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.’

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