A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (16)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: One of the big ticket issues one confronts in Paul is the notion of the bondage of sin. It leads to questions like— if before Christ everyone was in the bondage of sin, what were all those commandments about in the OT, and why were there actually people called righteous back then and back there? Was God grading on a curve in the OT, but not so much now since we have the renovating presence of the Spirit? I agree with Sanders that there is the grace of God to be found in the OT, but the question is, what effect did it actually have on God’s people. Was the good godly law inherently frustrating– it could tell them what to do, but couldn’t enable them to do it? Why then does Paul say in a remarkable passing remark in Philippians that in regard to a righteousness that came from the Mosaic Law, he was blameless!!!! Really? This sounds like no bondage of sin in Paul’s case. Or is he simply saying, I was not a law breaker, without implying his obedience to the positive requirements of love etc. was perfect? What do you think?

PATRICK: Nice easy question Ben! It zones in the vexed question of continuity and discontinuity within Paul’s theology of righteousness when compared to the OT. Sanders’s understandable reaction to forms of Protestant discontinuity, sometimes verging on anti-Semitism, led to him to so emphasise continuity that he concluded Paul’s only real problem with Judaism was that ‘it was not Christianity’. But this won’t do. While Paul is not setting up ‘failed’ Jewish legalism up against Christian grace, something profoundly discontinuous has happened. His own life is an example of radical change.

I see it as Paul re-reading the Scriptures backwards in light of Christ, telling a restructured historical-redemptive story. ‘Faith’ was always the key to justification / righteousness long before the law existed (the story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians). Nor is the law opposed to the promises of God. Its fundamental problem is that it could never justify or give life (only faith in Christ and the regenerating work of the Spirit does that). So in this sense, yes, the life under the law in the OT is temporary and partial. Those who rely on observing it are under a curse (Gal 3:10). In terms of how were faithful believing Jews in the OT seen by God, I think we need to come back to texts like Deut 6:4-5. Wholehearted love for God leads to faithful lives of justice that please God. People can only live according to the light that they have received.

On Philippians, given Paul’s strong theology of sin as a power, I take his reference to being blameless as referring to his pre-conversion life – he was exemplary in keeping the law.

BEN: You quote our old friend John Stott positively as follows (P. 143): “the love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all mankind…long enough to last for eternity, deep enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and high enough to exalt him to heaven”. I totally agree with this and take very seriously John 3.16— God loves the whole of fallen humanity (the cosmos organized against him). All this being true, it does not make sense to me at all to then also say, God has chosen and pre-determined a select number of human beings to be saved, culled out of a mass of unredeemed humanity. To me this denies the very nature of a statement like John 3.16, not least because love has to be freely given and freely received. It can’t be manipulated, compelled, or predetermined for that matter. Election of a person or a people for certain historical purposes is one thing, salvation is another. Christ, as M. Barth said about Ephesians is the Elect One, and yet Christ didn’t need to be saved— these two things must then be distinguished. Believers are saved by grace and through faith, by responding to the Gospel. They become elect only by being in the Elect One, Christ, and that again transpires by grace and through faith. What is your take on these things?

PATRICK: Yes, the study of biblical love does throw up a lot of big theological questions doesn’t’ it? I think some later systematic categories of thinking about election run the risk of imposing an artificial grid on the Bible and making it say more than it does – with unfortunate results. Like you I find it difficult to square texts like John 3:16 with God’s foreordination of multitudes to eternal judgment.

Ultimately this question comes back to the character of God. As I read the Bible, divine love is the great central thread to the whole story. The OT insists that God abounds in love. Hosea is a particularly moving example. God the betrayed lover woos back his unfaithful bride and refuses to end their marriage although he had every right to. Their love is not compelled or enforced – he is not a bullying husband. So, yes, the OT is a very particular story of God’s unbreakable covenant love for Israel, that but story is not an end in itself. Behind his election of Israel is his reconciling love for all. The big shift in the NT is how that ‘narrow lens’ is then widened to embrace all who respond in faith and repentance to the gospel of the Messiah, the Lord of all. No greater example of divine love is possible imagine than the cross of Christ.

 

Murder your Darlings : a footnote on justification

This is basically an out-of-control footnote in something I was writing – making the case for incorporated righteousness or union with Christ as the best way of thinking about justification by faith. It got edited out because it was too long and not central to what I was writing about.

As Stephen King the horror writer says, you have got to Murder Your Darlings when writing! I confess to finding that hard to do and so need a ruthless editor.

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Roman Catholic theology (The Council of Trent’s ‘Decree Concerning Justification’ is still the most authoritative pronouncement) teaches infused righteousness whereby justification is not participation in God’s or Jesus’ own righteousness but is an imparted gift of our own righteousness (through the sacrament of baptism). This righteousness grows with our cooperation with the Spirit in the form of good works. Justification is therefore an ongoing process that culminates in demonstrating sufficient righteousness for final salvation.

But this fails to take account of how in Paul, justification is based on God’s once-and-for-all declaration of Jesus as righteous and that believers share in that verdict by faith union in Christ. Trent does get right, however, Paul’s absolute expectation that initial justification will lead to a transformed life of holiness pleasing to God.

Within Reformed and Lutheran theology, imputation of Christ’s righteousness has been the dominant way of understanding justification. The idea is that believers are instantaneously ‘covered’ in righteousness that is not theirs but Christ’s. God ‘sees’ us through the ‘alien righteousness’ of Christ.

While right in affirming Christ’s righteousness and not our own, there are problems with this view. ‘Justification alone’ tends to be virtually equated with the gospel and salvation. Sanctification tends to be artificially defined as a subsequent distinct category from justification and a transformed life in the Spirit as merely a secondary consequence of prior justification. This fails to account for how justification has past, present and future elements and how the systematic distinction between justification and sanctification cannot be maintained through exegesis of Paul. The Bible does not distinguish in importance between our initial justification through faith-union in Christ and our subsequent life of righteousness through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Both are essential for salvation. Nor can the overly transactional and somewhat artificial notion of imputation as just described be found clearly in any text in the NT.

The idea of incorporated righteousness affirms that our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s. It is by faith alone, and only due to God’s grace, that believers are declared righteous in Christ and are united in him through the Spirit. It also stresses union and relationship as the lens through which any sense of imputation needs to be viewed. His righteousness becomes ours as we have faith in Christ. Faith here is much more than mental assent, but a whole life lived in continuing union with the Lord that issues a transformed life.

The New Perspective on Paul in Pictures

If pushed, what would you say Paul’s problem with the Judaism of his day was?

How did his gospel of Jesus Christ ‘solve’ that problem?

Or in other words, what changed between him standing over Stephen’s dying body as a defender of Pharisaic Jewish orthodoxy and him preaching to pagans in Athens that they too could join the people of Israel’s God?

Or put it this way; if you are a Christian, what was your ‘salvation narrative’? Did it go something like this?

I grew up thinking God was waiting to catch me out. I tried my best to be a good person, but I always felt that I couldn’t meet my own standards, let alone a holy God’s. I felt guilty. I realised eventually that I needed something, someone, beyond myself. I couldn’t do it on my own. And I came to understand the grace of God – that he sent his Son to die my death, to take away my sin, to give me his righteousness, to give me new life and a fresh start. I realised I couldn’t earn this whatever I did, I could only accept it as a gift, through faith in Christ. I’m grateful to God for his love for me.

Or in Martin Luther’s own words

I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans … but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners …

At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.

OK, the answer to both of these narratives is justification by faith through the grace of God. The ‘question’ they are both ‘answering’ is the failure of our best efforts (works) to produce righteousness.

The NPP does not reject the legitimacy or truth or reality of such narratives – heck they are good news experiences of God’s forgiving grace.

But it does ask this; is the ‘problem’ they address (our personal senses of guilt, legalism and failure to be ‘righteous’) actually the problem that Paul had with Judaism? Or is Paul’s focus elsewhere and we have tended to read back into Paul our modern introspective spiritual struggles?

Have we tended to equate the Judaism of Paul’s day (and today) with ‘works righteousness’ – a continual and ever-failing attempt to live righteous lives under the Law? And the good news of the gospel is that you are not under Law but grace and are therefore set free in Christ?

This is a pretty negative view of OT faith is it not? And of contemporary Judaism as well.

So, these are the sort of questions that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has been wrestling through for nearly 40 years. It goes back to 1977 and the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E P Sanders. This was followed up by the numerous works of J D G Dunn and N T Wright, with counterworks by people like Stephen Westerholm, Mark Seifrid, Francis Watson etc. It’s been the biggest theological revolution within Pauline studies for pretty well all that time and it’s still a hot topic.

Now you could read all Dunn’s and Wright’s books and many many more by other scholars weighing into the debate from different angles – I’m ploughing through quite a few at the moment including Tom Wright’s heavyweight (literally that is, it’s actually a joy to read) Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) which is shaped by his own take on the NPP, if also covering much other ground.

But maybe you don’t have a year of your life to read all the books on the NPP. So, for a bit of light relief I thought I’d try to summarise the main themes of the NPP in a picture.

And this is primarily descriptive – I’m not getting into criticisms and push-backs against the NPP in this post.

NPP in a picture (sort of)Now of course you can instantly see what this is can’t you?

Just in case for some inexplicable reason you don’t, it is of the mediterranean, Egypt and Israel, with the Sinai peninsula and the (admittedly a bit rough) route of the Exodus.

1. SL= Land of Slavery

‘Israel’, although not yet formed as the people of God, are under slavery. God hears their cry, remembers his promise given long before to Abraham, and sets about liberating them from Pharoah with the reluctant help of Moses.

2. EX = Exodus

God’s gracious promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many and that God would give the land to his descendents (Gen 15) is the key to the Exodus. Election comes first.

Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness [justification]. (Gen 15:6) Justification by faith comes before the Law (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians using Abraham as his model). Those who are children of Abraham are those, like him, who have justifying faith (in Jesus the risen Christ).

3. L = LAW

It is in Sinai that the newly rescued people are given the Law. The Law comes after the promise; after ‘salvation’; and after Israel is formed into a nation, the people of God. The Law was never the ‘way in’ to the covenant. Election and grace precede the Torah.

This was the big theme of Sanders’ book back in 1977; he argued from a study of Palestinian Judaism that it was a religion of grace, not legalism. He coined the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’ – Israel is elected by God’s grace into a covenantal relationship with God and is to live by and under the Law (nomos) to stay in that covenantal relationship.

For Sanders, the ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul was that it was not Christianity. In other words, both are shaped around God’s election and grace, but with the coming of the Messiah all has changed. Now Gentiles are also welcomed in by grace. Obedience to the Law no longer defines the  covenantal relationship of God’s people.

You can see how radical this is if we come back to the salvation narratives above. They both work from ‘plight to solution’; from spiritual crisis to resolution; from legalistic imprisonment to grace-filled liberation. And if this is your framework, then this will be how you tend to read Paul. Thus, the Judaism of his day was legalistic works righteousness (‘plight’) and the ‘solution’ is justification by faith through grace alone.

Sanders and most of the NPP authors, argue that what we have in Paul is actually ‘solution to plight’. And this means a radically different way of reading Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.

OT faith is full of grace, love, faith and justice. Mere external legalistic obedience to the Torah was never enough. Think Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”;  Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings”; the books of Amos and Malachi are examples where judgement comes where there is hypocrisy in Israel; where external religious ritual is not matched by relationships of love for God and neighbour.

J D G Dunn largely agreed with Sanders but developed his own take on things. The ‘works of the law’ that in the salvation narratives above tend to be equated with Jewish legalistic works,  are better understood as being the identity markers of being Jewish (circumcision, food laws, worship). The main ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul then is that physically and spiritually ‘being Jewish’ (ethnocentrism) is not enough. It leaves you relying on the wrong thing (the Law) to receive new life. That only comes through faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, whether you are Jew or Gentile.

Tom Wright also sees ‘plight’ in Paul NOT as Jewish legalism, but in bigger terms as the brokenness of the world. The ‘solution’ is God’s redemptive action to renew all of creation and defeat sin and death and evil. And for Paul this all become blazingly clear when he is confronted with the crucified yet risen Messiah, who is Lord of all.

Paul’s ‘problem’ with Judaism, and particularly the Judaizers of Galatians who wanted to make Gentiles good Jews in order to follow the Messiah, is that God’s redemptive plans for all of creation have moved on. You can’t try to stop or freeze the story. To try to ‘go back’ to ‘the works of the Law’ is to seek life in something that cannot give life. The new age of the Spirit has dawned. He alone gives life and that life comes through faith in the Messiah.

There is significant continuity with OT faith (it is one story after all, the NT is built on the OT) but there has been a dramatic plot twist that has now welcomed anyone in to the people of God. Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and Col 3:11 “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”

And all of this is made possible because Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel, of Torah, who overcomes sin and death, and is the living Lord who will return to establish his kingdom over creation.

4. PL = Promised Land

And so to the promised land. This was the place Israel could be Israel; the place of temple, of Torah, of legal and political autonomy. This hasn’t been a big theme in the NPP – but the implications are clear. Just as you ‘can’t go back’ to the Law, so you ‘can’t go back’ to the historical period when the Promised Land belonged to ethnic Israel.

………….

This post got longer than I intended. But hopefully that picture helps give a way in to the ‘big picture’ of what the NPP is saying.

And this leads on to questions that are very ‘live’ today:

1. If the ‘problem’ Paul faces is not primarily legalistic works righteousness, what difference does this make for Christian teaching and preaching? What difference will it make to appreciate afresh the Jewish framework of Paul’s thinking and theology?

2. Has much of post-Reformation Protestantism tended to articulate the gospel as an individualistic solution to an existential-crisis? And if it has what have been the implications?

3. What would you say continues from OT to NT faith and what is discontinuous? This is a big question. If you have full continuity and there is no need for Jesus at all. Some forms of Zionist pro-Israel theology seems to come close to this – if you hint that modern Israel is not to be equated with OT Israel you get accused of being supersessionist and anti-Semitic. But if you have a radical discontinuity between Israel and the Church, then does this mean God has gone on to plan B after abandoning plan A? Was the OT a mistake?

4. A strength of the older perspective on Paul (and there has never been just one, Luther and Calvin differed quite a bit) is a clear sense of sin, guilt, need for grace, and trust in God’s saving righteousness not our own. This was strongly connected to the idea of imputed righteousness – God counts or reckons or transfers Jesus’ righteousness to us.* This gives assurance of faith (I am righteous in God’s sight) once I have repented and follow Jesus.  This is still the most common conversion story that I hear from students, in church, in home group etc. It has clarity and also resonates with human experience. A question for the NPP is how does its insights ‘work out’ in terms of evangelism, repentance, faith and assurance?

* Tom Wright (and others outside opposed to the NPP so it is not a one-sided thing here) have questioned whether Paul actually teaches imputed righteousness at all.  It is this, more than anything else I think, that has caused the traditional Reformed camp to criticise him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.