Friday, September 25, 2009

Paul and the New Perspective: The Evolution of a Theology

That's the title of the book I've started writing, and it's already loads of fun.

It's been 18 years since I first cracked Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and over the course of these formative years my allegiance to the New Perspective has been challenged and amended as much as Paul's theology itself. With adult confidence setting in, I figure it's time to nail down the issue more formally. Here are a few thoughts as to where I'm going in the book.

I regard New Perspective scholars as falling into one of three camps:
(A) The "Replacement" Group, which claims that Paul thought the law was finished. He was concerned with the scope of God's salvation, but also that grace and law were mutually exclusive. A sectarian Christology had as much to say about the law as the Gentile question. Lead advocates for this group are Ed Sanders, Philip Esler, and Francis Watson.

(B) The "Boundary Markers" Group, which argues that Paul thought a kernel of the law remained in force, minus its boundary-marking "works". He was almost entirely concerned with the scope of God's salvation. The law was finished as a badge of national privilege, but it still had a salvific role to play. Spokesmen for this group are James Dunn and Tom Wright.

(C) The "Two-Covenants" Group, which maintains that Paul thought the law was still in force for Jews, though only a kernel of it for Gentiles, and that he possibly even held out hope for Israel's salvation apart from Christ. This group is similar to (B) except that nothing changed for Jews. Ethnic works were optional for Gentiles only. Think Lloyd Gaston, Mark Nanos, and Stanley Stowers.
All three groups agree on two things. First, the law wasn't a burden for ancient Jews, and Paul was no exception; he had no problems as a Pharisee doing what the law required. Second, his conflict with the law originated in the Gentile mission. He was neither a disembodied theorizer nor an introspective soul-searcher. These two common denominators -- which should by now be accepted as plain facts -- are what define a New Perspective advocate. But beyond them lies heavy disagreement.

As I recently explained, the (B) group is the weakest of the lot, representing a step backwards from Sanders even as its advocates think they're improving on him. The (C) group has shown how Dunn and Wright ultimately fall back on apologetic foils, replacing legalistic Jews with racist Jews, and obsessing "boundary markers" and "covenant badges" to the point of caricature. The result is that Paul emerges for the (B) group as a hero fully justified in his critique of Judaism, as much a hero as in the days of Bultmann. The (C) group, while pushing ethnic issues as strongly the (B) group, at least steer clear of foils and anachronistic categories. They may be Jewish apologists instead of Christian ones, but allow for nuances in Paul's thought which yield some accurate results in a letter like Romans.

Thesis. The intent of my book is twofold. (1) To show why the (A) group is essentially right, despite claims that Sanders et. all have remained largely within the old framework and repeated Lutheran themes. Paul thought grace and law were mutually exclusive alternatives, and he broke with mainstream Judaism. (2) To chronicle the evolution of Paul's theology, and see how he went from advocating a new law (the Torah's messianic successor) to dispensing with moral imperatives completely, and then backpedalling a bit to salvage something good about God's commandments. This evolution occurred in the face of many pressures: hostile situations, failed expectations, a bad reputation, and personal unease with his own convictions. As his theology changed, echoes of what he discarded inevitably lingered. Thus he referred to "Christ's law" in Gal 6:2, even as Galatians makes clear that Christians aren't under any law at all (against the earlier view of I Corinthians). Thus he implied that the Christian body is Israel in Rom 9:6-8, even as Romans makes clear that only ethnic Israel is Israel (against the earlier view of Galatians). Paul's theology cannot be systematized coherently, even within single letters. We can only systematize the continuum of his theology by accepting tension as inherent along its spectrum. The sequence of Paul's letters is crucial to understanding this continuum, and a post-I Corinthians dating for Galatians makes perfect sense of the proposed evolution. In the end, Paul's theology can be legitimately said to encompass a Lutheran credo -- and more than just as an accidental byproduct of "central convictions" -- and that this was a monster of his own making.

Pushing beyond the Lutheran and New Perspectives is definitely in the air. Francis Watson recently took a swing at both, and Douglas Campbell has just done something similar. Now it's my turn. I'll be showing why the New Perspective is a good bedrock but shouldn't be taken too far, and that the Lutheran paradigm does Paul more justice than we want to admit. We'll see an apostle who was dragged into demolishing the law against his will, but then seized the higher ground by expanding on his polemic in deliberately shocking directions.

Of course, my book will probably be read by less than a dozen people...

10 Comments:

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Loren, good to hear. I wish you every success with that project. And i think the (A) group is the way to go!

9/25/2009  
Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Sounds good already!

9/25/2009  
Anonymous Mike Koke said...

Sounds like a great book Loren and I would love to read it. Though I think group B has a more nuanced view than you may give them credit for here. For instance Dunn acknowledges that "works of the Law" has a wider reference than just boundary markers but includes works that the Law demands, but that in contexts like Galatians Paul narrows in on the issue of Gentile circumcision and proselytism. And you could also possibly include Daniel Boyarin within group 2, who sees Paul specifically as a Jewish cultural critic.

9/26/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks guys... Yes Mike, I know Dunn has modified his views a bit since his Galatian essays and the Word Biblical Commentary on Romans; though he remains focused on the problematic category of "boundary markers". Boyarin will be getting some attention in the book, since his views fall apart especially in Romans.

9/26/2009  
Blogger Jason A. Staples said...

I look forward to it, though I think none of the three options is correct. There is a fourth option, which I'll hopefully have out sometime within the next couple/few years. This book would be valuable for the analysis of the NPP's development and various camps alone.

9/26/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Sounds interesting, Jason. I look forward to hearing more about this from you.

9/26/2009  
Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

Hmm … I'm essentially in the A group, but with some fairly heavy modifications (mainly drawn from your B group – I don't see as much of an opposition here as you). Look forward to hearing you develop this one further.

9/26/2009  
Blogger Mark said...

Loren,
This is great news. You have always been an excellent reader of what the various voices are trying to argue, so why not put this to the test on this topic, which seems so simple in some ways, but so complicated in others. Clarity would serve everyone's interests, including those who advance some of these points inconsistently. Perhaps this investigation will help you finally see the folly of choosing A :)

9/27/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Doug: I have some heavy modifications to the (A) group myself, but they don't involve the asphyxiating claims or corollaries of (B). It's actually the (C) group, believe it or not, that gets more right than (B) though that's probably damning the former with faint praise.

Mark: I'm already coming to terms with loads of folly in attempting this book (my own and that of others), though I don't anticipate returning like the wayward son to the (C) camp. I'm sure you'll have plenty to say about it. :)

9/27/2009  
Blogger John Thomson said...

'To chronicle the evolution of Paul's theology, and see how he went from advocating a new law (the Torah's messianic successor) to dispensing with moral imperatives completely, and then backpedalling a bit to salvage something good about God's commandments. This evolution occurred in the face of many pressures: hostile situations, failed expectations, a bad reputation, and personal unease with his own convictions. As his theology changed, echoes of what he discarded inevitably lingered. Thus he referred to "Christ's law" in Gal 6:2, even as Galatians makes clear that Christians aren't under any law at all (against the earlier view of I Corinthians). Thus he implied that the Christian body is Israel in Rom 9:6-8, even as Romans makes clear that only ethnic Israel is Israel (against the earlier view of Galatians). Paul's theology cannot be systematized coherently, even within single letters. We can only systematize the continuum of his theology by accepting tension as inherent along its spectrum.'

Firstly, I am enjoying reading what you write, however, re the above, and seeing it as representative of a few such comments, how far do you believe what Paul writes is the word of God? How far is it a 'revelation received from God'? How infallible is it?

The danger seems to me that Scripture becomes Paul's evolving and somewhat contradictory journey in theology not 'the faith once and for all delivered to the saints'.

2/25/2010  

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