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.

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