Paul as the New Abraham

by Pamela Eisenbaum

In Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1977), Krister Stendahl argued convincingly for dispensing with the notion of conversion as applied to Paul’s religious experience, and for substituting the “call” of Paul.1 Based on a compelling exegesis of Galatians 1, Stendahl demonstrated that Paul describes his “vision” of the risen Christ like the call narratives of the Hebrew prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Isaiah.2 Rather than seeing Paul’s missionary zeal as the consequence of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity (which did not yet exist as a definable religion), Stendahl demonstrated that Paul’s vision and his mission were inextricably linked from the start. The vision was, in fact, a call to proclaim the word of the Lord, like the prophets of old; the only difference was Paul’s message would be directed not to his fellow Jews, but rather to Gentiles. Paul believed it was time for the final in-gathering of the nations, and he was being called to help carry out the project. So persuasive wasStendahl that his interpretation became the dominant understanding of Paul’s religious experience and mission, at least among Anglo-American scholars. The “call” is often understood as foundational to the “new perspective” on Paul.

In recent years, however, Stendahl’s model has been challenged. Perhaps the most thoroughgoing challenge has come from Alan Segal. In Paul the Convert (1990), Segal revives the conversion model, although he develops a much more sophisticated notion of conversion based on sociological and anthropological studies. Segal conceives of Paul as converting not from Judaism to Christianity, but from one form of Judaism (Pharisaism) to another (belief in Jesus).3 For Segal, Paul’s switch from the former to the latter involved a radical transformation, a transformation not fully appreciated by Stendahl and the scholars who have followed his lead.

The work of Stendahl and Segal has, generally speaking, marked out the principal options in recent Pauline studies. In arguing against the classical Lutheran understanding of the radical discontinuity between Paul’s life before and after Christ, Stendahl had to emphasize strongly the continuity between Paul’s life as a Jewish Pharisee and his life after his “call.” Since Stendahl’s landmark work, however, a bifurcation has arisen in Pauline scholarship. In general, those who follow the call model tend to emphasize continuity in Paul’s life experience, while those who follow the conversion model tend to emphasize discontinuity. A correlation exists between, on the one hand, those who presuppose Stendahl’s call model and therefore interpret Paul’s theology and teachings as reflective of first-century Judaism and, on the other hand, those who presuppose some sort of conversion and thus understand Paul as fundamentally transformed and standing outside the bounds of Judaism.4

The issue of continuity in Paul’s religious identity between his earlier life as a Pharisee and his subsequent life in Christ arises because of the mixed messages that seem to come through in his letters. Paul obviously understands himself as a Jew, both before and after his call. As he says in Gal. 2:15, “We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Statements such as this give a clear indication that Paul is just as Jewish after his call as before, and that his identity as a Jew distinguishes him from Gentiles. Yet, as many have shown, Paul speaks as if there is a huge disjuncture between his former life in Judaism and his life in Christ (Gal. 1:11-24; Phil. 3:7-8).5 The ambiguity present in Paul’s letters toward Judaism needs to be acknowledged. In Gal. 2:15, when he reminds his audience that he is a “Jew by birth,” does he use the modifying expression “by birth” (physei) in order to qualify his Jewishness, or does he mean it more as a boast? To put it in modern terms, is Paul simply saying he is a Jew ethnically but not religiously, or is he saying he is a Jew through and through?

I align myself with the new perspective on Paul, and in this chapter I wish to build on Stendahl’swork and that of other new perspective scholars, while at the same time taking seriously Segal’s critique. I will offer an alternative paradigm for understanding Paul’s experience of the revelation of Jesus and his religious identity. I believe Stendahl was right to use the language of “call,” but the call that best reflects the apostle’s experience is not so much the call of the classical prophets as it is the call of Abraham, a figure who embodies both Jew and non-Jew. In what follows I will argue that Paul implicitly understands himself as an Abrahamic figure who establishes a new kind of family, one made up of Jews and Gentiles. I will first describe how the call of Abraham resembles Paul’s mission and then explore who Abraham is for Paul in particular. It is my contention that the importance of Abraham for Paul is not as an example of faith to Gentiles. Rather, Abraham is apatrilineal ancestor who encompasses “many nations” and thus enables Jews and Gentiles to become kin. This understanding of Israel’s patriarch mirrors Paul’s self-understanding because Paul’s mission is to create kinship ties between Jews and Gentiles as joint members of the family of God, as Stendahl’s work on Romans has so ably demonstrated.6

Paul and Abraham Share a Calling

To paraphrase Gen. 12:1-3, Abraham is asked to leave his homeland and separate from his kin with the promise that God will make of him a great nation; he will be blessed and through him “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Broadly speaking, this is what happens to Paul. He experiences a divine call described literally as God’s revealing his son “in” him, though it is more typically translated “to” him (Gal. 1:15), which results in his migratory sojourn among foreign peoples, so that he might preach the message God has told him to preach.

To be sure, the biblical language of Abraham’s call is not present in Gal. 1:11-17, whereas the language of Jeremiah (1:4-5) or Isaiah (49:1-6), particularly regarding being set apart while in the womb, does appear. I do not wish to deny the resonance between the language of the prophets and that of Gal. 1:11-17, but I think that Paul’s overall transformative experience is more akin to Abraham than to Jeremiah or Isaiah. The fact that Paul uses Abraham as a model figure in two of his epistles suggests that we look to Abraham as a model for Paul’s own identity.7 Although Paul is certainly familiar with the prophets and quotes from both Jeremiah and Isaiah, Abraham is a personto Paul in a way that Jeremiah and Isaiah are not.

The description of events in Gal. 1:11-17 has two essential components: (1) God’s call (1:15) to Paul, which comes in the form of the revelation of his son and which presumably caused some sort of religious transformation, and (2) the commissioning of his task to go to the Gentiles, which results in the peripatetic existence that characterizes Paul’s life thereafter. Two similar components appear in the opening verses of Genesis 12: (1) Abraham is called by God to leave his home and family, though no details are given as to how God revealed himself, and (2) this event leads not only to the blessing of Abraham’s own family, but to the blessing of “all the families of the earth.” The second effectively constitutes what Paul calls God’s “promises” to Abraham. These promises are repeated and expanded as the story of the great patriarch moves along. Most significantly, God promises to give Abraham a land currently occupied by foreigners, the Canaanites, and to give Abraham a great progeny; Abraham will become the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:2-6).

While narrative details clearly differ for Paul and Abraham, their biographies share a similar pattern. Both are called by God to a purpose that benefits not only them and their families, but also the rest of humanity. Both Paul and Abraham become alienated from their communities of origin as a result of their experience. In Abraham’s case, God literally calls him away from his family and kin; in Paul’s case, God’s call implicitly results in his alienation from the Jewish community of which he was once fully a part. Both Paul and Abraham become travelers among other peoples.

No doubt the call of Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3 is sketchy, but the portrait of Abraham popular in Paul’s time resembles Paul’s self-understanding in a more obvious way. Abraham’s call is widely understood to have meant rejection of his former way of life.8 Abraham turns from idolatry to worship of the one true God. In other words, Abraham is widely considered to be the first monotheist. Often this tradition includes a description of Abraham’s original family as idolatrous and thus the reason for Abraham’s separation from his people. Numerous texts can be mustered to illustrate this image of Abraham:9

And the child [Abraham] began to realize the errors of the land that everyone was going astray after graven images and after impurity … and he separated from his father so that he might not worship the idols with him. (Jub. 11.16-17)

And when all those inhabiting the land were being led astray after their [idols], Abraham believed in Me and was not led astray with them. (Pseudo-Philo, Liberantiquitatum biblicarum 23.5).

He thus became the first person to argue that there is a single God who is the creator of all things, and that whatever any of these other things contribute to the good of theworld, they are enabled to do so at His command, and not by any inherent force of their own. … Because of these ideas the Chaldeans and the other people ofMesopotamia rose up against him, and having resolved, in keeping with God’s will and with His help, to leave his home, he settled in the land of Canaan. (Josephus, Ant.1.154-57)

James Kugel argues that the tradition of Abraham as the first believer in the God of Israel may derive from Joshua:

And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Your ancestors lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and ofNahor; they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan.'” (24:2-3)10

Because Abraham’s story begins with his being called away from home and involves many years of journeying, Philo allegorized the patriarch’s life as the process of coming to ultimate enlightenment of the divine.11 The very same reason that Abraham can be claimed as the originary ancestor of Israel requires that Abraham also be recognized as having been transformed from one sort of person to another. In other words, if Abraham is the first Israelite, then Israelites did not exist prior to Abraham, thus Abraham cannot have originally been an Israelite; he must have been something else first. Indeed, both Philo and Josephus consider Abraham the first proselyte, because Abraham was originally a Gentile who entered into a covenant with God by being circumcised only as an adult.12 Furthermore, some ancient exegetes believed that Abraham came to monotheism through his precocious study of the stars, since the Chaldeans were famous for their skill at astronomy. In some strains of postbiblical tradition, the Israelite patriarch excels not only in the science of astronomy, but in wisdom and virtue generally, such that he becomes the mentor and teacher of other peoples like the Phoenicians and Egyptians.13

I do not wish to argue for Paul’s direct textual dependence upon any of the postbiblical sources cited above. Because the traditions I have cited appear in a wide variety of sources and are therefore commonplace understandings, it is virtually certain that Paul was familiar with at least some of them. Significantly, however, one scholar has recently demonstrated that the tradition of Abraham “as the one who rejected idolatry and astral worship in favor of the worship of the creator God” is evidenced in Romans 4.14 Obviously such an understanding of Abraham bears on the connection between Abraham and Gentiles that I will discuss momentarily. For now, I wish to emphasize that the notion of Abraham as one religiously transformed could well have functioned paradigmatically for Paul’s self-understanding. Abraham’s life as popularly conceived in Paul’s time constitutes the closest biblical paradigm to Paul’s experience. In other words, Abraham provides a model internal to Jewish tradition for a kind of religious transformation that results in sojourning among Gentiles and thus helps us to explain how Paul can sound so Jewish and yet so removed from his fellow Jews.

Just as Abraham is considered the quintessential hero whose divine call leads to his abandonment of a former way of life and wandering among foreign peoples who receive the benefit of his wisdom, so Paul can understand himself as fundamentally Jewish and yet transformed by his religious experience into someone who must go live abroad among foreign peoples and teach them God’s wisdom. Paul speaks of his “former life in Judaism” (Gal. 1:13), often in direct contrast to his subsequent life in Christ, from which he counts all that came before as a loss (Phil. 3:4-7). Paul may be Jewish but he no longer lives among Jews, partly because of his own mission and partly because of their hostility.15

Paul’s missionary travels not only alienate him from his home but also they are intended to benefit the other peoples (ethne) among whom he is destined to live. As Stendahl made clear, Paul’s central identity is as the apostle to the Gentiles. This we know not just from Gal. 1:11-17, but from many texts.16 In Gal. 1:23-24, Paul explicitly recalls how his religious experience has influenced other believers: “‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” Paul positions himself as a model, hence his frequent exhortation, “Be imitators of me,” to the non-Jewish peoples of the world in order to teach them how to be worshipers of the one true God.

Most important, Paul positions himself as a new kind of patriarch, capable of unifying the multitude of nations who are already potentially related to one another through Abraham. As I intend to show in the next section, Abraham is primarily father Abraham for Paul, as for most any other Jew. The difference, however, is that Paul emphasizes the biblical claim that Abraham was destined to become the father of a multitude of nations and not just the father of the Jews.17 Paul thinks of his preaching to the Gentiles as a kind of spiritual birthing process, as indicated by his frequent use of parental imagery for himself, as well as his persistent use of kinship terms.18 By his preaching, Paul makes willing Gentiles legitimate members of Abraham’s family, which is the equivalent of making them children of God, as Gal. 3:26-4:7 makes clear. By informing Gentiles of the blessings promised to Abraham and his seed, they become heirs of the divine promises, and Paul, as thebestower of the inheritance, has become their father. Insofar as Paul establishes this newly constituted family of God, Paul functions as a founding father, just like Abraham.

Abraham and the Gentiles

My argument that Paul thinks of himself as a kind of Abraham redivivus depends not only on Paul’s self-description but also on Paul’s particular understanding of Abraham, specifically, demonstrating that Paul understands the relationship between Abraham and believing Gentiles not as one of analogy but as one of kinship. The majority of scholars assume Abraham is an exemplary figure for Gentiles both in Galatians and Romans. Recently, however, some have begun to recognize that Abraham-as-ancestor may be more significant in Paul’s thinking than Abraham-as-example.19 As one writer avers, “The idea is that the Gentiles are blessed not simply like Abraham but because of Abraham. Abraham becomes the reason why Gentiles experience salvation, not the example of howan individual becomes saved.”20 To be sure, both letters introduce the discussion of Abraham with the famous quotation from Gen. 15:6 (“Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”), but both letters use it to make the point that Abraham’s righteousness is connected to his status as the great patriarch. Moreover, Paul argues that Christian believers can claim Abraham as their father and claim to be the rightful heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. In polemical terms, Abraham is not just the father of the Jews but of Gentile believers also, and not just metaphorically or spiritually speaking. Abraham is just as much the patriarch of believing Gentiles as he is of Jewish believers.

Scholars have observed that Paul sometimes describes Abraham and Gentiles similarly. For example, Paul essentially labels Abraham a “former idolater and polytheist” when in Rom. 4:5 he indirectly calls the patriarch “ungodly” (asbes), a word commonly used of Gentiles and which Paul himself uses to emphasize the idolatrous state of Gentiles in Rom. 1:18.21 Similarly, the beginning of Galatians 4 makes mention of “elemental spirits” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou; Gal. 4:3,9) to which Gentiles were once enslaved. Although there exists much speculation about exactly what Paul refers to here, it is likely that this is an allusion to Abraham’s attention to the stars prior to his conversion to monotheism. If so, Paul once again connects the Gentiles’ former lives to Abraham’s former life.22

While scholars take note of the descriptive connections between Abraham and Gentiles, they generally think of these connections as analogical and rhetorical. They argue that Paul manipulates his rhetoric so as to bolster his use of Abraham as an example of faith for Gentiles.23 Paul’s analogies between Abraham and Gentiles are not intended to prove a genetic or ancestral connection between the two. In contrast, I think the connections Paul makes are there to reinforce what he understands to be a relation of kinship, albeit one that needs to be formally acknowledged. People who are kin are supposed to be similar to one another; those who belong to the same family share important characteristics.24 The emphasis for Paul, however, both in Galatians and Romans, is not on the way Gentiles can be like Abraham if they emulate his faith; the emphasis is on their existing relatedness to him which they can now claim.

I do not have space for a detailed exegesis of Galatians 3 and Romans 4, Paul’s two lengthy discussions of Abraham, but I do want to highlight some texts, focusing particularly on those places where Paul refers to Abraham’s being the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5) who are blessed because of him (Gen. 12:3).

Because Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so you see, those descended of faith — they are the sons of Abraham. And scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the nations out of faith, proclaimed the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying “In you shall all the nations be blessed,” so that those who are descended of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. (Gal. 3:6-9)25

The NRSV translates oi ek pisteos, a phrase that occurs repeatedly in this context, as “those who believe,” and the RSV translates “men of faith.” These translations reflect the reigning assumption that the faith of individual believers is what counts for Paul, their faith should resemble the faith of Abraham, and by virtue of this similarity they can be called “sons of Abraham.” According to this view, the relationship between Gentiles and Abraham is one of affinity. The language of kinship is the rhetorical or metaphorical means of making this point.

In contrast, I translate oi ek pisteos as “those descended of faith,” because the preposition ekmeans “out of” or “derived from” and can be used for a person’s lineage.26 Since the focus of Paul’s concern here is defining who the true children of Abraham are, using language of descent is appropriate. If Paul meant to say “those who believe” are children of Abraham, he would not have used the phrase oi ek pisteos.27 But he would most likely have used the active participle, oipisteuontes, or some equivalent, as he does elsewhere.28 Rather, ek consistently connotes origins or derivation and points toward the source of something, and Paul’s usage is no different. Thus, ekpisteos means that “faith,” at least in this case, does not refer to the personal interior belief of an individual but to an external source of faith from which one derives benefit. Being a descendant of Abraham entitles one to certain benefits, namely, receiving the blessings as God promised, as Paul reminds his audience in verse 8. Therefore, it is not the believers’ own faith to which Paul refers in this passage, but most likely Abraham’s faith. This interpretation is corroborated by Rom. 4:16, where the expression to ek pisteos Abraam appears, which I translate “those descended from the faith of Abraham.”29

Just what does it mean to be descended from the faith of Abraham? I believe the answer can be found in Rom. 4:16-22, which happens to be the other place where Paul quotes Genesis to illustrate Abraham’s ancestral connection to the nations:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise will be guaranteed according to grace to all his descendants, not only to those who are descended from law, but also to those descended from the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. As it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righeousness.”30

Here Paul makes clear that Abraham’s quintessential act of faith is the conception of Isaac. Therefore, those who are “descended of faith” are those born of Abraham through Isaac. To be sure, Abraham is considered faithful in general, and many other of his actions could be labeled faithful, but this particular procreative act counts as the faithful act second only to Christ’s act of faith because it aids God in fulfilling God’ promises.31 Abraham’s act of faith is to start a family on behalf of God; he produces offspring that bear God’s blessing. Put another way, Abraham’s act of faith provides God with heirs which, by the way, is exactly what Paul thinks he is doing.

What’s more, the heirs include “the nations.” Although it was not commonly emphasized, it was not unusual for Jewish interpreters to mention Abraham being the father of Gentiles.32 In some cases, Abraham was understood to be the ancestor of certain Gentiles to whom Jews could then claim a kinship relation.33 What is unusual, however, is that Paul explicitly connects the promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations to the conception of Isaac. Although this linkage is unprecedented, it makes exegetical sense, since the biblical story indicates that the promise for multitudinous progeny and heirs is fulfilled, at least initially, with the birth of Isaac. For Paul, Abraham’s act of faith gives birth to Jewish and gentile heirs; it marks the beginning of a line of descendants who will fulfill God’s promises.

The similarity between Romans and Galatians with regard to Abraham being the father of Jews and Gentiles means that Paul’s claim in Gal. 3:29 that the Gentiles are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” need not be seen only as a metaphor in his argument with the Jewish-Christian teachers at Galatia, who purportedly claim that the Galatians need to be circumcised to belong to Abraham. I think Paul thinks the Galatians are just as much the offspring of Abraham as are Jews.34

Both Jews and gentile believers are descendants of Abraham, but their Abrahamic inheritance is dependent upon being properly “adopted.” Contrary to popular belief, Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans does not assume Jews are biological descendants (kata sarka), while Gentiles become descendants by “adoption” (uiothesia). He uses the term explicitly of Jews in Rom. 4:9: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption.” When Paul speaks of uiothesia, he does not wish to emphasize the Gentiles’ lack of physiological connection to Abraham. He simply means that the Gentiles are now in the process of claiming their inheritance, whereas Jews have already received it. The term mans “to become a son,” with all the rights and privileges thereof.35 Having the claim of inheritance to one’s father’s estate is of far greater significance in determining familial status than mere biology.36

Part of the reason that the conception of Isaac is so important as Abraham’s act of faith is that Paul understands the story as evidence that the claim to God’s promises is required for descendants to be recognized as true heirs. As Paul says:

For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “it is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” (Rom. 9:6-9)

“Children of promise” are Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, those born by God’s action, and not merely human procreation. The problem with unbelieving Jews from Paul’s point of view is that, while they were fully informed claimants to their divine inheritance through Abraham, they are now rejecting it. The problem with Gentiles is that they have not previously had a chance to claim their inheritance. That is where Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, comes in. As a “descendant of Abraham,” one who already holds claim to the inheritance, Paul can declare Gentiles part of Abraham’s legitimate offspring, able to grant them their rightful inheritance as “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

Paul makes clear that Abraham’s family never was constituted kata sarka, but by means of spiritual descent, which is not dependent on biological birth and blood relations, but which is nevertheless a bona fide lineage. Turning again to Romans 4, I translate verse 1: “What shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?”37 The inferred answer is, of course, no! Paul’s point is that physical descent does not make one a rightful child or heir. The same point is implicit in Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4. Any Jews who consider themselves descendants of Abraham do not hold this privilege by virtue of physical descent; otherwise, Abraham’s children by Hagar would be counted as heirs along with Sarah’s, which neither Paul nor any other Jews of his time believed to be the case. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 can be summarized as follows: If a Jew’s status before God is not dependent on biological lineage, then surely such lineage is not required for Gentiles either.38

Paul, Abraham, and the Gentiles

Virtually ubiquitous in current scholarship on Paul, at least for those who subscribe to the new perspective, is that the apostle wished to break down the barriers that divide people, specifically the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.39 The essence of the new perspective on this question looks something like this: Paul as a Hellenistic Jew followed monotheism to its logical conclusion.40Believing in the divine impartiality of God, and as a result of his experience of the risen Christ, Paul was led to abandon the idea of Israel’s uniqueness in the pursuit of theological and anthropological universalism. Jews “by birth” no longer hold the privileges they once held. Paul spiritualizes the understanding of Israel, so that anyone who has faith, Jew or Gentile, can be part of Israel. According to this view, genealogy no longer counts in the makeup of one’s identity. As one scholar has put it, Paul renders “all genealogies irrelevant.”41

I, too, believe Paul’s project consists in his trying to construct, or perhaps reconstruct, a single family made up of Jews and Gentiles. But, in contrast to others, I do not think Paul devalues genealogy; rather he restructures genealogical lines in order to reconfigure the boundaries that unite and divide people. As a Hellenistic Jew Paul knows implicitly that one’s genealogy is notcoterminus with biology.

Biology is never the sole factor in determining kinship relations. Social processes, such as marriage and adoption, always aid in the construction of family and genealogy, though such processes are manifest in as many different ways as there are different cultures. Cultures that construct genealogies through the patriline, that is, exclusively through the father’s line extending back to a single male ancestor, tend to depend upon social structures even more. As sociologist Nancy Jay has shown, paternity must be explicitly constructed, since it cannot be observed; but, because it is constructed, it is a more flexible form of genealogical identity.42 Usually, focus on a single male ancestor is designed to provide society with a coherent social identity. Furthermore, concern forpatriliny appears most frequently in those societies in which families are part of more extended and complex kin groups, for example, clans, tribes, and where the transfer of property needs conscious attention.43

Claiming to be the descendants of Abraham, as Jews had done for centuries prior to Paul, was likely not taken as literally by the Jews of Paul’s time as modern scholars often think. Rather, the focus on Abraham and patrilineal genealogies linking Jews to him probably indicates some anxiety about the fluid boundaries of Israel as a people and the need to establish a coherent identity. Several reasons can be adduced to support this assertion. First, by this time, the possibility of conversion already exists.44 Since a person can become a member of the Jewish community, and since the Jewish community collectively understands itself as descended of Abraham, one not biologically related to Abraham can be made into a descendant and a legitimate heir of theAbrahamic promies.45 Second, some scholars have recently argued that circumcision constitutes a blood sacrifice by which men lay claim to their sons as members of God’s covenant people, much as Jay describes. Indeed, if Jews saw themselves as automatically legitimate descendants of Abraham, why perform the rite of circumcision, which includes the blessing, “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by his commandments, and commanded us to admit him [the child] to the covenant of Abraham our father”?46 It seems fairly clear that circumcision gave a Jewish father the ability to make his son a descendant of Abraham, rather than having to depend on a preexisting biological condition.47 I imagine this symbolic function became even more important once Jewish identity was established by the matrilineal principle. Finally, there is evidence in both ancient Jewish and Christian circles that men could claim powers of reproduction through the dissemination of religious instruction, rather than through fertility. HowardEilberg-Schwartz, who quotes from an array of rabbinic texts, says the following:

Rabbis fathered “children” through the teaching of Torah. As the learning of Torah emerged as the paridigmatic religious act in the rabbinic community, it absorbed the symbolic capital which had earlier been invested in procreation. Concerns about reproduction and lineage were symbolically extended from the human body to Torah knowledge itself.48

Like the rabbis, Christians could understand their preaching and the making of converts as an alternate form of reproduction. Such an understanding is implicit in the oft-recited claim that Christians “are made, not born.”49 Christian asceticism led to the high valuation of virginity and sexual abstinence, along with the consequent devaluation of physical reproduction.50 Yet Christians kept increasing their numbers. I contend that this attitude, namely the procreative use of teaching and preaching to increase numbers, is implicitly present in Paul. After all, as Eilberg-Schwartz has ably demonstrated, because the Jewish God did not create by copulation with a consort but rather through speech, and because of the common association made between creation and procreation, seeing the procreative potential of human speech is not much of a leap.51

Paul makes that leap in Rom. 4:17. In his description of the conception of Isaac, Paul refers to God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul here draws an explicit connection between God as creator and Abraham as procreator. Paul’s retelling of the conception of Isaac in Rom. 4:17-22 (quoted earlier) is ethereal and devoid of sexuality. By describing Abraham’s body as being “as good as dead,” Paul removes any image of virility that might connote sexual activity. He paints a picture of the conception as a faithful enactment of the divine promise, which makes it into an entirely mental endeavor on Abraham’s part: “he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God.” The point is not only to communicate that this procreative act is really a form of divine, and not fleshly, action but also to emphasize that lineage does not depend on biology.

In conclusion, Paul’s description of Abraham’s procreative act of faith mirrors his self-understanding as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul creates Abrahamic descendants not through biological reproduction but through his preaching and teaching. He is a verbal progenitor, struggling to “form” Christ in his gentile “children” (Gal. 4:19; 1 Cor. 4:14-15). Just before he begins his discussion of Abraham in Galatians, Paul says, “Does the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by faith that comes by hearing?” (Gal. 3:5).52 The NRSV translates the last phrase as “your believing what you heard,” which again places the emphasis on the believer’s personal faith. But it seems to me much more likely that the “faith that comes from hearing” refers to Paul (or, hypothetically, to any preacher of the gospel) transmitting information about the faith that has been enacted on their behalf, whether by Abraham or by Christ.53 More specifically, the “information” is really the divine promises God made originally to Abraham and by extension his family. As Paul says in Gal. 3:14, “that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Paul’s proclamation of the divine promises transmits the Abrahamic inheritance to those willing to hear it, and those who accept that inheritance are now Abraham’s heirs.54 Once Paul’s Gentiles become part of the lineage of Abraham, they not only receive God’s promises, they help God enact God’s promise to the great patriarch that he would become the “father of many nations.” And helping God to realize God’s promises is apparently what Paul really means by “faith.”

Postulating Abraham as Paul’s missionary model helps explain the seeming contradictions in Paul’s understanding of himself. The figure of Abraham could simultaneously serve as the ultimate symbol of Israel and the point of contact between Israel and the rest of the peoples of the world. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, never stopped being a Jew, but because his mission took him into foreign terrain, he came to understand what it means to be an “other,” so much so that he partly became an “other.”


JSNT = Journal for the Study of the New Testament
NovT = Novum Testamentum
NTS = New Testament Studies

SJT = Scottish Journal of Theology

1Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

2See esp. Jer. 1:4-5; Isa. 49:1-6.

3Although Segal frequently uses the language of Judaism and Christianity. See A. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

4Scholars in the continuity camp include John Gager, Lloyd Gaston, and Mark Nanos; those in the discontinuity camp include E.P. Sanders, Francis Watson, and Stephen Westerholm. New perspective scholars like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright fall somewhere in between, though see the critique of the new perspective by Nanos in The Mystery of Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 4-8.

5Segal, Paul the Convert, 117-33; A.J. Hultgren, “The Self-Definition of Paul and His Communities,”Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 56 (1991): 78-100.

6See most recently, Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

7Commentators frequently assume Paul made use of Abraham in his discussion in Galatians only because Paul’s opponents invoked the great patriarch as part of their argument that the Galatians needed to be circumcised. J.L. Martyn is one of the most articulate defenders of this position; see “A Law-Observant Mission to the Gentiles: The Background of Galatians,” SJT 38 (1985): 307-24, reprinted in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997). Some have made a similar kind of argument for Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans; see the discussion of J.S.Silker, Disinheriting the Jews: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox, 1991), 52-76. I do not wish to dispute such claims in this essay, but my emphasis here is on Paul’s perduring understanding of Abraham, apart from polemics. Much of my case depends upon an image of Abraham that would have been shared by various Jews (as well as god-fearers and proselytes). As J.M.G. Barclay has pointed out, it is quite likely that Paul shared much of the same vision of Abraham as the rival teachers, even if such commonality is obscured by the polemic about circumcision (“Mirror-Reading in a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,”JSNT 31 [1987]: 73-93).

8The characterization of Abraham in early Judaism is rich and varied, as surveys of the subject have shown, extending far beyond what I have covered here. Abraham was known for his hospitality, for having been given apocalyptic insights about the future of human beings, for having been an intermediary between God and others, and, perhaps most famously, for his faithful obedience to God. Because these qualities are either too generic or commonly attributed to other biblical figures, they are not terribly useful for my purposes in this essay.

9James Kugel has collected many examples of postscriptural texts illustrating various facets of Abraham’s call in The Bible as It Was (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1997), 133-48. The translations from the pseudepigraphic texts quoted here are his.

10Ibid., 133-34.

11See Migration of Abraham and On Abraham 71.

12See Philo, Virt. 212-17; Josephus, Ant. 1.7; 2.159-60. Abraham must be at least seventy-five years of age, which is how old he is when he leaves Haran, according to Gen. 12:4.

13See the quotations of Pseudo-Epolemus and Artapanus in Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 9.17.3-4, 9.18.1; as well as Josephus, Ant. 1.167-68.

14Edward Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience: Textual Links between Romans 1 and 4,” JSNT 65 (1997):55.

15Cf. Segal, Paul the Convert, 122: “Paul recommends for everyone conversion to a life of spiritual transformation, not a life defined by ceremonial obligations. In so doing he takes the part of the gentile Christian community in which he lives. Paul’s constant theme of the opposition of faith and law is a social and political justification for a new variety of community. It matches the opposition between Jewish and gentile Christianity.” Of course, I do not think Paul universalizes his religious transformation and therefore expects it of others. Rather, if Paul models his religious transformation on Abraham, as I argue, then such transformation plays a unique role for him in his particular mission. Furthermore, it binds people of different sorts together, instead of separating them from one another.

16E.g., Gal. 2:1-10; Rom. 1:1-6,13; 15:15-21.

17Although many ancient Jewish interpreters explicitly recognize that Paul is the father of many nations, this aspect of Abraham’s identity more often than not lay dormant in Jewish exegesis. See W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 166-77.

18See, e.g., Gal. 4:19; 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Thess. 2:11. Although Paul’s use of kinship terms is most often understood metaphorically, I believe such terms are theologically and socially significant.

19See the excellent discussion of Stanley Stowers in Rereading Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 227-50. Stowers points out that people who are kin are also expected to manifest the same characteristics as their ancestors, which may render the contrast between Abraham-as-example and Abraham-as-ancestor ultimately meaningless.

20Michael Cranford, “Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe,” NTS 41 (1995): 73, italics his.

21Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience,” 59. A similar observation is made by James Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 205.

22Cf. Wis. 13:15 and see the discussion by J.L. Martyn, Galatians, AB (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 399-400.

23In addition to those already listed, see Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986), 136-42.

24That is, no doubt, why some Hellenistic and rabbinic authors were compelled to say that Abraham observed Torah, even though he lived long before Sinai. Since Jewish law is seen by such authors as essential to Jewish identity, they could not imagine that their ancestral patriarch did not observe Torah. See, e.g., Sir. 44:20.

25Translation is mine, based on the NRSV.

26Cf. John 1:13 and especially Rom. 1:3, ek spermatos David, translated in the NRSV as descended from David. See also the discussion in Stowers, Rereading Romans (225-26, 237-43), who finds that “[t]he article with ek is well known in Greek as a way of denoting origins, participation, and membership” (240). He cites Lucian, Vit. Auct. 43 as an example. AlthoughStowers’s discussion focuses on Romans 3-4, not on Galatians 3, and I would probably not agree on all exegetical points in both texts, his work with regard to this issue is foundational to my own.

27Cf. Segal (Paul the Convert, 119), who translates the phrase “those who are under faith, a phrase defining his audience sociologically, describing how they entered Christian community.” I do not see, however, that such connotations are implicit in the preposition ek.

28Cf. Rom. 3:22, 4:11.

29My claim about Abraham resembles debates about whether pistis Christou is a subjective or objective genitive, whether one is justified by Christ’s own faithful act on the cross, or by one’s own faith in Christ. See Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation into the Narrative Substructure of Gal. 3:1-4:11 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1983).

30I have again modified the NRSV.

31Cf. Stowers, Rereading Romans, 230,243.

32Even Ben Sira, who fundamentally thinks of Abraham as the father of the Jewish nation, introduces the patriarch by calling him “The great father of a multitude of nations.”

33In 1 Macc. 12:21 and Josephus, Ant. 12.226, Jews and Spartans are said to be related because both are descended from Abraham.

34Cf. Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 144. My work is very much indebted to Boyarin’s, but my reading of Galatians 3 differs markedly form his.

35Cf. Paul’s use of the term in Rom. 8:14-15.

36This is evident from Paul himself when he says in Gal. 4:7: “So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.” See also Carolyn Osiek, “Galatians,” in Women’s Biblical Commentary, ed. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster / John Knox, 1998), 424.

37Cf. Richard Hays, “Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather according to the Flesh? A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1,” NovT (1985): 79-86.

38See Cranford, “Abraham in Romans 4,” 75.

39As N.T. Wright says, “The presupposition of Paul’s argument is that, if there is one God — the foundation of all Jewish belief — there must be one people of God. Were there to be two or more peoples, the whole theological scheme would lapse back into some sort of paganism, with each tribe or race possessing its own national deities” (The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992], 170).

40As Paul says in Rom. 3:29, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes of Gentiles also….”

41Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 228. To be fair, he qualifies this comment later on the same page by stating, “Thus although Paul repudiates genealogy as the defining feature of the Christian community, he does not totally eliminate it. Jews by birth retain an identifiable status with distinctive practices.”

42See Meyer Fortes, “The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups,” American Anthropologist 55 (1953): 25-34.

43Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), xxiv, 34.

44I follow the opinion of Shaye Cohen that conversion most likely originates in the Maccabeanperiod (The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999], 109-39). Certainly by Paul’s time, we have a great deal of evidence attesting to the existence of proselytes (proselyte essentially functions as the Greek term for a convert to Judaism).

45I realize the claim that proselytes are as much descended of Abraham as native-born Jews is not unproblematic, given the well-known mishnaic text that claims that Jews cannot say “O God of our fathers” when reciting prayers (m. Bik. 1.4). At the same time, the Talmud declares the convert to be “like an Israelite in all respects” (b. Yebam. 47b). As Cohen argues (Beginnings of Jewishness,154-74, 324-40), proselytes form a lower caste within the Jewish community, even as they are theoretically full members of the Jewish community. However, that proselytes were sometimes treated as second-class citizens is not altogether different from Paul’s understanding of Gentiles in Christ. On the one hand, Paul claims there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, and yet he also claims that the Jews are special, possessed of certain privileges. In both cases, one who shares no kinship relations becomes officially integrated into the kin group, even if initially the awareness that the person has other origins cannot be ignored. This problem, however, seems to be overcome within a generation. As Cohen argues, the rabbis seem to regard the progeny of proselytes (assuming marriage to a Jewish woman) no longer as proselytes but as Jews, who in fact now have Jewish fathers.

46See the discussion by L. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 64-154. The quotation of the blessing is taken from Hoffman’s detailed description of the rite of circumcision (70).

47Cf. Roman society, the paterfamilias can reject a biological child if he so chooses. Conversely, he can fully adopt one to whom he has no biological relation and make him heir to his property. In traditional Roman religion, the paterfamilias must ritually recognize his own child in order for that child to be recognized legally and socially as a member of the family.

48Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, 212-13.

49See, e.g., Tertullian, Apology, 3.1.18.

50The fifth-Century Syrian Christian Aphrahat gives evidence that Jews charged Christians with abrogating God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, because they valued sexual abstinence so highly. From their perspective, however, Christians were multiplying their numbers, even if not always through sexual reproduction. See the discussion in D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 7,141.

51See Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, esp. 199-242.

52Another modification of the NRSV which reads, “Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”

53Cf. Rom. 10:14-17.

54The analogy of the will in Gal. 3:15-18 is therefore most appropriate.

From Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation(Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International), 2000, pp. 130-145. Reprinted by permission.

Not Either/Or but Both/And

by Wan Chee Keong

If E.P. Sanders’ characterization of first century rabbinical Judaism as ‘covenantal nomism’, with its emphasis on ‘God’s goodness and generosity, his encouragement of repentance and offer of forgiveness’ is correct, as opposed to the traditional understanding, ‘through Lutheran spectacles’ (cf. James D.G. Dunn, ‘Jesus, Paul, and the Law’, p. 185), as ‘earning righteousness/salvation through good works’, then, according to Paul, what was wrong with Judaism? Did Luther misinterpret Paul?

‘Covenantal nomism’ excluded the Gentile from God’s covenant people; it was never legalistic. Fair enough. Dunn has highlighted the nationalistic/racial/Gentile-excluding nature of the Mosaic Covenant/Law; the gospel did threaten the ‘peculiar identity’ of Israel. The ‘curse’ of the Law in Galatians 3:10 was on those who failed to keep the Law in its entirety because it is impossible to do so; it was also on the Gentile because he cannot keep the Law at all — he does not have the Law! Although Philippians 3:6 and Luke 1:6; 2:25 show that it is possible to be ‘blameless (or righteous) according to the Law’, it is not a righteousness that can justify. It is not God’s righteousness, which alone can justify.

In terms of comprehensive scope, personal appeal, unconditional force and universal application, the Law was unrivalled in the world. Indeed ‘salvation is of the Jews’. Paul the Christian, however, found something amiss with the Mosaic Covenant/Law. Paul saw it as ‘strange/interim grace’, in the light of Jesus Messiah. (I owe the word ‘strange’ to C. F. Evans’ designation of Rom.13.4 as the ‘strange’ work of Christ.) It was inadequate grace. What was wrong with Judaism was, in rejecting Christ, it could only see the Mosaic Covenant/Law through a veil; it couldn’t see its strange and interim andinadequate nature.

In Gal. 4:21-30, Paul’s equation is Mosaic Covenant=Mt. Sinai=Hagar=present Jerusalem=slavery.Israel was called as God’s elect to prepare for the coming of Messiah. The Mosaic covenant wasinterim grace. The Jews are God’s elect only in principle. This is clear from Rom. 2:28, 29; 9:6-8. They had certain advantages (Rom. 3:2; 9:4, 5) but these only, as it were, prequalified them. In the final analysis, ‘both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin’ (Rom.3:9).

The Jews had a zeal for God but ‘not according to knowledge’ (Rom.10:2). It was when Saul the Pharisee turned to the Lord on the road to Damascus that the veil was lifted and he saw the Mosaic Covenant/Law and Israel as the ‘elect’ as it really was (2 Cor. 3:14-16). ‘[T]he glory and greatness of Judaism’s covenant theology’ (Dunn, p. 187) is valid up to a point. To Paul, however, ‘what had glory in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it’ (2 Cor. 3:10).

The Law was God’s gift to Israel. It was an integral component of His covenant with Israel as His ‘elect’. It was not wrong per se that the Jews ‘boasted’ in God, ‘having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and the truth.’ (Rom. 2:20). ‘The Law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12). There is, however, something amiss with the Law. The Law has its ‘ill’ effects. The Law excludes the Gentile; it shuts him out from the Covenant (Gal. 3:10)! It is‘strange’ grace.

J.W. Drane, an evangelical, views Galatians 3:19 as amounting to ‘a categorical denial of the divine origin of the Torah’ (Paul: Libertine or Legalist?’, p. 34), while H. Hübner sees it as meaning the Law ‘is the product of demonic angelic powers’ (pp. 24-36, ‘Law in Paul’s Thought’). These are extreme views. As I see it, Paul regards the Law, not as real/direct grace but virtual/indirect grace. How so?

On the one hand, it enslaves the Jew: it is a yoke (Gal.5:1; Acts 15:10). It condemns him (Rom.3:19; 2 Cor. 3:9); it ‘kills’ him (Rom. 7; 2 Cor. 3:6, 7). The Law brings about wrath (Rom. 4:15).

On the other hand, it separates mankind into two: Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. It shuts out the Gentile from the Abrahamic blessing and designates him a ‘sinner’ (Gal. 2:15; 4:17, 21-31; Eph. 2:11,12). The Law was our pedagogue, says Paul (Gal. 3:19). Whether we understand pedagogue as the confining and restricting regulations which separate Jew from Gentile (N.J. Young, ‘Paidagogos: the social setting of a Pauline metaphor’, pp.150-76), or as functioning in the guarding and protecting of Israel from the defiling idolatry of the Gentiles (T. D. Gordon, ‘A note on Paidagogos in Gal.3:24,25′), the implication is the same: the Law excludes the Gentile and enslaves the Jew.

The Law was not abrogated or nullified but fulfilled and taken up into the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). This explains why the righteousness of those who follow the Law of Christ successfully will exceed the righteousness of the devotees of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees. Although the Law is not ultimate or complete, it is absolute and eternal; it is therefore relevant to Christians as revelation.

‘The Law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good’. In other words it is divine,absolute and eternal. But it has many disadvantages: it is not ultimate or all-encompassing (the Jews had to supplement it with the Talmud); it is not God’s principal or final Word (it ispreliminary/interim), and it excludes the Gentile!

With such a critique of the Mosaic Covenant/Law, occasioned by the nature of the gospel, no wonder Saul the Pharisee persecuted the early church and was subsequently persecuted himself. There is a modicum of truth in the accusation against Paul in Acts 21:28. Acts 21:21 is not true, of course, but Paul’s preaching did imply that. I doubt if he would have protested if Christian Jews stopped circumcising their children or walking according to the customs.

But Jesus the Messiah, He is ‘amazing’ grace! He is God’s eternal, absolute, ultimate, exhaustive, principal and final Word. Judaism kept the Law to maintain and demonstrate its status as God’s ‘elect’, not to ‘earn’ righteousness, but it is still ‘working’, still a matter of ‘works’. This is not God’s way. It is of the ‘flesh’. The gospel is a matter of repentance and grateful acceptance of God’s truegrace, a gift to be received. Scripture, God’s Word, says this: Galatians 3:11,12. Saul the Pharisee, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and Simeon may have been ‘blameless according to the Law’ but they were not justified. Only truly perfect righteousness can justify; and that means the ‘righteousness of God’, which is perfect (Rom.1:17; 3:21-26). As long as it is ‘works’, even if it is to ‘maintain’ one’s status as the ‘elect’, it implies merit. But God’s righteousness is a gift. It is ‘reckoned’ (logizesthai): shall we say ‘bestowed’? Romans 4:4 is decisive.

The way of ‘works’, whatever the motive, is putting the cart before the horse. It won’t work. God’s way is a matter of ‘being’; of letting the Spirit of Christ have His way in and through us. This works.

Luther was right after all: justification by grace through faith is an important part of the gospel. Rabbinical Judaism is one of ‘strange’ grace and ‘works’. It is ‘off’ because the Mosaic Covenant/Law itself is ‘off’, in the light of Jesus Messiah’s coming.

Raisanen is right in saying there are tensions (but not inconsistencies, as he maintains) in Paul’s understanding (Dunn, p. 215). Jew and Gentile, male and female: there is no difference in Christ (Gal.3:28). So are they all equal? Paul’s answer seems to be yes and no. The Jews possess some unique advantages: their ‘prequalifications’ (Rom.3:2; 9:4,5).

Paul condemned the ‘saboteurs’, the false brethren, who tried to get his Gentile converts into bondage under the Law — not rabbinical Judaism, not the unbelieving Jews. For the latter, Paul had ‘great sorrow and unceasing grief.

New Perspectives on Evangelism: Insights from Biblical Theology

by Aram DiGennaro

In many current milieux (I would describe mine as 21st century North American post/modern, post/industrial, and post/imperial), views of evangelism must overcome at least three obstacles in order for the church’s witness to the gospel to flourish. One is the equation of evangelism with salesmanship—a construal that grates on many, both Christians who desire to witness to their faith, and on others who hear. The second is the tendency to bifurcate word and action as differently valued modes of proclaiming or enacting the gospel. The third obstacle is the baggage evangelism carries—its history of coercive or manipulative attitudes and methods.

This paper argues that the current practice and theory of evangelism could be well served by adopting insights from some recent biblical scholarship, especially from the “new perspective on Paul.” These insights help us through the obstacles evangelism faces and bring coherence to discussions and practices of ordinary Christians as well as theologies of evangelism. They will spring from re-imagining the link between evangelism and evangelion—its etymological and theological basis, extending our theological understanding of “gospel” through its New Testament-era secular usage, and reconstructing as far as possible its significance in Israel’s faith history and its definition in Pauline theology.

Sunday School Chaos

I recently asked a Sunday School class of Christian young adults to reflect on their experiences or impressions of evangelism. One person said she had no experience with active, verbal promotion of the faith, because her church emphasized service and social justice—witness through one’s way of life rather than through words. Another reported glowingly how he had turned to Christ after seeing a dramatic evangelistic presentation. In “Heaven’s Gates/Hell’s Flames,” a series of acts depicts people given an opportunity to accept Christ. The people all then die in various ways, and are either welcomed into heaven or sent to hell with the devil. An awkward silence followed these descriptions, as we all pondered how to respond to the diversity of experiences and viewpoints.

This Sunday School scene could be replicated in thousands of places around the country or the world. Evangelism, even more than many other aspects of Christian teaching and theology, is the locus of extreme diversity and even conflict in Christian experience and teaching. For contemporary Christians and others, evangelism is a loaded word, an emotional topic. Some Christians are passionate about proclaiming their faith to others by a variety of means, others are ambiguous about the process or at least the means, and still others are overtly hostile to evangelism as they understand it.

Turning to Biblical Theology

A definition of evangelion is elucidated by the surge of emphasis in the past 40 years on the socio-historical context of canon. While etymology is never a substitute for exegesis, in this case it can help us bypass quite a hill of historical theology. We know that “evangelism” comes from a transliteration of the Greek root evangelizesthai, “to proclaim good news.” In first-century Greek usage, “evangelizing” was heralding tidings of imperial change or information: an emperor has come to power, has had a son, has appropriated new territory.1 An evangelion is a political message, a message about who is king and what that means for the inhabitants of the region.

That the term evangelion was adopted for a Christian message about Jesus indicates a similar trajectory of meaning. But first we must return to relevant Old Testament vocabulary. Walter Brueggemann explores Old Testament paradigms of evangelism and argues that evangelism is the proclamation of the victory of Yahweh.2 One example is the return of Israel from exile.3 In Isaiah 52:7 we hear the Old Testament gospel: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The good news is that God has triumphed—salvation is accomplished, the empire is defeated, exiled people will return. The gospel is the news of God’s victory.

It is not at all surprising, then, that the LXX, and Paul in Romans 10:15, both call this proclamationevangelion. Themes from Israel’s faith history and themes from secular usage are brought together in Paul’s theology. The “new perspective on Paul,” with its emphasis on the Jewish nature of Paulinetheology and relativization of the supposed law/grace antithesis, helpfully elucidates this trajectory.4 Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, bringing about final return from exile, the beginning of the end of times, of the resurrection of the dead, of the ingathering of the Gentiles, and of the Reign of God over all the earth. This message about Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s narrative and God’s promise, is “the gospel,” and its proclamation, evangelism.5

As an example, 2 Timothy 2:8 is an amazingly compact shorthand of “the gospel” in the early church,6 where the Hebrew faith tradition practiced Greek idiom: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David: this is my gospel.” Jesus stands as the Christ, in David’s royal line. These promises were lost through Israel’s disobedience, which resulted in exile. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was a signal of the beginning of the final times, when God would reign supreme and vindicate his people. Jesus’ kingship is God’s kingship, the realization of promises of a true servant of Yahweh on David’s throne. A whole faith history is telescoped into Jesus’ character and actions. The recounting of the story of Jesus in this light constitutes the Gospel. As Wright says, “’the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus.”7

In contrast, the common conception of the gospel, as a message about how to be saved or have eternal life, flies wide of the trajectory we have been tracing, focusing instead on assuaging the guilt of “the introspective conscience of the west.”8 As N.T. Wright puts it: “’The gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved . . . . I am perfectly comfortable with what most people mean when they say ‘gospel,’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means.”9 According to Wright, the gospel is a message about who is king: Jesus. Kingship, in reference to the Christ, the anointed one of God, cannot be construed as a private, individual affair. Nor is it a baldly regional political event. Rather, in Christian perspective, the gospel carries the full force of Israel’s faith history, and the New Testament understanding of Jesus’ fulfillment of that history.

From Evangelion back to Evangelism

If this is the gospel, then evangelism must lead to the acknowledgement and actualization of God’s reign. True evangelism, then, will result in holistic transformation of those who preach and those who hear. In a similar vein as Pauline scholars such as Wright, Walter Brueggeman argues that evangelism is best understood as a message about a cosmic victory by God. He presents several examples from both Old and New Testaments where this message of victory is presented in a way that captures and transforms the imagination. Through this message, outsiders to the faith become insiders, the imagination and theological memory of forgetful insiders is renewed, and children are nurtured into believing adults.10 The gospel is glimpsed, expressed, and appropriated in ways that are always changing and ever new. When heard, the gospel requires personal appropriation which cannot avoid transforming the consciousnesses, the lives, and the societies of those who hear.

Evangelism is no safe church activity that will sustain a conventional church, nor a routine enterprise that will support a status quo . . . . The news that God has triumphed means that a transformed life, i.e., one changed by the hearing of the news, works to bring more and more of life, personal and public under the rule of this world-transforming, slave-liberating, covenant-making, promise-keeping, justice-commanding God.11

If the gospel concerns changed governance; that changed governance concerns all of life. The victory of God over death is not a victory in some selected zones, but over all of creation and against every threat of chaos.12

If, as I have argued, evangelism is about the gospel, and the gospel is the narrative of God’s victory and Jesus’ Kingship, then what does evangelism look like? I asked this question to my Sunday School class, and was amazed by the range of insight that was opened up, for my Heaven’s Gates/Hell’s flames buddy as well as the service-oriented church people.

One class member suggested that, as a narrative description of reality, evangelism does not imply salesmanship. Evangelism is not per se an attempt to persuade (though this is often included), but the proclamation of a reality—the story of how Jesus has come to be Lord of all. Story-telling is much less stressful then marketing—both for Christian preacher and non-Christian hearer—and allows for a bolder but less defensive approach.

Another student noted that if the gospel is a message about Jesus being Lord, then Christians need to be paying attention to every area of the church’s life as a part of our witness to the gospel. First, because the meaning of Jesus’ lordship is not self-evident, it needs to be explained and lived out in the lives of communities and individuals. Christians must learn to live in a way that explains and confirms the gospel, the reality of Jesus’ lordship. Second, credibility is crucial if the message is to be received. The whole life of Christians and of the church matters to credibility—witness the effect of the widespread charge of hypocrisy leveled against Christians.13

Evangelism conceived as the proclamation of King Jesus also circumvents many unproductive and ultimately illusory divisions between word and deed, “evangelism” and “discipleship,” proclamation and social action, preaching and serving, etc. The whole life of the church, that institution continually confronted and transformed by the gospel, both constitutes, enables, and requires evangelism, the proclamation of the gospel.

This holistic view of evangelism is affirmed by Joe Jones, who defines evangelism as “all those ways in which the church conveys to the world the good new of Jesus Christ and invites the world to respond to this news with renewal of life and new hope. Evangelism is practiced when the church intends its witness to the reality of God in Christ to be received in faith and the adoption of a new way of life.”14 Evangelism can be conceived as a set of practices. These include, but are not limited to, verbal acts of communication, all having as their intention an invitational witness. The proclamation of the gospel should be an intention behind many, many practices of the church which seek to enact, demonstrate and convey to others the lordship of Christ and the Reign of God.

In less than an hour of teaching and discussion, these Sunday School students were able to logically overcome two of the greatest problems facing evangelism—its connotation as a selling event, and the bifurcation between word and action. The solution to the third follows close behind. For many people, the idea of a reign or of lordship (especially in conversations about evangelism) is both abhorrent and deeply connected to coercion. The long history of the unity of Christian faith with political power has trained many to cringe at the mention of evangelism.

The paradox of the gospel is that it is for all the world,15 yet it must be freely appropriated or be no gospel at all. It is the message of a preacher who eschewed political positioning as a means of furthering his message. The lordship of Christ—and the proclamation of this lordship—is only understood in connection with Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet and told them that his authority was antithetical to that practiced by the rulers of “the nations.” The allying of Christianity with violent or coercive power is both inimical to the gospel and damaging to its credibility. Jones states aptly that “’Coerced faith’ or ‘coerced church membership’ are grammatical oxymorons.”16 John Howard Yoder argues for the essential vulnerability of the gospel as a genre of communication. In a biblical view of evangelion, evangelism is not an advertisement for a product to be sold, nor a license for forceful proselytization, but the proclamation of the victory of the vulnerable, suffering Servant of God. Evangelism is the message of the Reign of the Servant.17

The sense of evangelism as coercion can ultimately be combated by the fruitful lives of Christians who make peace and who live lives of bold but vulnerable witness. On the other hand, in a liberal society,18 where proselytization is discouraged for any point of view except tolerance, part of the unacceptability of evangelism is unavoidable. We should not be surprised, the cross is a scandal from the beginning, and the kingdom of God is not primarily a lesson in citizenship for the kingdoms of the world. While some of the multitudes will listen to Jesus gladly, his message is at bottom opposed to the rulers of this world, based on a different kind of wisdom, which “none of the rulers of this age had understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2). The scandal of particularity remains, the scandal of vulnerability must be recovered from evangelism’s oxymoronic history of coerciveness.

I recognize that none of the foregoing arguments will put an end to conversations about what kind of culture we live in, what kind of evangelistic practices are most important within that culture, and so on. It is not the purpose of this article to pursue that stream more specifically for a particular context, for any of the various contexts in which I find myself. Others have done this work well.19 But I argue that the insights above can help us to re-envision evangelism in a helpful way, recovering better meanings for the words and practices we are engaged in, clarifying and energizing their witness to the evangelion. Perhaps appropriately, my argument about how to understand evangelism is most aptly expressed in a song.20

Shout! The Lord is risen
His work on earth is done
Shout! We are forgiven!
This is the day of his power

Shout! He has ascended
He reigns at God’s right hand
Shout! ‘Til death is ended
This is the day of his power

Shout! With fire from heaven
He sent the Spirit down
Shout! And gifts were given
This is the day of his power

Shout! Proclaim the Kingdom!
Announce the Jubilee
Shout! The year of freedom!
This is the day of his power

Shout! A new generation
Rises across the land
Shout! A new demonstration
This is the day of his power

Go! Tell every nation
Our hearts are willing now
Go! He is our passion
This is the day of his power

Come! O come Lord Jesus
We cry O Lord how long?
Come! And end injustice
This is the day of his power

This, the biblical message of God’s victory, is the gospel; evangelism is singing this song with our voices, our storytelling to strangers, our vocational choices, our marital commitments, our economic practices, and even our suffering. From this perspective, I have hope that members of my Sunday School class can indeed learn to wholeheartedly embrace evangelism, to proclaim the gospel in powerful ways. One will study theology, and through his reflection and teaching lead the church to heed the call of Christ. Another will give years of her life to social justice in the name of Christ, blessing the single mother (our contemporary orphan and widow) with peace, nurture, physical resources, and the message of Christ. My Hell’s Flames buddy will play soccer with children, give them Bibles, and tell them about Jesus as best he can.

If they all do this faithfully, enacting and proclaiming the gospel, then their neighbors will believe us when told that God has broken into history. They have perhaps not thought that these lifeways are evangelism, nor about how they might strengthen those lifeways as deliberate proclamation of King Jesus. My lesson to them, and my argument in this article, intends that they and others will begin to think and act in this way. In my Sunday School class, and throughout the world, the reign of God has been inaugurated in Christ. We stand in and tell of this reality. This is evangelism.


1.       N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 43.

2.       Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).

3.       The place of the return from exile in the narrative of Jesus is further developed by Wright, 42.

4.       While “the new perspective on Paul” is a broad category representing many points of view, the perspective of major writers such as E.P. Sanders or James D.G. Dunn would fit with my argument in this paper. N.T. Wright specifically discusses the Pauline concept of “the gospel” in a way that is helpful for the current project.

5.       Wright, Chapter 4, “Herald of the King,” 39-62.

6.       This narrative is also encapsulated in Romans 1:1-5, which Wright explores on 45f.

7.       Wright, 45.

8.       Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 78-96. First published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215. This extremely influential article took on the classic reformation view of Paul and paved the way for new views (or recovery of older views) on the law and Paul’s gospel. For some reason, there has not been a concomitant movement within theologies of evangelism.

9.       Wright, 41.

10.   Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives.

11.   Brueggemann, 129.

12.   Brueggemann, 44.

13.   A survey reports that fully one-third of teenagers in the United States feel that “most adult Christians are hypocrites. Whatever this research may not tell us, it does say that Christians have a long way to go in building credibility that will enable their distinct narrative to be heard. The Barna Group, “Teenagers’ Beliefs Moving Farther From Biblical Perspective,” Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.

14.   Joe Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith, New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Volume II, 628.

15.   Leslie Newbigin speaks of holding particular beliefs “with universal intent.” They are not available to all; that is why revelation is necessary. But the test of our faith is that we seek to share it with all people everywhere. See especially Chapter 8, “The Bible as Universal History, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

16.   Jones, 630.

17.   John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy, July 1992.

18.   I use the word “liberal” here only to denote democratic liberalism as a socio-philosophical system that exalts the freedom of the individual.

19.   Leslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society takes up the philosophical issues related to evangelism in pluralistic context. In Live to Tell, Brad Kallenberg discusses a postmodern environment and paths to a faithful, gracious, appropriate witness in that environment (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002). David Bosch gives a concise and insightful treatment of inter-religious evangelism, “Mission as Witness to People of Other Living Faiths,” Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 474-489.

20.   Graham Kendrick, “Shout,” Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.

The Author

Aram L. DiGennaro. M.Div., Eastern Mennonite Seminary (Harrisonburg, VA, U.S.), previously missionary with Rosedale Mennonite Missions (Irwin, OH, U.S.); part-time adjunct faculty, Rosedale Bible College (Irwin, OH, U.S.).

Address: 85 N. Ohio Ave., Columbus, VA 22802,


The Barna Group, “Teenagers’ Beliefs Moving Farther From Biblical Perspective,” Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.

Bosch, David. “Mission as Witness to People of Other Living Faiths,” in Transforming Mission.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 474-489.

Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Jones, Joe R. A Grammar of Christian Faith. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Vol. II.

Kallenberg, Brad. Live to Tell. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002.

Kendrick, Graham. “Shout,”

. Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.

Newbigin, Leslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002.

Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 78-96.

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Yoder, John Howard. “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy, July 1992.

An Interview with Filmmaker Robert Orlando

by Mark M. Mattison

Robert Orlando ( is a writer, director, and editor who also happens to have studied with Alan F. Segal, author of Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. Orlando is creating a new documentary named Paul: The Greatest Story Never Told. According to Segal, “Robert Orlando promises a breakthrough film on Paul. He combines real expertise and creativity in film-making with a sophisticated knowledge of the New Testament and the Pauline literature within it. No one has previously been able to combine these talents before. His film will be the first to capture an audience and still remain accurate and informative.”

I interviewed Orlando for The Paul Page in March 2005.

PP: What is it that motivates a film noir director with a penchant for Jungian psychology to explore the story of Paul?

RO: Film noir is a genre for people who are intrigued by the dark or the unknown. In that sense it is a religious impulse that attracts the audience. To some degree one of the noir antecedents is Edgar Allen Poe, and no one is going to say that he was not religious — religious from the dark side. The same for Jung, who, unlike Freud, believed that spiritual impulses were part of mankind, not a neurosis.

image002Picture by Glen DiCrocco

I do believe at times that religion can be the result of bad faith, or an unhealthy way to deal with the real world. But from my experience, engaging the religious spectrum, belief works for some people in a positive way! God bless them.

So, why Paul? In no uncertain terms, Paul is simply the most dramatic and influential figure in Western history. The amazing thing is that people don’t know this. Well, people didn’t know this until now. After this film, they’ll never be the same.

PP: The trend of examining Paul in the context of Roman imperial culture is a recent one. Is this just one more academic fad, or is new ground really being broken? Do you think we’re really in a position, now, to become better acquainted with the Paul who traveled those ancient Roman roads?

RO: The simple answer is that understanding Rome is understanding Paul. Paul did not make total sense to me until I began to study and imagine him in light of a Roman context. Think of the language he is using, like Gospel or Good News (evangelion), which is the proclamation issued by Caesar during his return from battle. The same for Savior and Son of Man. Ideas about the Lord’s Table and eating flesh and blood. His metaphors which echo with soldiers training or epistles that use common styles of Roman rhetoric.

After the older notion of Jesus as a Jewish Messiah had died out, Paul refashioned the Messiah as a spiritual replacement for the earthly Caesar. He was saying: You see the power of your King? Well you should not fear him, because there is a king who lives above this world who will conqueryour king when he returns through the clouds!

PP: Up until the 1970s, the Protestant Christian interpretation of Paul seems to have been typically uniform. Since then a wide range of scholars, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic, have been vigorously redrawing the contours of the debates about Paul. What are these debates accomplishing?

RO: As professional storytellers we are always reshaping the world in dramatic terms, just like a theologian might in systematic (logical) terms. Therefore the more info, the better. The more background on the setting, characters, and actions, the clearer the story. This new wave of scholars has made the first century come alive. They have broken through the “robe dramas” where ethereal men with halos drift across the desert sand proclaiming absolute truth. This was never real to me. Even as a kid, I remember this not feeling true. Something a little too holy was going on. Where is the blood? The mystery? The ambiguity? Doesn’t anyone have a doubt about anything?

Now with Paul: The Greatest Story Never Told, the genie is out of the bottle. Jesus is not who we’ve been told he is. His disciples did not have a consensus. There was never a true Christianity and the rest heresies. This is all simplistic thinking, which might comfort us short term, but long term it is destined to pass away. Jesus was profoundly pro-law and pro-Jewish. So were most if not all of his followers with the exception of Paul, which is why he was in so much trouble. Also it is why Paul’s Hellenized version of Christianity survived.


PP: Your take on this brings to mind a provocative scene in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” where Paul actually argues with the historical Jesus about the Christ of faith. Is that an accurate comparison?

RO: Scorsese and Paul Schrader (the screenwriter) were trying to show how Paul was transforming the Messianic Jewish figure, who was crucified, into a cosmic spiritual divine savior. I do believe this is what happened. But making the Paul character sound like a used car salesman was so anachronistic. I don’t think Paul was consciously deceiving people. That’s a 20th-century mind reading back into history. However, I do think Paul was very capable of self-deception. That’s what makes him so interesting. He was a man of extremes — love and venom in a manic exchange. That’s great drama!

PP: Come on now, that’s a pretty controversial assessment. You’re not trying to tell us that you don’t have an axe to grind, are you?

RO: No axe. Maybe a chisel. Maybe a desire to chip away at the modern tendencies (in all religions) to slip toward fundamentalism. My closest friends and film industry people who know me as “The Paul Director” saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year and said, “You mustmake your Paul film.” So I did. Partially because they witnessed the power of religious subject matter on the big screen. Also, they thought, if a film like The Passion, which was done in a heavy-handed way could reach so many, or the conspiracies of The Da Vinci Code could capture a modern audience, how much more impact would a story have about the most powerful figure in western history!

PP: How would you compare your documentary with “The Passion of the Christ”?

RO: I wish I was in Mel’s position now. I grappled for many years with what the truth would be when it was my turn to tell the Christian story.

After seeing how well Gibson did portraying the traditional gospel view of Christianity (and the Jews), it was not an easy choice to go in a different direction. As a matter of fact, considering how much easier following his footsteps would have been, I know I’ve chosen a more difficult road.

In my opinion, religion — and especially conservative Evangelical brands — are belief systems that are verified solely by an emotional experience: Something that happens to a person in a very deep place that cannot be challenged. We see this also with Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism. So the most difficult thing in the world is to challenge someone whose existential meaning is attached to a certain belief. To ask them to step back and be historically objective or even critical seems impossible. But I believe that the critical mind plays this role for us. It was a Greco-Roman idea that reason could temper the passions toward the extremes of self-delusion.

There were many versions of Christianity that existed in the first century. We know of only a few, because once Constantine determined the orthodox position, the rest were burned or buried. So when we read the New Testament, we are reading the edited views of “the powers that be.” Gibson leaned heavily on the gospels, which we assume tell us the true story of Jesus. But the gospels (scholars will argue over dating) with Acts come long after Paul’s writings and very long after the crucifixion of Christ. The early church went from being predominantly Jewish to predominantly Greek. There is one very clear reason: the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus’ brand of Messianic Judaism, which was continued by his brother James, was the first center of Christianity. Paul had ideas of his own which they did not like. Though they came to some tenuous agreement, Paul’s entire mission was antagonized by James and his “spies.”

But when Rome sacked Jerusalem and crushed the Temple, the Jews no longer had a home. They were condemned to be a diaspora community from then on. When Luke gets around to his version of Christianity (90-120 A.D.?), he is writing beneath the Roman shadow, showing that the Messianic Jesus was no longer a threat. It was not the Romans, but the Jews who killed Jesus. He was trying to defend all that had happened and shape it into a new story. This agenda writing is going on constantly in the New Testament. Conservative Christians will say it was the Holy Spirit leading these writers. I don’t buy that. And it’s not my job to speculate about God’s intentions; I’m only dealing with the human vessels. To speak as if our opinions are one with God is too hard-core for me.

The Passion took the hard line on the Jews which has been the accepted point of view for 2,000 years. However, the world was never as black and white as this. Not all Jews killed Jesus. And not all Pharisees — as the Bible testifies — were killers or deceivers. It was a mixed batch from the Jewish and Greek side. Just like today, you had the hard-core right and left and moderates in the center. I’m not saying the Jews did not have a hand in killing Jesus or his brother James, but it was the way Gibson portrayed these events that people reacted to. It was just too “in your face,” like an action film where the plot (action) embodies the soul of the story. Characters are two-dimensional and the theme is very black and white, without nuance.

However, to his credit, Mel did not make a gospel story, he made a Passion play and that is what Passion plays do. They make you participate in the suffering of Christ, so you can purge your own sins — very Catholic stuff. I think as a filmmaker, his purpose was to say: Here it is, blood and guts and all, you deal with it! The problem is, he did it in such an historically simplistic way that it felt like borderline propaganda.

Do you have questions for Robert Orlando? Write to him at


A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? A Response to Carl Trueman

by James D.G. Dunn

The following response to Carl Trueman is part of a larger project, currently underway, to respond to critics of the new perspective on Paul. Having finished his recent work on Jesus, Dunn is turning his attention again to the new perspective which he first helped to articulate over twenty years ago.

I must confess to complete astonishment at the tone and content of Carl Trueman’s lecture, ‘A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian’ (Tyndale Fellowship, Cambridge, 2000). He bases his attack on my own essay, ‘The Justice of God: A Renewed Perspective on Justification by Faith’, Journal of Theological Studies 43 (1992) 1-22, though at no point does he attempt to summarise the article, and at no point does he quote from it. Since one of his major criticisms of that article is that I do not quote from Martin Luther directly, it is surprising that Dr Trueman should leave himself so exposed to such an obvious tu quoque.

I freely admit that I am no expert on Luther and that my direct familiarity with his writings is limited
— his commentaries on Romans and Galatians, John Dillenberger’s Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings (Anchor Books; New York: Doubleday, 1961), and a little volume on his Table Talkedited by Henry Morley. Otherwise my knowledge consists of quotations and references in biographies, histories and theological studies referring to Luther in greater or less detail. In ‘The Justice of God’ essay I draw only on Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951), which greatly influenced me in my student days, and M. Saperstein, Moments of Crisis in Jewish-Christian Relations (London: SCM, 1989), who quotes directly from Luther’s Works. So had I been intent on critiquing Luther directly I would certainly be open to criticism. In fact, however, I criticise Luther directly at only one point — in regard to his notorious tract On the Jews and their Lies. And Dr Trueman’s critique of my essay does not extend to that section of my essay. Presumably he too did not wish to defend the great reformer at that point.

This is where my puzzlement at Dr Trueman’s attack begins. He accuses me, as a proponent of ‘the so-called New Perspective on Paul’, of fundamentally repudiating the Protestant and entire Western tradition on justification, of in effect calling for ‘a fundamental redefinition of what Protestantism is’, of rejecting Lutheran teaching on justification, and of claiming ‘that the whole of Christian tradition is basically wrongheaded over salvation, [and] that the Reformers were more guilty than most in the perversion of the gospel’. I simply have to say that I recognize none of this. I am totally astonished by such statements and wonder whether Dr Trueman has been reading what I wrote. It is all the more puzzling since I took pains to emphasise at the beginning of the ‘Justice of God’ essay1 that the central affirmation of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is and remains absolutely fundamental for Christian faith — a point reasserted once again in the conclusion.2 That Dr Trueman could so blithely ignore these explicit affirmations is a painful example of blinkered reading.

As these same sections, and indeed the whole essay clearly attests, my concern was (and still is) that the doctrine of justification as rediscovered by Luther and as traditionally expounded within Protestantism has neglected important aspects particularly of Paul’s original formulation in the context of his mission. It is true that in this connection I speak of ‘a significant misunderstanding of Paul’ in relation to justification by faith (referring to these neglected aspects). But I immediately repeat that the charge is not directed against what has always been recognized as ‘the Protestant doctrine of justification’ (p. 2). On the contrary, it is directed particularly against the corollary that Paul affirmed his doctrine against a degenerate Jewish legalism (pp. 5-8). It observes that Paul’s teaching on justification is an expression of his mission to the Gentiles, that it embodies a protest against national or ethnic presumption and disdain for the (other) nations (pp. 8-12); the gospel is ‘for all who believe, Jew first but also Gentile’ (Rom. 1.16). It argues that an integral aspect of ‘works of the law’ was the concern to maintain Israel’s distinctiveness and separateness from the (other) nations (pp. 13-15), and that this aspect has been but should not be ignored in our attempts to explicate Paul’s key formulation, ‘a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Rom. 3.28).

Can I say this again in case anyone is in doubt on the point. I affirm as a central point of Christian faith that God’s acceptance of any and every person is by his grace alone and through faith alone; I would have hoped that my chapter on ‘Justification by Faith’ (particularly #14.7) in my Theology of Paul the Apostle would have made that clear enough. I have no problem in affirming that the doctrine of justification is articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae; I am astonished by and repudiate entirely the charge that ‘the new perspective on Paul’ as formulated by me constitutes an attack on and denial of that Protestant fundamental. Anyone who reads that from my writing is reading in what he wants to see, not reading out what is there. The point I am trying to make is simply that there is/are (an)other dimension(s) of the biblical doctrine of God’s justice and of Paul’s teaching on justification which have been overlooked and neglected, and that it is important to recover these aspects and to think them through afresh in the changing circumstances of today’s world. In a word, I seek not to diminish let alone repudiate the doctrine of justification (me genoito), but to bring more fully to light its still greater riches.

As to the charge that I ‘turned my guns against the great German Reformers’, I have to protest once again that Dr Trueman’s self-styled ‘casual observations’ have been much too casual. A more careful reading of my essay would reveal that my critique is directed chiefly against the way in which Luther’s conversion has been interpreted as shedding light on Paul’s. It is that tradition which I comment on, not Luther’s own words on the matter. Dr Trueman criticizes me for attributing to Luther himself the view that the ‘I’ passage in Romans 7 refers to Paul’s pre-Christian state. I never say that. And if Dr Trueman had checked my earlier essay on ‘Rom. 7.14-25 in the Theology of Paul’, Theologische Zeitschrift 31 (1975) 257-73, delivered at Tyndale House 26 years before his own, he would have seen that I am very much aware that I follow in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin in interpreting Rom. 7.14-25 as a description of Paul’s continuing experience as a believer.3In the ‘Justice of God’ essay I take up the criticism of Werner Kümmel, directed against what became the standard Protestant interpretation of Romans 7 as a piece of pre-Christian autobiography, and particularly Krister Stendahl’s criticism of the way he perceived Luther’s conversion to have been interpreted within his own Lutheran tradition. The exegetical criticism which I offer is directed not at Luther himself, but against those who regarded Luther’s conversion as paradigmatic and as a key to understanding Paul’s conversion. To repeat: even a not very careful reading of my ‘Justice of God’ essay should have made that plain. Dr Trueman apparently wants to set me up as a straw man, as one to whom he can impute the most egregious motivation (Dunn’s ‘determination to vitiate the whole Protestant tradition’), and whose position can the more easily be blown to pieces by Dr Trueman’s mortars. The imputation is offensive to the one attacked and the mode of attack unworthy of the attacker. Those who live in glass houses should hesitate before they throw charges of ‘eisegetical projectionism’ at others.

Dr Trueman’s second major criticism is that in my ‘Justice of God’ essay I charged Luther with ‘thinking of justification in distinctly individualistic terms’. Once again the spectacles of prejudice or prejudgment seem to have clouded the fact that I clearly refer to the way Luther’s conversion was understood — I do not say by Luther himself. My main target, in fact, is Bultmann’s highly influential existentialist reading of Paul. Dr Trueman makes much of the lack of precision in my use of the term ‘individualism’, and that may be fair comment. But once again the context in which I use the term should have made it clear that it is there simply as a contrast to the corporate or national or ethnic character of a doctrine which was expounded by Paul in order to insist that the saving righteousness of (Israel’s) God was for Gentile as well as Jew. Here again is a feature of Dr Trueman’s lecture which astonishes me: that he has so completely ignored what was quite clearly one of the major thrusts of my ‘Justice of God’ essay, and what has been the main factor to motivate the new perspective on Paul. I refer again to the disparagement of Second Temple Judaism as cold and arid legalism which has been such a painful feature of Christian scholarship up until the latter decades of the 20th century. In contrast, it is the recognition that there was much more of divine grace behind and in the Judaism of Paul’s time which motivated the new perspective’s call for a fresh assessment of how Paul responded to his fellow Jewish believers’ de facto insistence that works of the law were also essential for justification.

That call to take with renewed seriousness the full ramifications of Paul’s slogan, ‘to Jew first but also Gentile’, should never have been heard as antithetical to or as a repudiation of the classic Christian doctrine of justification. Why it has been so heard is for Dr Trueman and others who have so charged it to explain, an explanation which I would welcome. If this invitation is met by a setting of the spectacles of polemical pre-judgment the more firmly on the nose, that will only serve the cause of prejudice and untruth. But if it encourages a truly honest and open exchange, a clearing away of the thickets of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and a mutual growing in appreciation of the riches of the biblical teaching on the theme, then the cause of truth and of the gospel can only benefit.

February 2004


1‘The insight into divine human relationships thus crystallized by Luther’s conversion experience is fundamental and far-reaching: that God’s grace is always prior, the only ground on which we can stand before him; that for any human creatures to think to make a claim upon God by virtue of what they possess or control is a presumption of absolute folly; that religion can all too quickly be perverted into a system which sustains a self-deluding pride in piety. “Justification by faith” thus understood and propounded has been a sharp-edged sword cutting through all self-deception and misapplied principle, a powerful shibboleth to distinguish right-thinking theology and the spirituality which God acknowledges from every counterfeit’ (‘Justice of God’ 1-2).

2‘… we are now in a position … to restate a more rounded and richer and more biblical doctrine of justification. In doing so there is no call to set aside the often penetrating insights of Reformation and Protestant restatements of the doctrine. But we do need to complement them with a firm reassertion of the corporate and social implications of the full doctrine … ‘ (21).

3‘Continuing to commend some support, but very definitely a minority view in modern exegesis, is the classic interpretation of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, of Luther and Calvin, that in Rom. 7 Paul describes his continuing experience as a believer. … This third, the minority interpretation, commends itself most strongly to me.’ (‘Rom. 7.14-25 in the Theology of Paul’ 258). Dr Trueman’s condescending observation that my Theology of Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) includes ‘a footnote which implicitly conceded that his earlier statements concerning Luther on Romans 7 were incorrect’ ignores the fact that my (Lutheran) interpretation of Romans 7 has been substantially the same since 1974 (the ‘Rom. 7.14-15’ lecture), through my (perhaps better known) Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM, 1975) 444 n.57 (in which, incidentally, I quote from Luther on 7.25 [314]), my commentary on Romans (Dallas: Word, 1988 — though not citing Luther directly) and my Theology of Paul 476 n.68.

A Covenantal View of Atonement

by Caleb F. Heppner

Embedded in the text of Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and other New Testament writings is an amazing concept of divine justice that has not found its way into the mainstream Christian theology of atonement. Yet it does more to explain the question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” than any of the traditional atonement theories. Theologians offer several theories or models to explain the importance of Jesus’ death. The most prominent are the theories that his death satisfied man’s debt to God or that it provided a moral inspiration for the believer. But the key to understanding the atonement language in the Bible can be found not in divine “satisfaction” and “moral influence” theories but in the ancient Hebrew concept of covenant familiar to all Jewish believers at the time of Christ. In this view Jesus’ primary role was not as a substitute or example, but as mediator of a new covenant. If there is a unique theology of atonement that supports an Anabaptist perspective of peace and justice, then this is it.

A Quick Guide to the Theories of Atonement

Before launching into an explanation of the covenant’s relationship to atonement, here is a brief summary of the options theologians have so far provided for why Jesus died. Theodore Jennings Jr. of the Chicago Theological Seminary told Time magazine recently that the New Testament “writers are all persuaded that something really drastic, fundamental, and dramatic has happened, and they’re pulling together all kinds of ways to understand that.”1

The book of Hebrews, for example, uses the Jewish sacrificial metaphor depicting Jesus as both priest and sacrifice, spilling, “not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”2 The Gospel of Mark favors Roman legal language for the freeing of slaves: “the Son of Man came…to give his life as a ransom for many.”3 The First Epistle of Peter sees Jesus’ suffering as something to be imitated, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”4 And Paul’s letter to the Colossians employs a triumphal image of the risen Christ parading demonic enemies in chains: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them triumphing over them in him.”5

The Classical Theory

Theologians have attempted for centuries to weave these concepts into a comprehensive explanation of the atonement. The verses from Colossians were used to define the earliest theory of atonement. This “classic” doctrine, taught for the first 1000 years of Christian history described Christ’s work as a victory over Satan and a liberation of all human kind. Specifically, so the theory goes, Christ was paid as a ransom to the devil to free people’s souls. This was a clever ruse on God’s part, however, for unknown to the Devil, Jesus was actually God in person. Unable to constrain Jesus’ divine soul, the devil was defeated and Christ emerged victorious. This view was taught consistently by nearly all of the Church fathers including Augustine.

Satisfaction or Penal Substitution Theory

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury developed a theory of atonement to explain why Jesus had to die. He said that the debt of sin was so great that humanity could not possibly pay it. Only God, in the person of Christ, could do so by undergoing the agony of the crucifixion. So Jesus became our substitute and satisfied God’s requirements under the law.

Moral Influence or Exemplary Theory

In reaction to Anselm, another early theory of atonement was put forth by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. This theory, known as the “moral influence” theory, said that God exhibited love at the cross in such a way that contemplation of the cross would move us to repentance and faith. The actual act of salvation occurs in the believer’s subjective response to the cross.

Christus Victor Model

After Anselm and Abelard, the idea of atonement as a ransom to, or defeat of, the devil was more or less abandoned by theologians of subsequent eras. Bishop Gustaf Aulén, a historical theologian from Sweden, whose work was first translated into English in 1931, began a movement to breathe new life into the abandoned classic theory, and his title (Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement) popularized the name for it. He argued that the classic” doctrine was not a crude, pictorial expression from a long-gone era, but rather a fully theological explication of Christ’s saving work.6 The Christus Victor perspective is that God, in Christ, intervened in the world to stand up to Satan and the forces of idolatry, materialism, violence and domination. Jesus came to free all creation from the warping power of sin, showing with his life and teaching what it means to be fully human in the will of God.7

Is Modern Anabaptist Theology Substitutionary, Exemplary or Christus Victor?

One difficulty with identifying an Anabaptist perspective is that until well into the nineteenth century, Anabaptist history was mainly written by their detractors and little is found to describe their views on atonement. Francis Hiebert, in her treatise on atonement in Anabaptist theology, writes that because of persecution, Anabaptist theological writing was not always possible nor a priority in their unsettled and often short lives. Furthermore, there was great diversity in their views and in some regards they may not have differed much from the Magisterial Reformers on such issues as atonement.

When sixteenth century Anabaptists did write, they did not explicitly discuss these models so the question remains as to how their view of the atonement fits any or all of them. Anabaptist writers used the language of all three models. The emphasis on the teaching and example of Christ, insistence that following Christ in obedience and suffering in this life is essential to salvation, and the focus on the work of Christ as the demonstration of God’s love which should move humanity to respond to God, fits the moral influence theory. Menno Simons’ emphasis on the “celestial flesh” of Christ (because corrupt flesh could not have “paid” the price of sin), and his belief that Christ’s work was imputed to infants, to previous sins of believers, and to the continued sinfulness of their corrupt human flesh, was based on substitutionary concepts of payment and acquittal.8

Mennonite theologians and writers tend to voice support for the Christus Victor (Christ is victor) point of view and suggest that it could be what most closely described the early Anabaptist theology. Anabaptists had a sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil and the religious-political structures of their time. Jesus came to destroy the powers of evil and had risen again victorious giving the believer access to the transformed life.

J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite who teaches religion at Bluffton College in Ohio, expands on and contemporizes the Christus Victor theme in his book The Nonviolent Atonement. He refines the classic Christus Victor view by focusing not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but on his entire ministry as a nonviolent force against the power of sin and death. Weaver’s premise begins with the assumption that violence must be rejected in the atonement. He seeks to demonstrate that a nonviolent atonement poses a fundamental challenge to and ultimately a rejection of the “satisfaction” theory.9 Weaver rightly points out that the satisfaction atonement assumes that God’s justice requires compensatory punishment for evil and fits with a Western understanding of retributive justice.10 But he does not pursue an alternative view of God’s justice that might provide a more powerful explanation for Christ’s passion.

The Covenant Connection

There is another way to explain the concept of atonement that more closely fits the Pauline explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and yet supports the Anabaptist view of redemption and the transformed life. The Gospels, read through the lens of a covenantal relationship between God and God’s people, suggests that Jesus’ passion was neither substitutionary nor exemplary, but mediatorial. Jesus was the great mediator of a promissory covenant that had existed for all time between humankind and God. This covenant was not fulfilled by the law, but by the gracious fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham before the law was given.
“The promise was given to Abraham and his seed…The law introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise. But God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”11

This covenant gave Jew and Gentile alike the right to become children of Abraham and inheritors of all that God had promised through Christ. Jesus was the promised mediator of this covenant and God fulfilled it as promised to Abraham.12 When Paul and the New Testament writers laid out their carefully worded explanations for Jesus’ death and resurrection for the new church, they used covenantal language that would have been familiar to all the Jewish listeners. (Terms like “substitutionary,” “satisfaction,” never show up in the New Testament texts.) The key to understanding these Christ events, they said, was the covenant between God and all people and Jesus’ role as the covenant mediator.
“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”13

God is faithful to God’s covenant promises, Paul explained. God’s covenant is not a conditional contract bilaterally concluded by two parties. It is a unilateral commitment or promise on God’s part to act toward God’s chosen covenant partner with overwhelming kindness and generosity. God made a commitment to fulfill this gracious purpose at any cost. Thus when God exercises saving mercy toward sinful people, God is simply fulfilling the covenant promise. Jesus is God faithfully carrying out just what divine love had pledged to do. Paul’s argument to the Jewish and Gentile believers was this: by dying, Jesus bore all the curses due to the transgressions under the first covenant. In the resurrection, God fulfilled the covenant promises to restore all people to a right relationship with God and each other. With this simple argument, Paul bridged the scriptural gulf between the Jew and the Gentile, vindicating the rights of the Gentiles under the concept of justification apart from the Law.

Paul assured the new church that the new covenant not only promises the believer forgiveness of sins and acceptance into God’s favor, but it guaranteed salvation apart from the law or keeping of the law as the religious Jews were expected to do.14 Recent scholarship supports the view that Paul’s understanding of justification had less to do with individual righteousness through keeping the law and more to do with becoming part of a community of faith.15 For Paul, the new covenant was the context for all people to be accepted into this community.

Robert Brinsmead, an Australian theologian, explains this concept in terms of God’s justice.
God’s justice,” he writes, “ is based on God being true to what he promised in his gracious covenant. If God is to be just, then he must be true to his commitment to help and to save wretched, undeserving people. This biblical idea of justice, first presented in the Old Testament, is beautiful and powerful in its simplicity. Nevertheless, Western theology insists that justice must somehow be related to what a person deserves. In order to preserve this supposed justice of God, Western theology has had to resort to legal manipulation in an act of atonement in which God is forced to respect the principle of distributive justice.” 16

Justice which is distributive (i.e. giving to everyone what is due) and which is the opposite of mercy, inevitably becomes equated with God’s act of punishing people for their sins. If forgiveness is extended to them, it is only because other punishment fell on Jesus as the substitutionary victim. What fell on Christ is called “justice” (according to the traditional interpretation of Romans 3:25,26), while the pardon granted the believer is called “mercy.” This is the classical Latin theory of the atonement. It reinforces the idea that God’s justice is primarily punitive.

When Paul writes about the good news of a justice which bypasses the law altogether, a justice which is grounded in a promise given before the law,17 he is faithful to the teaching of Jesus. When Jesus preached about the good news of the kingdom, Jesus spoke about a divine justice that refuses to conform to the canons of legal justice. His parables teach us that love and grace do the surprising, “foolish” and daring things—such as the employer who rewards latecomers with a full day’s pay18 and the father who welcomes the prodigal as if he were a hero.19

A Justice Based on Grace not Law

The justice revealed in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the primitive church leaders are in a stark contrast to the Western notion of justice developed during the Reformation. Even today, it seems that the vast majority of Christian believers do not grasp the difference between justice based on law and the justice based on grace. Articulating this difference should be one of the priorities for the modern Anabaptist community because it is integral to how we understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and how we understand the atonement.

Here is a quick summary of the distinction between law-based and grace-based justice:

Law-Based (Latin or Western) Justice

  • Conforms to a norm (i.e. based on law)
  • Distributive: gives what is deserved
  • Opposed to or in tension with mercy
  • Primarily punitive (retributive)

Grace-Based (New Testament/Gospel) Justice

  • Faithfulness to a relationship
  • Non-distributive: carries out what was promised
  • Mercy for all the oppressed
  • Primarily a liberating or saving action

The idea of a justice based on grace illuminated the New Testament theology and set it apart from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis. The early Christian believers were particularly interested in this concept because they found themselves engaged in a new and uncertain relationship with the masses of humanity outside the Jewish community who never had been bound by Mosaic Law or understood the nuances of its demands on the pious believer. Jesus’ ministry had thrown them a curve ball. The church was to be opened to whosoever would come, Jewish or not. The law stood directly in the way of this liberal notion of acceptance.

Covenantal View of Atonement

A view of atonement that reflects the principles of the New Covenant and emphasizes a grace-based justice (or righteousness) rather than law-based punitive justice can be summarized as follows:
•The meaning of the atonement is that God has executed the promised liberating justice for everyone (especially those who are forsaken, destitute, and excluded). God has done so by being faithful to God’s ancient covenant in raising up Jesus as the mediator of a new covenant apart from the law.

•Jesus’ death on the cross symbolized an ancient covenantal transaction familiar to all Hebrew people. As mediator of the covenant, his death put the covenant or will into effect.20

•The resurrection is the Christian metaphor for the triumph of divine justice over sin, alienation, and death. Jesus completed the covenantal transaction that began with Abraham and culminated in the resurrection. It opened the door to a new covenant relationship with all people based not on law but on a promise.

•We also become mediators of this justice when we extend God’s covenant promise of grace to all the downtrodden and outcast of society, for they too have full standing under the New Covenant as God’s people. We become mediators of this justice when we extend compassion, forgiveness, and understanding in all our relationships and when we advocate for human rights and dignity.

An Anabaptist Vision of Atonement

The gospel narratives assured the early Hebrew believers that the requirements of their ingrained religious system were reconciled with a new vision of a universal community of believers where no one was excluded, and where Mosaic Law was no longer the basis for acceptance by the community or by God.21 It set the stage for a universal faith that welcomed the downtrodden and outcasts based on God’s faithfulness to God’s everlasting promise.

This view of the atonement should resonate with Anabaptist theology. Atonement is not adequately explained by the “satisfaction” of divine wrath, by the power of divine example, or by the Christus victor motif. Rather, the meaning of atonement is found in the covenant actions of God—where all the conditions of God’s promissory covenant to all people of the earth are fulfilled. Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant where justice (or righteousness)22 apart from the law has been revealed. It means that we also become mediators of this justice for all the downtrodden and outcast of society, for they too have full standing under the New Covenant as God’s people. Yet the majority of Christians still cling to the belief that justice requires blood and fire instead of mercy and compassion. The Anabaptist tradition recognizes one very important principle. Hostility and vengeance do not bring peace and justice. Compassion, understanding, and grace do. A covenantal view of atonement supports this theology in a very unique and powerful way.


1Van Biema, David, “Why did Jesus Have to Die?” Time, April 12, 2004.

2Hebrews 9:12.

3Mark 10:25.

4I Peter 2:21.

5Colossians 2:15.

6Hiebert, Frances F., “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology,” Footnote 5, Direction Journal, (Winapeg MB).Fall 2001,Vol. 30, No.2.

7Kraybill, J. Nelson, “Four Spiritual Truths of a Peacemaking God,” The Mennonite, November 4, 2003.

8Hiebert, Frances F., p. 135.

9Weaver, J.Denny, The Nonviolent Atonement, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eedmans Pub. Co.) 2001, p 7.

10Weaver, J. Denny, p.3.

11Galatians 3:16-18.

12Genesis 12:3.

13Hebrews 9:15.

14Romans 3:21.

15Mattison, Mark M., A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul.

16Brinsmead, Robert D., “The Scandal of God’s Justice-Part 1,” The Christian Verdict, Essay 3,1983, p.8.

17Galatians 3:16-19.

18Matthew 20:1-16.

19Luke 15:1-31.

20Hebrew 9:16-18.

21Galations 3:25.

22The word for righteousness, sadaq, is used interchangeably for justification or justice in the Bible.

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