The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill— Part Four


BEN: Chad in this chapter you talk about the ‘limited non-nationalistic understanding of election’ (p. 135) as permeating early Jewish literature. By this I take you to mean that Jews did view themselves as God’s chosen people, but while their ethnic identity was a primary marker of who was chosen, it was not a sufficient one or even always an exclusive one (i.e. even non-Jews, if they became Torah observant and got circumcised could be considered part of the chosen people). By this I mean that the chosen are said to be those who are the righteous, those who obey Torah, those who keep the commandments, those who are faithful to God, and so on. In short, the election is conditional on the character of the response. Unpack your phrase ‘limited non-nationalistic election’ a bit more.

CHAD: Yes, by this I would mean that Jews viewed themselves as God’s chosen people, but being Jewish (i.e., a part of the nation or ethnic group) was not sufficient for being in God’s people. This looks different for different authors or groups in terms of what conditions or markers they emphasize, but ultimately it was faithfulness to the covenant, variously defined, which marked them as God’s people. The Sibylline Oracles gets closest to a more nationalistic perspective where a majority of Jews are recognized as God’s people, though there are some implicit indications even there which suggest that this may be narrowed to the righteous alone. The Torah, and adherence to its instructions as variously interpreted, was what marked out God’s people, not simply ethnicity or belonging to the nation. This is in contradistinction to the perspective I encountered by many NT scholars who assume that the Jewish view of election was simply nationalistic or ethnic. I don’t think this sufficiently accounts for either what we see in the OT or in Second Temple literature.

BEN: You make the salient point that in texts like Gal. 2.15-3.14 Paul is focused on the locus in which salvation happens, namely ‘in Christ’ and so the issue of identity is primary and modality is a secondary issue. So for example ‘those from the circumcision’ means those who belong to the circumcision party. And ‘those in Christ’ refers to the sphere in which one’s identity is found and shaped. Justification doesn’t come from participation in the works of the Law, but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus. Help us to understand this concept of spheres of influence that establish one’s identity and relationship with God. Explain the difference between Paul’s use of ‘ek’ (from) with Jews, and ‘dia’ with Gentiles when it comes to the issue of being part of the chosen people.

CHAD: I think Paul’s prepositions in Galatians are particularly interesting and seem to follow along the lines of what Snodgrass (though he acknowledges the idea precedes him) terms as “spheres of influence.” Paul’s prepositions (in particular ek, en, dia, and hypo) in Galatians are heavily spatial in their orientation. On this view, the question Paul is answering is not “how is a person justified?,” that is “by what means?,” but rather “where is a person justified?,” or “in what realm or sphere is the locus of justification?” Stowers takes the distinction Paul seems to make between ek and dia as indicating that the Jews’ soteriological arrangement was already in place and Christ died to bring in the Gentiles (i.e., a “two ways” approach). Wright suggests, and I think is more likely correct, that the distinction between the prepositions is a spatial one in the sense that the Jews were already “in” or “near,” having been partakers of God’s covenant promises already (though in a partial sense of course) while the Gentiles were “far off” and had to be brought “in” or “near.” It seems to me that sort of explanation can make sense of why uses these two prepositions here and in Romans in several places without assuming that they are just stylistic accidents. Paul thus turns the partisan language, as Garlington terms it, of those “from the circumcision” on its head in order to determine where their, and more importantly where the Galatians’, principle source of identity actually lies.

BEN: At this year’s SBL session on Paul and Israel, one of the repeated proposals was that Paul’s whole argument in Romans and Galatians is all about how Gentiles alone have come to be saved, or a part of God’s people, or both. Some of the presenters went whole hog for the two peoples of God view, some for the two ways of salvation but in the end one people of God. What is wrong with these kinds of readings of Paul?
My friend Larry Hurtado critiques such approaches as follows, and I’d be curious about what you think of his rebuttal— “John Marshall (University of Toronto) contended that Paul’s promotion of faith-in-Jesus was solely intended for non-Jews (“Gentiles”). So he took Romans 10:9-13, where Paul urges confession of Jesus as “Lord” and faith that God has raised him from death, as having to do with Gentiles making these steps. Noting that Romans seems to have Gentile Jesus-followers (“Christians”) as the addressees (or at least the primary/main addressees), Marshall contended that this should dispose us to read such passages as really about Gentile believers. In Marshall’s view, Paul’s anxiety about Israel in Romans 9-11 was over their failure to endorse and take part in a mission to Gentiles.
I don’t find his case persuasive, largely because I think that the context, for example the immediate context of Romans 10:9-13, makes it fairly clear that Paul wanted both Gentiles and Jews to join him in his faith-stance toward Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Paul’s expressions of considerable anguish in Romans about the religious stance of his ancestral people (e.g., 9:1-5; 10:1-4), together with a similar view of things in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6 (where Paul also refers to “hardened” minds and veiled eyes of “the sons of Israel”) seem to me to require us to see Paul as holding that a positive stance toward Jesus was required, the alternate being disobedience to God. That is, as I read Paul, the problem with “Israel” wasn’t that they didn’t join in the Gentile mission, but that they didn’t recognize and confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord.”

CHAD: I think Hurtado is certainly right. It is hard to read Romans 9-11 as not addressing as a part of Paul’s argument the Jewish rejection of Jesus and its consequences. For starters, the stumbling stone in Rom. 9:32, their ignoring of the “righteousness of God” (who I take as a personification of Christ in 10:3), there being “one Lord for all” in 10:12-13, specifically of both Jews and Gentiles, and the crescendo in Romans 11 where Paul states that they have been cut off and that they will be grafted back in if they do not persist in their apistia, all seem to be indications that Paul views Jesus as God’s definitive self-revelation and “way,” to borrow from John’s terminology. Too much gymnastics is required around these issues in the text which are so clearly pointed at Jewish rejection of Jesus in order to make a two-covenants or two-peoples view work. Part of our limitation with Paul is he primarily addresses Gentile audiences in his letters, so we don’t have him fully spelling out what he thinks the relationship between the Law, Jesus, and the Jewish people is. I think we have enough indications, however, in Romans 9-11 in particular, about his concern for his people and his desire to be cut off from Christ for their sake (indicating that he himself, as a Jew, was “in Christ”) to take it with confidence that Paul viewed Jesus as the universal means by which God is reconstituting humanity, both Jews and Gentiles.

BEN: If you had to characterize Paul’s view of the relation of the Mosaic and the new covenant, what would you say? Is it different from his view of the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant, and if so, in what way? What does Paul mean by saying he died to the Law?

CHAD: To use a Facebook phrase, “it’s complicated!” I’ll admit this is an issue I’m still working through, though I have some basic bearings which I’ve found helpful in navigating some of the more difficult texts. I think understanding continuity in the structure and generally in the prescriptions of the covenants helps to ease some tensions that otherwise might come about. As I mentioned earlier, in Jeremiah’s new covenant passages, no indication is given that a new Law would replace the Mosaic Law when the new covenant would come, but rather the Law would be written on their hearts. It seems to me Paul understands this to happen with the giving of the Spirit and so, Romans 8, for example (which I examine with in later chapters) joins up together the Law with the “Spirit of life.” I think Paul, and Jewish Christians in general, continued to be Torah observant, and there was some expectation for Gentile Christians to understand and fulfill the Law to some extent, though there were obviously specific commands from which they were exempt. For example, we don’t see evidence in the NT that Jewish Christians ceased circumcising their male children, but clearly this was not required or even advisable for Gentiles. The purity regulations, festivals, Sabbath, and other aspects of Israel’s Law were not understood to be “in force” for Gentiles, and we see it is around these issues the conflicts often exist. On the other hand, Gentiles were expected to adhere to other aspects of the Law, particularly as it relates to its sexual ethic and the love command. It seems to me it is often underplayed that Paul expects Gentiles to fulfill the Law by obeying one of its commands (love your neighbor) which he views as encapsulating the essence of all of the others. Paul binds Gentiles to other specific commands here and there in his letters, but I think what I already mentioned largely summarize the essence of what was expected of Gentiles, which were largely commands unrelated to specific aspects of Jewish ethnic identity. The Abrahamic covenant is different in the sense that its scope is much broader and is what Paul seems to understand as the area of the OT covenants by which Gentiles are brought into God’s people. This doesn’t mean that the Law is unrelated to Gentiles, since the new covenant has its Law, but Gentiles are not entering into the Sinai covenant as Israel did in the OT. Concerning Paul and dying to the Law, it is awfully hard to resist the temptation to read some of Romans 7 into what he says here in Galatians 2. If I’m right that Paul is primarily focused on identity rather than modality in his works-Law/faith(fulness)-Christ contrast, and if table fellowship is the catalyst for what launches Paul’s discussion in 2:15, it seems that he is saying in 2:17-20 something along the lines of (if I might paraphrase) “if while seeking being justified in Christ, we share table fellowship with Gentile sinners, does being in Christ make us sinners? If I re-erect these boundaries between Jews and Gentiles which I myself have already taken part in breaking down I am a Law-breaker. For through the Law, (which could not impart life to humans) I died to the Law (its natural result apart from the Spirit) so that I might live to God through my identification with and participation in the work of Christ.” I wouldn’t see Paul necessarily saying here that as a result the Law has no consequence for him or anyone. Rather, I think he is recognizing the Law’s limitations and the futility of attempting to go to that realm of existence “under the Law” when the gift of the Spirit has come through being “in Christ” (cf. 3:1ff).

BEN: What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Elect One of God, and those are elect who belong to Him?

CHAD: Going back to the representative head notion, Jesus is the representative head of the people of God (and obviously much more than that as well). Those who are “in Christ” are being transformed into his image, so they share in his identity by being identified with him. The Christian life means a life of conformity; being conformed to the image of Jesus. Jesus is the “Chosen One” since he is God’s chosen agent of redemption. This does not mean he is the “Redeemed One” or that God elected Jesus for salvation. Rather, as I argued in chapter 2, this fits into the “missional” (and “ethical”) understanding of election, which is what is typically applied to individuals. The “elect” then who are “in Christ” take on that mission (and ethic) by nature of their identification with and belonging to him.

BEN: What is the significance of translation Gal. 3.2 as ‘from the works of the Law’ as opposed to ‘from the hearing of faith’. Is faith contrasted here with works, or is it rather hearing that is contrasted with works?

CHAD: I think Paul’s ek uses continue in the line of the “spheres of influence” I mentioned above, so what he is distinguishing is still whether the primary identity marker is the Law or [Christ’s] faith(fulness). Grammatically here, the parallels are between works/hearing and Law/faith. Many translations make the fundamental contrast here between believing and doing. That seems to me mistaken for a few reasons. First, hearing and faith both carry with them behavioral implications (Louw-Nida gives a possible gloss the word for hearing here as “believing and responding to” something). I think it is clear here Paul does not just have audible receipt of information in mind. I also think it is fair to read this in light of the earlier contrasts in Galatians 2, where the “works of the Law” contrast was with the “faith(fulness) of Christ.” I think it is reasonable to assume that Paul expected his hearers to continue to carry that conceptual framework with them here just a few sentences later. I take the force of Paul’s questioning here then as “if you received the Spirit by being “in Christ” (i.e., upon your response to his faithfulness), will you now try to live in the realm of the Law apart from Christ and the Spirit?” In other words, if they received the Spirit, which allows them to fulfill the Law (cf. Rom 8) apart from minding Jewish purity regulations and being circumcised, why did they think that doing these things now would add something to their status? Abraham then becomes the paramount example because he received the promises prior to being circumcised and he belonged to the right party (i.e., “the from faithers” not the “from the circumcisioners”). So Paul is essentially asking them, why would you want to go the wrong way and put yourself at a disadvantage now?

BEN: One of the problems with the New Perspective or at least some of its advocates is trying to limit the discussion of works of the Law to boundary markers— circumcision, Sabbath and kosher keeping. It seems to me this is too narrow a definition of the phrase works of the Law, even if in some cases the focus is on those things ‘because the Judaizers are trying to get Gentiles to cross the boundary into Judaism’. So to contrast that with the notion that ‘the Messiah and his death and res.’ Provide the boundary for God’s people now, is not quite grasping the nettle that Paul is contrasting two entire covenants, and the boundaries of the new one include far more than a Christological affirmation. How do you view these things?

CHAD: Yes, I think the limited view of works of the Law as referring only or primarily to circumcision, Sabbath, and purity regulations does not do justice to the variations within Judaism at this time. Certainly circumcision and purity regulations are at least a part of the problem, or perhaps the majority of the problem even, in Galatians, but in Romans, Paul, while including circumcision in his discussion, seems to have a broader range of meaning in mind. This doesn’t mean Galatians also doesn’t necessarily, but I think it is very difficult to make the case that this is Paul’s concern in Romans as well from the content of that letter alone. I take Paul’s fundamental problem in Galatians to be with Gentile Christians trying to operate in the sphere of the Law (by which I mean that sphere of existence which is marked by Torah and ignores or lacks the coming of the Messiah and the gift of the Spirit) as if circumcision was somehow a pre-requisite for belonging to God’s people. Clearly their receipt of the Spirit is confirmation for Paul that they are already in the people of God, and so to identify themselves with the realm of the Law which is not marked by the Messiah and the Spirit is basically deadly for them. To put it another way, to act as if nothing changed with the coming of Christ and the gift of the Spirit in terms of how Gentiles become a part of God’s people is to underestimate and misunderstand the magnitude of the new reality which has been inaugurated with the coming of Christ.

BEN: Our friend Scot McKnight defines faith as ‘the initial and continual response of trust in and obedience to Christ by a person for the purpose of acceptance with God’ (p.141 n. 164 in your book). This seems to be loading an awful lot into the word faith. Wouldn’t be better to say that obedience flows from faith?

CHAD: I like McKnight’s definition because I think it combines three elements that are loaded within the pistis word-group itself. Now obviously in a post-Barr world, we can’t equate words with concepts, but “faith” is most clearly connected to this word-group, so I think pulling our understanding from its possible range of meanings is helpful. BDAG gives three main glosses for pistis, which are basically 1) faithfulness/fidelity, 2) trust, and 3) belief. Louw-Nida offers similar glosses. I like to say these roughly equate to a behavioral dimension (“faithfulness/fidelity”), a relational dimension (“trust”), and a cognitive dimension (“belief”). I think many evangelicals tend to emphasize the cognitive dimension and may also include the relational dimension, but the behavioral dimension (“the obedience of faith”) is usually missing. McKnight, Murray Harris, Scott Hafemann, Don Garlington, and others in various ways have suggested that the full image of faith in the New Testament includes all three. This does not mean, of course, that every time we see pistis, all three glosses are present, but I think in various places we get a flavor for each as a part of what Paul understands “faith” to be. By including “obedience” or “fidelity” in the definition, this is not to say that we somehow earn our salvation, but instead it recognizes that the transformation of the believer, their “faithfulness,” is not an add on or an option, it is the essence of what salvation is about, not just getting us off the hook for our sins, but conforming us to the image of Christ.