Challenging the New Perspective on Paul

Challenging the New Perspective on Paul September 26, 2013

E.P. Sanders, and then following him J.D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, challenged the traditional Christian consensus of how to “read” Judaism at the time of Paul (and Jesus) in 1977 with his well-known and must-read Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The consensus was that Judaism was a works-righteousness religion in which Jews, not on the basis of their covenant-based election by God but on the basis of merit and works, sought to earn favor with God. While there was nuance, and dissenting voices like G.F. Moore, this was the ruling paradigm. So, when Paul said “not by works of the law” most people thought they knew exactly what Paul meant: human pride, self-justification, and weighing one’s merits in a scale so the tip favored the human’s accumulation of merits.

Sanders proved that Judaism was far more complex than this and that its “pattern of religion” was in fact a covenant based summons by God to obey the Torah. So Sanders said Judaism’s pattern of religion was not merit seeking but instead “covenantal nomism” (covenant-based call to do the Law [nomos]). This required a re-evaluation of what Paul was opposing and what “works of the law” meant and whether or not the opponents of Paul were seeking to establish themselves by earning favor with God.

Sanders won the day; the vast majority of NT scholars believe today that Judaism was not a merit-seeking system and, in fact, if one is not careful one ends up either in anti-Semitism or its softer version anti-Judaism or in some kind of Marcionite denial of the truth of the Old Testament. [This paragraph deserves extensive commentary but this is not the place.]

But Sanders and the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” were challenged by some, most notably Reformed or Calvinistic thinkers and exegetes. I am persuaded that the “problems” for the NPP are far more problems for Calvinists and Lutherans and much less so for Arminians, who have never had as much of a problem with the issue of obedience and works, and in some ways for Anabaptists, who valued obedience and discipleship as central to what faith means. (Frustratingly to many of us, many critics repeat talking points and have not read the Jewish evidence at all.) The most recent challenge, a nuanced one, comes from Preston Sprinkle, Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation (2013). It’s a good book though whether or not his proposals will satisfy deserves more than can be said here, and whether or not his sketch of Paul would fit Jesus is yet another one worthy of discussion. [Preston and I have corresponded about this review and his comments made this post better.]

Here are Preston’s big ideas:

The Old Testament, when it comes to “divine and human agency” (how much are humans involved in salvation? how are they involved?) and “continuity vs. discontinuity” (how different is Paul from Judaism?), reveals two major strands of thinking. Preston calls these the “Deuteronomic” and the “Prophetic.” By these he means that one must repent before one gets restoration or salvation and the other that it all comes from the grace and intervention of God (so that repentance is not the precipitating factor).

He then examines these themes, examining what the Dead Sea Scrolls teach and comparing that with what the apostle Paul teaches: the curse of the law, the eschatological spirit, anthropological pessimism, justification, and judgment according to works. Each of these concludes with admirable nuance for each side of the comparison — Qumran and Paul.

His fundamental conclusion is that pockets (sectarian elements) of Judaism are Deuteronomic, or mostly so, while the apostle Paul is Prophetic, with some nuances all over the place. In essence, then, he comes out suggesting that the New Perspective overcooked “continuity” between Paul and Judaism and undercooked the discontinuity and that while Judaism has a stronger emphasis on human agency Paul had a stronger emphasis on divine agency in salvation.

A few questions:

1. I wonder if Deuteronomic vs. Prophetic doesn’t deny the coherency of these two themes in the authors of the Old Testament and therefore the coherency of grace and election and covenant and the simultaneous demand of repentance and obedience for salvation. In other words, at times some suggest Judaism’s emphasis is Deuteronomic without the Prophetic. I doubt any Jewish text is entirely Deuteronomic and I doubt any Prophetic text is not also Deuteronomic. One text he saw as almost entirely Prophetic has some core statements about covenant that are relentlessly Deuteronomic, and Preston Sprinkle is aware of such texts and offers reasonable explanations. Notice  Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4, where covenant election and grace are set up in conditionality, and the point must be seen: we are dealing here with covenant status dependent upon or shaped by or conditioned by obedience:

Jer. 7:23 But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

Jer. 11:4 which I commanded your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron-smelter, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God…

At work here in theological hermeneutics is what is sometimes called the “failure” of the Mosaic covenant and the completion (words are important here and I chose a neutral one) of that covenant with the New Covenant. This entire approach is shaped by Augustinian, Lutheran and Calvinist hermeneutics. Part of the NPP is that those categories do not emerge sufficiently from a 1st Century Jewish framework. I will emphasize that Preston knows these texts and seeks to resolve them within his Deuteronomic and Prophetic approach.

2. The bigger issue for me is that this term “salvation” is slippery. Frankly, the OT texts are not about personal salvation but about Israel; so too Judaism mostly. But the NT stuff is more or less taken to be personal and individual. What happens, then, to “restoration” or “salvation” when it is more corporate focused?

At work, as well, is that soteriology is shaped by discussing in the OT how covenant people are restored (top of p. 34). I wonder if that how most in the Protestant tradition understand “salvation” in the NT — in fact, I’m confident they see it as “entry” into the covenant. Hence, for me there is a lingering question: Are we comparing the same senses of salvation?

3. I do wonder how much rhetoric and choice of terms shapes how much “works-based” stuff we see in Judaism, and now that Gary Anderson has virtually proven that “debt” and “merit” were the new commercial metaphor at work in Judaism for “sin” and “obedience” (see his book Sin: A History), I have to ask if we have not overdone the works element in Judaism while ignoring the covenant and grace themes. To his credit, Preston works hard to nuance works and grace and divine and human agency with variety in each text. But for me the positing of the Deuteronomic over against the Prophetic is shaped by that very issue — how much is human agency involved?

4. But this simply misses how we have learned to read our own faith. Read the Gospel of Matthew (e.g., Matthew 6:1, 2, 5, 16) and watch this word “reward” on the part of Jesus. Is Jesus Deuteronomic? (Preston doesn’t answer this but I don’t know how one could read Jesus and not see his term Deuterononomic instead of Prophetic.) And doesn’t Paul say our final state is on the basis of works in his judgment by works texts, like 2 Cor 5? So, are we minimizing the Deuteronomic in our faith and maximizing it in Judaism? All in the attempt to prove we are better and right?

This is a big one: Let us assume my suspicion is right, namely, that Jesus fits the Deuteronomic paradigm. What does that say about Paul? That he departed? That we need to re-visit Paul? (This is what the NPP does, after all.) Or does it suggest the Deuteronomic and the Prophetic fit more closely into a single coherency? Anyway, the two approaches to OT themes sure makes me wonder what Preston does with Jesus.

5. OK, there’s something at work here in Paul especially about grace that shapes the whole system of thought. And there is discontinuity here. But in my judgment the New Perspective offered an important and enduring correction from which we cannot move back. Sprinkle’s effort here is a good one with plenty of sensitive nuance, but this is not the final word.

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