Thursday, February 28, 2008

4. Towards a Clear Perspective (Part Two)

I am posting this post today as it belongs with yesterday's and I didn't want there to be too much of a delay! I hope what I am trying to argure is clear(!), I know from experience that writing on this subject can be anything but!

Having laid out an outline of what I think should be our perpsective on Paul, I am going to look at what he says about the Law, which is at the heart of the dispute between him and his opponents. Before I do, I want to make some general comments about scholarship on Paul! The nice thing about blogging is that you can tackle the big subjects in a small way!

4. Towards a Clear Perspective (Part Two)

In the last post, I criticised the New Perspective for seeing the dispute between Paul and his opponents as being primarily about the basis of Church membership. Nevertheless, I think it is indisputable that the New Perspective has shown how important the dispute was between Paul and his opponents over the Gentile question. It provides both the context and the reason for what Paul writes. However, you wouldn’t know this from reading some Old Perspective writing on Paul. For many, Paul is writing timeless truths for all Christians. Paul, however, in Romans and Galatians, for example, is not writing a general essay on salvation. He is writing to real people to deal with a specific issue that affected them directly and personally. We can today, of course, learn from what he writes to them, but we have to understand what he says to them first.

Paul is trying to explain how he sees the place of the Gentiles in the purposes of God. This means he has to address two questions: how Gentiles can be saved and what is the basis for fellowship between Jew and Gentile in the Church. In so doing, he shows the inadequacy of the Law and why circumcision is not necessary for Gentiles. The reason why Gentiles should not be circumcised and keep the Law is not simply or primarily that this would be socially divisive within the Church, but because circumcision and the Law are not an adequate basis for salvation for either Jew or Gentile. Paul’s point is that it is useless to require Gentiles to do something that has failed for Jews.

Both Jews and Gentiles alike are one in their sin and can only be saved one way. It is in the process of being saved that Jew and Greek become one people. The issue is not what should be the grounds of membership of a club, but how to become one of the saved. One of the things that sometimes gets missed in New Perspective writing is that the Church is the community of those who are being saved. The issues of how to be saved and how to be part of the people of God are inseparably linked. To be saved requires becoming a member of the Church, the people of God, the community of those who are being saved and who will be saved. The answer to the question of how someone can be a member of the Church is also the answer to the question of how someone can be saved and vice versa.

For Paul the answer is clear: only by faith. This is the way for the Jew and for the Gentile alike. Paul as a Jew himself finds it incredible that God had planned all along to save both Jew and Gentile and to make one new people out of two different groups. They are one in need, one in salvation and one in Christ, and so should demonstrate that by being one in the practice of fellowship. Paul really does want Jew and Gentile believers to be equal. Ephesians 3, for example, is quite breath-taking in its vision of what Paul sees as God’s plan for the Gentiles.

However, to repeat a point from an earlier post, if Paul’s only or main concern was equality between Jew and Gentile in the Church and how Jew and Gentile could have fellowship on an equal basis within the Church, then his opponents answer is every bit as valid as Paul’s own. Inviting Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Law is not making them second-class citizens, as some New Perspective writers claim, it is showing them the height of respect. Indeed, Paul himself acknowledges that his opponents took a positive attitude to the Gentile believers. If all Paul wanted was for Jew and Gentile to live as one in Christ and his argument is that this could be achieved by faith, then his opponents could argue that they too wanted Jew and Gentile to live as one in Christ and this could better be achieved by Law, that is, by Jew and Gentile keeping God’s Law together. They could claim that the Law is after all God’s Law. If it’s only fellowship in the Church that is at stake, Paul’s opponents seem to have the stronger argument.

A clear perspective on Paul will recognize that faith in Christ provides both the ground for our salvation and for fellowship now between Jewish and Gentile believers in the community of those who hope for salvation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

3. Towards A Clear Perspective (Part One)

It's Wednesday and I have my Lent talk to finish for tonight! The week certainly whizzes by. I was up at 4.30am today to meet some friends from the airport. Hong Kong is really nice at that time in the morning. There are still plenty of people about, but at least you can drive on the roads rather than sitting in endless traffic queues! Journeys are consequently much quicker and much more enjoyable!

The weather is still very pleasant here. Hong Kong has been having what everyone refers to as a 'cold spell'. It's not, in fact, cold, but it is considerably cooler. Mind you, I was still sweating profusely after the walk up to Theological College on Monday. Getting there takes me about an hour by public transport and involves a short walk, but up a steep road. If this is the condition I am in now, what will it be like when the weather gets up in the 30s? Not something to look forward to!

Here is the first part of my attempt to make sense of the different perspectives on Paul. This may seem very theoretical and academic, but when you are regularly preaching on passages from the Bible written by Paul you do need a perspective if you are to say anything at all. This isn't what I say in my sermons, but it is the basis for what I do say!

I hope your week is good!

3. Towards A Clear Perspective (Part One)

Much confusion is being caused by the two perspectives on Paul. For some, it seems as if time honoured beliefs are being called into question, beliefs they believe to be central to the Gospel. For others, it is sounds as if theology and doctrine are being allowed to determine in advance the results of academic and historical investigation. The real issue should be, as one book puts it, ‘what Paul really said’. The trouble is what did he really say? Some Old Perspective people make it sound as if they only have the truth and there is no need for further study. Some New Perspective people make it sound as if they are the first people since the Apostle Paul to understand him.

Now, of course, we always need to be open to fresh insights and there is always a need to study God’s Word more. Equally, we need humility when doing so and surely it is highly unlikely that the saints and holy teachers of the past got it entirely wrong? Yes, we need to be open to new ideas, but we must also be willing to learn from the past as well. At the risk, then, of rushing in where angels fear to tread, this is what I think a clearer perspective would look like!

With the Old Perspective, I think that Paul’s argument is about salvation, that is, about who can be saved and how. It is not simply or even mainly about Church membership. When you read some New Perspective writers, it really does seem that all Paul was concerned with was how different groups could get on with one another now, in the present, rather than how people can be saved both now and in the future. Obviously, Paul wanted all to get on with one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, but I, for one, don’t believe that his main concern was how different people could find peace with each other, but how all of us could find peace with God.

Interestingly, Luke reporting on the controversy between Paul and his Jewish believer opponents writes:

'Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” ' (Acts 15:1)

In other words, the argument was over the issue of salvation and not simply the basis upon which Jewish and Gentile believers could have table fellowship and eat together, although clearly that followed from it.

Paul’s opponents all shared with Paul a common theology: they believed in and were sincerely committed to Jesus the Messiah. However, they also thought that commitment to the Jewish Messiah also meant commitment to the Jewish Law and that you couldn’t be saved without it. Sanders, the pioneer of the New Perspective, famously said that in Judaism keeping the Law wasn’t about ‘getting in’, but ‘staying in’. In Sanders' view, the Jew, contrary to what the Old Perspective taught, did not see keeping the Law as a way of earning God’s grace and favour thereby entering a covenant relationship with him (getting in), but as the way of responding to God's grace once already in a covenantal relationship with him (staying in).

I have always been a bit frustrated with this because many take it to mean that it followed for the Jew that you didn’t have to keep the Law to be saved. But as Sanders himself says you did have to keep the Law to 'stay in', which still means that without keeping the Law you couldn’t 'stay in' and, if you weren't 'in', you couldn't be saved. It may be a response to grace, but it is still, even on this way of looking at it, a necessary response.

Personally, I don’t think that Paul or his opponents would have disagreed with Sanders understanding of the role of the Law in Judaism. Nevertheless, for Paul’s opponents, the Law remained a requirement as a way of 'staying in' and so of being saved, for Paul it didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was that like Augustine and Luther after him he did not believe that salvation could in any way be made dependent on human works. His problem is not with the Jewish Law, but with Law as a way of obtaining or maintaining God’s favour.

With Augustine, Luther, and all who follow them, I think Paul really does argue against human works as contributing to our salvation and in so doing speaks of human sin and our resulting inability to do good and to keep the demands of the Law. The Law has failed because of our sin so the Law must go, not simply because it is the Jewish Law, but because it cannot give life. As Ephesians 2:8 expresses it:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.’

Sunday, February 24, 2008

2. Old and New Perspectives

It's just past 7.30am and I am about to go over to take our early morning Communion Service. The sermons today will be on the second of the set reading from Romans 5: ' Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.' Coincidentally and appropriately this fits well with this short series of posts!

2. Old and new Perspectives

Opinions of the Apostle Paul differ even amongst those sympathetic to him. Paul’s message itself continues to be debated and discussed with scholars coming up with many different and contradictory interpretations of it. What we can say with some certainty is that Paul was vehemently opposed to Gentile Christians being circumcised and having to keep the Law. A simple reading of Galatians makes this clear. What is less clear is, why? It isn’t as though Paul is completely opposed to circumcision itself as is illustrated by his action in circumcising his closet aide, Timothy. He also continues to keep Jewish religious practices himself at the same time as preaching freedom from the Law. So what’s the issue?

There are at the moment two fiercely contested approaches:

1. The Augustinian-Lutheran Approach (the Old or Traditional perspective): As a result of the European Church Reformation of the 16th century, a reformation which was heavily indebted to the writings of St Augustine some 1,000 years earlier, Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith came to be understood as being about denying the role of human works and effort any place in human salvation. On this approach, Paul taught that, because of our sin, there is nothing that we can do that is good or sufficient to earn favour or merit with God. We are restored to a right relationship with God solely by faith. Paul teaches justification by faith because we can only be saved by faith and not by our own good works.

The reason then that Paul attacked the demand for circumcision and obedience to the Law was because Paul’s opponents, Jewish believers, were making them requirements for salvation. In Paul’s opinion, this was a denial of the doctrine of justification solely by faith.

2. The New Perspective: As a result of an academic reformation in the 1970s and 1980s, a new perspective on Paul has emerged, which is still being hotly debated today. It is associated with scholars such as Sanders, Dunn, and Wright and has led to much argument within some evangelical Churches. Many within these Churches see it as an attack on doctrines they hold dear, which, in many ways, it is! While the New Perspective is now some 30 years old, it is still new compared to the Old Perspective! It should perhaps be said that the New Perspective is a broad movement and not all New Perspective scholars are saying exactly the same thing, but that’s true of the Old Perspective as well! Both represent types of approach.

The New Perspective sees both Luther’s emphasis on and understanding of justification by faith as wrong. Paul’s main concern wasn’t who could be saved and how, but who could be a member of the Church and how. What Paul wanted was equality in the Church between Jew and Gentile and this he believed could only be achieved if both joined and continued on the same basis. Paul’s criticism of requiring circumcision and obedience to the Law was that it created division in the Church and made Gentiles second-class citizens.

This means that Paul’s main problem with the Law wasn’t that he thought it couldn’t be kept or that people were trying to keep it to earn salvation, but that it was the Jewish Law. It wasn’t that Paul was against good works as such or Law in principle, what he opposed was the Law as belonging to one group of people and not another. It wasn’t the Law as a means of salvation that was the problem, but the social division it caused.

My problem with each of these is that they both make sense of a significant amount of Paul’s writing. Paul can be made to sound both Old and New Perspective. My suspicion, then, is that there must be an extent to which both approaches are true and that a simple either/or won’t work or do justice to Paul. What I believe is needed is an approach which does justice to the insights of both. I am not going to be able to develop such an approach here, I would, however, like to suggest what such an approach might look like.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ambridge Pews

Well, the decision has been taken and the pews are to stay by a close vote. The Vicar, Alan, tells a colleague while picking up broken glass in the churchyard. He blames those who don't want the pews removed for the young people not having anywhere to go and so breaking bottles. An interesting connection. Next time I am bored I must remember to smash an empty wine bottle in someone's garden.

I am glad the pews are staying and I appreciate the sincerity of the Vicar (or rather those he fictitiously represents and there are many of them), but perhaps he ought to appreciate the sincerity of those who voted against the removal. He seems to think that reaching out to people means having to do what he wants. Sadly, liberals preaching tolerance can be the most intolerant of all people.

If only the decision had gone this way in more churches in the past!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

All One in Christ?

In my first Lent talk on Christian living, I intended to talk about how Jesus saw his teaching and ministry as being in fulfilment of the Old Testament. However, as I prepared it and thought of future talks, I found myself coming up against an issue that has occupied me for as long as I can remember, that of justification by faith and the place of the Law in the Christian life - and all else that flows from it. This issue has been increasingly complicated in recent years by what is known as the 'new perspective on Paul'. This is exactly what it says it is: a new way of looking at Paul. The new is some 30 years old, not that new it may seem, until compared with how old the old is! The old way being that of Augustine and Luther and all who followed them.

Anyway, I thought I would write a short series on the issue. The series will just be a few thoughts from a personal perspective. I make no claims to originality or thoroughness.

All One in Christ?

1. The Problem

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Despite modern squeamishness about parts of the Old Testament, the Old Testament, what it teaches and the story it tells, was the basis for Jesus’ teaching and ministry. The Church itself was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, all of whom were Jewish. For Jesus and the first Christians, second temple Judaism formed their spiritual universe. This meant that they could make certain common assumptions based on a shared identity. Becoming a follower of Jesus, however challenging it might have been, did not mean abandoning life-long beliefs and practices. The first 'Christians' in Jerusalem, for example, saw no problem continuing to go to the Temple.

Becoming a follower of Jesus for a first century Jew meant having faith in Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, it did not mean renouncing circumcision and the Law: anything but. Being a follower of Jesus the Messiah also meant keeping the Law. There was no contradiction and no problem. How could there be? When the Jewish believers preached the good news of Jesus to other Jews, they were talking to their own people. They were, after all, worshippers of the same God with the same religion and history.

This was all very different when the good news was preached to pagans as it was in Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. The preachers and those preached to had very little in common socially and religiously. Jews in Gentile cities kept themselves separate from their pagan neighbours. This encounter between Jewish believers and Gentiles raised questions that not even Jesus himself had had to face and on which he had not given explicit guidance.

The first question they had to deal with was simple. Could Gentiles be saved in the first place? This was not as obvious as it might seem to us and God had to intervene with a vision to Peter, thrice repeated, before Peter was ready to share the good news with a Gentile. Even then, God had to give his Spirit to the Gentiles in a dramatic way to convince Peter and his associates that the Gentiles concerned ought to be baptized. Even after all this, Peter still had to justify himself to the Church at Jerusalem who were uneasy at the news of what had gone on.

Anyway, to give them their due, the Jewish believers, even if somewhat reluctantly, accepted that Gentiles could be saved. But this raised other questions. Given that they could in principle be saved, what did the Gentiles have to do to be saved and to be part of the Church. At the risk of over-simplification, there were two basic answers:

1. Have faith in Jesus and keep God’s Law, including being circumcised.

2. Have faith in Jesus.

The problem was that, for Jews, Gentiles were not part of the people of God. Historically, they could only become part of the people of God if they converted to Judaism and converting to Judaism meant being circumcised and keeping the Law. For a person to be saved on the Day of Judgement at the very least they had to be part of the people of God. How could Gentiles become part of the people of God and be saved on the last day?

Some Jewish believers, and it was a significant number, thought that Gentiles should do what Gentiles had always had to do, that is, be circumcised, if male, and keep God’s Law. This was not such an unreasonable position to take as it is sometimes portrayed as being. It is worth remembering that the Gentiles concerned do not themselves seem to have had a problem with it. After all, many of the first Gentile converts came from a group known as the ‘godfearers’. These were Gentiles who were attracted by Judaism and who attached themselves to the Jewish synagogue. In a sense, they were half way there. They were certainly predisposed to Judaism. In Galatia, they seem to have been positively enthusiastic about the idea of circumcision and keeping the Law.

My own guess is that the route the Church would have taken would have been to ask Gentiles to have faith in Jesus, followed by circumcision, for men, and obedience to the Law. In other words, to invite Gentile converts to become one in Christ with them. I imagine that the Jewish believers would have welcomed them with open arms and that the Gentiles would have been quite happy.

What prevented this eminently reasonable and justifiable approach and caused the Church to be plunged into controversy and division was one man, Paul.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dear All

I am sorry to have been away for so long. I was away for Chinese New Year, and it has been taking me a while to catch up since. All is well here, I am pleased to say, and I hope that it is with you too.

Hong Kong has had a prolonged cold spell. Not as cold as many of you have had, but down to 8 degrees celsius all the same, which is cold for Hong Kong - and most of us have no heating. Personally, I find it a welcome relief from the heat of the rest of the year, but most do not. Temperatures have been warmer today!

I started at Ming Hua College on Monday taking a small, but enjoyable, Christian Ethics class. I have inherited a progamme for the classes, which the Principal very kindly said I could alter, but which I thought it wise not to, at least not until I get used to the College and find out more about how things are done. So, for the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at various ethical issues including some of the usual controversial ones: abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.

In Ethics courses, in general, these are the issues that normally get tackled and they certianly need to be looked at. I am a bit worried, however, that Christian Ethics is seen as making decisions about issues many of which will only concern some of us irregularly. I think I am far more worried about the issues that confront all of us every day. Issues such as losing our temper, shopping too much, watching television, lack of self-control, and so on. It's not that the headline issues aren't important, obviously they are, but all too often we let ourselves off the hook of the immediate issues by focusing instead on the more dramatic ones. My hope in the future is to blend consideration of the doctrine of the just war with a discussion about when it is ok to get angry.

Anyway, to compensate for the time being, I am going to be leading a Lent course on Christian living starting tomorrow at Christ Church where none of the headline issues will be discussed and instead we will be thinking of the principles and motivations that underlie the Christian life.

One of my favourite verses in the New Testament is Ephesians 4:31

'Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.'

You may know the prayer:

'Lord, make all the nice people good,
and the good people nice.'

Ephesians 4:31 is the clue as to how we could all start to be both nice and good. And it's far harder than taking up an ethical stance on sex and war!