The Conversation Shifts

The Conversation Shifts December 11, 2014

Since 1977 there has been a regular conversation among those who study the New Testament, especially those studying the theology of the apostle Paul. In 1977 E.P. Sanders published his magisterial Paul and Palestinian Judaism and unleashed forces at work (from G.F. Moore to K. Stendahl) to form what my own professor, James D.G. Dunn, called the “new perspective on Paul.”

There were some extravagant claims at times but in the end the debate was about what “works of the Law” meant and what “justification” meant and whether or not Judaism was a “works righteousness” religion and how those answers had a massive impact on how Paul was to be understood. Did Paul, when he used “works of the Law,” mean deeds done to justify oneself before God or did Paul mean Jewish laws and rulings that separated Jews from Gentiles (e.g., circumcision, food laws, Sabbath)? Was Paul fighting the human propensity to establish himself or herself before God or was Paul fighting one kind of Jewish group (Christian) that believed to be a full convert one had to embrace the fullness of the Torah of Moses?

Some thought this new perspective on Paul — typified in the writings of Sanders, Dunn, and N.T Wright — would unravel the guts of the Reformation doctrine of sin (self-justification) and justification if one did not check the new wave of thinking. All the while at the foundation of this new perspective was a genuinely radical revision of what Judaism was all about. As it turns out, the “old” perspective assumed and in some ways required that Judaism (and especially Paul’s critiques) be a works based religion. With the growing conviction that Judaism was a covenant and election based religion (Sanders, Wright) there came a radical change in how Paul’s opponents were understood and therefore what Paul was actually teaching. He was, to use the words of Dunn, opposing “boundary markers” more than self-justification.

The debate has been with us for more than two decades, but that conversation is now radically shifting.

The old perspective Paul vs. the new perspective Paul is now over. The new debate will be between the new perspective Paul vs. the apocalyptic Paul.

Who represents the apocalyptic Paul? Ernst Käsemann, J. Christiaan Beker, J. Louis Martyn, Martinus de Boer, Beverly Gaventa, and Douglas Campbell. A very good introductory volume — introductory in the sense of hearing a sampling of important proponents — is Bev Gaventa (ed.), The Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 (Baylor University Press).

What are the primary proposals? That’s not easy to summarize but I will give it a whirl for this conversation is shifting and clarity will come over time and only in the debate with the new perspective.

First, the primary word is “apocalyptic” but this term is not being defined by Jewish apocalypses so much as it is almost equivalent to a cosmic, universalist redemption that has now invaded the world in Christ (the old age is shattered by the new age). Apocalyptic is associated closely with soteriology, cosmic soteriology, in this reading. God’s acting in history is heavily emphasized; the divine action is at the core of the apocalyptic Paul. It is all played on the cosmic stage in grand categories — almost abstractions. In fact, one of the major players — Martinus de Boer — sees Paul as a mythologizer. That is, he mythologizes cosmic redemption and its major actors. Here is one of his set of lines:

Paul, I have argued, has introduced the cosmological understanding of sin and death into the Jewish Adam traditions—and he has done so to show that the Law, instead of being the solution for sin and thus death as in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, only solidified the hold of Sin and thus Death on human beings: Alas, the Law has nothing to do with obtaining the requisite righteousness, nor with justification, nor, then, with (eternal) life. Nothing (in Gaventa, 18).

In Christ, God himself has entered the human cosmos, and God’s powerful Grace, in contrast to the weak and ineffectual Law, is more than equal to the task of putting an end to the reigns of Sin and Death (20).

Second, theological terms are turned into cosmic powers in upper case letters: Sin, Law, Flesh, Grace (Barclay’s essay develops this), Love, Redemption. The world is the stage of a cosmic soteriological battle now won by Christ in his death and resurrection. The redemptive invasion of God in this world then is the unfurling of New Creation in Love and Grace and Forgiveness against the evil empires of Sin and Death and Law and Guilt.

Third, humans are agents in this moral cosmic battle but the battle has shifted from the days of Bultmann, where it was so individualistic, to cosmic proportions. Adam is the key man, not Abraham; Law and Sin and Flesh are the categories, not the Torah of Moses; the alternatives are Christ vs. Adam and Life vs. Death.

These are sweeping comments, and only the individual players in the apocalyptic Paul can define them and each will operate with subtle differences. But the apocalyptic Paul vs. the new perspective Paul will be fought over big terms like these.

The conversation is shifting to this debate. From now on academics will be posing new perspective understandings (Sanders to Wright) against apocalyptic readings (Käsemann and Martyn and Campbell).

Concerns? Plenty. Where’s Israel, where’s the Story of Israel, where’s serious engagement with Jewish apocalypses (where one learns that many today do not think there is even such a thing as an apocalyptic worldview so much at work in the work of these apocalyptic Pauline specialists), where’s election, where’s the church, where’s the very problem that drove Paul — the vexed relation of Jews and Gentiles in the one people of God? Is this Barthianism in NT clothing? Is it Marcionite?

The apocalyptic Paul is not simply the old perspective, though there are some similarities; the apocalyptic Paul is a kind of Lutheran theology reshaped by Käsemann and Martyn and de Boer and others. Or it can morph into a kind of Barthian Reformed theology. I wonder how the apocalyptic Paul will deal with the issue of supersessionism and I will keep my eyes open for this discussion.


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