Sunday, October 28, 2007

Questions about the New Perspective on Paul

People have recently been asking me a lot of questions about the New Perspective on Paul. In this post I will attempt to answer some of them (in my very ameteurish way).
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Doesn't the NPP in general and N.T. Wright in particular work on the basis of a wrong paradigm, one which assumes that you can use theology to help solve exegetical problems?
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While it is true that N.T. Wright uses theology to help with exegesis, I would question the idea that this is a wrong paradigm. In Richard Hays introduction to his book The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, he writes as follows about the need to integrate exegesis and theology:
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"For that reason, the attempt of Matlock to "detheologize" the pistis Christou debate is a sure prescription for misinterpretation. Paul is, after all, using this language in the context of 'theological' arguments, and there is no way to understand the sense of the terminology without attempting to understand the shape and coherence of the argument. That is what the study of Pauline theology seeks to do. Matlock, however, writes as though there were an objective science of lexical semantics that permits him to perform theologically "neutral" interpretations of linguistic units, in contrast to all the other foolish participants in the debate who have who have allowed theological considerations to warp their judgment. This is an astonishingly naive claim... Can anyone seriously believe that the lexicographers are not making theological judgments about the meaning of the sentences in which the word pistis appears? ... The main point I want to make, however, is that lexical semantics insofar as it seeks to make judgments about the meanings of words in Paul's letter, must attend to larger sense units that are inescapably theological. The attempt to do non-theological exegesis of the NT is self-defeating."
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I think that would also be Wright's position, namely that there are many factors are involved in establishing the meaning of the text, including attentiveness to the "larger sense units that are inescapably theological".
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But shouldn't theology always give way to the text (since the text is foundational), not the other way around?
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This question presupposes the bifurcation between theology and exegesis that needs to be challenged. In ordinary conversation we wouldn't say that the larger sense of what a person means should give way to the actual words they are using since we recognise that the two spheres are mutually reinforcing. My contention would be that this is similar to the way that words and theology are mutually reciprocal. On a very general level, it seems that there are theological categories that feed into all communication (such as belief in a rational creator, which forms one of the epistemological underpinnings to intelligibility and therefore communication).
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I have encountered resistence to this from evangelicals who hold a basically rationalistic hermeneutic. Derrick Olliff describes the methodology of this hermeneutic HERE. "The mechanics of the text are everything. The basic methodology is that of a scientist who must analyze the raw terms and syntax of the text and arrange the bits of biblical data into a systematic whole. Commonsense realism and Baconianism are the epistemological drivers. The poetry, story, and historical flow of the text often become secondary or tertiary. The vast majority of the Bible was explicitly written as narrative history and poetry, but it is usually read “mechanically,” systematically, and more or less atemporally – as if it were a textbook (or perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, with the various proof texts functioning as pieces to be arranged in the proper order). Moreover, this hermeneutic tends to be minimalistic in how it addresses things like typology and allusions to previous scripture. This is in opposition to the typological way in which the NT regularly quotes/alludes to the OT. This flows from and fits in well with the existentialism that characterizes pietism in general."
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The text is foundational. Since Biblical theology is based on the text, I must first find the meaning of the text before I try to interpret what it means in a broader sense. This is simply another way of saying I must first gather all of my data before I try to interpret the results or come to any conclusions.
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I would agree that you must first gather all your data before you try to interpret the results, but I would want to include the larger sense units of what a person means as being among the relevant historical data. Because we do this in normal communication all the time I would urge that it is also reasonable when interpreting historical documents. For example, when interpreting the words of the United States Constitution, wouldn't we want to be attentive to what we already knew from other contemporary sources about the constitution's meaning, context and historical background? Similarly, when approaching Paul, if we already have evidence of his theological preoccupations, then why can't this be one of the things we feed into exegesis, not least the difficult passages? But it also works the other way round, as N.T. Wright says in What St. Paul Really Said: "verse-by-verse exegesis [is] the real test of how a particular scheme works out in practice."
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I cannot throw out data that does not support 'my' conclusion and I cannot ignore data that is unclear. This means that if a text contradicts my theology, then I need to revise my theology. If the text is unclear, then I need to acknowledge that it is unclear and not make any dogmatic assertions about what it is saying.

I would agree with that, and I think I would be correct in saying that N.T. Wright also agrees. For example, in his article New Perspectives on Paul, he says, "As an exegete determined to listen to scripture rather than abstract my favourite bits from it..." And again, "I prefer scripture itself to even the finest traditions of interpretation." And again, "I remain committed to understanding Paul in his own right and his own terms against all traditions about him, including my own." Now this does not mean that Wright will always get it right, but unless he is being dishonest, I don't see how we can know that he is throwing out data that does not support his conclusions.

Being sympathetic of N.T. Wright's version of the NPP, how would you interpret Galatians 2:14-15?

This is the verse where Paul says to Peter “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” I would begin by asking in what way Peter had begun to “live like a Gentile”?
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To answer this question we need to back up and see what happened in Acts. In Acts 10, Peter had a strange vision where the Lord lowered down a net filled with unclean animals and told Peter to eat. It is significant that unclean animals were used to represent unclean people, since one of the reasons God gave for the clean/unclean distinction was in order that His people might be separate from the rest of the nations (Lev. 20:22-26). In other words, the food laws had acted as covenantal boundary markers. This vision was God’s way of telling Peter that things had now changed: Gentiles believers are now welcome into the covenant community as Gentiles (always before they had been welcome provided that they convert to Judaism and become ritually clean according to Mosaic law). Always before it had been unlawful for a Jew to keep company, much less eat, with a Gentile. As Peter said to Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts. 10:28) The consequence of this is that Peter begins eating with Gentiles, to the great astonishment of the Jews (“’You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’” Acts 11:3). But not only does Peter stop observing the clean/unclean distinctions, being, like Paul, “convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14:14), but Peter also insisted that Gentile converts not be made to submit to the ceremonial laws of Moses. He appealed to the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles living as Gentiles and not as Jews, as the final proof of this new work (Acts 15:8-9).
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Given this background, we can begin to understand why Paul called Peter a hypocrite when he began to separate himself from Gentile believers and side with those who were demanding that Gentile converts start living like Jews. I would argue that that was the issue at stake at Antioch, in Acts 15 and with the Galatians, not a debate over whether you could earn your own salvation. Just consider the context of Acts 15. Certain Jewish brethren were claiming that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
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Circumcision, of course, was not the only issue, but it stood as the most prominent and most distinctive mark of Judaism. Notice that the apostles did not argue in the council that salvation is by grace rather than by works in the way that would have if their target had been a form of semi or full-blown Pelagianism. Rather, the entire debate revolves around whether or not Gentiles as such can be admitted to full membership in the covenant. Peter’s speech declares that salvation has come to the Gentiles apart from Torah observance. When Peter says salvation has come in the same manner to Jews and Gentiles (15:11), his point is not merely that salvation comes by faith in Jesus, but that it comes apart from Jewishness. That is the key: the entire debate centers around the limits and terms of covenant membership, not accumulating merit in order to attain salvation by works. James then clinches the argument in Acts 15 by appealing not to a passage that declares salvation is by grace through faith, but by appealing to a text that prophesied the inclusion of the Gentiles in the worship of the renewed, eschatological people of God (Amos 9:11-12). The Gentiles, too, have been formed into a “people for his name” (15:14). The decree of the council, then, is not a condemnation of Pelagianism (“Do not attempt to earn your salvation by submitting to circumcision as though it were a meritorious work”) but a call to Gentile believers to adhere to a few basic Mosaic regulations during this time of transition. The Gentiles were called to bear with their weaker Jewish brethren for a short period and make concessions to their customs for the sake of unity (cf. Rom. 14-15). Jew-Gentile solidarity is the goal. Furthermore, the letter from the apostles did not release Gentiles from the burden of attempting to earn their own salvation, as though that had been at issue. It simply removed the burden of having to carry out all the directives of the Mosaic law as a part of Christian living, something which not even the Jews had succeeded in keeping (trying to get only kosher foods and observe the Sabbath and feast days and cleanness laws was quite difficult in an otherwise pagan culture, far removed from Jerusalem and the temple.) The four aspects of Mosaic legislation the Gentiles are advised to uphold are presented as a relatively lighter burden (15:28-29). But those four laws are not part of a reduced Pelagian program, for no Pelagian system was ever in view at any point in the discussion. It’s not as though the disciples are saying the Gentiles can now buy salvation at a bargain price of law-keeping in just four areas, whereas the Jews were claiming the whole law had to be kept to earn salvation; that kind of debate simply wasn’t on the radar screen.
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All of these facts from Acts set the context to our study of Galatians. This is not a case of inappropriately ‘reading theology into the text’ since the text itself clearly shows that problems with the Judaisers were at stake in the Galatian controversy. Because we do not have an epistle or sermon from the Judaizers, we have to summarise what they believed from Paul’s side of the conversation and from the record of Acts. But nothing anywhere indicates they were telling people to earn salvation apart from grace. Rather, every indication is that they insisted on submission to the yoke of Moses for full rights and privileges in the covenant community. When the Judaizers told people they had to get circumcised and come under the law (Torah) in order to be justified, again it isn’t a matter of trying to earn your salvation. In the Old Testament, keeping the Torah never meant living perfectly by every command. Consider Zechariah who, despite being a sinner, was said by Luke to have walked blamelessly in all the Lord’s commandments. As Olliff points out in his article 'Looking for Legalism', “This is not a claim that he didn’t sin. Such a statement was possible because the text is not referring to law keeping in the abstract. It is referring to faithfulness within the context of the covenant. And the covenant itself had the sacrificial system whereby sin could be dealt with by faithful people. So when Zechariah (or someone else) sinned, he remained obedient to the commandments by sincerely availing himself of the sacrificial system.”
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Thus, to keep the law meant faithfulness to the covenant. That faithfulness was expressed by entering into the basic structure that defined this people over and against the Gentiles, availing oneself of the atonement system, living by the Mosaic ceremonial codes, being separate from the Gentiles, and so on. All these points can be found in the Old Testament and were fine for a time until Christ was revealed and everything changed. The Judaisers’ theology would have been entirely appropriate in the old age, but after Christ had fulfilled those things, it brought death instead of life.
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This background helps to give a nuance to Paul’s discussion of justification. When Paul tells the Galatians that they are not “justified by the law”, this has typically been understood in the post-reformation tradition as referring to attempts to earn salvation through works-righteousness. The idea is that when Paul contrasts justification by law with justification by grace, he is condemning the kind of merit-soteriology that would later find its fullest expression in Palagianism or the Catholicism of the high middle ages. The rest of Galatians tends to then be read post hoc through the lens of this issue. We forget that Paul’s formulation of justification by faith was a direct response to the incident of the divided table. The reason the table was being divided between the circumcised and the uncircumcised was not because the later group were trying to earn salvation through merit, but because they were still allowing circumcision to function as a boundary marker for the covenant people. This created a boundary between Jews and Gentiles, with the former group marked out by adherence to the Mosaic law. It is THIS and not attempts at self-help justification that the apostle refers when he speaks of justification not coming through the works of the law. Paul’s anti-thesis is between salvation in Christ the Messiah, with its implications on the universality of the gospel, over and against the disgracing of that grace by those who would maintain these boundary markers as the distinguishing features of the covenant community. (See the article, “What Saint Paul Should Have Said: Is Galatians a Polemic Against Legalism?”)
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The Judiazers were thinking of circumcision and the ceremonial laws that went with it as a means for cleanliness as had previously been the case. These things had been ordained by God to be boundary markers and the means to spiritual cleanliness until it was no longer needed because of Jesus. Likewise, the sacrifices were ordained by God to be the means of forgiveness and covering of sin until it was no longer needed because of Jesus. Jesus fulfils the truths vouchsafed to the children of Israel, which they were expected to hold until He came (see my article on God's Covenant with Israel and my Bible Overview). But to continue to hold onto them in the old way instead of rejoicing in the realisation of what had always been their aim, would have been like refusing to eat a cake because you saw the process of making the cake as an end in itself. The purpose for which Israel maintained the laws of separation, cleansing and sacrifice had been dimly understood by the Patriarchs and prophets and Godly men and woman of old (John 8:56). The Judiazers didn’t understand that now the purpose for those laws had been fulfilled, to continue to maintain those laws was to refuse the purpose of them – i.e., to refuse Jesus, to refuse to eat the cake. Circumcision represented all the works of the law, just as a passport represents all one’s national privileges and responsibilities, or baptism represents the whole life of faith that follows it. That’s why, in Galatians, sometimes Paul speaks of circumcision and sometime he speaks generically of ‘works of the law’, meaning basically the same thing.
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His point is that circumcision and the law is not what saves a person any more. In the Old Testament, people had been ‘justified by the works of the law’ in so far as justification, in this context, refers to how you tell who God’s people are. (It doesn’t mean that they had to keep the law perfectly, for the reasons given above.) Justification was a law court term, indicating God’s verdict in favour of someone. Recall Daniel 7, where the Almighty makes a judgement in favour of the Saints of the most high. That’s what justification was all about. Justification is God’s declaration that, despite universal sin, a person has right standing before the Judge. But here’s the rub: if God’s people are the ones who are justified, how do you tell who God’s people are? Or put the other way round, if justification defines who God’s people are, what is the basis of that justification? The Judaizers said it was no different to how it always had been. Paul said things had now changed: faith in Jesus is the only thing that counts. Ultimately this interpretation must be tested by a careful verse by verse reading of the entire text. For further reading I would suggest THIS ‘mini-commentary’ on the epistle which I found very helpful and which convinced me that the NPP approach on Galatians is at least worth taking very seriously.
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