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Monday, January 2, 2012

Reading Paul the Apostle

One of my New Year's resolutions is to not only go through the Bible, but also to undertake a thorough study of the Apostle Paul, including coming to a fair-minded assessment of what is called the New Perspective on Paul. This New Perspective has gotten a critical reception in my own conservative Reformed circles, and I would like to know whether it is a fair criticism or not.

I gather that some of the "New Perspective" builds on the work of Krister Stendahl, a couple of whose books I've read, and on which I reached a few conclusions, which I here cast in an imagined mini-dialogue form:

Stendahl: Paul is concerned about the integration of Jews and Gentiles in the early church.
Cephas: That's obvious.
Stendahl: Too much of our reading of Paul isogetes the introspective conscience of the West into Paul.
Cephas: Hmmmm. I'm under the impression that Paul, along with the Prophets of Israel, is one of the founding fathers of "the introspective conscience of the West." I won't blame Augustine of Hippo for everything; and, indeed, I think he may well have gotten a lot right.
Stendahl: Much of our Paul scholarship rests on 19th and 20th century German scholarship's imputing Luther's spiritual struggles onto Paul.
Cephas: Well, since my own father was of "Mitteleuropisch" Jewish origins, and we have our own family folklore about life in the Old Countries, I think there are a few non-theologocial dynamics at work in the history of German scholarship. One is a tendency to ignore even the post-1519 Luther's "legalist" elements in reaction against the supposed "anti-vital legalism" of the hated Napoleonic French invader--plus reaction against the forcing of the emancipation of my own ancestors on the unwilling German states at the point of French bayonets. I believe that there are probably aspects of their own Germanic Luther that German scholarship misses.
Stendahl: We need to go to Rabbinic sources to understand Paul's mind. 19th and 20th century German scholarship read the supposed "legalism" and "ceremonialism" of the late medieval Roman Catholicism with which Luther struggled back into first century Judaism, which actually had a variety of views of the place of Gentiles in the "Olam HaBa", and an understanding of a gracious God.
Cephas: Accepted. I see the New Testament as a "Jewish book"; and in many ways Paul is a cross-cultural missionary to the Gentiles. But I also see a different direction taken in the New Testament--the Olam HaBa has come, the walls between Jews and Gentiles are down, while in the Rabbinic literature we see a multiplication of halakhic practicalities to "fence" the Torah and refine Jewish distinctives. And, having heard the Kaddish said over the dead and the Aveinu, I know there's a caricature of Judaism--even Rabbinic Judaism--going on in a fair amount of Christian [especially German] writing.
Stendahl: We need to rethink Paul's language on faith and works.
Cephas: If you mean we need to re-think the antinomian strain that I see in the 19th and 20th century advanced German scholars and in dispensational fundamentalism, I think that the classical Protestant theologians (both Lutheran and Reformed) offer an excellent corrective. But, if you mean that our works somehow "justify" us with God, rather than express our gratitude, I balk--and I also think we need to keep foremost the New Testament's insistence that the Messiah is the way to the Father.

The renewed interest in Paul is also due to his importance in my Christian walk. I grew up believing that Paul had turned Christianity from the "simple, humane, loving" teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to something spooky, overly "theological", sacerdotal, inhumane, and misogynistic. Well, in my late 'teens, I actually read the New Testament out of cultural curiosity, and found that most of the biblical passages that seem to offer the most hope for most of the human race are found in the letters of Paul. Yes, I started to understand predestination from reading Paul, too, but Paul's predestination is all premised on that the God who predestines whatsoever cometh to pass (Westminster Shorter Catechism) is the same one who came among us in Christ and offered Himself for our sins, conquered death in His resurrection, and is available to all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile (which, I came to understand, was Paul's way of saying "out of all humanity"). And, for the record, I won't contrast Paul's predestinarianism with that of Calvin, the framers of the Canons of Dordt, or the Westminster divines, for, as I've read something of those men, I think they simply got the jump on me (by a few centuries) in their reading of Paul.

In short, Paul's message was brimming with hope and love. As for the Sermon on the Mount, my reaction to it has always been that if that's the standard that gets people into Heaven, all of us are quite thoroughly damned, unless there's some kind of divine intervention. To this day, while I believe and honor Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), it is not a passage of Scripture that I "like", or that gives me emotional goosebumps. Rather, every time I read it it is a bit like standing before Mount Sinai with all its thunderings, and where even if a beast approaches too closely, it must be stoned to death. The Sermon on the Mount is something to make us pause, listen closely, and repent of a multitude of sins. There's nothing light, bright, airy, or especially comforting about it at all. Well, thank God, Jesus spoke of giving His life as a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), and Paul elaborates on that aspect of Jesus' ministry all over his writings, so there's hope for us after all.

So, considering the hope laid before us, Uncle Cephas wishes all a happy new year, filled with divine grace.

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