Older doctrine and the not so new perspective on Paul

The previous post on Anglican Article 11: Of the Justification of Man (back in the 16th and 17th centuries a gender inclusive noun), was simply getting too long. This is part 2 of the same argument.

The context for a reappraisal of Paul (and Jesus) within Judaism was to a great extent created by the Holocaust. All sorts of people became increasingly aware of the ways in which so much of the Reformation picture of Paul was implicated in Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time, as ecumenism spread in the wake of Vatican II, many Protestants became aware that Roman Catholics were Christians too. Neither of these contextual shifts in themselves brought about a new reading of Paul, but they did mean that when one came along, it would find a more receptive audience than previous attempts at re-reading his work.

The first plank in building a new reading of Paul came from a seminal essay by Krister Stendahl in 1963 (‘Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’). He argued persuasively that Paul simply didn’t share Luther’s concerns about finding salvation. Paul, as a good observant Jew was far from wondering how he could be free from sin and be saved. He was, rather, confident that he was one of God’s saved people. (See for example Phil 3:4-7)

It was more than a decade later that the decisive foundation for a new reading of Paul was laid, by Ed Sanders. In Paul and Palestinian Judaism he argued from detailed examination of texts that the idea of a Judaism that sought to achieve salvation through doing the works of the Law was almost entirely alien to the Judaism Paul knew and was a Lutheran construction imposed wrongly on Second Temple Judaism. Jews, like Christians, knew that they were saved by God’s grace, and performed the works of the Law as a response to that grace.

While some critiques of Sanders have challenged this, I don’t think they have succeeded in overthrowing it, but have perhaps shown where it needs to be nuanced. (It is also fair to say there is something like a consensus that Sanders is better on Judaism than he is on Paul in this book.) So if there were no (or few) salvation-by-merit earning Jews around, whom and what was Paul arguing against, and what did he mean by justification by faith? There are several variations of this under the banner of the “new perspective”: what follows is only a brief sketch.

In the final judgement, when God vindicated or justified his people, it would become clear to everyone that the people of the Law, the Jewish people, were indeed God’s chosen and righteous people, and their God was indeed the just creator God of all the earth. In the present time, God’s people could be recognized by their observance of the Law, demonstrating their acceptance of his call and salvation, and their faithful worship of the one true God, while they waited his future vindication. So, when the Church started to accept pagans into fellowship, many assumed that they too should start observing the Law.

By contrast, Paul argued that Christ had first of all demonstrated complete obedience to the Law and fulfilled it, yet at the same time the Law had condemned Jesus. Where the Law had declared Jesus a failed Messiah, even cursed, God in the resurrection had declared Jesus vindicated, his true Messiah. This showed that the Law no longer was able to truly declare whom God would vindicate, because when God vindicated and justified Jesus he effectively over-ruled the Law. Accordingly, a new pattern of true obedience is shown in Christ, and those who have faith in Christ are those who are truly God’s people. Faith in Christ means something like, accepting him as the one who reveals what obedience and true faithfulness to God look like, and as the one who has received the vindicating verdict of God.

Therefore (Paul argues) pagans who join the people of God do not have to keep the Law to demonstrate their obedience, they have instead to follow Christ. Faith in Jesus as the truly faithful one (not the observance of the Law) is what marks out those whom God is calling and will vindicate. So, on this reading, justification is not primarily about how an individual finds salvation, but about how the Church embraces people of every type, class and race on the same basis: not the the basis of the Law given to one nation, but on the basis Christ the faithful one, the truly human one, representative not just of Israel but all humanity, sent, anointed and vindicated by God.

Nothing in this reading contradicts the central affirmations of article 11. The work of salvation is by God’s grace, and it is God’s work in and through Christ, reconciling us to God’s own self. At the same time, it profoundly alters the individualist stress of that and other earlier readings, and becomes most profoundly a teaching to challenge our divisions. Those who accept Christ as the locus of God’s saving power, the revelation of his vindicating justice, and the pattern of human obedience, must themselves accept all others who, however fallibly, also accept this same Christ. God’s generosity to us ultimately obligates us to be generous with one another. If God’s grace governs our relationship with God, then it must also govern our relationship with God’s people.

For some, this new challenge to older readings has been wholly unwelcome. Realistically, it is still relatively early days for testing this theory out in the realm of doctrine rather than exegesis. In theory, at least, the churches of the reformation remain committed to being always reformed in the light of scripture. In practice, when new readings of scripture are generated that challenge deep-seated and long-cherished understandings, that commitment is harder to maintain. Often denying tradition, some evangelicals are hard put to deal with the recognition that their reading of scripture is a tradition. But when there are seriously contested readings of scripture clashing with each other as older and newer perspectives clash, one will not go away just because it is unwanted.

Those of us who are persuaded that something more-or-less along the lines of the new perspective on Paul is a more satisfying and historically plausible understanding of Paul’s meaning need to work out how to engage more thoroughly with the doctrinal tradition. Nonetheless, if we take Paul’s commitment to justification and grace seriously, the tradition will be that of the whole Church, all those who accept Christ as the central and defining focus of God’s involvement with creation, and not just our own narrower and more partisan histories.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)