Friday, August 3, 2007

Simon Gathercole in Christianity Today on the New Perspective on Paul

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, the cover article is a piece by Simon Gathercole, a lecturer in New Testament, on the "New Perspective" (NP for short). For those who aren't up to speed on what the NP is, it's a new way at looking at and interpreting Paul's writings on Israel, Church, the Law and works of law, salvation and justification based on a new understanding of what first century Judaism was like. This new (or newish - it's been around for around half a century now) take on the Jewish milieu of Jesus' time has it that the old caricature of Jews and first century Judaism as ancient Jewish versions of Pelagius or Medieval Catholics who are trying to earn their way into heaven through doing good stuff is simply mistaken and that Judaism at that time was far more grace-based (God chose Israel out of sheer grace, for instance) than modern commentators have generally noticed. They then take this new understanding and use that to reinterpret Paul in this new, purportedly more accurate context.

The NP has taken the world of New Testament and Paul studies by storm and even those who disagree with it have been necessarily influenced by it at least to some degree. More and more evangelicals have hopped on board the NP bandwagon, this being facilitated in large part because a well-known evangelical, N. T. Wright, is one of the principle proponents of the NP.

I was a little surprised to see an article of this kind in CT. This is supposed to be a general magazine for evangelicals and to see a movement within biblical scholarship which doesn't seem to necessarily deny any portion of "mere Christianity" (or even any of the pillars of evangelicalism) criticized is a little odd. Hopefully, I'd like to see some sort of article in response defending the NP by some evangelical, fully orthodox member of said movement.

So what exactly were the criticisms? Gathercole lists six. The first is that the NP wrongly insists that Judaism in the first century didn't think in terms of salvation as something to be earned or gained through obedience to Torah. Here he gives some quotes from some non-canonical literature of the period which are supposed to support this contention. But these quotes weren't quite so clear as they were supposed to be - they seemed to me easily capable of being interpreted through an NP lense. Even if they weren't, it's not clear how damaging it would be to the NP if some Jews thought in terms of earning salvation if the majority didn't (some NPers, in fact, seem willing to concede as much). The use Gathercole wants to make of this, however, is that, given that some Jews thought that obedience to Torah would be rewarded in the end times with salvation, that "Paul's understanding of justification makes sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Romans 3:20)". But it equally makes sense - NPers would argue more so - as a criticism of law observances as the membership badge for or way of staying in God's people. Gathercole continues, "Many of Paul's contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God. For Paul on the other hand, salvation was impossible without...Cross, Resurrection and Pentecost". As if this was a point against the NP! NPers could perfectly well agree with this (at least qua NPers). At least Dunn and Wright seem to agree, if not all NPers generally. So I don't see any real problem necessarily for the NP presented in this first criticism.

The second criticism is that "works of the law" in Paul means doing the law as a whole, not just the particularly Jewish stuff. But, with many NPers, one could perfectly well interpret "works of the law" as meaning primarily the Jewish stuff but also maintain that Paul thought failure in any part of the law meant a failure to uphold the law period and as such meant one was under a curse. One needn't reject the latter to think the former, as Gathercole seems to me to think.

The third criticism is that many NPers throw the personal baby out with the individualistic bathwater when it comes to matters like salvation. But, again, not all NPers do in fact fall into this trap (Dunn and Wright, again, don't generally).

The fourth criticism is that "the core meaning of justification by faith is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God". Now I'm not sure exactly how Gathercole is understanding what he says here, but on at least some understandings of it not all NPers fail in this regard. And since not all do, his final two criticisms, which are based on this one, also do not apply to all NPers.

All in all, Gathercole seems to paint with too wide a brush (a common failing in writings attempting to critique the NP) and all his criticisms either aren't entirely persuasive or aren't so much criticisms of the NP as of specific pockets of scholars within the NP (there are a lot of non-evangelical, non-orthodox biblical scholars after all). It's a little hard, indeed, to see what all the fuss is supposed to be about. A lot of what he says in the rest of his article is of this nature as well. NPers qua NPers can agree with the essential spirit or points of what Gathercole says, for instance, about justification and righteousness even while having a different account of what these things mean. NPers can perfectly well reject any kind of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, accept Christ's death as a propitiating sacrifice and even accept full blown five-point Calvinism all the while being an NPer. In the end, this article unintentionally comes across as an attempt to poison the well against NPers like Wright by offering criticisms that apply mainly only to others within the movement (something, again, that happens far too often).

Sometimes (though I'm not saying Gathercole does this) the anti-NPers seem to be mainly against Wright or the NP as a kind of reactionary move - they do not like the shift in how their old theological language or ideas are being used. Often, people seem quick to condemn anything that sounds different from the traditional formulas from their favorite dead theologians without stopping to try to see how everything in the new view actually fits together and how it jives with the biblical witness. Vitriolic accusation of heresy, indeed, seem to fall at the drop of a hat. If you don't believe me, check out some of the Reformed writers who are violently anti-NP on the Internet. Or read about the Reformed folks who are campaigning against the "Federal Vision" theology (a Reformed theological movement which has been influenced by many NP ideas and has been viciously and unfairly attacked by many of the fellow churchgoers). To see a dissenting voice, check out this piece here which argues that Wright's theology fits the Reformed view quite well.

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