Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The irony of N.T. Wright's approach to Paul

Thanks to my parents, for Christmas this year I received N.T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God: http://www.amazon.com/Paul-Faithfulness-God-N-Wright/dp/0800626834/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389728695&sr=1-1

Though I don't always agree with Wright (particularly on his interpretation of Paul, as we will see below), I do consistently find him to be an engaging author whom I learned a great deal from.  At this point, I'm almost finished with the first volume (which is about 600 pages), and I have a few observations to make about a third of the way through.

A lot of what Wright says is aimed at criticizing a certain trajectory of scholarship on Paul that begins with a Church historian and biblical scholar named Ferdinand Christian Baur.  Baur taught in Tubingen, in southern Germany during the heyday of Hegelianism (1830s) about 20 years before the movement collapsed in the wake of the failures of the 1848 revolutions.  As a result, his interpretation of the NT and early Church history tends to mirror the Hegelian dialectic.  The "Thesis" of early Christianity was Jewish Christianity, as represented by Peter.  It was legalistic and backward, and generally not that great.  Then there was a Gentile Christianity, represented by Paul, that had a high Christology (as opposed to the low-Jewish Christology) and was generally open minded and tolerant- and it pretty much rejected everything Jewish.  These two forms of Christianity duked it out over the first few generations, until the the second-century, when Luke wrote Acts in order to pretend that although the Apostles might have had some conflicts, they eventually got along (bear in mind, that Baur dated the NT documents mostly from the second century, something that even secular historical research would not accept at this point!).  This created the beginning of a synthesis of the Jewish and Gentile Christianity, which found its fulfillment in John's Gospel of love (love being something that reconciles!) and then finally in what one might call "early Catholicism" which one finds in Irenaeus.  This of course was a betrayal of Paul's theology and "early Catholicism" for Baur is a kind of Christianity that has lost its nerve.  So, the Heglian dialectic goes Thesis (Jewish/Petrine Christianity), Antithesis (Gentile/Pauline Christianity), Synthesis (Johannine/Lukan/early Catholic Christianity).  Bam!

Though of course this clean Hegelian schematization was rejected by later generations of theologians and biblical scholars, the effects of this narrative persisted until the mid-20th century.  Even reading Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament, one is treated to the facile antithesis between Judaism and Hellenism (especially odd, in light of the fact that the Jews had been dominated by Greeks for some 300 years!).  Similarly, we are treated to a discussion of how the early Jerusalem Church was more or less a bunch of Ebionites with millenarian tendencies, whereas Paul taught a watered-down form of Gnosticism, which if you removed all the bells and whistles of supernatural revelation, Incarnation, and atonement, comes out sounding rather like a mixture of Neo-Kantianism and Heideggerianism.  All of this is finally topped off with the degenerate "early Catholicism" (particularly of the Pastoral and the catholic Epistles), with its clericalism and sacramentalism, which ultimately losses the hard edge of radical Paulinism.

Wright wants to reject this narrative, much like many have since WWII.  And part of this is seeing Paul as a more thoroughly Jewish thinker standing in continuity with the OT- which I think is an extremely good thing!  Nevertheless, the unfortunate result of this is that it has given rise to the "New Perspective on Paul" by revising the 19th century German Liberal Protestant assessment of Judaism, while keeping much of its same framework and categories.  (For those unfamiliar, Wright has broadly been defined as being part of this NP movement, with James D.G. Dunn and E.P Sanders being a somewhat harder proponents.) 

In other words, in the old German Liberal Protestant/Hegalian scheme (with its underlining veiled or not so veiled anti-Semitism) "works of the law"="Judaism," with its self-righteousness and backwardness (i.e. read: not as cosmopolitan as the 19th century German middle classes would like!).  Now, in light of the horrific crimes of the WWII and the new appreciation for the sinfulness of anti-Semitism, post-1945 NT scholarship cast Judaism in a new and better light.  It must be something very good indeed, and Paul was good also, because he was a thoroughly Jewish thinker (so far, so good!).  Now here comes the rub!  But if the "works of the law"="Judaism," and Judaism is now good, what are all these problems with the law that Paul keeps on talking about?  The NP answer is: It must be that the "works of the law" should only be read as the "ritual law" and that the ritual law used to be really good, but now it's really bad because it's holding Jewish and Gentile Christians apart.  So, what Paul must really be saying is "ritual law divides, but faith in Jesus unites.  So the badge of membership in the Church should be faith and not the rituals of the OT."

This approach is wrong on a number of levels that we don't need to spell out in detail (perhaps, we could discuss them in another blog post!).  Nevertheless, the short answer is that the problem that Paul is dealing with in Roman 1-3 isn't: "Jews and Gentiles are separated, and how do we get these crazy kids together?"  It's: "Gentiles are cursed by the natural law, and Jews are cursed by the revealed law of Sinai.  So how does anyone stand as righteous when the Day of the Lord comes?"  Paul does of course mention the ritual law in both Romans and Galatians, but only to point out that achieving Jewish identity by obeying it doesn't do away with the fact that God will judge people who don't fulfill the moral law perfectly. 

Again: What I think seems to be the mistake made by Wright (and in a more extreme form in Dunn) is that they conflate the "Judaism" and the OT in general with "works of the law."  Reformation Christians have always taught that law and gospel are equally present in both Testaments, and that the Church is not a doing away with Israel and the OT, but a fulfillment of them.  By contrast, German Liberal Protestants like Baur, Harnack, and Schleiermacher (for various reasons) did make this identification between "Judaism" and "works of the law," and indeed did think of the Church as a replacement rather than a fulfillment of the OT people of God.  Therefore, ironically, in attempt to reject this latter position, Dunn and Wright have unconsciously taken over such an identification.  Since Paul has a fair amount of positive things to say about the continuity of the Testaments, they therefore claim that they cannot accept the Reformation antithesis between law and gospel.  This is because they assume that these terms for the Reformers translate into "OT" and "NT", or "Israel" and the "Church."  But of course, this is not what the Reformers were saying at all.  They interpreted Paul as talking about two words of God (again, present in both Testaments!), and the existential relationships that they give rise to, and not about "Israel" and "the Church."

The ironic part of all this is that although Wright wants to reject Baur, he has essentially reproduced a major part of Baur's thesis.  (My old prof. Steven Paulson has made a similar point about Dunn and the NP in general.)  Nevertheless, in Wright's story, it isn't Johannine Christianity (with its gospel of love) that reconciles Jewish and Gentile Christians, it's Pauline Christianity with its supposed insistence that a better cultural boundary marker for the Church is faith, rather than circumcision and not eating pork.  Ultimately, Christianity proves not to be about solving the problem of sin, but about bringing humanity together.  In other words, obeying the ritual law is out, and obeying the law of togetherness is in!  The final irony is that although Reformation Christians see the OT and NT people of God sharing in a common salvation and medium of receiving that salvation (i.e. faith), Wright and the NP in general see one form of salvation (membership in Israel) being superseded by another (togetherness in the Church).  Ultimately, this narrative is as supersessionist as that of Baur's!