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Reformed response to new perspective

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in Koinonia: A Periodical of the Ministers of the Canadian and American Reformed Churches.
Volume 18.2 Fall 1999 pp. 15 - 42.

john 3:16

Our intention is to take a look at some of the works of E. P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn and to evaluate the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”; the bearing of this discussion upon the task of ministers and the life of the churches will also be discussed.

The subject that I am pleased to speak to you about is one that has been called nothing less than “the revolution that has rocked NT studies.”[1] [2]   Anyone who reads scholarly works on Paul especially will encounter the effects of this “revolution” frequently.  It will impact our reading, our preaching, and much of our approach towards the New Testament.   It is today at the forefront of many a debate in the whole field of NT studies.  The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” surfaces time and again. The effects of these scholarly debates even seem to have surfaced in an “Open Letter” published in the midst of our churches in southern BC last week.[2] [3]   For sometime now, I have had my own suspicions about the matter, but one of the benefits of teaching for a while at the seminary is that I have been able to spend some time delving into the matter. At the same time, I should mention that there has been a tremendous amount written on this subject and I certainly do not consider this presentation to be exhaustive.

1. Brief Preliminary History

For an excellent review of the history of the whole debate, one should consult the first chapter of Frank Thielman’s book.[3] [4]   All that can really be done here is touch on some of the figures in this whole discussion. 

Anyone who has read much of the exegetical works of John Calvin or Martin Luther will be familiar with the fact that Luther and Calvin are often quick to put an equation mark between the Roman Catholics of their day and the Jews or the Judaizers of the earlier New Testament era.  It was a hermeneutical tool which allowed them to condemn the excesses of their opponents with a considerable degree of authority.

In his tractate On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), for example, Luther assumes that the Jews always believed that the act of circumcision itself would save them. Like “the papists,” says Luther, they divorce an outward ritual from God’s Word and so believe that their own effort will make them pleasing to God. The law drives them, like “the barefoot friars,” not to the feet of God to beg for his mercy but to point boastfully to their own holiness and to claim that they possess such an excess of it “that they can use it to help others to get to heaven, and still retain a rich and abundant supply to sell.”[4] [5] Many other examples can be given.  The Jews of Paul’s day and the Papists of Luther’s day are often considered one and the same.

While John Calvin is considerably more careful, he often makes the same hermeneutical shift.  For example, in commenting on Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:5 that he was “according to the law, a Pharisee,” Calvin claims that Paul uses the term law to refer to the corrupt religion of his day which is very much as it is “at this day in the Papacy.”[5] [6] When referring later to Paul’s willingness to consider his own righteousness “loss” and “refuse,” Calvin calls the Roman Catholics of his own time “those Pharisees of the present day.”[6] [7]

According to many, this kind of approach has become all too common among Protestants. Says Thielman:

It was frequently assumed…that at least from the period of the restoration of the Jews to Israel under Ezra, the history of Judaism was a story of spiralling degeneracy into legalism, hypocrisy and lack of compassion. Similarly, when Protestant scholars discussed rabbinic Judaism they tended to assume that Paul’s polemic against Judaism, interpreted through the lens of Luther’s reaction against Roman Catholicism, provided a sound basis for systematizing the religion of the Mishnah, Talmud and related Jewish writings of a later era.[7] [8]

Probably one of the most extreme examples of this kind of approach is found with a man named Ferdinand Weber.  In 1880 Weber published a book called Jewish Theology on the Basis of the Talmud and Related Writings.  Herein he summarized and systematized many passages from rabbinic writings; in doing so, he portrayed a stern God who appeared as a bookkeeper whose business it was to keep account of all one’s merits and demerits. According to Weber, rabbinic Judaism also knew of a "treasury of excess merits that could be shared with those who did not have enough", and here too it was often "impossible to know just where one stood with God."[8] [9]   Weber’s work has not been without influence. It has been used extensively by W. Sanday and A. Headlam in their ICC Commentary on Romans,[9] [10] as well as in some of the works of R. Bultmann.

In any case, this approach generally continued until around the beginning of this twentieth century. Significant criticisms were launched by the Jewish Reformer C. G. Montefiore[10] [11] as well as a man who was neither a Jew nor a NT scholar, George Foot Moore.[11] [12]   I refer you again to the summary of Thielman for details regarding their arguments.  These m
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[1][2]   Thomas R. Schreiner, "Reading Romans Theologically: A Review Article" JETS 41/4 644.

[2][3]   I am referring here to comments made in "On Being Reformed: An Open letter" in Information: A Newspaper for the Reformed Home 7/3 (Nov 28, 1998) where the charge has been made that "an attitude of 'exclusivism' toward other Christians."  From the response of Dr. J. Visscher to this charge ("Responding to an Open Letter IV" Information 7/6 (February 5, 1999), it is apparent that the writings of J.D.G. Dunn are behind this viewpoint to some degree.

[3][4]   Paul and the Law (IVP, 1994) 14 - 47.  A briefer survey is found in Thomas R. Schreiner's The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker, 1993) 13 - 31.  For a more detailed review of the various positions, S. Westerholm's Israel's Law and the Church Faith: Paul and his Recent Interpreters (Eerdmans, 1988) is recommended; this significant work is in the process of being revised and updated.

[4][5]   See Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach, 23. The references in Luther's Works are to LW 47:172; cf. 47:159-76.

[5][6]   Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians.  Translated by John Pringle.  (Baker, 1977) 92.

[6][7]   Ibid., 96.  These examples from Luther and Calvin are supplied by Thielman in Paul and the Law, 23-24.

[7][8]   F. Thielman, "Law," Dictionary of Paul and his Letters.  Edited by G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin. (InterVarsity Press, 1993) 530.

[8][9]   Paul and the Law, 25.

[9][10] Thielman makes the remark that "Sanday and Headlam considered Weber's book so authoritative that they cited his summaries, complete with parenthetical references to the German in order not to lose the correct nuance of Weber's words, as proof of what the rabbis believed." Paul and the Law, 25

[10][11] In "Rabbinic Judaism and the Epistles of St. Paul" Jewish Quarterly Review 13 (1900-1901) 161-217 and Judaism and St Paul: Two Essays (M.Goschen, 1914).

[11][12] His three volume work, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: the Age of Tannaim has recently been reprinted (Hendrickson, 1997) and is still a valuable guide to Tannaitic Judaism (50 BC to 200 A.D.).

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