Good Reading

I know I have not been blogging as much lately. This is due to life. The ever present call (and joy!) of fatherhood has put some constraints on my ability to sit down and ponder blog topics for any extended period of time. Furthermore, with graduation last weekend and family in town, you can imagine that things have been busy around here.

I do want to highly recommend an article to you. Recently, at the 2006 Concordia Exegetical Symposium, Stephen Westerholm presented a paper entitled “Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question?”. It is a very persuasive defense of what has now come to be known as the “old perspective” on Paul, aka the “Lutheran” Paul, at least insofar as the doctrine of justification is concerned.

In this paper, Westerholm refutes the thesis of Krister Stendahl, who in his article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” argued that Paul’s message has been distorted by Western psychology. People like Augustine and Luther misread Paul through the lenses of their own struggle to find a gracious God. Therefore, they misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification as something that pertains primarily to personal salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin. In reality, Paul was concerned with groups–Jews and Gentiles–and how the gospel brings Gentiles into the covenant people. If justification by faith is the answer, Stendahl argued that the proper question is not, “How can I find a gracious God?” but, “Where do the Gentiles fit in God’s plan of salvation?”.

Those who are familiar with current trends in Pauline studies will recognize immediately that Stendahl was a precursor to the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”. Stendahl’s article was published in 1963, well before E.P. Sanders’ volume Paul and Palestinian Judaism appeared in 1977, which is normally identified as the launch of the New Perspective. While there is no single “New Perspective” (since proponents of it disagree on many different issues), there are some common threads to this school of thought:

(1) Judaism in Paul’s day was not legalistic; it belongs, rather, to a pattern of religion known as “covenantal nomism,” (Sanders’ phrase), by which the gracious election of God establishes the people of Israel as the covenant people, and their means of “staying in” the covenant is adherence to the Mosaic Law, which includes provisions for atonement and forgiveness of sins. We must recognize, therefore, that Jews in Paul’s day believed in grace and did not seek to earn favor with God by their works.

(2) Therefore, when Paul opposes faith and works, his primary purpose is not to combat self-effort as a means of salvation; rather, Paul seeks to identify the true people of God. In Christ, the people of God are identified by faith, not by Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws.

(3) Therefore, those who read Paul through Reformation lenses misread him by falsely linking Paul’s Jewish opponents with the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Luther saw his own struggles with his conscience and the Roman Catholic penitential system in Galatians and Romans and failed to consider these books in their own context. As a result, Protestant scholarship has misread Paul by focusing too much on personal salvation and very little on questions of Gentile inclusion into the people of God and God’s plan for groups of people throughout history.

I think there are a number of valid insights that the New Perspective offers, and these insights have been incorporated into contemporary discussion of Pauline theology even in “old perspective” circles. However, I am also convinced that the pendulum has swung too far in the hands of New Perspective proponents, and Westerholm offers a sobering corrective to that unfortunate tendency. I am still convinced that the Reformers were basically right in their understanding of Paul and the doctrine of justification, though they lacked the depth of historical understanding that contemporary scholars have. Westerholm demonstrates convincingly from Paul’s letters that Paul was very concerned with matters of personal salvation and that the doctrine of justification speaks directly to this issue. In addition, Westerholm writes with a simple, clear, and humorous style that communicates issues of great complexity with clarity and wit that will keep you entertained. Even if you have never read a single book or article pertaining to Pauline studies, I invite you to read Westerholm’s essay; I think you will probably be able to follow it.

Also, if you want more of the same, don’t miss Westerholm’s book Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. And, for those who are somewhat familiar with Pauline studies, I also invite you to read Mark Seifrid’s essay at the Concordia Symposium entitled “The Narrative of Scripture and Justification by Faith: A Still Fresher Reading of Paul”. It is a critique of N.T. Wright’s covenantal/narrative framework for reading Paul.

[HT: Justin Taylor]

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