Andrew Wilson wrote a helpful short article yesterday titled “The New Perspective: A Duffer’s Guide” wherein he examines four major “new perspectives” on Second Temple Judaism as well as the corresponding “new perspectives” on the Apostle Paul. I recommend you read it, though I want to summarize it here.
First, he presents the “old perspective” where the Jews sought to relate to God through rules and regulations. Judaism was a proto-Pelagianism or something like the Roman Catholicism that Martin Luther protested. While there are very few scholars who affirm this view it remains popular. Paul is understood as someone who proposed “grace” against the moralism of Judaism. He preached “faith” against Judaism’s “works.” Again, while this is popular from pulpits it is rejected by most of academia.
Second, there is the view popularized by E.P. Sanders known as “covenantal nomism” which is the view that God elected Israel in his mercy, and that the Law is a response to the grace of God, not an attempt to earn it. Many who affirm this view seem to think that Paul misunderstood Judaism (quite odd for a Pharisee) or he intentionally misrepresented it to his audiences.
Third, there is a similar view that says Paul understood and correctly represented Judaism, but he had contention with particular “works of the Law” such as circumcision, Sabbath observation, dietary laws, and so forth. These “works” were not moralistic, but identity forming. These “works” prevented Gentile inclusion into the Kingdom of God making the early church ethnocentric rather that welcoming to everyone. In this view Paul attacked those who sought to make Gentiles into Jews rather than allowing them to enter on their own terms.
Fourth, there is a group that acknowledges that covenantal nomism existed, but that there were other understandings of how Law observance impacted one’s eschatological standing before God. This particular view argues for a “variegated nomism” (see David Stark’s helpful review of Justification and Variegated Nomism) or a diverse understanding of the function of Law obedience among Jews. This view seems to explain why in Paul’s writings there are places where he seems to address what we’d call “covenantal nomism” while there are others where he does seem to “principalize” things a bit bringing Paul’s language closer to the older view when Paul addresses views of Law observance that seem to place final justification before God on the shoulders of the Law observer, rather than the crucified and risen Messiah.
I admit that I tend to fluctuate between points three and four in Wilson’s article, which I guess makes me more like four though not quite willing to allow for a full-blown Lutheranism. Oddly enough, I do wrestle with this through the lens of my own religious history. As a child and a teen I was in Oneness Pentecostal circles. They had very strict “holiness standards” like not wearing a beard (because of the hippies in the 60’s), not wearing shorts, not going to the movie theater or watching television (this was before iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu threw a wrench in their legalism), and then there were various degrees of strictness about other things like sleeve length and whether one could watch VHS at home.
For women it was much worse. They were not allowed to wear pants, they couldn’t cut their hair or wear make-up and jewelry, their skirts had to be below the knee, and so forth and so on.
Luther would call this legalism. I agree. Is this what Second Temple Jews did though?
Well, when Oneness Pentecostal pastors preach these “holiness standards” they are cautious about calling them “salvific” (usually). Often I heard the line, “You can’t earn your salvation but you can lose it.” Likewise, they saw themselves as receiving “revelation” that other misguided Christian groups had not received (which sounds a bit gnostic) and this seemed to me like “election” of sorts. So it wasn’t that you saved yourself, but rather that you were brought into the Kingdom by the grace of God, but then it was your responsibility to be obedient in order to maintain your standing. You could repent, of course, but you couldn’t live in “rebellion” lest you be removed or shunned from the community which essentially equates with being “lost” of “backslidden.”
I wonder what it was like for some Jews who lived in these communities. When I read 1Q, The Community Rule Scroll from Qumran I see something not quite Pelagian, but something that makes me lean toward variegated nomism. If Qumran is a remnant, and they are true the people of God, and someone does one of the things that expels them from the community, do we have room to speak of this as “losing their salvation” or not? If so, then their deeds revoked them from the remnant and they will be judged.
Of course, one could argue that the same is true of the Pauline churches, like Corinth where the man having sex with his father’s wife is excommunicated. Yet there is a major difference in the type of offenses allowed at Qumran and in the Pauline churches. In other words, the Pauline churches seem more graceful to me (e.g. see my “Ways to be Expelled from the Qumran Community”). Again, I read my own religious experience side-by-side with this discussion. As an evangelical I do see principles in Scripture that argue that there are things that seem to disqualify the claim that one is a Christian. Whether one is lost or not is hard to know, but if a church excommunicated someone who was sleeping with his father’s wife I would find it justifiable. Most people would see this as a moral offense of some sort. Yet I find it disturbing that a woman could be removed from her church for cutting her hair. Did Paul feel this way about Qumran? Did Jesus feel this way about the Pharisees refusal to engage in table fellowship with “sinners”? I don’t know, but it is something worth pondering. If Paul did feel this way about how his fellow Jews interpreted Law observance then there is a “variegated nomism” of sorts and it is hard to accept E.P. Sanders somewhat black-and-white “Paul misrepresented” position. I know Oneness Pentecostals who would think I misrepresent their “holiness standards” when I call it “legalism”, but that is subjective, no? If Paul disagreed with his fellow Jews on what allows for fellowship it could be similar.
Hey Brian. I think that I am floating around a similar understanding to yours. Let me explain the way that I am seeing the relation between second temple Judaism and the Gospel of Matthew to see if it makes any sense.
As a nation, the Jews were God’s elect people, but the nation had also broken the covenant and had thus been sent into exile. There was a hope that God would be merciful to the nation and restore the kingdom if they would return to the Torah in obedience (by Torah I mean the entirety of the teaching, both moral as well as the so-called boundary markers; if it is even correct to make that distinction).
When Jesus appears on the scene in Matthew’s Gospel, he does come offering forgiveness, but this forgiveness preceeds obedience to the Torah; obedience is to be the result of the renewal of the covenant as it was for the Sianaitic covenant. The Pharisaic attempt to exclude certain people from covenant renewal was hypocritical, especially in light of the fact that they utilized the teaching of the Torah in perverted ways which, while in line with the letter, contradicted its spirit.
For Matthew, the Torah is God’s good gift, but even it can be used in perverted ways. He displays Jesus as one who wants to affirm the Torah without affirming the way in which it was used by the religious and political leadership; to oppress the poor and to promote injustice.
As far as how Paul relates to all of this, I guess I see him as being someone who believed that many aspects of the Torah were of a lesser order than the “weightier matters of Torah”. Those apects of the Torah which were subject to perversion, while not inherently evil, could be eliminated or utilized depending upon the cultural context. The real issues for Paul were things like mercy and justice; which could mean different things in differing contexts.
Paul is thus trying to balance many things at once, which I think accounts for some of the difficulties in understanding who or what he is combatting. He wants to affirm the God-givenness of the Torah and Jewish tradition without imposing perverted (and apparently unnecessary) structures and practices on people. He wants to affirm that covenant renewal is for all men and that the mercy and righteousness of God extends beyond the nation of Israel to the Gentiles, but he also wants to affirm a certain ethic.
As an aside, I think that we, as Christians in our own day, need to recognize that the God-given teachings and traditions of the NT are also prone to abuse, and that the real issues are justice and mercy. We must wrestle (as Paul did) with finding a way to affirm tradition without affirming the abuses that tradition brings about, and also with how we are to affirm a Christian ethic without making that ethic a prerequisite to the forgiveness and love of God.
Sorry this is so long, I just wanted to throw it out there for conversation and in order to be challenged.
Indeed, there is an important connection between the Gospels and Paul in this regard. Often they are pitted against each other, but I think one major contribution of the NPP is that it has found a way to bring the two back into dialogue again. There is something important about Jesus’ rivalry with the Pharisees that some want to ignore. Likewise, as you mentioned, there is something important about Paul’s attempt to vindicate the Law as holy and good, even though he sees it as failing the people of God as a means toward covenant living before God.
We could add Jesus’ approach to the Sabbath as a middle ground. Jesus and Paul both want to emphasize God gave the Law for the good of the people, but that the Law has been used for evil. For Jesus, the Sabbath is for people. People are not for the Sabbath. To use the Sabbath to prevent people from coming to God is to abuse it. Likewise, for Paul, to use the Sabbath, or circumcision, or those aspects of the Law that made the Jews distinct as ways of preventing “sinners” (whether tax collectors of pork eating Gentiles) from entering the Kingdom is to abuse these Laws.
I appreciate the conversation. Keep it coming!
“As a nation, the Jews were God’s elect people” – Voilà! Ther very defective presuppositions I speak of!
I grew up attending a church in which “losing one’s salvation” was not possible and it was an important tenent of faith for a reason I never quite fully understood. But they were very anti-pentacostal, so the people in your church probably would not have been considered christians at my church.
Silly, no? But after so much time spent trying to figure things like this out, I have to wonder how much of it is meaningful. I don’t mean trying to understand the gist of Paul’s writings. That’s a matter of history, which has a very real impact on our world today. But, for example, trying to parse distinctions between “earning” and “losing” salvation. Or what specific beliefs do we have to have in order to be “saved?”
Very little in the bible is dedicated to these questions because people in antiquity didn’t think in terms of personal salvation. So any ideas we propose is an attempt to read meaning into passages that are talking about something else.
Everything changes over time. You talk about the lines in the sand set by your church. Well, they may still have lines in the sand, but they are set somewhere different. Not because people changed as much as because the world changed. A generation ago rock music was satanic, now it is played at almost every church.
As you note, the rules were defined by the technology of the time, but when technology changes, so must the rules. Sure, movies are bad, but what does the bible say about iPods? iPads? If Paul was alive, would he recommend Apple stock?
My rambling point is that it doesn’t make sense to set hard and fast theological rules, for a lot of reasons including that they won’t survive the test of time and they aren’t even in the bible in the first place.
To say people in antiquity didn’t think in terms of ‘personal salvation’ may be stretching it a bit too far. However, they probably didn’t envision ‘salvation’ in the way we talk about it. I think our main problem is that we jumble up all of the various components of ‘salvation’ into one specific moment: our personal conversion experience. When that existential event takes place, we write it on a card and can point to it as “The day God saved me.” Does the bible use ‘salvation’ in the past-tense? Yes. But that may simply be one aspect of the whole ‘salvation’ process; the one point when we were ‘transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.’ But eschatological salvation (which I think was MUCH more on the radar for people in antiquity than it is for us) does not take place at that moment. In that sense, one does not have a complete ‘salvation’ to even lose. That is why I think the discussion of ‘losing’ or ‘maintaining’ sometimes misses the point. Eschatological salvation is reserved for those who are in the new covenant relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit. There is no quantity of sin that can remove that status from you, but there is a quality of the heart, demonstrated in ones actions (which includes penance and what not), which will identify you as ‘outside of the covenant’ (this is what I take ‘faith’ to refer to, especially in Matthew). And this is why in Paul’s great letter to the Romans (which is all about justification by faith because of grace, yada yada) he can tell the Gentiles to be careful, because if God can ‘remove’ Jewish people from covenant membership on account of unbelief he can remove them as well (chapter 11).
And this is why I see no tension between Matthew and Paul. If we simply had read Matthew more carefully, and then read Paul on Matthew’s terms, we would have been much better off. Thus, I don’t think we need to abandon trying to ‘parse’ all this stuff out; I think we just need to be more precise and spend a good deal of time talking it through with one another rather than shouting and getting mad because ‘someone’s trying to attack the pillars of the faith!’
I agree that there is a danger with hard and fast rules, especially on secondary issues related to culture. You make a good point that the ancient world doesn’t seem as individualistic, though I agree with Jonathan that we must be careful to avoid pushing this distinction too far.
Thanks for the link, Brian – I think you’ve summarised it better than I did!
You’re welcome. I don’t think I summarized it better. I merely summarized your summary!
Covenantal nomism can be summraised as keeping the law from redemption not to redemption. Some of the most important Laws to keep are the commands of Christ. We keep the Sermon on the mount from redemption by the Holy Spirit who interprets its implications for us. We need to keep Christs commands or else our house will collapse (does this mean loose our salvation, I dont know). Extra stuff like ‘dont go to the cinema’ is just a return to the old covenantal ideas of purity. The problem with Lutheranism is that in dealing with this extraneous legalism it begins to question whether we should try to obey Christs command in the Sermon on the mount. ‘Is it law or gospel’ we hear.
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