Monday, August 07, 2006

Paul the Law and the New Perspective Part I

Well, I'd originally planned to do this in fewer, but substantially longer, segments. But in the interests of time and brevity of posts, I've opted to go with shorter items in greater number. The current plan is 2 or 3 posts outlining Judaism as Legalistic, moving toward Sanders and Covenantal Nomism (which will have a few more posts than that, though I'm not sure how many yet), before finally culminating with a brief survey of current trends in NPP scholarship and opponents.

The title of the series is, of course, shamelessly stolen, though slightly adapted, from Sanders' Paul the Law and the Jewish People.

Works Righteousness, Paul and Judaism: A Long Tradition

Works righteousness can perhaps most succinctly be defined as a soteric conviction that one's standing before God is based on preforming meritous deeds. In the context of Judaism, it is the view that Judaism is characterized by a conviction that one must preform a sufficient number of acts of Torah (usually as contrasted to the weight of wrongdoings) to curry God's favor.

Such a view has a long tradition when assessing Judaism, dating at least to the authorship of the book of Luke, where we find in 18:14 the contrast between the Pharisee, attempting to righteous himself by works, and the tax collector, appealing to God's mercy.(1) If the parable is pre-Lukan, it could, of course, have had a different connotation in a different context, but that's neither here nor there for the moment. Luke's presentation of the parable betrays Luke's own conviction that the Pharisees were preaching a religion of works-righteousness.(2)

This trend continued through the early Church writers (who also incorporated it into their own writings, partly in order that they may save Jewish Scripture for their religion--a turn of events that would eventually play no small role in the reformation). Thus, for example, Tertullian's Against Marcion 5.3, or his Answer to the Jews Ch.2 (3), or Justin Martyr's Against Trypho Ch.14.

That Judaism lends itself easily to such a view--particularly Rabbinic Judaism (which will be discussed more fully in subsequent posts) seems self-evident. The focus on the law leads easily to the conclusion that it is motivated directly by soteriology. And it has done so to outside observers--particularly Christian outside observers (motivated, as they are, to look for it by virtue of the Pauline corpus) for millenia.

My next post will take a fuller look at commentators on Paul and their reading of him in the light of Jewish legalism--both their conception of Judaism, and their subsequent understanding of Paul (which, I will suggest, in fact works in reverse, with the former defined by the latter).

My primary purpose in this introduction has been to show that the equating of Judaism with legalism is not, as many commentators would have it, the invention of Luther. Nor was Luther wrong in equating "Jewish Legalism" with Catholicism. It is indeed the perception of the former that inspired the latter. When Luther read in Paul an analogue to his own situation (which I'd suggest he doubtlessly did), he did so primarily on the terms of existing interpretations, not on ones of his own making. He may have attributed his own theology to Paul, but the attribution of his opponents theology to Paul's opponents was not of his making.

And no (to head off the obvious supposition), I'm not Lutheran. Or any other kind of Protestant.


(1) Irvin A. Busenitz, "The Reformer's Understanding of Paul and the Law," (.pdf) The Master's Seminary Journal 16.2, p.248.

(2) While the parable employs obvious caricature--the characters are polarized to emphasize them as foils--the point nonetheless still holds.

(3) Somewhat ironically, Tertullian could also sound eerily Sandersian at times:

But even in the common transactions of life, and of human intercourse at home and in public, even to the care of the smallest vessels, He in every possible manner made distinct arrangement; in order that, when they everywhere encountered these legal instructions, they might not be at any moment out of the sight of God. For what could better tend to make a man happy, than having “his delight in the law of the Lord? ”“In that law would he meditate day and night" (Against Marcion, 2.18).

1 comment:

J. B. Hood said...


So right about Luther not inventing a thing when it comes to legalism/works salvation and 1 c Judaism (not to say that makes his read correct! I still think he may have been reading through the lens of his own debates.) Thanks for getting that oft-neglected point in there.