Monday, May 17, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 6: Criticisms

Criticisms of the New Perspective
Though this perspective has been highly influential, it has not been whole-heartedly accepted through out New Testament scholarship. Many reject the movement altogether, while some accept some aspects as furthering our understanding of Paul within his first century context, at the same time rejecting other aspects of this perspective as exegetically unfounded. Sanders opinion that there was enough unanimity in Judaism to construct a basic soteriology has been hotly contested. Many have still found the so-called “Lutheran” Paul to be exegetically convincing.

When viewing the overwhelming amount of second temple literature, it seems as though Sanders idea of covenantal nomism fits much of the evidence. However, it does not necessarily fit all of it. Sanders admits that 4 Ezra contains a legalistic understanding of salvation where God weighs ones merits against his demerits. This he takes to be one exception to the rule. Richard Bauckham shows that this type of legalism was not foreign to apocalyptic literature. 2 Enoch has a similar picture of a weighing of deeds which will determine one’s final salvation. He also believes that in 2 Baruch, the author does not teach a theology of grace which then leads to good works as Sanders claims, but quite the opposite. “With reference to 2 Baruch, it would be more accurate to say not simply that God bestows mercy on the righteous, but that God has mercy on the righteous because of their good works.” (Justification and Variegate Nomism Volume 1 pg. 182)

It is worthy of note that there are a couple major figures within the period that Sanders does not extensively analyze: Josephus and Philo. Philo, Sanders does discuss to an extent, though not in my opinion as much as is deserved. Sanders simply concludes that Philo must held to covenantal nomism. It is understandable why Sanders would not use Philo as representative of Judaism simply because Philo’s ideas come from Greek philosophy. However it is unlikely that Philo was the alone in his Jewish/Platonic syncretism. In a Hellenized world, as first century Palestine was, there is bound to be some influence of Greek philosophy within ordinary religious life, at least in the minds of some. If this is the case, this type of Judaism does not fit Sanders categories. While Philo did have some idea of a national covenant, the importance lay, not on this covenant, but on the acquisition of virtue.

Josephus is surprisingly absent. Sanders utilizes him for historical purposes but never once seeks to analyze his theology. Josephus does see that there is a special covenant with the Jews. God chose Moses to be the mediator of his covenant rather than Pharaoh. As Spilsbury explains, “this trust gives the Jews privileged access to God’s favor, but only to the extent that they obey the law faithfully.” (ibid pg. 259) This is not to say that Josephus’ depiction of God had nothing to say of grace, or that God required complete perfectionism, but that God’s blessing to a man still did to some extent depend on obedience to the Torah.

These and several other examples prove that Sanders’ treatment of Judaism is lacking. It is not so much that Sanders was completely wrong in his evaluation, but that he went too far than was necessary. Scholarship of the second temple period had often been sloppy and too simplistic. Sanders proves sufficiently that there certainly is more to the picture than mere Pelagianism. That does not mean, however, that this grace centered approach to Judaism was universal. It is not right to speak of a universal “Judaism”, but of “Judaisms” in the second temple period.

Even if it were sufficiently proven that Sanders thesis was correct, would this negate a “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul? I do not think so. A Andrew Das argues that in Judaism, there was a place for forgiveness through the sacrificial system. However, without this system, Judaism became inherently legalistic. Paul, when coming to the realization that Jesus was the messiah, saw that his death negated all other sacrifices as atoning. Therefore, Paul saw only a legalistic system left in Judaism. Das supports his thesis by showing that when the temple was destroyed, this type of legalism predominated such as in 4 Ezra and Josephus. It also seems that the system of covenantal nomism itself does not negate legalism. If one is in the covenant from birth, and must remain in the covenant by works, can this not also become a legalistic system? Who is to say that entrance into the covenant constitutes salvation rather than one’s eschatological vindication? Martin Luther in the 16th century was not fighting against a system which denied grace altogether. The medieval church believed that one was in the church by baptism, thus not by ones own choice, and remained in this state of grace through keeping with penance. In all the effort to separate Paul’s situation from Luther’s, similarities between the two basic soteriological systems have become even more apparent.

The crucial exegetical points argued by Stendhal, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have been contested by several New Testament scholars of varying backgrounds. Righteousness has been defined as God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ by New Perspective proponents. Mark Seifrid analyzes the Old Testament background of righteousness, showing that it does not often appear in covenantal contexts. Though the word ‘righteousness’ is used 524 times, and ‘covenant’ 283 times, “in only seven passages do the terms come into any significant semantic contact.”(ibid pg. 423) God’s righteousness cannot be so narrowly defined. It is essentially a creational category. It signifies God’s justice and vindication, not necessarily though possibly connected to covenant. God is often seen as righteous in his acts when dealing with the gentile nations, with whom he had no special covenant. His righteousness vindicates and punishes.

So what does Paul mean when he argues that justification is not by works of the law but by faith? Are these works boundary markers, or legalistic attempts to earn salvation? It seems that Paul is arguing against both conceptions. The law is opposed to the gospel because it requires works, whereas the gospel requires faith. It also opposes the gospel because it was given in some sense to Jews alone while the gospel is universal in scope. Paul makes this contrast clear when he states in Galatians 3:18 that the law does not rest upon faith. Law and faith are contradictory messages. One requires works, whereas the other accepts that one can do no works. Paul does not say here that a distortion of the law does not rest on faith but the law itself. The argument of Romans 4 contrasts one who tries to earn and one who does not work. Clearly the one who does not work is the one who does not try to earn his wages, but accepts the reward as a gift. The definition of law as a mere boundary marker simply does not fit the argument. The gospel is opposed to all kinds of boasting, whether it is in one’s meritorious deeds or in one’s nationality, or in one’s own wisdom. Is it not probable that Paul was arguing against all of these conceptions at once? Anything that puts one’s trust into something that is not God’s vindication in Christ is opposed to the gospel.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Final Note on the Irresistible Grace Controversy

Some of you know I had a debate with an LCMS pastor over the issue of irresistible grace. I made the claim that as Lutherans we must believe in the doctrine in some sense, though without denying the universalis gratia. See my post on immutable election to see what point I was trying to argue. I emailed Dr. Robert Kolb amidst this controversy on this issue with this specific question:

Dr. Kolb,
I have been having a conversation with an LCMS pastor on the subject of election. I made the point that Lutherans agree with some of what Calvinists are saying when using the term irresistible grace. What I mean by this is that God's election will always result in the salvation of that individual. One who is elect cannot become non-elect, thus in that sense election is "irresistible", though I realize it is not the best term to use. I also made the point that election is particular and does not extend to everyone as does the universalis gratia. Not everyone is elect.
This pastor seemed to think that I was espousing Calvinistic doctrines when saying this. However, when I read through Pieper, Walther, and Hoenecke on the topic, they all seem to be saying the same thing that I am. Am I being faithful to Lutheran theology by making the points that: 1. election will always necessarily result in final salvation and 2. not all men are elect?

This was Dr. Kolb's response:

Your reading of Pieper, Walther, and Hoenecke is correct, I believe. Under the proclamation of the law, Lutherans clearly believe with Luther in the Smalcald Articles III,4,43-45, that believers can lose the faith and fall from grace. Otherwise, as the Formula of Concord strives to make clear, the distinction of law and gospel disappears, and we fall into either an antinomian arrogance and false security, or despair. But under the teaching of the gospel Lutherans teach that God’s gospel promise in the means of grace is sure because it is God’s promise. What, I think, John Calvin did not grasp, much less his followers, is how Luther understood the doctrine of election only in the context of distinguishing law and gospel in delivering God’s Word to his people, and how God actually is present and working with his saving power in the means of grace. The Calvinists who have become Lutherans – the ones I know, at least – point especially to the second point and the insecurity they had when there was no certain place to look, only to one’s own life, for assurance that God loved them in Christ.
I have gone into this in some detail in my book Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method (Eerdmans, 2005, I think). That may help some.

This should settle the issue as Dr. Kolb is a competent scholar and has written on the subject.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Defense of the Omnipresence of Christ's Human Nature

One of the main bones of contention between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches has been the doctrine of the omnipresence of the human nature of Christ. This doctrine is not isolated for Lutherans and is not merely promoted to support our view of the Lord's Supper as is often claimed. We come to this position because of an overall conception of the incarnation itself which differs from that of the Reformed.
When Christ became incarnate, the human and divine natures were united in one person. These natures were not mixed into one, nor were they completely separated from one another. They interpenetrated one another.

Because of this union of the two natures, the Lutherans talked about a communicatio idiomatum, meaning communicating, or sharing, of attributes. This doctrine states that, due to the unity of the person, the attributes of the divine nature can be attributed to the human nature. For the sake of organization, Lutherans have typically put the communication of attributes into three classes, or genera, though sometimes four.

The first class is the genus idiomaticum. This means that what is attributed to one nature can be attributed to the whole person. Thus one can say "the Son of God died" without having to clarify by saying, "the human nature of Christ died."

The second class is the genus maiestaticum. This is where the real controversy arises. According to this doctrine, the attributes of Christ's divine nature are communicated to his human nature. They are not attributed to the human nature through necessity or nature, but by the free attribution of the divine nature. So what are some of these attributes?

1. The majesty of divinity. Any time scripture talks about majesty, power or authority being given to Christ in time it must be talking about His human nature. If one does not confess this, he is admitting that Christ indeed did not have full power and majesty according to His divine nature before this point.
Some examples in scripture are:

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'" (Matthew 28:18)
"All things have been committed to me by my Father." (Luke 10:22)
"So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs." (Hebrews 1:4)
"You made him a little[a] lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet."
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him." (Hebrews 2:7-8)
"And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church" (Ephesians 1:22)
"For he "has put everything under his feet."[a] Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:27)

2. Omniscience There are several times in the New Testament where divine knowledge is attributed to the human nature of Christ.
"He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man." (John 2:25)

3. Omnipresence Here is where the controversy usually arises. Lutherans claim that Christ is omnipresent as a person, thus both natures are omnipresent. The Reformed have historically argues that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father according to His human nature, and omnipresent only according to His divine nature.

Does the Scripture teach the omnipresence of Christ's human nature? The most clear verse on this subject is Ephesians 4:7-10:

"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)"

The text seems clear. Christ descended, ascended, and now fills the whole universe. This cannot be according to His divine nature because it describes a point in time wherein He began to fill all things. His divine nature always filled all things. Ephesians 1:23 also states that He "fills everything in every way." These verses have been interpreted by the Reformed to mean either one of 2 things.

1. The "filling all things" refers to his accomplishment of redemption, or his fulfillment of prophecy. However, the context has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation or Christ's work on the cross. It has to do with cosmology. It describes a place He was from, went, and now is.

2. This refers to his sustaining and ruling the whole universe. This simply is not in the text. Filling the whole universe simply means filling the whole universe. There is not any way around it except to explain away the clear meaning.

Christ's promise in Matthew 28 is that He will always be with His church. The man Jesus standing in front of His disciples said this. Was there any reason for them to think He only meant according to His divine nature? No, of course not. The one speaking was the God-man.

Christ shows that He has power over normal spacial constraints according to His human nature. In John 20:9 Jesus walks through a locked door. Even before the resurrection He vanished from sight. (John 8:59, Luke 4:30)

Is it really taking scripture seriously to say that the "fullness of deity" (Colossians 2:9) dwelt in bodily form if indeed the deity of Christ is mostly separate from the human nature? If the incarnation really means that the second person of the trinity is both God and man, we must say more than that He is only man in one specific location.

To be Biblically consistent and to affirm that the fullness of Christ's deity was and is incarnate, one must confess to communication of omnipresence.

The third class of communication is the genus apotelesmaticum. This doctrine states that all of the functions that Christ performs as prophet, priest, and king are performed by both natures. The entire person accomplishes every part of redemption, not simply one nature.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I have just finished a website which features my blog, helpful articles on various theological topics, a place to discuss theological and apologetic issues, and a podcast. Hopefully this website will be a helpful resource. Please go to the "Listen" section to hear my first podcast. It is on the subject of justification.

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 5: NT Wright

N.T. Wright
Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars of today, did much to bring this “new perspective” to a popular audience. His volume What Saint Paul Really Said in 1997 was a compact treatment of Paul’s beliefs as influenced by expectations of the second temple period. Wright accepts Sanders’ idea of covenantal nomism as generally applicable to the theology of the second temple texts. He believes that as Protestants we have become too stuck in our Protestant traditions and must be open to a fresh look at the Pauline material.

For Wright, Paul is essentially working within a narrative structure. This narrative is the story of God’s dealings with man through Israel, now fulfilled through the coming of Christ. God created Adam as the first of all humanity to live in obedience to himself. Adam rebelled, as did all men after him. This is the beginning of the story. God called out Abraham so that he might be a light to the world and undo the problem that came through the sin in the garden. “The canonical Old Testament frames the entire story of God’s people as the divine answer to the problem of evil: somehow, through his people, God will deal with the problem that has effected his good creation in general and his image-bearing creatures in general.” (Paul in Fresh Perspective pg 109) Israel is chosen out of pure grace, and is given the Torah and temple as a means toward redemption. However, rather than fixing the problem of sin and evil in the world, Israel became a part of the problem.

Wright promotes the idea that when the exile in Babylon ended, and the Israelites were brought back into the land, the majority of Jews still believed themselves in exile. Wright particularly defends this thesis in his 1991 volume the Climax of the Covenant. Israel, after the exile, had not gained all of the land that was expected by the prophets. They were still under foreign oppressors. The real ending of the exile would occur when Israel once again became an autonomous nation, and God directly ruled over them through a Davidic king. This idea was in Paul’s mind when he wrote his epistle to the Galatians. Galatians 3:10 has historically been used to promote the doctrine of penal substitution. The curse Christ paid for was the penalty of breaking God’s perfect law. Wright takes this verse in a different direction by seeing the curse Christ paid for as the exile. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, Israel’s exile has finally come to an end. The kingdom has been inaugurated.
Perhaps Wright’s most controversial contribution to Pauline theology is his attack on the Protestant definition of justification as promoted by Martin Luther. He contends, along with Stendhal and Dunn, that Paul was not fighting against legalism in Galatians and Romans. The ‘justification by works’ Paul writes against is not “individual Jews attempting a kind of proto-Pelagian pulling themselves up by their moral bootstraps”. (What St. Paul Really Said pg 119) Rather it is that Jews excluded gentiles from fellowship within the kingdom. Justification for Paul is a legal term. However, it is not a term about ‘getting in’, but it is a term about ‘who is in’ the covenant. “Justification in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong to the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final creation.” (ibid pg 122) When God declares one to be justified, he is declaring them to be among his people. It does not involve the imputation of righteousness. “If we use the language of law court, it makes no sense whatever to say the judge imparts, imputes, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either plaintiff or the defendant.” (ibid pg 98)

For Wright, the righteousness of God is his covenant faithfulness. It is not an abstract attribute which all men are required to live up to. It is not something to be imputed to man. It is his faithfulness in dealing with and saving his people. This underlies Wright’s redefinition of justification. It is founded in the Jewish idea of covenant. This is why several Psalmists are able to ask God to deliver them in his righteousness. In this context it certainly means deliverance, not imputation.