Friday, March 02, 2007

Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

No sooner was I back and busy catching up this week than I came down with a very nasty cold. The trouble was that having been away for Chinese New Year meant that I couldn’t really take any more time off sick. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for a rather nasty cough. It certainly made delivering our Lent Bible Studies on Wednesday that bit more difficult.

This year, we are looking at 1 Corinthians. I wrote a thesis for my Master’s degree on 1 Corinthians and as apart of my preparation for the Lent Studies I have been looking at what academic scholarship has said about it in recent years. Readers of this blog will know that academic theology is an interest of mine because anything to do with the Bible ultimately cannot remain academic. I think many Christians are rather in awe of academic scholars and feel embarrassed when they are in the presence of those who study it academically. This is understandable: after all, we all feel humbled by experts.

Increasingly, however, I am more and more frustrated by experts especially when it comes to studying the Bible, in general, and the New Testament, in particular. Let me try to explain why. In the sixteenth century, a German academic, for that is what Martin Luther was, challenged the Church’s understanding of Paul. He argued that the Church had adopted a belief in salvation by works whereas for Paul salvation was by faith and faith alone. Works of any kind whether good works, such as giving to the poor, or religious works, such as going on pilgrimages, could not save you only Christ do that by grace through faith. You will know the story.

One of the consequences of this was the complete fragmentation of the Church. A small price many would claim for the truth. From this point onwards the doctrine of justification by faith became central to many Protestant churches: the doctrine by which the Church stood or fell. In academic circles, it was seen as the key to understanding Paul and what he believed and taught.

Then, about 450 years, later a very different academic, this time from America, argued that Martin Luther, and all who followed him, had completely misunderstood Paul and the Judaism of his day. Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness. The Jews were not trying to earn their salvation through good works. The Jews knew that God was a loving gracious God who given them the Covenant and made them his people. The Law was the means by which they responded to God’s grace and generosity.

E P Sanders supported what was at the time a highly controversial claim by a thorough examination of the documents of second temple Judaism, that is, the Judaism of Jesus and Paul. He argued that Luther had got it terribly wrong and that most of the New Testament scholars who had studied Judaism had also got it terribly wrong.

This was a bombshell in the world of New Testament scholarship. The consensus became, however, that Sanders had got it right in his analysis of Judaism. People were less convinced, though, that he had got Paul right. Sanders seemed not to know what to do with Paul. It looked like Paul was fighting an opponent who did not exist. For if the Jews did not believe they were saved by works, why did Paul write as though they did?

Consequently, many scholars undertook to re-examine Paul’s teaching in the light of what Sanders had shown them about Judaism. One scholar, my own supervisor at the time, J D G Dunn, in particular, sought to interpret Paul against the background of this new understanding and to formulate a more satisfactory understanding of Paul’s teaching. It was Dunn who coined a phrase that has become the standard term for all this: the New Perspective on Paul. Dunn argued that when Paul said we were not justified by the ‘works of the law’ what he had in mind was not so much good works, but Jewish religious practices that distinguished them as Jews. Practices like not eating pork, keeping the Sabbath, and cirucumcision.

Dunn was followed by many others, including the now Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. Not only were they pioneering scholars in the world of New Testament scholarship, Dunn and Wright succeeded in popularizing this new understanding so that even if lay people did not use the same terms as the academics, they were being taught the same ideas. Clergy at theological college certainly were.

In Churches that felt that God had revealed something special at the Reformation, there was uproar and New Perspective scholars were, and are, accused of betraying the truth. Wright’s response, which is well documented, has been that we have an obligation to get back to the sources and that this was what the Reformation was all about. All this is described in many places both on the web and in popular Christian books. Those who may not have heard much about it can easily follow it up if they want to.

There has, however, now appeared another book about which many are getting excited called Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by Chris VanLandingham. This argues that both Luther and Sanders were wrong and that both second temple Judaism and Paul believed in salvation by works. The book is an academic study examining the very same Jewish texts that Sanders based his study on and the very same Bible passages that Luther based his understanding of Paul on. It is not clear yet how this will be received, but some people are getting excited by it.

I give this as an example. A major one certainly, but disagreements like these occur between scholars over almost every point of interpretation of the Bible and its context.

Now in the world of academics all this would be just good fun. Overturning standard wisdom is what the academic game is. As with the Athenians, success in the world of PhDs, journal articles, academic conferences, and university careers is based on saying convincingly anything new and novel. You won’t get a PhD by saying what has already been said - even if what you say is true. You have to get an original angle.

This is all very well and good if what you are studying is the nineteenth century novel or the history of Troy, but for us Christians, whatever our flavour, the Bible is not at this level. Even if we are the most liberal of liberals, the New Testament is still the only way into the origins of Christianity (even if some would prefer it if Dan Brown were right and we could turn instead to the Gnostics). For most of us, however, the Bible is more than a historical record. It still has ongoing authority and, for some us, it is the authority by which we wish to live our lives.

It is not much use as an authority, however, when even the most expert scholars and interpreters can’t agree on whether Paul thought we will be saved by faith or works. This isn’t a minor point, it is absolutely central to understanding the message of the New Testament. My eternal destiny may depend on me getting the answer right and not unreasonably we look to the experts to help us.

That there is something extremely wrong with the expert’s expertise, however, should be apparent from this latest disagreement over the nature of second temple Judaism. We are not talking about a large body of literature here. Luther can be justified in getting it wrong because the resources available to scholars today were not available to him. But when the very best experts can read the literature and come to diametrically opposed conclusions about its interpretation we are in great trouble.

Some will argue that scholars inability ever to agree undermines the whole academic enterprise and calls into question the usefulness of academic scholarship when it comes to understanding the Bible. And, frankly, academics have only themselves to blame if they do. But for those of us who believe that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men then understanding those men, their culture and their times, becomes essential if we are to understand the Word of God itself.

I don’t have any easy answers. I would however plead with Christian academics to be more responsible and careful when it comes to these issues. Your career and fame as a scholar are less important than rightly handling the word of truth. After all, it is not only our salvation that is dependent on you getting it right.

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