Last Supper

We decided to have a communion meal together as a Cell Group last week. It was nice to have an opportunity to take the Lord’s supper over a meal and spend some time considering what it means, rather than squashing it into a 5-minute part of a Sunday meeting. As you can see from the photo, we actually went to great lengths to recreate the historical situation of the last supper, right down to the clothes they would have worn (that’s right – dressing gowns and tea-towels). And in case you’re wondering, we had an authentic first century Jewish lasagne and Mississippi Mud Pie.

Two interesting blogs I’ve come across recently. First is Scot McKnight – the first commentary writer I know of who blogs. He’s writing some interesting stuff about Carson’s book on the Emerging church at the moment. Second is Rob Wilkerson – another reformed charismatic.

Moo on the New Perspective

Continuing with my introductory looks at the New Perspective on Paul, Douglas Moo deals with the subject in his outstanding NICNT commentary on Romans. He first touches on it in a section on the theme of Romans in his introduction (pp. 22-30), but interacts more directly with Sanders and Dunn in an excursus entitled “Paul, ‘Works of the Law,’ and First-Century Judaism” (pp.211-217).

The Reformers, following Luther’s lead, made chapters 1-5 the heart of the letter with their theme of justification by faith. Stendahl thought that Luther’s problem “How can a sinful person be made right with God?” was not Paul’s. Paul rather, wanted to know how Gentiles could be incorporated with Jews into God’s people, and the “introspective conscience” of western Christians has caused them to miss the point. So, for the New Perspective, chapters 9-11 become the heart of the letter. Moo also describes other systems that make chapters 5-8 or 14-15 the expression of the central purpose of the letter.

Moo rejects the relationship between the two peoples – Jews and Gentiles – as the main theme of Romans. Instead, “the bulk of Romans focuses on how God has acted in Christ to bring the individual sinner into a new relationship with himself (chaps. 1-4), to provide for that individual’s eternal life in glory (chaps. 5-8), and to transform that individual’s life on earth now (12:1-15:13). … The individual and his relationship to God are important in Romans; and there is not as much difference between the thought world of Paul and that of Luther or ourselves as Stendahl and others think.” (p.28, emphasis his). However, Moo does not consider the theme of the letter to be justification. The theme is the gospel, a theme broad enough to encompass the diverse topics in Romans.

The excursus first considers the various options for a synthesis of Romans 2:13 (“doers of the law will be justified”) and 3:20 (“no one will be justified by the works of the law”). For Moo, the solution is the implied logical step “no one can do the law”, which is a problem of human nature that transcends ethnic divisions.

Moo then introduces Sanders’ concept of “covenantal nomism” – Judaism did not require works as a means of entry into salvation, but only to maintain their status in the covenant which they had received by election (the law was not the means of “getting in” but “staying in”). If Sanders is right, this poses a problem – what was Paul arguing against in 3:20 if no one believed you could earn your salvation? Dunn’s proposal is the “best supported and most reasonable” of the options. He views “works of the law” as referring to Jewish obedience to those laws that marked out their own peculiar national status as God’s people.

But Moo does not accept either Sander’s dilemma or Dunn’s solution. Dunn has failed to notice that Paul’s criticism goes beyond adherence to certain ethnic identity markers – in chapter 2 they are liable to judgement because of their disobedience to the law, which includes doing the “same things” (2:2-3) that the Gentiles do.

Moo also believes (along with Dunn and Wright) that Paul’s argument is an attack on “covenantal nomism”. For Paul, the promise of salvation in the Scriptures is in the Abrahamic covenant rather than the Mosaic. Along with many critics of the New Perspective, Moo believes Sanders underestimates the legalism present in both the theology and practise of Judaism of the time. “The gap between the average believer’s theological views and the informed views of religious leaders is often a wide one. If Christianity has been far from immune from legalism, it it likely to think that Judaism, at any stage of its development, was?” (p. 216)

Moo concludes with his own summary of Paul’s argument. He says “If the Jews, with the best law that one could have, could not find salvation through it, then any system of works is revealed as unable to conquer the power of sin. … ‘Works of the law’ are inadequate not because they are ‘works of the law‘, but, ultimately, because they are ‘works.’ This clearly removes the matter from the purely salvation-historical realm to the broader realm of anthropology.” (p. 217, emphasis his)

Stott on the New Perspective

Thanks to Peter Bogert, for pointing out that John Stott’s BST volume on Romans contains a brief analysis of the New Perspective (I read it 5 years ago before I had even heard of the New Perspective). It was published in 1984 and doesn’t interact with N T Wright’s view on justification, but nevertheless it provides an excellent introduction. In keeping with the style of the Bible Speaks Today series, no specialist vocabulary or background knowledge of historical theology is assumed. It is section 2 of the “Preliminary Essay”, entitled “New Challenges to Old Traditions” (pp. 24-31).

Stott first introduces us to the ideas of Stendahl, who argued that Calvin was wrong to believe that the main theme of Romans is justification by faith. Rather, it was written to defend he rights of Gentiles to be full heirs of Israel’s promises, apart from the law. Stott feels this is an unnecessarily sharp antithesis, and is far from convinced that Paul’s pre-Christian conscience was as robust as Stendahl claims.

He writes, “Paul was indeed deeply exercised, as the apostle to the Gentiles, about the place of the law in salvation and about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. But he was also evidently concerned to expound and defend the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In fact, the two concerns, far from being incompatible, are inextricably interwoven. Only loyalty to the gospel can secure unity in the church.”

Stott then moves on to consider Sander’s contribution. Sanders wanted to destroy the notion that Palestinian Judaism was a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, and argued that instead they believed in “covenantal nomism” – their obedience to the law was a response to the covenant of grace. Or, in now familiar terms, they “get in” by God’s gracious election, but “stay in” by obedience. Stott then summarises Sander’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching and notes that “categories of human sin and guilt, the wrath of God, justification by grace without works, and peace with God in consequence, are conspicuous by their absence.”

Stott presents five points of objection to Sander’s thesis that Paul was not objecting to self-righteousness. He questions whether the evidence on Jewish teaching is as uniform as Sanders claims, and notes that “popular religion may diverge widely from the official literature of its leaders”. Just because they weren’t ‘officially’ legalistic doesn’t mean many weren’t in practise. Our human nature tends towards being self-centred and proud. It would be surprising if all the Jews were somehow immune from this tendency. In any case, for Paul, “getting in” and “staying in” were both by grace alone.

Contra Räisänen, Paul was not confused about the law, struggling how a divine institution could be abolished. Stott explains that for Paul, in both the areas of justification and sanctification, we are not under law but grace. “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification to the Spirit, not the law. It is only by the Spirit that the law can be fulfilled in us”.

Finally, Stott considers Dunn’s claim that “works of the law” refer not to good works but ethnic identity markers. Paul therefore only objected to a boastful sense of national privilege and ethnic exclusivity. Stott agrees that Paul objected to these, but drawing on Westerholm, claims that “law” and “works of the law” can be shown to have wider reference to good works in general.

Though Stott has rejected some of the New Perspective teaching, he does not see it as being entirely without merit. In conclusion he states “… we can be profoundly thankful for the scholarly insistence that the Gentile question is central to Romans. The redefinition and reconstitution of the people of God, as comprising Jewish and Gentile believers on equal terms, is a critical theme which pervades the letter.”

Book Review – The New Perspective on Paul (Michael B Thompson)

This short booklet (29 pages) can be purchased from Grove Books in either printed or PDF format (£2.75 either way). Despite the abundance of material on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), there is a real shortage of accessible introductory material that presents the issues clearly and fairly. Thompson does this admirably and his task is helped by his moderately neutral stance on the issue.

After a brief introduction, the ‘Old’ Perspective is described, with particular reference to Luther’s understanding of Jewish theology. He summarises the ‘Lutheran’ position in six points and then highlights problems with each that have given rise to the New Perspective. He does not unfortunately attempt to define a non-Lutheran ‘Old Perspective’, and the points end up being something of a straw man that many from the Old Perspective could easily knock down.

Chapter 3 attempts to explain the New Perspective by outlining the theology of three leading proponents – Sanders, Dunn and Wright. Sanders denied that Judaism taught salvation earned by good deeds, but that rather these works helped Jews to stay in the covenant. Dunn built on this by defining “works of the law” as those things that marked the Jews as insiders as opposed to the Gentiles, hence they are not to be thought of in terms of basic moral behaviour. Thompson broadly agrees but is not sure that all references to ‘works of the law’ can be defined in such narrow terms. Wright’s alternative definition of ‘justification’ is explained, along with his distinctive emphasis of the exile theme – that God will sort out evil and deliver his people. Thompson notes that not all have been convinced by this, and especially some evangelicals are concerned about the loss of imputation from the concept of justification.

Chapter 4 provides some of Thompson’s own insights into Paul’s letters. He emphasises the Jewish belief that the law was a good gift, but that for Paul he had come to see that Jesus was the ultimate gift. However many Jews had rejected Jesus and persecuted Paul, and some Christian Jews were effectively rejecting the sufficiency of the cross with their requirements on Gentile converts. Thompson helpfully summarises both Paul’s criticism and respect for the law. He does not however, address to what degree Paul expected Jewish believers to adhere to the law.

Chapter 5 summarises the evangelical criticism of the New Perspective. He argues that the concern that justification by faith is being lost in favour of salvation by works is not justified. But he does believe that the NPP brings a much-needed emphasis on our Christian behaviour in addition to faith. Another concern is whether this signals an end to evangelisation of the Jews, which he is a little unclear on. He does believe it the gospel should be preached to Jews but hints that Jews can be saved by grace without the gospel (I may have misunderstood him here though).

Chapter 6 brings the positives of the New Perspective, which at the very least has caused people to study their Bibles more thoroughly. Thompson does not believe all the texts fit either view perfectly, but the NPP brings much light to the flow of argument in Romans and elsewhere. He also believes that NPP can help bring a corrective against antinomian tendencies.

The booklet concludes with a bibliography, and a web link to what is the premier online resource for New Perspective research – the Paul Page. This booklet is by far the best introductory material to the New Perspective I have read, and shows sensitivity to both sides of the debate as well as evangelical concerns. Its relatively brief size will be welcomed by anyone who just wants to grasp the basics before diving into the much longer books and papers available. There are a few points on which his argumentation is weak, and he doesn’t allow himself to be drawn on the imputation debate, but his conclusions are not overly ambitious and provide food for thought for evangelicals from either perspective. The booklet will also serve as a handy reference to the main texts in the Pauline corpus that are pertinent to the debate.

I’m a scholar

Thanks to Google Scholar I have found that my third year university project which was published in abridged form as a paper for the “Parallel Computing” journal by my tutor Jeff Reeve, has been cited by three other scholarly papers. You can even read it in HTML although its completely unreadable due to the large number of mathematical symbols used. Also, inexplicably, all occurrences of the string “ffi” have been removed, making efficient into “ecient” and difficult into “dicult”.

The title is supposed to be “An Efficient Parallel Version of the Householder-QL Matrix Diagonalisation Algorithm” (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?)

Commentary Series Review – Bible Speaks Today

The Bible Speaks Today series is responsible for me getting interested in reading commentaries. The first one I bought was Michael Green’s volume on Matthew, which I then followed with Stott on Romans. Both were excellent and now I have read 51 (just 1 to go!).

The Bible speaks today series has been slowly growing for almost 40 years and is now nearing completion, with just a couple of Old Testament books to go. (There is also a Bible themes series which has about 10 volumes) It is conservative evangelical in outlook, and therefore the books in question are understood in the light of the rest of the canon. The Old Testament in particular is viewed from a Christian perspective. They are in a fairly large paperback format, with a typical length of 200-300 pages.

The series benefits from two highly competent editors – Motyer and Stott (OT and NT respectively). They ensure that, in keeping with the series title, each volume is more about what Christians can learn from the book rather than being simply a ‘commentary’. Their judicious and even-handed editorship is evidenced by the remarkably broad spectrum of British evangelical leaders who have endorsed the series.

The authors are typically British Anglicans, and most are pastors rather than academics, although the writers are not lacking in scholarly expertise, and some have contributed to more technical series. Authors are frequently chosen for having preached a notable sermon series on the book in question to their own congregations. This makes the books often feel like a collection of expository sermons, and full of practical application.

They are designed to be accessible to all Christians who want to study a book in a bit more depth, and to this end the New Testament series has been furnished with a study guide, which offers a few (thankfully not patronising) questions on each chapter.

The books begin with a short introduction and bibliography, in which they will typically outline the main arguments for accepting the book’s historicity and traditional authorship. More important however, is the intention to communicate the biblical author’s main message, to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the book.

The commentary itself can vary dramatically in length. For example, Jeremiah is shorter than Jonah. Only two books (Genesis and Psalms) are covered in two volumes. In particular, some of the commentaries on the shorter NT epistles are quite long, and include treatment of issues covered by more intermediate level commentaries. Volumes on shorter books of the Bible will also typically include the biblical text. Most are based on the NIV, although some of the older ones use the RSV.

The authors are generally given freedom to make points on related issues such as ecology, the ecumenical movement, third world debt, infant baptism and so on. Where evangelicals are broadly agreed, they are forthright, and where evangelicals are divided, they are firm but never belligerent. The commentary is not always sequential either, with some sections being studied out of order, and in the case of Proverbs, approached thematically. You can expect the occasional key Greek or Hebrew word to be discussed, but no specialist vocabulary is presumed and it is always transliterated. They will not normally discuss the opinions of other commentators, but may well tie in current events.

This series is ideal for Christians who want to dig a bit deeper into a particular book of the Bible but find standard commentaries overwhelming and dull. Those looking for help preparing a Bible study on a passage will find it will provide plenty of ideas and insight.

The series is accessible but it’s not lightweight, and will perhaps still prove heavy-going for those who do not read non-fiction often. Slightly more readable series to try might be Tom Wright’s “For Everyone” series, or “Focus on the Bible” from Christian Focus. Alternatively, those looking for a bit more technical depth while retaining the evangelical and practical focus might want to try the Pillar (PNTC), Tyndale (TNTC, TOTC), New American (NAC) or NIV Application (NIVAC) series.

For me the series highlights are Leviticus (Tidball), Chronicles (Wilcock), Song of Songs (Gledhill), Ezekiel (Wright), Hosea (Kidner), Matthew (Green), Romans (Stott), Ephesians (Stott), 2 Timothy (Stott), and John’s Letters (Jackman). They have been most helpful for me in appreciating the main message of those books. I have reviewed a number from the series here on my blog:

Jeremy Pierce has also reviewed James (Alec Motyer) and 1 Peter (Edmund Clowney).

Trackback Attack

My blog is under a spam trackback attack at the moment. I have hopefully got rid of most of it now, but please do not click on any trackbacks you see – they might lead to some unpleasant sites. If it persists, I may have to disable comments altogether for a while.

Update: I’ve turned off comments temporarily, as the other methods haven’t seemed to work.