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.