Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Saving Righteousness of God (ch. 2 - part 2)

There are a host of things I'd like to discuss more in this chapter, but the time-management monster implores me (along with my wife) to finish commenting on it. You may recall from my previous post that Bird tackles four particularly contentious issues/debates regarding righteousness in chapter 2. I discussed three of these issues (i.e. is righteousness imparted or imputed? is it adherence to a norm or a right relationship? is it transformative or forensic?) last week. Today, we look at the fourth issue; the relationship between Jewish particularism and righteousness. This is a perenially hot topic in Pauline studies, so I thought it would be helpful to camp out here.

Bird first surveys the history of scholarship on this topic. Since the Reformation, there has been a tendency to read Paul's letters as ahistorical treatises on systematic theology (19). Being more interested with what Paul teaches about the order of salvation, Protestant scholars have often failed to appreciate the meaning of the apostle's arguments in their historical context. The Jew/Gentile issue - so central to Paul's thinking - receives scant attention in Reformed scholastics. To simplify, post-reformation scholarship envisaged justification/righteousness as pertaining primarily to the individual's relationship with God.

However, this trend of dehistoricizing Paul's teaching began to change in the 19th century. Increasingly, interpreters began to appreciate the literary and historical contexts of Paul's letters. F.C. Baur (1792-1860) attempted to show that a dialectic tension between Paul and the Judaizers was the catalyst that drove early Christianity. Wrede and Schweitzer expanded on Baur's work, contending that Paul developed his thinking on righteousness/justification in response to his Judaizing opponents. Subsequently, Davies, Munck and Stendahl all (in quite different ways) argued that the Jew/Gentile problem was fundamental for Paul's thinking. The stage was thus set for scholars to evince an explicit correlation between the apostle's thinking on righteousness/justification and the issue of Jewish particularism. E.P. Sanders demonstrated the centrality of covenant membership in 1st century Judaism (and that Jews were not proto-Pelagian legalists trying to work their way to heaven). Building upon Sanders's work, Dunn and Wright argued that Paul conceives of God's righteousness as his covenant faithfulness, and that justification means membership in the covenant. For these scholars, justification is primarily about how one can tell who is a member of God's people. Paul's opponents say that one is marked out as God's by the distinctively Jewish rites of Torah (e.g. circumcision, food laws, etc.). In contrast, Paul says that faith is what marks one out as a member of the covenant people. It should be evident that this view of justification has more to do with the church (i.e. how you can tell who is "in"), and less to do with the order of salvation (i.e. how one gets saved).

Bird goes on to note that some have taken issue with Dunn and Wright on this point on the grounds that apocalypticism, not covenant, constitutes the background for Paul's righteousness/justification language. This is a complicated debate, and one that I am still getting a handle on, but let me say that I agree with Bird that the alleged conflict between apocalyptic and covenantal categories is artificial. When God radically intervenes in history to save and judge, it is an expression of his faithfulness to the covenant. Once this point is conceded, the debate seems misguided.

What intrigued me most about this chapter was Bird's assessment of pre and post-Sanders scholarship. He says,

pre-Sanders scholarship was correct to identify Jewish particularism as the context of Paul's missionsary career and how righteousness is the resolution to Paul's anthropological pessimism concerning the law, flesh, sin and the final judgment. However, it failed to identify exactly how righteousness and justification relates to the problem posed by Jewish particularism. In contrast, much of post-Sanders scholarship correctly identifies and prosecutes the significance of Jewish particularism in relation to Paul's theology of righteousness. Yet the error is frequently made of mistaking the context of justification with its content or to wrongly equate the implication of justification with its purpose.

I agree with Bird that this is one of the big problems with New Perspective exegesis. However, there's a point I need clarification on. I understand justification as having a basically forensic and soteriological meaning. Justification is God's verdict of "righteous" to the ungodly sinner, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is an effective pronouncement, insofar as it creates a new state of affairs in the relationship between God and the believing sinner. That (to me) is the meaning of justification. Now, it's implication is sociological and ecclesiological; namely, people who are justified by faith are accepted by God, and therefore can accept each other. To me, New Perspectivites err by confusing the meaning of justification with its implication. On this point Dr. Bird, I believe we are in agreement. However, you go on to state that justification is constitutive for the unity of Jews and Gentiles (33). In other words, justification creates a new people in a new covenant (33). Do you then think that justification has a (partly) ecclesiological meaning? Is the difference between your position and that of New Perspectivites (viz. Tom Wright) one of emphasis? I suppose I am trying to pin down where you agree and disagree with the New Perspective on justification.

Well, this review is already too long. Let me conclude by saying that the next two chapters contain some of the most helpful stuff I've ever read on Paul, so stay tuned!


Michael F. Bird said...

Good observation. Basically, I think some NPP commentators seem to over emphasize the social dimensions of justification and, in the case of Wright's earlier works, reduce it to ecclesiology. In my mind Romans, Galatians, and (yes) Ephesians shows how the soteriological and social aspects of salvation go together. You can say that a church of Jews/Gentiles or Arabs/Americans is an implication of justification, but at the same time it is more than that as the verdict actually creates an ecclesiological reality. So I'm trying to walk a tight rope between two extremes of justification as a social epiphenomenon and unity of Jew and Gentile as a "mere" implication of justification. I'm hoping to avoid sociological reductionism and an absolute separation of soteriological and ecclesiology. Paul can move from Gal. 2.11-14 to 15-21 and Rom. 3.21-26 to 27-31 so naturally because the unity of Jews and Gentiles is a logical and immediate implication of justification, but at the same time it is "more" than a logical progression of thought like A therefore B. The relationship described in justification is not simply between God and sinners, but between God and his people. God justifies the elect! So while the vertical and horizontal elements of Paul's thought are distinguishable they are also welded together in another sense. The inclusion of Gentiles in the church is not merely illustrative of God justifying the ungodly, but it is constitute of the creative power of the justifying verdict: God creates a new people.

Andrew Faris said...

Dr. Bird,

Interesting stuff. My understanding from talking with Jeff and reading your interactions is that you are trying to get your finger on that mediating position between the NPP and Reformed antitheses. I appreciate the way that your readings are doing this so far.

I am still trying to understand in this particular case just how much you think that the horizontal element is actually endemic to justification specifically. I suppose that is what Jeff is asking and you do give some indication of that, but I guess I am still a little unclear. Is it possible that God's actions through Christ's death and resurrection do contain the horizontal element within them (as you are arguing) but that the term "justification" (if it is truly a "term" at all) only refers to the vertical element? That is, perhaps there is another term Paul (or we) could use for the horizontal element?

I presume that such a sharp terminological distinction is far too much of a modern western way of thinking to actually be what Paul was doing, but I frankly just want to see if I can understand your position with further clarification.

Also for clarification's sake, Jeff, could you define "Jewish particularism" a little more particularly (no pun intended...ok, ok, the pun was intended).

Thanks for your work on this stuff, Jeff and Dr. Bird. It has been instructive for this reader so far.