Monday, September 3, 2007

Two Perspectives on Paul

I'm presenting this table to my students in New Testament Theology and Ethics this fall. Old news to Paul scholars, of course, but radical stuff for the uninitiated. I'm painfully aware of my over-simplification on almost every level. Corrections and suggestions for improvement welcome.

Lutheran / Traditional Perspective


The “New Perspective”

Central Concern

Justification: how can sinners be made right before God?

Gentile inclusion: on what terms may Gentiles join God’s people?

State of 1st c. Judaism

Burdened by the Law; dead in sin; marked by hypocrisy and legalism; bound up with sin, death & law (in contrast to grace, life & faith).

Vibrant, dynamic, diverse; a religion of grace; pattern of religion:covenantal nomism*” (Sanders); in (spiritual) exile (Wright)

*"Covenantal Nomism” (according to Sanders): the notion that the Israelite’s place in God’s plan is determined by the covenant which God established with Israel, and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace.

The Law in Judaism

Onerous burden for those who broke it; cause of boasting for those who kept it.

A gracious, delightful gift from God, “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12; Ps 119:97)

Paul’s problem with Judaism

Legalism: it promotes legalistic works righteousness; merit theology; pride in accomplishments; faulty view of grace and works

Nationalism / racism / exclusivism / particularism: the role of the Law in establishing boundary markers, Jewish privilege (Dunn); “It is not Christianity” (Sanders)

Paul’s condition prior to conversion

A frustrated, guilt-ridden sinner who valued works over faith, and who struggled unsuccessfully to measure up to the Law’s demands (Rom 7:14-24).

A Law-keeping (blameless) Pharisee who denied Jesus was God’s Messiah (Gal 1:14; Phil 3:4-8). Images of a distressed Paul are projections of the West’s “introspective conscience.”

Paul’s conversion

Paul leaves his now-dead ancestral religion and its Law to trust and follow Christ. Paul rejects Law-keeping as impossible and/or pride-producing.

Paul is not “converted” from Judaism but “called” within it to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Stendahl). Paul didn’t so much convert from Judaism but to Christianity (Sanders). See 2 Cor 3:4-18; Phil 3:3-11.

Justification by faith

The center / organizing principle of Paul’s Gospel: God’s gracious declaration that a sinner is right before God through his faith in Christ’s work. God’s response to human failure / pride.

A “subsidiary crater” in Paul’s thought (Schweitzer); a polemical / apologetic doctrine developed to defend the full status of Gentile converts and to refute Jewish-Christian efforts to impose circumcision, etc. on them.

Paul’s Gospel

Repent of dead works and trust in Christ’s atoning work to be justified / saved (Rom. 3:21-24). Key antithesis: Law versus Gospel.

Jesus is the anointed, risen and exalted Lord over all nations (Wright; Rom 1:1-5). Salvation comes by transfer to the realm of his lordship, by union with / participation in Christ (Sanders; 2 Cor 5:17; Rom 6:3-7).

Paul’s reasoning

Forward: from plight to solution: Law-sin-guilt à faith in Christ à justification apart from Law

Backward: from solution to plight (Sanders): Christ à various (unsystematic, inconsistent, incompatible) assessments of sin & Law (Gal 2:21; 3:19, 24-25; Rom 3:20; 4:15; 10:4)

Or: From plight to solution to plight (Wright): exile à Christ à sin / law

Theme of Romans

A “compendium of Christian doctrine” (Melancthon).
A theological treatise on justification by grace through faith.
Romans 9-11 are a parenthesis.

An occasional document defending the faithfulness of God (to the nations, to Israel) and the co-equal status of Jews and Gentiles.
Romans 9-11 are the
climax of the letter.

Works of the Law (erga nomou, e.g. Rom.3:28)

Striving to do good; good works performed for salvation

Observing Torah; what pious Jews do; only bad when imposed on Gentiles; passé because it excludes Gentiles.

Pistis Christou (e.g., Ga.2:16)

Faith in Christ (objective genitive; anthropological reading) (Dunn)

Faith(fulness) of Christ = subjective genitive; Christological reading (Hays)


Nick Meyer said...
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Nick Meyer said...

Just one other thought: perhaps if you distinguished between older incarnations of the traditional perspective and newer versions thereof, people like myself who are sympathetic to elements of the traditional reading would be less defensive :) For instance, the "blue" description under the heading "state of 1st c. Judaism" only describes a view of Judaism that both sides of the debate would reject. In the "green" descriptions you have indicated particular scholars after different views; perhaps the same thing would help to make clear where newer and older advocates of traditional views differ.

HijaDeGracia said...

Nick may be right that conversation has continued on the traditional side of the discusion; however, in the reading which we did on Romans two years ago, even the newer commentaries tended to have a basically similar understanding of Judaism and God's grace/justification. Regardless of the scholarly discussions, the likelihood that your students have heard or are familiar with any of that material is highly unlikely. I am guessing that the majority of your students will be operating under a model very similar to the "traditional" model you have articulated.

A couple of questions: Would traditionalists affirm that any Israelites would have been able to keep the law? Wouldn't it have been a burden for all because no one could keep it perfectly? On the theme of Romans, you mentioned that 9-11 are a parenthesis for the traditional read. Don't chapters 12-16 function much the same way for both groups? Has either reading produced a truly integrated way of understanding the "ethical" chapters of Romans in the context of the rest of the letter?

Nijay K. Gupta said...
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Nijay K. Gupta said...

I appreciate what you are doing here - it is helpful overall for students. The last category (Pistis Christou) is, I think, too tenuously related to the NPP issue. If blue is traditional/Lutheran, could Dunn really be in opposition to the Green when in some sense Dunn is a defining member of the NPP group? And I don't necessarily think Sanders would agree with Hays (or with Dunn) on pistis Christou! :)

Anonymous said...

I wish I was in that class. There's so much here to discuss! I'm sure Dustin and I will delve into this later. Thanks for giving me something fresh to ponder (well, fresh for me).