After the New Perspective – Part 2

After the New Perspective – Part 2 July 18, 2011

What have we learned from the New Perspective, what gains are we to keep?

1. A more balanced view of Judaism. You only have to compare Rudolf Bultmann’s famous chapter on “Jewish legalism” with 1QH from the Dead Sea Scrolls to know that (a) Protestant views of Judaism have been heavily jaundiced by caricatures of Judaism, and (b) Ancient Judaism was not a cesspool of legalistic merit theology. A brief look even at Philo shows that Jews debated whether God’s blessings were earned or freely given. There is a complexity to Jewish soteriologies and sociologies that must be studied and engaged.

2. The problem of Jewish ethnocentrism.  What Paul opposed in Galatians was the view that one has to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Jesus. Instead, Paul argued that God saves Gentiles as Gentiles through the Lord Jesus. This is all the more pertinent if we map Paul onto an increasingly aggressive anti-Gentile sentiment in Judea in the 40s and 50s. That is why the logical opposite of justification by faith without works of law is the notion that God is the God of the Jews only (Rom 3:29). Paul effectively dissolves the categories of proselytes and God-fearers for Gentiles and makes them equal with Jews in the new covenant.

3. Justification has a horizontal dimension. Justification is clearly vertical and declares one’s right status/standing before God (e.g., Rom 5:1, 8:1), but also declares that a person is a member of the messianic community, the Israel of God. Note that the first thing imputed to Gentile believers in Romans is “circumcision,” i.e. covenant membership (Rom 3:26). Jesus was cursed on the cross so that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles (Gal 3:14). The first implication that Paul draws after Eph 2:8-10 is not sanctification, but the unity of  Gentiles with Jews in the commonwealth of Israel defined by the Messiah (Eph 2.11ff).

4. Works of Law have a social and halakhic character. It is certainly true that when Paul discusses works of law, it is often in the context of defining the social boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. One need only read Menahem Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism to see the preponderance of social stigma attached to Jewish rites by Gentile authors because of their strangeness and separation. When Justin discusses the Law with a Jew named Trypho the first thing that is discussed is Jewish separation from Gentiles. What is more, “works of law” is perhaps a particular and sectarian way of understanding one particular way of doing law. The “works of law” designates the whole law understood as the Jewish way of life, and sometimes, the way that certain Jewish groups thought that it should be lived.

5. Paul and Narrative Theology. One thing NPP authors have done, though not uniformly, is recognized that Paul’s default setting is not Lutheran dogmatics, but the underlying story of Scripture. That has been teased out very differently by some authors like Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, and Jimmy Dunn. It has also led to some diverse approaches to the pistis christou debate. While no single view has carried the day, it has brought to the fore the importance of intertextuality with the OT for Paul’s theology.

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