Posts Tagged ‘New Perspectives on Paul’

For anyone who is interested in understanding the Reformed doctrine of justification, I would really recommend reading J.V. Fesko’s book. I’ve been reading through it and it is great. It’s clear, cogent, and illuminative.

Preferring light over heat, Fesko also offers considerable refutations to N.T. Wright and his understanding of Paul in the context of second-temple Judaism. Although Wright says a lot of true and pertinent things, (about both Paul and second-temple Judaism), Fesko points out how it’s not all that simple. I thought I’d offer you some quotations as well as my thoughts.

First, Fesko summerizes some of Wright’s thoughts on second-temple Judaism:

The first-century Jew [according to Wright] was not concerned about how one might have a saving relationship with God. Rather, the first-century Jew was already a member of the covenant and possessed a relationship with his covenant Lord. What was perplexing for the first-century Jew was, how could the chosen people of God be under the Roman occupation? Had not God promised in this covenant to Abraham that Israel would rule over the nations? Yet Israel was under the thumb of Rome. (Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, p. 213.)

Now what is important to realize is the degree to which Wright relies upon second-temple Judaism to help his understanding of Paul. Here, he is in company with many other contemporary (yet often critical) scholars. But then one must ask the question, is second-temple Judaism really the best indicator into what St. Paul really believed? Or would Paul’s presuppositions about many things (including covenant membership) have been somewhat (if not radically) divergent from those of his day. Fesko explains,

Wright is correct in that one must be sensitive to the surrounding cultural and historical context of the NT; However, he gives his interpretation of second-temple Judaism too great a role in defining the covenantal nature of justification. At various points Wright invokes the literature of second-temple Judaism to explain what lies behind Paul’s thought. What is problematic about this methodology is that Paul never directly cites the literature of the second temple. (p. 233)

Fesko then quotes J. Gresham Machen.

It is significant that when, after the conversion, Paul seeks testimonies to the universal sinfulness of man, he looks not to contemporary Judaism, but to the Old Testament. At this point, as elsewhere, Paulinism is based not upon later developments but upon the religion of the Prophets and the Psalms. (p. 233)

Fesko points out how “Wright assumes that second-temple Judaism has authoritatively interpreted the OT and that Paul builds upon this understanding.” (p. 233)

Now this is a huge problem for Wright. Although much of his conclusions about second-temple Judaism are historically accurate, he seems to miss the fact that Paul didn’t agree with them! The main questions they were asking weren’t the ones he was trying to answer. In fact you might picture Paul as saying, “Wrong question! Read your bible again.” And thus for us today, the main question in Pauline scholarship shouldn’t be, What did second-temple Judaism believe? But rather, What did Paul think about what they believed? And here we must realize that Paul would hardly have granted them their premise. They had a “zeal” but “without knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Fesko writes,

Instead, as Machen argues, Paul appeals to the OT, to Abraham, not to the erroneous positions of first-century Judaism. And as classic Reformed covenant theology has argued, the Abrahamic covenant, which Paul calls the gospel (Gal. 3:8), is built ultimately upon the protoevangelium, not the hopes of first-century Jews of being delivered from their Roman overlords. Paul’s concern is not the supposed exile under Rome as Wright contends, but the greater exile under the powers of Satan, sin, and death. (p. 234)

Now, this distinction carries with it drastic interpretive consequences. As Geerhardus Vos was famous for pointing out, eschatology precedes soteriology. And it is no less the case when dealing with first-century Jews and Paul.

As is evidenced all throughout the gospels, one of the things the Jews got wrong was their eschatology. Is it possible Write has overlooked this? What the Jews were looking for was not what Christ was looking for (or, rather, looking to do). How they read and interpreted the Scriptures was not how Christ and his disciples read and interpreted them. Thus the conclusions of second-temple Judaism regarding the covenant promises and their eschatological fulfillment would have been radically different than Paul’s. Paul had himself seen the risen Christ, and had tasted of the powers of the age to come. He would have had little in common with their base and carnal assumptions. There would have been a huge disconnect! Rather than offering a disinterested correction, Paul’s eschatology would have stood in glaring and direct contradiction to that of first-century Jews.

And although Wright seems to underplay this fact, the Jews were considerably concerned about salvation (or being saved) as well. But it wasn’t the kind of salvation Christ offered or Paul preached. And that was the problem!

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39 NIV).

Salvation, for Christ and Paul, was not about redemption from the hand of Roman oppressors. Fesko points out, “Paul shows no concern for what the enemies of the people of God might or might not think; Paul shows concern only for what God will say concerning the one who stands before his throne.” This can be grounded further in the gospels where Christ is constantly bringing to attention how the Jews have their eschatology all wrong, and therefore their soteriology as well.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mat. 10:28).

And then for something completely different:

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 5:54).

Talk about total disconnect! The Jews would have been like, “What in the world is he talking about?!?!” Even the disciples were confounded: “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it? (John 5:60). And yet Christ can say, “…if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me (v. 46).”

So, here we see the cosmic divergence. On the one hand are the Jews and their interpretation of the OT together with their understanding of the Covenant, Torah, and the eschatological fulfillment of the promises. On the other hand we have Christ, and his disciples, and their understanding of the Law and its fulfillment by Christ in the gospel.  Needless to say there is an acute, and even critical, discontinuity between these two systems. Yet Wright doesn’t seem to get this. Or at least he downplays it into insignificance. And so, although he does get much of second-temple Judaism right, unfortunately he still gets Paul wrong.

Fesko concludes:

Hence Wright is correct to say that justification is covenantal, law-court language, and eschatological. But these categories require reorientation because Paul does not discuss justification in the way that Wright does. Wright bases these categories in this understanding and construction of the worldview of second-temple Judaism and the longing for deliverance from Rome. Paul, on the other hand, bases these categories in the protoevangelium, the longing for deliverance from sin and death. (p. 239)

By highlighting and emphasizing certain ideas and themes over others, N.T. Wright ultimately creates false dichotomies that only distort the grand biblical message. Among various other errors, he sets second-temple Judaism up as a main interpretive grid against the rest of Scripture. In the end, his explanations are reductionistic, robbing the reader of the interpretive tools for making sense of the various (yet essential) biblical themes, and ultimately allowing to fall flat that very gospel message which is to bring life to the dead.

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So I’ve been reading Dr. Fesko’s book, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, which has sparked some thoughts regarding the New Perspectives on Paul.

It seems like one of the ideas that is put forward (by the NPP) is that the Second Temple Judaizers weren’t too keen on legalistic righteousness. They would never dream of thinking they could obey the whole Torah, let alone earn meritorious righteousness before God by law keeping. Rather, they merely saw several key laws that served as boundary markers between them and non-Jews.  And although it may be hard to determine exactly what they had in mind (Qumran writings may indicate considerable law-keeping was required), one might be able to boil things down to three major categories: Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary restrictions.

So, as N.T. Wright points out, perfect law keeping was never in view. Besides, there was the whole sacrificial system to deal with sins.  Rather, they wanted to look to certain particular laws or regulations as boundary markers which they could hang their hat on and say, “look, I’m in the community, you gentile Christians aren’t.”

Now, this context actually works — as far as it goes.  It seems reasonable (from reading Paul) that something like this was certainly going on.  But what comes to my mind is how clearly and forcibly Paul refutes this notion of the Jews, not by merely correcting their misidentification of the proper boundary markers (which they certainly got wrong), but by insisting that those who wanted to “keep Torah” were obligated to keep it all! They didn’t think they had to keep the whole law, and Paul slams them for it!

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (Gal. 3:21)

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Gal. 5:3 ESV)

This right here, I think, provides a hurdle for the notion that “boundary markers” were all that was in view (at least in the mind of Paul).

And then Paul criticizes the Jews’ duplicity:

For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Gal. 6:13)

If “keeping the law” meant merely circumcision, are we to take it (as the NPP would have us) that not even those who were physically circumcised were physically circumcised?

As Andrew Das points out,

When Paul uses the phrase ‘works of the law’ in Gal. 3:10 and cites Deut. 27:26 (in a composite quote drawing on other statements in Deut. 27-30), the Deuteronomy context indicates that Paul has in mind the law in its entirety including even actions done in private.” – Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, quoted in Fesko’s ‘Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, p. 177.

Interestingly, the Apostle James has something similar to say about keeping the law:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (Jas. 2:10, emphasis mine)

Furthermore, most of Romans 2 Paul is trashing any notion that the Jews could hide against certain legalities (e.g. circumcision), in order to distinguish themselves from others before God.

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Rom. 2:25-27)

So there is a profound sense in which it wasn’t just about circumcision or keeping kosher that Paul had problems with! It wasn’t that the Jews merely got the wrong boundary markers. Their problem was they didn’t realize that the whole law stood condemning them in the face. And there they were holding on to vestiges of the Mosaic order, as if by these ordinances they would be vindicated. Like grabbing the handrail of a sinking ship, their spiritually blind groping for badges of distinction only added insult to injury.

The point is, even if these were the right boundary markers, they were going about it all wrong. How wrong, one might ask?

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:4)

This was serious error. Indeed, total doctrinal apostasy — Paul laying on them the anathema for denying Christ. And one might wonder: How did they go from incorrect boundary markers to denying Christ? To understand this, we must recognize that there were more than mere socio-eclesial issues that Paul was concerned about. The Judaizers’ problem was one of soteriology as well. Failing to recognize the full weight of the law and its condemnation of all sins (individual and corporate) they failed to see that they were all condemned! They failed to reckon with the idea that even the most meticulous, sabbath-keeping, Hebrew of Hebrews (as Paul identifies himself) stood condemned before the law. They were like, “Huh?” “Me?” “Condemned by the law?” “You gotta be kidding me.” “I’m a Jew.” And Paul responded, “So?” “Do you keep the law perfectly?” “No?” “Then you already stand judged and condemned by the law.  The law can help you no longer. It only helps righteous people. And you’re not righteous.”

But since they had a low view of the law and its total and rigorous requirements, they still wanted to be under the law. One can easily see then why they failed to see the importance of the work of Christ.

The law could never save them. It was never intended to. Even circumcision was meant not merely to separate them from the rest of the world, but also to point them to Christ. But due to their spiritual hardness of heart, he was the very one they denied.

They had the Gospel (even in circumcision) but failed to distinguish it from the law. Thus they couldn’t distinguish the finished work of Christ from their own works of law-keeping. And this is how they had “fallen away from grace.”

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