Several weeks ago I received a copy of The Reality of God and Historical Method by Samuel V. Adams courtesy of fellow blogger James Bradford Pate. James blogs at James’ Ramblings.
The book is a critique of N. T. Wright’s version of the New Perspective on Paul in terms of the philosophy of history.
I have not read Wright on Paul very much. Wright has written volumes on several subjects. My most recent New Perspective reading has been in J. D. D. Dunn. I am more familiar with Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and the resurrection of the body.
Several bloggers are trying to read through and summarize Wright’s huge Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Most them haven’t finished it yet. So I have to give a disclaimer that what I know about Wright’s view comes from incomplete blog summaries and what Adams says about Wright.
But in this post I want to set the stage by pointing out some of the current schools of Paul interpretation.
The traditional Protestant view has been that central for Paul is justification by grace through faith. Many evangelicals tie this to the idea of substitutionary atonement. Because Jesus took our place in a sacrificial death, God makes a legal ruling declaring us innocent.
There are more liberal Protestant takes on this as well. Paul Tillich saw justification as relational, God’s unconditional acceptance. I never understood how Tillich’s impersonal deity could do anything relational, though.
This Old Perspective tended to be individualistic. Christ died “for me”. And it tended to put down “Jewish legalism”. Protestants correlated Torah keeping with a Catholic idea of merit contributing to salvation. So Jewish and Catholic works stood over against Protestant grace and faith.
Many continue to defend this traditional view.. One of the best books is Mark Seifrid’s Christ, Our Righteousness.
But proponents of the New Perspective think Paul has been misread in traditional Protestant theology. When Paul spoke of “works of the law” he did not mean a Jewish/Catholic doctrine of individual salvation based on merit. And when Paul seemed to speak of faith in Christ, he may have actually been talking about the faith or faithfulness of Christ. There are variations within the New Perspective. N. T. Wright’s view is one of them.
For many New Perspective supporters the “works” excluded by Paul were ethnic boundary markers like circumcision and keeping a kosher table, rather than, say, obeying the Ten Commandments. The Old Perspective often implied that “works” meant ethical behavior as a way to achieve salvation.
Another school takes the name “apocalyptic”. It is easy to misunderstand this. Some of the early proponents of this view like Ernst Kaseman and J. C. Beker seem to me to have mostly meant that the salvation Paul was talking about involved the apocalyptic transformation of the cosmos, rather than individual salvation. They tended to sharply contrast Paul’s theology with that of John and other New Testament writers.
But with J. Louis Martyn the meaning seems to have shifted to the idea that apocalypse is revelation (that is, after all, the essential meaning of the word “apocalypse”), the self-disclosure of God in Jesus. Those who hold this Apocalyptic Perspective have Karl Barth’s view that in Christ revelation comes from a God who is wholly other. So revelation has to be transcendent. It has to bring a rupture. This is what they mean by apocalyptic.
And revelation was about what we know about God. They tend to call into question theological knowledge from nature or Israel that in any way stands independent of Jesus. This is Douglas Campbell’s perspective when he argues against any hint of natural theology in Paul.
Samuel V. Adams takes on N. T. Wright from this perspective.
I have been reading more on another perspective that is not as well-known, the Paul-within-Judaism Perspective. This goes so far as to question the use of “Christian” and “Church” in Paul’s first century setting as though Christianity had already separated from Judaism and the synagogue.
Here “works” for Paul were not even Jewish boundary markers but perhaps only, according to Mark Nanos, “identity transformation rites” like circumcision. Gentiles could adhere to the Messiah as gentiles. They did not need to transform their identity. But Jewish adherents would have continued to keep the law, because they did not need to transform their identity either.