Friday, November 24, 2006

Westerholm's (or Rather My) Perspective on Paul

I am currently reading Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The Lutheran Paul and His Critics. The book provides an overview of the ongoing debate regarding the so called “New Perspective.” Broadly speaking, the no longer new “New Perspective” argues that Paul’s justification language was not concerned with the question of how the sinner can find a gracious God (a later misreading by Luther), but rather was concerned with how it is that Gentiles come to participate in the people of God in the last days. Or again, the New Perspective argues that Paul was not contending against a latent Jewish proto-Pelagianism, but rather that he was trying to establish a theological justification for why Gentiles could now be included within the Jewish covenantal framework. Ethnic reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, not salvific reconciliation between the individual and God, was what drove Paul's justification language.

My exposure to the New Perspective debate has been only cursory. I have opinions about Paul and his theology—particularly his soteriology—but have arrived at said opinions almost entirely independent of the New Testament discussions. I look forward to seeing how Westerholm frames the issues, as well as the conclusions he reaches. At the outset however, it seems to me that the alternative posed above is a false alternative. It is not immediately clear to me why we must choose between “sinners finding a gracious God” and “Gentiles entering the Jewish Covenant.” For me, accomplishing the latter achieves the former. Or more plainly, entering into the Abrahamic covenant is the means by which Gentiles find a gracious God. My own (uninformed) perspective on the first century justification debates follows below.

God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants. This promise entails both blessing (the Jews will inherit the eschatological/messianic kingdom) and deliverance (God will hide them from his coming eschatological judgment). Thus salvation is for the Jews, for only Abraham’s descendants have been given the promise of blessing and deliverance. And long though Abraham’s line waited for the fulfillment of this covenant, it has finally now been realized through the death and resurrection of Christ. The circumcision of the heart—of which the circumcision of the flesh was but a sign—has finally come (spiritual regeneration and the New Testament Pentecost being the most significant aspects of the New/Abrahamic Covenant). For the Jew, personal faith/participation in the death and resurrection of Jewish messiah secures the realization of the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul and his opponents are on the same basic page thus far, but become sorely divided as each side interprets the role of the Mosaic Law. For Paul’s opponents, faith in Jesus plus faithful conformity to the Law was the means by which one entered into the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant (I see proto-Pelagianism here). But for Paul, the realization of the Abrahamic Covenant was not—had never been—dependant upon the Law. As seen though Abraham himself, it has always been by faith that one receives the righteousness (i.e., deliverance/justification) of God. The true function of the Law was not to serve as a means of deliverance (i.e., justification) but rather as a “tutor” to lead the faithful Jew to the Christ who would deliver him. Having now accomplished its purpose, the Law has reached both its fulfillment and its telos. What was written on tablets of stone has now been written on hearts of flesh through the indwelling of the Spirit. The ministry of Christ and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit have rendered the Law obsolete. Viewing the Law as a means of securing the Promise is to misunderstand/misuse the Law and to reject Christ altogether. Thus for Paul, not all descendants of Abraham are truly partakers of the Promise. Only those Jews who are of the faith of Abraham are true Jews and thus recipients of the covenant promises.

So where does that leave the Gentiles? Paul’s answer is that since the ministry of Christ has rendered the Law obsolete, the way is now open for Gentiles to enter into the people of God and thus become partakers of the Abrahamic promises. No longer does the Mosaic Law stand as a barrier between Jew and Gentile. No longer are Gentiles “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise.” Gentiles have been “brought near” to Israel by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). Again, the controversial turn in Paul’s paradigm is that neither Jew nor Gentile need adhere to the Mosaic Law in order to realize the blessings of this covenant. Faith, not works, is the means by which one receives the eschatological blessing and deliverance of the Abrahamic Covenant.

So what about Paul’s justification language? I’ve alluded to it already, but it seems to me (Reformed/Lutheran etymology of dikaiaow not withstanding) that Paul uses the expression “to be justified” to mean “to receive the righteous deliverance of God—to realize/secure the divine promise.” Thus for the faithful Jew already “in” the covenant, “justification by faith apart from works” speaks to how one comes to inherit the covenant promise. But for Gentiles, justification has an added element; it means securing a place within the Covenant people, as well as the realization of the covenant promises.

Thus the ministry of Christ opens the ways for Gentiles to participate in the covenant promises of the people of God, and at the same time enables those who are in the covenant—now both Jew and Gentile—to realize the hope of the Abrahamic Covenant (i.e., its blessing and deliverance). So I’m not yet convinced (and perhaps neither is Westerholm) that we must choose between the two competing thesis of “finding a gracious God” and “the means by which Gentiles enter into the people of God.” For Paul, it is because the Gentiles have entered into the covenant of Abraham and realized its provision that they can have confidence that they will find God to be gracious.

So there’s my take on things at the outset.

Westerholm writes in a winsome style and sprinkles his work with the occasional touch of whit. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud while reading a scholarly tome (and that while sitting up at 12:30 AM, unable to sleep because of heartburn). Quite refreshing. I’m about 100+ pages into the book and will probably blog more about it in the future.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

You write,

"Broadly speaking, the no longer new “New Perspective” argues that Paul’s justification language was not concerned with the question of how the sinner can find a gracious God (a later misreading by Luther), but rather was concerned with how it is that Gentiles come to participate in the people of God in the last days."

Why can't Paul be dealing with both? I don't think that this is an either/or situation; it could be a both/and.

The post-Reformation Christian has tended to read Paul far too individualistically (just me and God, instead of us and God).