworking, trying to subsume it under the Christian life, post-justification. Then in Sanders you get the same antithesis between “forensic” and “participatory” categories, which are really just like Schweitzer’s categories.

But I have argued – and others have agreed with this, I think Richard Hays not least – that if we take the covenant as the real theological controlling category, in a way in which (ironically) Sanders never did, then you see that the forensic outworking (when Paul needs to argue about Jews and Gentiles not least) and the so-called “participationist” outworking are two different outflows of the same basic covenantal theology, which is for Paul a new covenantal theology, a renewed covenantal theology, à la 2 Corinthians 3 or Romans 8. Would you be comfortable with that?

Dunn: Not so much on the covenant as the governing linking thing. It strikes me that the two antithetical positions that are characteristic of the debate fail to take seriously passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3 which talk about the righteousness of God “in Christ,” the righteousness from God as only possible “in him.” Paul had no difficulty, it would appear, in integrating these two categories which theologically have been pursued separately.

Wright: Which implies that we’re telling the wrong story or getting the wrong framework or something.

Dunn: Again, the “story” thing I’m less comfortable with, because what I see is different ways of presenting the divine-human relationship and the soteriological relationship. There is a forensic story, a judicial story, a story of law-courts. That’s one metaphor which runs quite far, but the “in Christ” doesn’t naturally fit with that. Well, does that matter? It’s not a matter of synthesizing it into a single story; these are different ways of putting the same spiritual reality, the same divine reality, the same soteriological reality, and the fact that Paul was able to hold the two apparently incompatible images together, that should be enough for us.

Wright: I basically agree with that, though I think we tease it out slightly differently, and probably I would want actually a more holistic, elegant view.

Dunn: A grand narrative.

Wright: Exactly. So, let me cut to the chase. I’d really like you to tell me how that comes out for you at the moment in relation to those several passages, three or four at least in Paul, where he talks quite explicitly about a final judgment according to works. Now, whenever I mention anything about a final judgment according to works, somebody pops up like a jack-in-the-box and says that I’m going soft on justification by faith. What do you do with all that?

Dunn: This is right. I get the same rebukes thrown at me: “Ah, you’re going down the Pelagian route! You’re a semi-Pelagian!” I just have to say, there is this emphasis in Paul on judgment according to works. He expects his converts to do good, to produce the fruit of the Spirit, the harvest of righteousness. He hopes to be able to present his converts before God’s throne, the throne of Christ, “irreproachable,” “blameless,” “mature,” “perfect.” If your only theology is that the believer is a sinner, as much a sinner until the day he or she dies as from the day of conversion, you’re missing out that whole dimension.

I don’t disagree with the fact that we always remain sinners, and every time we come to God we come as sinners, but there is this other dimension of Paul that has to be taken seriously, and if you don’t take it seriously, you’re just ignoring large chunks of Paul’s letters.

Wright: Yes. Can I just have a stab at it? Because each time I say it, it comes out slightly differently.

I do think that Paul actually makes a clear distinction in time between the future justification orjudgment (those are the same word, basically), and present justification, which is on the basis of faith. I think he keeps those in absolute and appropriate tension throughout, because the point about justification by faith in the present is that it is the anticipation in the present, on the basis of faith, of the verdict which will be issued in the future on the basis of the entirety of the life led.

Interestingly, in the first main chapter of Francis Watson’s book, he says much about Romans 1:16, 17 and Romans 3:21-26, as well as some of the earlier verses in chapter 3, but he never discusses any of the verses in chapter 2, which really makes sense of how you get from chapter 1 to chapter 3. This is odd because part of his argument is that you have to pay close attention to the actual detail of what Paul says. But in Romans 2:1-16 you have a future scenario which could in principle be said, I imagine, by many second-temple Jews, although Paul nuances it in terms of Jew and Gentile alike (then the crunch at the end is that God judges the secrets of people “according to my gospel by Christ Jesus”). But the basic thrust is that at the last day, all will be judged according to the totality of the life that they have led. Some have said that Paul is just setting it up as a hypothetical thing and then just knocking it down, saying no one can get in that way, so there’s got to be an easier way, namely faith. That’s a trivialization of Paul’s argument.

The whole point then is that God in Christ brings forward the verdict of the last day into the present and says that when somebody believes the gospel, they are declared to be dikaios, in the right. Then they are launched upon this life in which – and I’m totally in agreement with Jimmy here – Paul again and again speaks about doing things which will redound to one’s credit on the last day.

All those who were brought up as good evangelical Protestants are tempted to say, “You’re not supposed to say that, Paul.” But then you read 1 Thessalonians (I heard a paper by Lionel North inCambridge a year or two ago on this) where Paul asks, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” And we expect him to say, if we’re good evangelical Protestants, “The blood and righteousness of my Lord Jesus,” but he doesn’t. He says “Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19, 20, NRSV)!

Paul is quite clearly not so embarrassed about saying things that we have done will redound to our credit at that last day. But the point is that this does not in any way undermine justification by faith, because justification by faith is a statement that in the present time, on the basis of faith alone – hence not on the basis of ethnic identity, moral achievement, any personal civic status whatever – one is declared to be a member of God’s people, which is why justification by faith is the basis of ecclesiology.

Dunn: Yes. One of the most difficult things for me as a junior Calvinist in days gone by was to face up to Paul’s warnings about failure to persevere in Christian life, his own presentation of himself as running a race, and having to be very disciplined in case he’d be disqualified, as well as the warnings to his readers in Rome that if you Christians live according to the flesh, you will die.

One of the five points of Calvinism, as you know, is the perseverance or preservation of the saints, and I had to face up to what seems to me undeniable: that Paul brings out the real possibility of Christians falling away and failing to attain the finishing line. For example, in Philippians 3, you remember, he insists on his own account:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14, NRSV).

It’s the same imagery as the end of 1 Corinthians 9 about the danger of being disqualified. He doesn’t hesitate to use this language. So Paul is very clear on the importance of Christians being very serious about their ethical responsibility in discipleship. And I think it should be equally clear that he warns of the possibility of failure. So final justification, judgment and so on, is going to have to take that into account as well.

Wright: I actually do it rather differently from you, and I think I’ve just discovered why you’re a Methodist, which I’ve always wondered. The move against final perseverance might indicate a more open Wesleyan stance. I don’t know, maybe that wasn’t the only reason.

Dunn: No, it was ecumenism.
Wright: But consider Romans 5 through 8. I think that’s a set piece argument. I think when Paul starts to dictate Romans 5 he has the whole thing in mind. It’s almost formulaic, you know. Every 11 or 12 verses you’ve got the argument rounded off “through Jesus Christ” or “in Christ Jesus.” It’s a very sustained argument. He knows at the beginning of 5 how he’s going to end in 8 because it has a symphonic structure to it. The whole of Romans 5 through 8 is an argument for assurance, and despite the truth in everything you say, nevertheless Romans 5 to 8 is saying “those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30, NRSV), and that’s part of the point of justification by faith. Then and there is given that assurance, even though that has to be tested to the limit and has to face the possibility that faith itself might prove false.

Dunn: Yes.

Wright: But in 1 Corinthians 3 (where albeit he’s talking about Christian work rather than simply Christians per se), he speaks of those who build on the foundation with wood and hay and stubble, whose work will be burned up when the Day appears. He says nevertheless that person will be saved “but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15, NRSV), which is (as far as I’m aware) the only passage in the New Testament which says something like that, “saved nevertheless by the skin of your teeth.” It’s a very strange and dark passage.

Dunn: Well, can I come back on that one?

Wright: Sure. Yes. Absolutely.

Dunn: My point there is, as in all these arguments, to take seriously all that Paul says.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: I keep meeting people who have taken up one aspect of Paul and so emphasized it that they either forget the rest or fit it in awkwardly.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: On the one hand Paul can speak with unshakeable assurance. I am thinking of Romans 8, a wonderful passage, my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, with its wonderful hymn of assurance at the end. Paul can speak like that. But he can also say the other things – all these warnings and expressions of concern for his converts, that they persevere right to the end. So it’s holding both emphases in balance. Often we’re not able to tie them all together into a neat package or a grand narrative or whatever, but that shouldn’t worry us. What should worry us is that we’re not giving weight to things that Paul gave weight to.

Wright: I totally agree. For me, if there are grand narratives, they’re scaffolding around the building to help us appreciate and clean up and tidy up the building. But when you’ve got the building straight you take the scaffolding down again, not because it hasn’t done its job but because it has.

So for me the bottom line is, whether having done all the homework and looked at all the stories, you can then sit down with Romans, Galatians, Philippians, whatever, and actually read it through and appreciate, verse by verse and line by line, what is being said. If you can’t – if you have to say, as people did for generations about Romans 9-11, this is in square brackets, it’s an old sermon that Paul just stuck in here, like C.H. Dodd said – then basically you should assume, if you draw that conclusion, that you’ve taken a seriously wrong turn in the exegesis somewhere. Paul can have little asides, but again and again, his letters are very carefully crafted. Until you’ve seen how the different strands fit together in that symphonic fashion, you haven’t actually done business with him.

We should move on. There are just two other areas which we promised ourselves we would talk about. We haven’t actually covered “the works of the law,” but I think we probably more or less agree about that. We disagree about how Paul sits in relation to 4QMMT, but that’s a bit technical.

Dunn: We do, yes. You miss the point there.

Wright: Well, that’s for another time. There’s one more thing which I suspect we agree on, and then one thing which Jimmy and I have never I think talked about, which I really do think is important and want to get to.

First, the ecumenical subject. Ever since I read Richard Hooker on justification many years ago, I’ve taken this very seriously. We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, we’re justified by faith by believing in Jesus. It is remarkable how many people make belief in justification by faith the thing which divides the church. Hooker said, very dangerously, early in the Elizabethan period, that because this is so – and forgive me my Roman Catholic friends, but this is the way he saw it; the Roman Catholic forbears of the Church of England, who many in the Reformation period were inclined to consign to darkest theological oblivion – that they were in fact justified by faith because they believed in Jesus. But because they didn’t believe in justification by faith they didn’t lack justification or salvation; they lacked assurance. That was deeply controversial to the Puritans who were Hooker’s opponents, who really wanted to say, “No, if you don’t believe in this, you’re not even saved.”

From that I move on to say that for Paul, justification is the ecumenical doctrine. In Galatians 2, which is the first place we meet justification language in Paul, the point about justification is not “this is how I get saved,” it’s “this is how you and I sit at the same table and eat together, even though we come from different sides of the great cultural divide.” That is what Galatians 2 is about. And I think anyone who tries to resist that is simply resisting what Paul is clearly saying on the surface of the text.

Dunn: Yes, I agree entirely with that. Remember that Galatians 2 is speaking of the Antiochincident, where Peter had eaten with the Gentile Christians – table fellowship presumably including the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, at least on occasions. But when certain men came from James, Peter and the other Jewish believers, even Barnabas, had separated themselves from that fellowship.

Now we can understand, we can even sympathize with Peter, although we read the episode through Paul’s writing. One can appreciate Peter’s concerns, given that for centuries, Gentiles had been regarded as some kind of a threat to Israel’s holiness. To be holy, to be set apart to God, meant being set apart from other nations. Leviticus 20:24-26 spells it out quite explicitly. Why do you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods? Because it marks your separation from the nations, the people of the land, who may defile you and prevent your total commitment to Yahweh. That is why you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods. So the law of clean / unclean animals / birds wasn’t simply about unclean foods, it was about unclean people, people who are not acceptable as table companions.

Now that’s clearly the logic behind the action of Peter and these other Jewish believers in separating themselves from the Gentile believers. This was part of the core commitment of the covenant of the people of Israel, and nothing that they knew of – even though Peter had been with Jesus, eating with sinners and so on – nothing seems to have prepared him to take a firm stand on this, to see that this was no longer appropriate (despite Acts 10:10-16, 28)! So what does Paul say? Paul gives voice to the great Reformation “justification by faith” formula and draws it from this episode. “Peter, you are requiring these Gentile believers, in effect, to “Judaize,” to do “the works of the law,” to live like Jews in order to be acceptable to us (that is, in your thinking, to God, because you still think that’s what God requires of his people).”

So this first formulation of “justification by faith” (Gal. 2:16) is actually a protest against any attempt to require more from other believers than justification by faith, than the fact that God has accepted us. That’s a very fundamental, ecumenical position to take up.

In a little article which was published in the Heythrop Journal years ago, I draw this very point directly from the Antioch incident, Galatians 2:11-16: That Paul rebukes Peter for laying down more strict controls on the Lord’s table, on eating together, in spite of the fact that we have all been accepted by God by grace through faith (“Should Paul Once Again Oppose Peter to his Face?” TheHeythrop Journal 34 [1993] 58-65).

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.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: And to make further requirements before we can work together, can come together, as churches, before we can work together in mission and service, is actually to destroy the fundamental character of justification by faith, to call in question what Paul calls “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5, 14).

Wright: Yes, it’s ironic because it is in fact an attack on justification itself.

Let’s be quite clear what Jimmy is saying. Some recent writing continues to polarize justification by faith in terms of “how I get saved and how I get into a personal relationship with God,” on the one hand, and on the other hand, how Jews and Gentiles come together, and the fact that Gentiles don’t have to get circumcised. These are not two separate things to be polarized in Paul. It is because of the one that the other is true. They go absolutely together and it’s not an either-or.

Let me move you on, Jimmy, to what we’ve got down as the last of the things we thought we might discuss.

There has been a whole new movement in the last ten or fifteen years in Pauline studies examining the political meaning of Paul. I have taken part in this. The moving spirit really behind much of it has been Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts. He has argued very strongly – and pulled together teams of scholars from classics and elsewhere in various symposia that he’s edited – to make the point that since the Caesar cult was the fastest growing religion in Paul’s world; and since the Roman empire itself with all its ideology (irrespective of the Caesar cult itself) was a massive ideological movement announcing justice, freedom, peace for the world (at a price), a movement which had an emperor who was the divine Son of God, who was the Savior, who was the kyrios, the Lord; if all those terms and ideas would have carried those meanings in Paul’s world (and there is massive evidence that they would), we can no longer ignore the fact that when we read Paul saying “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios, Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11, NRSV), we ought to see that there and perhaps in dozens of other passages as well, there is an implicit and sometimes an explicit subversion of Caesar’s world.

Now, Jimmy, I have never heard you reacting to this whole new movement of thought. Where are you on it?

Dunn: Yes, this new movement really emerged after I had completed my main work on Paul, in which I was dealing more with the theology of Paul than with the social interaction of his mission and churches, although I take your point that it’s not simply social interaction that is in view here.

I’m quite sure you’re right. There was a political dimension which is inescapable in all this.

We’ve just come back from the west coast of Turkey. There you visit Pergamum and Ephesus, which were centers of the Caesar cult and even the worship of Roma. Anybody operating in that context could not have been unaware of it. It was simply too much “in your face.” It wasn’t so strong in Rome itself, but certainly in Asia Minor it was already strong. No question about that.

But there are two other aspects of Paul I’d want to bring in here. I don’t think we want to push the political so much. In the passage we’ve been talking about already, namely Galatians, the truth of the gospel is not the political message so much as the fact that Gentiles are equally accepted by God through faith. This is the truth for which Paul was willing to die.

The other aspect struck me when I did my work in Romans back in the 1980s. Here was Paul writing to the capital city of the largest empire to date, certainly around the Mediterranean world. When you remember that, the things he says in Romans chapters 12 and 13 are flooded with light. He writes these passages clearly with an awareness that they are in this situation, no doubt aware that the Roman authorities had their agents out and were deeply, deeply suspicious of any little groups and societies coming together. So what is the advice he gives them? He advises them to keep their heads down, to be good citizens, to not respond when people try to provoke you, to pay your taxes, to observe the laws. So it’s an interesting, very strongly political statement, but it’s kind of a quietist political statement. Of course the subversion is working away underground, below the surface, as it were, but in that situation, for the little house churches in the center of the Roman Empire, it was not overtly or “in your face” political.

Wright: Well, I’m happy to disagree with you once again. I would never use the world “quietist” of Paul vis-à-vis Caesar. I just think that’s completely out of line and I think that Romans 13 has to be understood within the framework that Paul has set up.

In chapter 1 he says essentially “I am defined by ‘the gospel,’” which is also a Caesar word, as we know from the Priene inscription and perhaps elsewhere. The gospel is “the good news” that we have an emperor. As I said in a seminar the other day to somebody, when a Roman herald came into town saying “Augustus is dead but Tiberius is the emperor, he is the Savior, he is the Lord,” they didn’t say, “If you fancy having an imperial-type experience, you can come and have an after meeting here and we can talk about it.” They said “Tiberius is Lord, down on your knees and pay the taxes,” and actually that is much more like what the gospel is about. The gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord, which doesn’t mean “If you fancy a new sort of religious experience sign on here.” It’s a demand for, as Paul says, the obedience of faith, which is very strong. But then Paul defines the gospel as concerning the Son of God who is descended from the Jewish royal house (as opposed to anyone else’s – you know the Roman emperors tried to claim descent from all sorts of people way back to Romulus and Remus if they could), and he was designated Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit through the resurrection of the dead. He is the Lord who claims the allegiance of the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, and through this message – this gospel – God’s justice,dikaiosune, is revealed to the world because it is God’s message of salvation. Those are all Roman imperial buzzwords.

That’s Romans 1:1-17. Then when you come to the end of the theological exposition of the letter, in the middle of chapter 15, Paul very carefully structures a catena of quotations in 15:7-13. The last one is a quote from Isaiah 11, which states “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Rom. 15:12, NRSV). I just think that is a framework for Romans. I think that is as near to “in your face” as he could get.

Now of course I agree with Jimmy that Paul wanted them to keep their heads down and not to go in for the normal kind of political revolution, but there is something far deeper, something far more remarkably revolutionary going on there.

Dunn: Well, yes, I don’t disagree basically with the framework, but the political outworking is pretty clear. I think a better example of the kind of politics that Paul operated with is in the household instructions in Colossians (Col. 3:18 – 4.1). His “household rules” give very strong advice in regard to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. It’s very striking that these rules all follow the normal pattern, though there are some important variations. So he accords there with the insight which lies behind the typical household rules of the time, that the household is the basic unit of society, and that it must be stable and well ordered if society is to be well ordered. That is why, for example, wives must be “subject” to their husbands, for as the pater familias, the head of the household, its good order depends on him. In effect, Paul goes along with that. He doesn’t want to rock the boat in any overt way.

Where he does rock the boat – and this is where the subversion comes in – is that it’s all to be done “in Christ,” “in the Lord.” That changes the whole perspective and the whole motivation in a very subtle way. Not in an open way, as if Christian families operate differently from non-Christian families, but the whole rationale and value system was thereby so radically changed that over generations, it was bound to have effect, to make a fundamental difference.

Wright: I’ve just seen how fast the clock is moving on. We did promise you some question time. Sorry we have run on a bit, but I hope it’s been a good survey of a bunch of current topics. Are there questions now which you’d like to ask about Paul, reasonably briefly before we go to a glass of wine and the bookstore? Yes.

Question: You talked at length about Jesus and Paul, but you haven’t faced the fact that Jesus is venerated, being worshipped as God within nine, ten, fifteen, twenty years. It has been in a way the most remarkable thing.

Wright: Jimmy did mention that phrase in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul takes (and it may already be traditional) the shema: “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4, NASB) – and actually weaves Jesus into the middle of this phrase of Jewish monotheism.

You see parallel things going on in Philippians 2 and in Colossians 1, and of course you also see it remarkably when Paul takes passages about “Yahweh” (which comes out as kyrios of course in the Septuagint), applies them without a “by your leave” to Jesus, and does so in the sort of way which implies that all we early Christians use the Bible like this. When we read kyrios in the Old Testament, we expect that to mean Jesus. And so it’s just very, very deeply rooted from very, very early on.

Maybe Jimmy has shifted his position on it, but I would certainly be completely with you, and agreeing with Martin Hengel, who says that that step – openly to recognize Jesus and to use “God” language of him while remaining a monotheist and not a polytheist – is both one of the most remarkable things ever to happen in the history of theology, and also one of the earliest within Christianity. Do you want to comment on it?

Dunn: Yes. I did refer specifically to that point in response to an earlier question. The features that Tom is referring to are the ones that stand out. You’re probably familiar with the recent book which came out last year by Larry Hurtado – Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity(Eerdmans, 2003) – in which he shows how devotion to Christ (but devotion defined in a very interestingly broad way) was there from the very beginning, or very near the beginning.

The one hesitation I have is – and this is my same point as before, that I want to take seriouslyeverything Paul says – that I see in Paul a reservation about the language he uses about Christ. The probability is that he does not use theos, “God,” for Christ. He hesitates to use language about glorifying Christ and avoids using typical prayer language to Christ. I think that that’s worth noting, as well as the fact that Christian veneration for Christ does not seem to have been a problem with the Jewish constituencies with which Paul was working in the way that the Law was. So I’m not sure how mind-boggling Paul’s language actually appeared then as compared to how it now appears looking back.

Wright: We could go on about that one all night, and I’m going to bite my tongue and not go to what I would say in response, but see if there are other questions. Yes?

Question: Richard Hays has reopened the question of whether Galatians 2:16 should be translated “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ.”

Wright: We actually disagree on this. Yes, go on.

Question: The Greek is apparently ambiguous. Luther translated it “faith in Christ.” Tyndale translated it “faith of Christ.” Every English translation up until the RSV followed Tyndale. All of a sudden, the Lutheran translation took in the RSV. I’m just wondering if there is any discussion as to why the RSV followed Luther as opposed to Tyndale.

Wright: That’s a much more focused question than the one I thought you were going to ask. I have no idea why the RSV did that. I have no inside track on that at all.

Of course, in older English, you could have an objective genitive more easily, so “faith of Christ” might have been heard in the sixteenth or seventeenth century as “Christian faith” or “the faith related to Christ,” not necessarily, as in some of the modern debates, as subjective genitive, that is to say, “Jesus’ own faith” or “faithfulness.”

Let’s see if we can do this in about two sentences each, shall we?

There was a big debate between Richard Hays and Jimmy Dunn in SBL about ten years ago on the meaning of pistis Christou in Paul, and I was sitting at Richard’s left hand as one of his supporters and friends on that occasion.

My own view is based entirely on Romans 3. I do not claim that Paul must have always meant the same thing by the phrase wherever it occurs, but I think Romans 3 creates a presupposition in that direction. Paul says in Romans 3:1-3 that the Israelites who were entrusted with the oracles of God were faithless, which leaves a problem for God because God is committed to working through Israelto save the world. What is required is a faithful Israelite in fulfillment of God’s covenant faithfulness, so when in 3:21 he says God has unveiled his covenant faithfulness, dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, eis pantas tous pisteuontas, I find every reason to translate “God has unveiled his covenant faithfulness through the faithfulness of Jesus for the benefit of all who believe,” both halves of which are important. I think what Paul means by “the faithfulness of Jesus” there is not Jesus’ belief system or act of faith, but his faithfulness to God’s saving plan, which is the same thing as his obedience as we find it in Romans 5. Therefore, I hold my mind open to hearing the same things in Galatians and elsewhere.

Dunn: This is very hard to deal with in two sentences.

Wright: Well, mine were quite long.

Dunn: Right. Well, to pick up an older theme of our conversation, one point would be a slight hesitation, because I hear the grand narrative being brought in again. “The faithfulness of Jesus” becomes a very nice filling out of an important part of the narrative, so I’ll just make that observation.

The other is that it’s pretty clear to me in some key passages, particularly Galatians 3, that pistislanguage is being used of Christian faith, to use that shorthand. The problem with Richard Hays’ presentation, as I recall, is that once you refer one of the pistis phrases, one of the “faith” phrases, to Christ’s faith (“the faithfulness of Christ),” it’s difficult to avoid reading all of the pistis references in the same way – the agreed presumption being that he’s using pistis consistently. But what strikes me again and again is that Paul starts his talk of pistis in Galatians 3 with Abraham: “Even so Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith (ek pisteos) who are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:6, 7, NASB). It’s pretty obvious to me that this means “you believed as Abraham believed”; and it is that pistis reference which sets the pattern for the pistis references throughout the chapter. That would be one of the lines of argument I would want to develop.

Wright: It’s not necessarily a straight either-or. There are many passages in which you can see nuances this way and that, but I regard the fact that that phrase fits really rather nicely into that controlling narrative as yet one more argument that that controlling narrative really was intended by Paul.

Anyway, is there one more question? Yes?

Question: Just one. We read a lot of the statement “justification by faith alone.” You’ve spent much time discussing that, but I felt that it was rather, shall I say, ecclesiastically focused, in the sense of the ecumenical movement, in terms of interchurch relations or in the sense of application today. That wasn’t exactly what Paul had in mind. He was speaking about being all one in Christ, about justification by faith and saying Gentiles don’t need to have all the same systems which the Jewish people had in their heritage. I just wondered whether you would take that phrase, “justification by faith alone,” outside, or with, the ecclesiastical or ecumenical context, in our own context today even, for the twenty-first century. We need to come into social, interreligious, or political debate. Where else does it fit?

Wright: It fits all over the place. The question was where does justification by faith fit outside the context that we were dealing with it in. I think Jimmy and I were focusing on particular contexts, (a) because some of them have been controversial and (b) because some of them are important and often ignored, the ecumenical one being one of those. But yes, it has resonances in all sorts of places. The problem with picking up those resonances is that you really do first have to do justice to the context in which Paul uses it. You can’t simply scoop it out as a theologumenon and just drop it in somewhere else and hope it will do the right job, because it may not. So Romans 3, Galatians 3, Philippians 3, and the other cognate passages are really hugely important to understand, and there is so much there about God’s purpose to reach out and save all – Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc., and then from there it goes out via Galatians 3:28 if you like, into all sorts of other areas. You know the sky is the limit then, but you’ve got to get the center of it right first.

Dunn: Yes, it seems to me really rather unfortunate that generations of Christians seem to have focused on that phrase so much in an individual, pietistic, “finding peace with God” way. There is that too, of course. I’m not going to decry that for a minute. Anyone who’s found peace with God through the preaching of justification by faith will know precisely what I mean. But as Tom says, Paul’s teaching of justification by faith occurs in that context where Paul was apostle to Gentiles, so Jews and Gentiles could worship and fellowship together. I just don’t think we’ve recognized how important that was to Paul. In Romans, we think that theology stops at the end of chapter 8, maybe 9-11, then jumps to the ethics, but Paul goes back to it in chapter 15, and the climax to the gospel is his vision of Gentiles and Jews worshiping together (15:9-12).

And if you take Ephesians 2, whether you think it’s Pauline or a Pauline disciple summarizing Paul, the vision there is of the middle wall of partition broken down – of one new person, Jew and Gentile together – it’s fantastic. This was absolutely fundamental for Paul to an extent that has been quite lost to sight. The new perspective, I would say, has been trying to bring that back. Not to replacethe traditional emphases. What we’re saying is that there is a dimension that has been lost and needs to be recovered. If we, the Christian people, could really have retained that through the centuries, what a message that would have been in a world which is riven with racial, national conflicts: That in Christ, there is neither east nor west, neither black nor white, neither north nor south, and so on. It’s a tremendous and powerful vision and message.

Wright: Yes. We must wrap up. Just to echo that, I can’t resist just pointing out the passage which Jimmy cited is precisely Paul’s great summary of the grand narrative, “that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8, 9, NRSV). That’s the most elegant statement of the gospel.

Dunn: I have to give the bishop the last word.

Demythologizing the Gospel

by Rance Darity

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18,19).

Judged by the standards of traditional teaching, we might wonder what these socially-laden terms have to do with preaching the gospel. Doesn’t the gospel simply deal with what we hear in church about going to heaven, possessing assurance, and overcoming personal sin? Isn’t there a world of difference between the “real” gospel believed by Christians and mere social concern for injustice?

Poverty, oppression, and captivity are most often interpreted by conservative Christians in spiritual terms only, describing an inward bondage to sin and corruption. On the other hand, liberal Christians have a reputation for believing in a social gospel that plays down spiritual conversion and interprets Jesus in predominately naturalistic terms. But are either of these opposite approaches truly biblical? Are we permitted to divide the social and spiritual sides of human existence and limit the concern of the gospel to one dimension only? Is the gospel spiritual, or is it social, or is it holistic?

To ask such questions may be too uncomfortable for some Christians. To reexamine such basic issues may seem unnecessary and even threatening. It is even likely that some will resist the challenge to think through familiar paradigms and potentially discover just how comprehensive the gospel really is. Nevertheless, serious Christians ought to resist any traditional boundaries and rediscover the gospel in its biblical wholeness.

In the following discussion, the case is made for a unified gospel that encompasses the spiritual as well as the social. We maintain that to believe in Jesus is more than a matter of getting into heaven. In fact, we will challenge this common portrayal of the gospel as being fundamentally flawed and mythical. However, our ultimate goal is to be fully biblical and, if need be, to disabuse our minds of a conflicted gospel that leads to the tragic loss of spiritual power, on the one hand, or the disastrous depletion of compassionate concern for the world’s poor and oppressed, on the other.

Myths of Optional Concern

Myth # 1: The central concern of the Christian faith is the salvation of individuals from eternal torment. The sinner who simply “accepts Christ” is instantly assured of a place in heaven. This concern for the saving of a person’s soul is the essence of the church’s missionary mandate. Social justice and the improvement of society are temporal matters that are important by virtue of our love for mankind; however, they are secondary issues and concerns, peripheral to the gospel.

Fact: The traditional gospel has remodeled the concrete and earthly reality of God’s plan for man into the one-dimensional world of the spirit. The church needs to recover the essential historic nature of the biblical message and to that extent surmount the over-spiritualization of its message.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the unifying theme of the New Testament and the foundation of the Christian faith. Jesus announced a gospel of the kingdom, and the early church proclaimed Jesus as the Savior who died for sinners and was raised to rule as Lord at God’s right hand. The thematic center of this gospel does not revolve around the limited concern to save men’s souls and transport them to heaven.

Rather than despising the world and looking for redemption elsewhere, Christians are to pray for the arrival of God’s kingdom and the flourishing of His will on earth as it is in heaven. Believers are given a heavenly calling for an earthly task. They are to seek those things which are above, not as far-off contemplations, but as down-to-earth necessities for flesh-and-blood existence.

From the start, in the preaching of Jesus, the various expectations of salvation are concentrated into a single major focus: the dramatic entrance of the “kingdom of God” into the dark shadows of human history. Christian salvation derives its source and hope from the restoration of all things under the lordship of Christ. The whole of creation will, at Christ’s return, partake of the glorious liberty awaiting the children of God.

In his cross and resurrection, Christ established shalom/peace, reconciling mankind to God and to one another. This reconciling work begins in the church and foreshadows the wholeness of salvation in the age to come. Placed in the setting of the present darkness, a new community of believers shines forth as light, models the future and engenders improved social change in the present. Through its endurance and faithful service, it fills up the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the world.

Thus, the gospel of the kingdom focuses holistically upon man’s plight, demanding both spiritual repentance and social renewal. The mistake of removing the substance of the kingdom from the earth to the ethereal space of heavenly dwellings is to disengage the conscience of the church from vital concerns of man’s existence and limit the lordship of Christ to an inward religious experience.

Matt. 5:14-16; 6:10-12; Luke 4:43; Acts 2:22-36; Rom. 8:18-23; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; Eph. 1:10; 2:14-18; Phil. 2:15; Col. 1:19,24; Jas. 3:17-18.

Myth # 2: The spiritual well-being of man is the premier concern of the gospel, and it is possible to water down the message if Christians expend too much effort in causes of social justice and economic development. A social gospel would diminish the true witness of the church. Christians can and do play a significant role of social up-building in the daily rounds of family, work and cultural involvement, but the church must keep to its task of preaching the gospel. Its wealth should be invested primarily in its own maintenance and propagation, supporting approved clergy, missionaries, and church personnel. Support of the poor and needy, relief of the suffering, and good works are legitimate concerns but purely secondary in nature.

Fact: To reduce the role of the church to religious enterprises, altar calls, and revivals is to abandon the dynamic power of the kingdom of God. Rather than restrict the primary agenda to the saving of souls, Christ’s followers are to teach and instruct others in the full counsel of God. The ministry of evangelism serves the goal of God in the furtherance of the kingdom, making disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that Christ commands. All of life is to be conformed to Christ and his word.

Individuals are challenged to repentance and faith in Christ, but conversion was never divorced from ethical obligations and practical concerns in the broader world. Rather than awaiting escape to another world, they are sent abroad on the earth – hearts, hands, and minds intent on doing good works and faithfully serving in the name of Christ.

The restoration of economic justice was a major component in the jubilee agenda of Christ and the kingdom. He preached good news to the poor and deprived. The early church brought its material resources to bear upon the relief of the poor and needy, especially those in her midst. Ministering workers were passionately supported in their love for Christ. The Bible often reports the zeal of caring and sharing so that each received according to his need, and each gives according to his ability. The economics of greed and accumulation were viewed as fatal hindrances to obeying the gospel.

Matt. 28:19,20; Mark 9:41; Luke 4:18,19; Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-37; Acts 20:25,27; Rom. 12:1,2; 2Cor. 8,9.

The Myth of Evangelical Dualism

Myth # 3: Since man’s body is only physical and destined to perish, the soul of man is the primary concern of the gospel. At death, the soul of the Christian leaves the body and is transported to heaven to await the resurrection of the body. In contrast, the soul of the non-Christian is destined for eternal torment in hellfire. Missions and evangelism must therefore focus superior attention on getting people “saved.” Education, physical healing, social justice and peacemaking are merely means to preserve the world before the final day of destroying judgment.

Fact: Though the post-apostolic church in large measure succumbed to Hellenistic abstractions and learned to place an emphasis on the supposed immortality of man’s soul and original corruption, it could only do so by abandoning the earthly/historical nature of the biblical message.

The Abrahamic promise to bless all nations through the call of Israel and its ultimate fulfillment in Christ loses its most essential elements when Christian hope is reduced to a going-to-heaven eschatology. The shift from resurrection faith to post-mortem immortality severely deflates the meaning of the gospel by driving a wedge between creation and redemption.

The popular and traditional interpretation of the gospel often breeds an other-worldly detachment from human evil and suffering which the biblical gospel does not allow. At the very core of Christ’s message was the same concern for mercy, justice, and liberation as demanded by the Hebrewprophets. His powerful teaching and mighty miracles were not isolated instances of occasional compassion, but the signs and presence of the kingdom of God in action. The time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. A new age was breaking into the old and fresh hopes and dreams would be realized in tomorrow’s world. Old regimes would one day come to an end – the proud would be scattered, the mighty put down from their thrones and the rich sent away hungry – and a complete social reversal would occur. The meek would inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed,the merciful would obtain mercy.

All of this is very different from the familiar themes inherited from the past, where we are told to be sorry for our sins and accept Christ as our own personal individual Savior. This limited concern for our own destiny does not reach to the core of biblical mission and kingdom evangelism. True conversion is more than a dress rehearsal for heaven that refuses to go beyond the mere requirements of pietistic customs. It is more than the mere transfer from unchurched to churched, from irreligious to religious, from disgraceful to respectable.

Gen. 12:2,3; Isa. 10:1,2; 56:1; 61:8; Matt. 5:3-7; 9:13,16,17; 12:7; 23:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 1:51-53; 11:20; Acts 4:21; Rom. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21.

Myths of Decisional Evangelism

Myth # 4: The Bible contains a “simple plan of salvation” for the evangelization of sinners. Evangelism is based on one’s ability to share the steps to Christ. Deciding for Christ and praying a sinner’s prayer are the only assurance one needs of his conversion to God.

Fact: Though the practice of presenting the gospel in the manner of a formula or plan has the endorsement of traditional “evangelical theology” and though many have been won to Christ and have found a point of entry into the kingdom of God through such “soul-winning” approaches, the practice is nevertheless a truncated version of the apostolic preaching reported in the New Testament. Attempts to confine the good news along the narrow lines of decision-making often create one more obstacle to true repentance and saving faith.

Depending upon the time, place and audience, the proclamation of Christ was the announcement of an arriving kingdom, the promise of forgiveness and eternal life, or a reign of justice and peace. Faith, repentance, conversion, obedience, cross-bearing, self-denial, the forsaking of all, discipleship, baptism, and service of God and man are just a few of the central responses alternately demanded by the gospel. In short, the biblical gospel invades the totality of human life including the personal, social, economic, religious and secular.

“Soul-winning evangelism” reduces the gospel to individualistic, existential terms and leaves unchallenged the status quo of worldly principalities and powers. Kingdom evangelism announces the reign of God in such a way that conversion is not merely the decision to simply believe, with little or no reflection or resolution. On the contrary, real conversion is the initiation of the whole of a person’s life into the service of the kingdom.

By God’s grace, sinners are regenerated by God’s Spirit and transformed in the new community. They discover a new life in Christ, no longer based on selfish ambition. As a little flock gathered by the Shepherd, they are given a kingdom which cannot fail or be extinguished by the forces of hell. Joined together by one Lord, one Spirit and one baptism, they share a common life, closely comparable to a body, a family, a nation, a city, etc. Agape/love must referee their shared joys and sorrows. Salvation is a community existence, not an isolated religious experience.

Matt. 12:18,46-50; 16:18; 26:28; 28:19; Mark 1:15; 8:34-9:1; 16:16; Luke 6:24; 12:22-34; 14:26-35; 18:7,8; 19:8,9; John 3:16; 10:1-18; Rom. 6:4; 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31; 13; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 4:4-6; Tit. 2:11-14; Heb. 2:11,12; 2 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6.

Myth # 5: The gospel from Genesis to Revelation revolves around the issue of law and grace. The great question facing mankind is how man, the sinner, can find a gracious God. The task of evangelism is mainly to clarify the doctrine of justification by faith. Further, the proper confession of this doctrine is the issue by which the church stands or falls.

Fact: The extremely difficult and complex resolution to how uncircumcised Gentiles could be accepted into one body with circumcised Jews was an issue that occupied the considered attention of the early church. Paul, as a Jew and yet apostle to the Gentiles, was especially in the forefront of dealing with this enormous obstacle to unity in the body of Christ. The law/grace, faith/works, circumcision/uncircumcision matters belonged entirely in this religious context.

Employing the end-time status of the messianic mission of Jesus, Paul argued from the law and prophets for the essential truth of the universality of the gospel. All men and women, Jew and Gentile alike are in need of salvation, equal in their participation in the grace of God, and full partners in the unified community.

Circumcision and the law add nothing to the efficacy of God’s promise to save in Christ all whobelieve. Justification by faith is the truth that allows us to see one another as brothers and sisters, regardless of cultural/religious differences. We are to receive and eat with all whom Christ has received. We deny the truth of the gospel when we make any extraneous laws, customs or ethnic concerns prerequisites to salvation or conditions of fellowship.

In much of the history of Christianity, the theme of justification by faith has been anachronistically contorted in another direction. Abstracted from its original context, it has acquired a new meaning, defining who is and who is not “saved” based on agreement with confessional orthodoxy. As a result, differing convictions have hardened into a permanent split in the body of Christ, contradicting the original intention and goal of the gospel of peace.

As a commanding canon of interpretation, the issue has cast a long shadow over the entire Bible and obscured the otherwise plain terms of the gospel. If “justification by faith” was the indispensable issue to explicate in the gospel witness, then it was conspicuously absent in the preaching of Jesus and carelessly disregarded by the majority of evangelistic appeals in Scripture.

Acts 15:1-35; Rom. 1-4; 14:1-15:22; Galatians 1-6; Eph. 2:11-3:12; Phil. 3:1-11.

Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager (Oxford University Press), 2000, 198 pp.
Reviewed by Robert Orlando
Columbia University,
Religious Studies Dept.

Another book on Paul? Yes, the “new” Paul. Who is this new Paul? John Gager’s answer: the man whose mission has been distorted by twenty centuries of Pauline scholarship based on a faulty “old” paradigm influenced by anti-semitism (pp. 18,19, 74,75). Reinventing Paul purports that the old paradigm wrongly interprets Paul as “convert from Judaism to Christianity, who preached against the law and Israel” (pp. 18,19). These views, the author states, have unwittingly been the result of traditionalists reading Augustine, Luther, and Post-Holocaust thinkers into the ancient texts (pp. 38,66).

“For Paul, Israel’s salvation was never in doubt. What he taught and preached was instead a special path, a ‘Sonderweg’ for Gentiles” (p. 146).

This intriguing premise is what Mr. Gager attempts to prove, joining the movement of New Testament scholars including Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and Krister Stendahl1 who agree that “Paul’s undeniably negative comments were never directed at the role of the law for Jews but for Gentiles” (pp. 44,106).

Gager’s introduction offers the reader a hermeneutic of “suspicion” (p. 13) to guard against “modern translations, dictionaries, and commentaries embedded within preexisting interpretations” (pp. 13-15). Five chapters follow, beginning with an interpretation of the old paradigm that redefines Paul as an “unreliable author,” offering a new paradigm for his writings, followed by an examination of Galatians and Romans respectively, and ending with Gager’s hopes for his “embattled minority” (pp. 145-147). He dismisses secondary biblical sources, restricts the arena for discussion to Paul’s letters to Galatia and Rome, and deflects Paul’s strongest rebukes toward the Jews onto the Jewish Christians, “missionaries within the Jesus movement” (pp. 58,62,106).

“Until the emergence of the new Paul, in recent decades,” Gager states, “the only readers who have been able to break free from the old Paul are the contradictionists — those who abandon all efforts to find a consistent meaning in Paul” (p. 129). However, the new paradigm argument stands or falls not with the citing of New Testament scripture alone, but “almost entirely on the question of audience”: was Paul speaking to Gentiles and Jews (cp. Rom. 1:16)? Yet, rather than explore Paul’s protean message,2 he assigns blame to traditionalist interpreters, arguing for “Paul’s unreliability” using an either/or filter to emphasize “contradictory” pro-Israel and anti-Israel scriptures (pp. 4-7). He concludes “standing against me are not merely twenty centuries of reading Paul as the father of Christian anti-Judaism, but the manifest tensions between the two sets of texts themselves” (pp. 40-42). As a result, the reader must dig one level below this false dichotomy of new and old paradigms to find the essence of Paul’s message.

Though a student of Meyer, Käsemann and Dahl, Gager never penetrates the mystery of Paul’s conversion:3 what caused the Pharisee trained by Gamaliel — likely the next high priest — to turn from his roots?4 Was he anti-semitic? No. His soliloquy from Romans (chapters 9-11) conveys an elegiac aide memoire to the Jews and their place in God’s divine plan.5 Furthermore, Gager’s study fails to note that beyond Jewish/Gentile issues, what Paul despised most was division (1 Cor. 11:18,19): laws or people that poisoned the collective spirit of the early church, which to him was unequivocally “neither Jew nor Greek” (1 Cor. 12:12, RSV). His mission seems not as Gager argues, a Sonderweg, “a special path for Gentiles,” but to broaden Jewish religious perception.6Jewish-Christians, including Peter, loyal to their Jewish roots, demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and Paul vehemently disagreed (Gal. 2:11-16), raising the question that plagued the early church and nearly ended Paul’s ministry: would Christianity become a Jewish sect or a new religion?

Gager fails to recognize the potent allegations in Paul’s “undeniably negative comments” which circumvent Jewish/Jewish Christian distinctions, expressing his heartfelt beliefs touching the law and its effect on his converts (1 Cor. 9:20-23). Paul referred to his antagonists as preaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6,7, RSV) and the Jewish law as “a curse” (Gal. 3:13, RSV), “enslavement” (Gal. 5:1, RSV), and even “death” (2 Cor. 3:7, RSV). He described his Judaism as a former life and his escape from its psychological grip as akin to a widow’s liberation from her dead husband (Rom. 7:1-3). If we entertain Gager’s notion that Paul’s rebukes were solely for “Jewish Christians” (pp. 58,106) who wanted Paul to insist on Gentile circumcision, how much more severe would the criticism have been for the Jews who were seeking his arrest (2 Cor. 11:21-24)?

Unlike Mark Nanos’ subtler Mystery of Romans or Alan Segal’s Paul The Convert, Reinventing Paul,at times, reads like a reinvention itself, a loose diatribe, using selective reasoning that relies on political hot buttons to replace hard-thought polemics. It is the opinion of this writer that Mr. Gager’s ecumenical wish to heal old wounds of Jewish-Christian relations has come at the expense of biblical integrity and balanced exegesis. The search for common ground in this exciting dialogue will not be found in theories, but by providing evidence to fashion a new perspective.

Notes

1See Alan Segal’s comments on Stendahl in Richard Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics (Trinity Press), p. 190.

2Cf. The Writings of Paul, edited by Wayne Meeks (Norton), “The Christian Proteus,” p. 438.

3Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (Yale University Press), pp. 143-149.

4E.P. Sanders, Paul, Past Masters (Oxford University Press), pp. 8-10.

5J. Christian Beker, Heirs of Paul (Eerdmans), p. 26.

6Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul (John Hopkins Univ. Press), pp. 1-3.


Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager (Oxford University Press), 2000, 198 pp.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Krantz

In his recent book, Reinventing Paul, Gager has perhaps less reinvented than recovered the Apostle to the Gentiles. Through a concise review of the results of recent Pauline scholarship, he lifts Paul from the historical distortions of his theology that have plagued the Church since its inception and allows him to stand as a cogent defender of his gospel and the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Though he does so without overbearing detail, Gager pursues his argument first by citing, and then refuting, via the work of several recent authors, the traditional views that lie behind the portrait of the “old Paul.” His willingness to engage a reading of Paul with which he has obviously little patience is a mark of his desire to help bring about the end of the anti-Judaic Paul and to give future Christian readings of the Apostle a more firm and less distorted foundation. He cites the unspoken tendencies of Paul’s exegetes that lead them inexorably to their mistaken conclusions:

1) Reading back into Paul from later times, importing views developed much later (especially the rejection/replacement view of Israel and the Church)

2) Drawing unjustified universal conclusions from Paul’s particular circumstances, and

3) Reading Paul against Judaism.

Gager maintains that it is not necessary for the interpreter to throw up her hands when confronted with passages like Romans 3:1 or 11:1 and declare that Paul is unrescuably inconsistent. It is necessary to:

1) keep Paul’s audience (Gentiles) always before us and

2) understand his rhetorical strategies.

Having given, in digest form, a recounting of the sources of the dominant image of Paul, Gager goes on to describe the new directions being taken in Pauline studies. This movement toward a more true “Paul” centers itself on Paul’s self-description as “Apostle to the Gentiles” and sees all Paul’s references to Torah, or law, as being applicable only to them. “When Paul appears to say something (e.g., about the law and Jews) that is unthinkable from a Jewish perspective, it is probably true that he is not talking about Jews at all. Instead we may assume that the apostle to the Gentiles is talking about the law and Gentiles.” In other words, through the faith of Christ, Paul believes that God is saving Gentiles as Gentiles.

The other dominant factor in the interpretation of Paul becomes an understanding of the complex rhetorical nature of his letters. Paul is demonstrated to have resorted to the use of “voices” other than his own in his writings, so as to engage his opponents, and to have written in the guise of the “unreliable author” that he might lead his readers/hearers to a position he specifically wants to refute.

Chapters three and four of Gager’s book deal with the portions of Galatians and Romans whose mis-readings have undergirded the old, anti-Judaism Paul. My one regret is that Gager nowhere makes mention of Mark Nanos’ recent book, The Mystery of Romans. Gager writes off the specifics of Paul’s audience in Romans as unrecoverable, where Nanos’ reconstruction would only have supported and nuanced, in many ways, his conclusions.

Gager may be criticized for having dealt so quickly with so heavy a subject as he does. Indeed, he does not, like E. P. Sanders, refute the positions he seeks to undermine point by point. His endnotes, however, are clear and easily used, and they provide the reader with a great many resources that deal with the subjects in much greater detail.

It is no longer excusable for a student of the New Testament to paint Paul as the opponent of the “straw-man” of Pharisaic Judaism created by Bauer et al. The image of Paul as the proto-Lutheran will no longer stand. Gager’s book gives the average student of the New Testament an accessible doorway into the “new perspective” on Paul that is emerging, a perspective that we can only hope will one day usher in a whole new understanding, and further repentance on the part of the Church for its triumphalism and anti-Judaism.


Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager, William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University (Oxford UniversityPress), 2000, 198 pp.

When World War II finally ended in 1945 and thereafter, as the details of the Nazi Holocaust became known, there was an outpouring of shock and outrage unprecedented certainly after any of the other wars of the twentieth century. But it only slowly dawned upon the Christian world that there was somehow at the heart of this horror a whisper, a hint, an unease of conscience or fear that there was something more going on here than simple inhuman brutality. Could there have unwittingly been — only form the words silently on your lips — Christian complicity? Had the words, “His blood be on us and on our children,” written out in Holy Scripture, finally reached the apogee of their trajectory?

Whatever the reasons, among them, perhaps, an uneasy Christian conscience, the years since the second World War have seen the beginnings of a Christian reaching out to Judaism that is without parallel in the two thousand year history of the Church. The story of this historic rapprochement is long and involved and not what is being written about here, but one of the key participants has been Pope John Paul II who spoke the words to the assembled German Rabbinical Conference in the Cathedral Museum of Mainz, November 1980, (referring to the Jewish people): “The people of God of the old covenant never revoked by God.”

The old covenant never revoked? Surely that must mean that Jews and Christians stand seeking justification, each under their own covenant, on an equal footing before the God we both worship. And although the Protestant world does not speak with a single voice much of it has trodden the same theological path.

Until 1977 Christian New Testament scholarship, nearly without exception, drew its understanding of first century Judaism from the works of Ferdinand Weber, E. Schürer, W. Bousset and Paul Billerbeck. Weber was the earliest. In 1880 he published a work in German called System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie, an attempt to work out a systematic theology of Judaism in the time of Jesus and Paul. His student W. Bousset was in turn the teacher of Rudolph Bultmann, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar in the first half of the twentieth century. Bultmann’s immense reputation was substantially responsible for the more or less uncritical acceptance of Weber’s perspective among contemporary New Testament scholars. And Weber’s view of first-century Judaism was not friendly. He saw the Judaism he wrote about as an incomplete, imperfect, unsatisfactory religion, steeped in legalism and mired down in a system of works-righteousness that had an inaccessible God employed as the accountant-in-chief toting up the good deeds in one column of the record book against the sins of the poor hapless Jew in another.

There were dissenters from this view, C.G. Montefiore for one, and George Foot Moore, who published between 1927 and 1930 a three volume work called Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim that should have effectively destroyed Weber’s work. But it didn’t. The world of New Testament scholarship sailed blithely on, ignoring the work of Montefiore and Moore, comfortably ensconced in the arms of a patronizing, if not overtly hostile, conception of Jewish religion in the first centuries of the Christian era. That is, until E.P. Sanders published in 1977 a bombshell of impeccable scholarship called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. With Sanders the gloves came off. He called his shots explicitly, stating that it was his intention to demolish the Weber-Bousset-Bultmann thesis once and for all. And he did, in page after page of detailed references and analysis of the original documents, which until he took the trouble of studying them had been mostly available to scholars only in a series of extracts published by Paul Billerbeck. Sanders showed Billerbeck’s choice of extracts to be biased and tendentious, frequently parading obscure and minority opinions as mainline rabbinical thought and exegesis.

This brings us to Paul. Sanders realized that a new view of Judaism in the first Christian centuries entailed a reevaluation of Paul, and the final section of his book makes a new effort in that direction. Part of the reason Christian scholars had embraced the Weber-Bousset-Bultmann view of Judaism for so long had been that it fit so neatly with the Christian perception of Judaism that Paul seemed to be struggling against, and the Judaism and Pharisaism that is handled so roughly in the Gospels. But the Gospels were all written during an early period when the Church was in open conflict with Judaism, and that writing in those circumstances was polemical in nature and intent.

For two thousand years, Paul has been a bone sticking in the throat of any possible Jewish/Christian dialogue. Throughout much of Christian history, perhaps dating even from the writing of the book of Acts, Paul has been seen as in conflict with Judaism, as attacking the validity of the law, as embracing salvation by grace through faith against the supposedly Jewish concept of justification by works, as rejecting the old covenant in favor of the new, and portraying Israel as replaced by the new creation in Christ. Jews have traditionally seen Paul as either unredeemably heretical or else plain crazy, and they have been unable to discern in Paul’s letters any recognizable Judaism as they know it.

Is it possible Paul has been misread and misunderstood for these two thousand years? This is an issue for both Jewish and Christian scholars, and today, prompted at least in part by new Christian approaches to Judaism, there are many Jewish as well as Christian scholars studying and writing about Paul. This ongoing reevaluation of Paul is far from complete. We are at the stage of debate, not even close to the stage of consensus.

The beginning of the revolution in Pauline studies dates to 1961 when Krister Stendhal, Lutheran Bishop in Sweden and more recently Dean of the School of Divinity at Harvard University, delivered an address later published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1963 entitled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Among Stendhal’s insights: (1) Paul lived and died a Jew. He had no concept of Christianity (a term unknown to Paul) as a new religion. (2) Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road could not have been “from Judaism to Christianity”. Paul’s own understanding of his experience was that he was thereby appointed by God to be “Apostle to the Gentiles.” (3) It is St. Augustine’s discovery of Paul’s “introspective conscience” and Martin Luther’s focus on “justification by faith” that have led later interpreters to impose meanings on Paul that are diametrically opposite to what Paul actually said.

A succession of scholars have progressively brought Paul closer and closer to his Jewish roots, including E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, Daniel Boyarin, Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and most recently John G. Gager in Reinventing Paul.

Gager begins with a series of antinomies found in Paul’s writings, among them, “Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law” (Gal. 3:11), over against, “Do we overthrow the law through faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). Will the real Paul please stand up? Can such contradictions be resolved?

Gager insists they can, and the means to do so is by paying very close attention to whom Paul is speaking, and who it is he is speaking about. For instance, many of Paul’s negative comments about the law are not addressed to Jews in general but rather specifically to a group of his gentile converts, and it is for them, these gentile converts, that the law is of no value or even a curse.

According to Gager, Paul believed that Jesus was sent by God so that gentiles could be saved, not as proselytes to Judaism, but as gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ. When Paul writes to his Galatian converts in Galatians 5:2 “if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no profit for you,” what he means is, “if you become a Jew then Christ’s mission to save you as a gentile is wasted.”

Did Paul believe then that there were two ways to salvation, one for Jews under the old covenant and one for gentiles through Jesus Christ? Perhaps, in the short term, but not ultimately, for there is one passage where Paul reveals his eschatological beliefs: 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

Then comes the end when he (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God after destroying every ruler…. When all things are subjected to him (God), then the Son himself will also be subjected to him (God) who put all things under him (Christ), so that God may be everything to everyone (or all in all).

And thus, Gager says, Paul shows himself in the end to be a thoroughly Jewish monotheist.

It may be there are still dozens of books to be written on “the new perspective on Paul” and hundreds of articles in learned theological journals to appear before a scholarly consensus is found. But this speech in the debate is a knockout.

Reviewed by Robert Egolf

« Older Entries  |  Newer Entries »

Don’t miss out

Get the latest The Paul Page news, content, and more—sign up today!