Friday, August 17, 2007

The New Perspective and Conversion

One of the more significant problems I find with the NP is its frequent marginalization of Paul’s conversion theology. Many advocates of the NP tend to speak of Paul’s “call” rather than his “conversion.” From this perspective, Paul was not turning from a legalistic Jewish religious system to a grace based Christian paradigm. Rather, the Judaism of Paul’s day was already a faith-based system that understood the grace of God (which, I’m sure, explains why the Jewish religious rulers were bent on killing Christians). For scholars such as Dunn, Paul did not switch to a new religion as much as he expanded the logic and scope of his current religion. What was only for the Jews had, in Christ, been opened to the Gentiles. Thus, the encounter with Christ on the Damascus road was not Paul’s conversion per se, but rather his receiving of a divine call to take the message of Christ to the Gentiles. From this perspective, justification is no longer about man's relationship to God, but rather about the relationship between Jew and Gentile. In this downplaying of Paul’s personal conversion, there is a subsequent downplaying of Paul’s conversion theology. This emphasis (or lack there of) explains why the NP is often accused of not having a robust soteriology.

While it is certainly true that Paul did not see his new-found faith in Christ as antithetical to his Jewish heritage, it is incorrect to marginalize Paul's conversion theology. For Paul, both the pious Jew and the godless Gentile, was in need of ontological renewal (an anachronistic term perhaps, but one that fits). The cloud of ontological culpability that hung over all the sons of Adam (Romans 5) could only be dispelled through the redemption found in Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ marked the inauguration of the long awaited New Covenant and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham—the ultimate answer to Adam's sin.

Thus for Paul, Jews did not need to be converted to another religion per se; in this Dunn is correct. But for Paul, Jews did need to be converted (i.e., spiritually regenerated) according to the prophetic dictates of their own religion. What the Law and the Jewish prophets foretold—the coming gift of the Spirit and the circumcision of the heart—had now come to pass in Christ. And the typological salvation that the Law offered had only ever been offered with a view to the Christ-event and the ontological renewal that it would afford. To reject the anti-type was to reject the type. OT faith and grace—however present it might have been in Second Temple Judaism—had never been enough to overcome the ontological corruption of Adam’ sin. Abraham, no less than Paul, was in need of the salvation found through the redeeming work of Christ. It was a “conversion of the heart”—now realized in Christ—that Paul preached.

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Helpful thought here. It seems that the heart-conversion aspect of Paul's gospel tends to get downplayed in many protestant churches also who nonetheless hate the NP with a passion. A Reformed Protestant emphasis on forensic status as the heart of the gospel seems to, ironically, misplace "the heart" in the gospel, which is the heart of the gospel (reconciliation of man's heart to God).