I want to thank everyone who has been giving me suggestions and encouraging me in my search for a Lutheran church body. I am going to discuss the issue with my pastor this week. I would appreciate your continued prayers. I am going to do a series of posts giving the historical background and brief refutation of the "New Perspective on Paul."
The latter half of the twentieth century saw a major shift in Pauline studies, particularly in Paul’s relation to Judaism and the law. From the 16th century throughout much of the 20th, Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul was widely accepted by most within Protestantism. While not always agreeing with Luther completely, exegetes had accepted his basic premise that Paul in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans was fighting against Jewish legalism of sorts. Paul’s argument was primarily soteriological. Going back even farther, the entire western church had accepted Paul’s polemics against the Judaizers to be soteriological since Augustine’s controversy with the Pelagians in the 5th century.
The so-called “Lutheran Paul” of the west stressed justification by faith alone as the center of his gospel. This doctrine was ultimately aimed at the comforting of the conscience of the man, who, being struck by the perfection required in God’s Holy law, needed a means of forgiveness. This idea of Paulinism was certainly not universal, as men like Herman Ridderbos found the center of Paul’s thought, not in justification, but in the broader theme of union with Christ. Geerhardus Vos sought to emphasize the narrative aspects of Paul’s thought rather than the mere systematic categories that had often been applied. The “Lutheran Paul” found its ultimate expression in the writings of Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann, using existentialist philosophy as a backdrop saw Paul as answering the plight of everyman which emphasizes the complete dependence of man upon God. This complete dependence was not rooted in the historical figure of Jesus, but in a universal principle which answers man’s existential plight. Paul spoke unilateral truth, not necessarily grounded within history. Paul distanced himself from the Judaism of his past, seeing it as nothing more than pure legalism. In Judaism, God weighed one’s merits against his demerits in order to determine final salvation. Bultmann emphasized the distinction between the law and the gospel farther than Martin Luther himself would have imagined. Luther saw the law and the gospel as both given by God, present in the old and new testaments, and as good things which both aimed at the salvation of God’s people. The law showed the need for salvation, and the gospel provided it. Other writers saw Paul as much more consistent with historical events and his Jewish past, as even Bultmann’s student Gunther Bornkamm showed the necessity of the historical person of Jesus in Paul’s theology while agreeing with Bultmann on the centrality of the doctrine of justification in Paul’s thought. W.D. Davies showed convincingly that Paul’s theology was largely influenced by Judaism and the break between Paul and Judaism was not as great as many had assumed it to be.
In 1963, Krister Stendhal published an influential article which challenged previous views of Paul and his relation to the law. Stendhal argued that since the reformation we have read Luther’s experience back into the writings of Paul, rather than seeing Paul on his own terms. Our conception of Paul is a product of medieval thought in the western world that would have been completely foreign to those in the period of second temple Judaism. Paul himself did not have a troubled conscience as did Augustine, Luther, or Wesley. He in fact had a “robust conscience.” In Philippians Paul described his former life in Judaism as one of “blamelessness,” not of a failing struggle to obey the law. When Paul talks of the perfect obedience required in the law, it has a more corporate than individual meaning. The nation of Israel of a whole failed to keep the law that was required of them as Paul describes in Romans 2. Paul’s discussions about the failure of the law are not to provoke the conscience of his readers, but are aimed at defining the relationship between Jew and Gentile.
It has been assumed that Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was a conversion to a new way of life. He was a Jew who struggled to obey the whole law, realized he could not, and then converted to faith in Christ. This idea comes from the autobiographical reading of Romans 7. On the contrary, Stendhal believes, “There is not-as we usually think- first a conversion, then a call to apostleship; there is only the call to work among the gentiles.” (“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” In Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, 78-96. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.Pg.84-85)
Paul’s break from Judaism was not much of a break at all, but instead it was a new understanding. Paul’s purpose from this point forward was to work out the relation between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. For Luther, Calvin and other exegetes, chapters 3 and 4 were the central discussion of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The theme was seen as the righteousness of God expressed in justification. This incidentally led to the discussion of the relationship between Jew and gentile in chapters 9-11. On the contrary, according to Stendhal, the center of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is chapters 9 through 11. The discussion of justification served only as a backdrop for this part of Paul’s argument. The protestant idea of justification has been a non-historical one which sees Paul’s doctrine as solving a universal problem for men of all times, rather then understanding the context of Paul preaching to a Jewish audience of the Messiah. The law Paul speaks of is the Mosaic Law given to Israel, not a set of universal rules to be obeyed by everyone. The so-called “second use of the law” as applied to converting all men, Jew and Gentile alike, to faith in Christ, is a complete misuse of Paul.
Paul certainly does talk of sin in his epistles. When he writes of his own sin, he is not discussing his burdened conscience. Rather, he speaks of the sin of persecuting the church of God which he had now made up for. All of this does not mean that Paul held the view that after baptism man becomes sinless. He accepts that Christians do struggle. However, the focus of his discussion of struggle is not one of despair but of victory over that sin. After his so-called conversion, Paul was not troubled in his conscience as he testifies in Acts 23:1 among other places. He does speak of “weakness” as the thorn in the flesh, but these weaknesses are unconnected to indwelling sin. “But there is no indication that Paul ever thought of this and his other “weaknesses” as sins for which he was responsible.” (ibid pg 91)