Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Carson reviews VanLandingham's work

Today I was looking through the Review of Biblical Literature list and saw there was a review of Chris VanLandingham's Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. I confess I got a bit excited upon seeing it.

In my view this is one of the best biblical studies books written in recent years, and I would put it along side EP Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism in terms of thoroughness and quality of scholarship and importance. (Note that I have both minor and major disagreements with both these books, and bear in mind that VanLandingham is writing against Sanders)

I have been highly dissappointed by the reactions that VanLandingham's work has received from bloggers so far. Reactions have included "Oh my God, he denies Penal Substitution! Heretic! Can you believe someone would do that?", and someone who's only skimmed the book accusing VanLandingham of not saying the very things he does say. As a result I have been rolling my eyes a lot recently. So I was looking forward to reading a more sane review, by a respectable scholar writing for RBL...

...then I saw the reviewer was DA Carson. My eyes rolled. A frustrated sigh may well have escaped my lips. Whoops. It's a bit like inviting the Leader of the Opposition to publicly comment on the Government's latest policies... 'Biased' would be too mild a word for it. So, somewhat curious about just how bad it would get and doing my best ironic smile, I read the review.

In the first half, Carson summarizes VanLandingham's work, mostly by quoting the man himself and does a good job of it. Then he begins the second half by recounting a story about how some PHD students decide their thesis in advance and then study the data and force it to agree, and some study the data and then draw conclusions. While reading this I thought "well, VanLandingham talks about how long it took for a thesis topic to come together at the start of his book, so he's clearly more in the second group, so I wonder where Carson's going with this?" Carson however asserts that VanLandingham is one of those people who has formed his opinions in advance and tried to force-fit the data to the thesis, and the work was biased from the outset and the results worthless. I cracked up laughing. Carson is calling VanLandingham biased?! Carson is accusing someone else of forcing evidence to fit a thesis, and of biased scholarship? That's the blackest pot in town calling the kettle black if ever I saw it.

The remainder of the review is, somewhat amusingly, Carson comparing VanLandingham's findings against Carson's own conservative-Protestant anti-New Perspective beliefs, and systematically judging them based on how well they agree with Carson's beloved preconceived doctrine. Carson is happy to agree that Jews believed in the importance of works and that Jews at the time of the New Testament were advocates of works-righteousness (because of course Carson wants to believe those nasty Jewish taught works-righteousness which he wants to see Paul as attacking). Carson is not at all prepared to agree that this Jewish view is a reasonable interpretation of what the Old Testament says though (since Carson wants to see the Old Testament as agreeing with his own theology) so he refuses to accept VanLandingham's case that the Jews had understood their own scriptures in a reasonable manner.

Carson then gets hung up on the fact that VanLandingham implies in passing that he holds to Libertarian Free Will (Carson being a compatibilist). I rolled my eyes at Carson here, since this is an irrelevant tangent. VanLandingham's interpretation of Justification, which is really pretty similar to the Roman Catholic one and fairly well-evidenced, Carson dismisses in one sentence as "not sophisticated" (which made me frown in puzzlement). Apparently VanLandingham commits the cardinal sin of mentioning Paul's view of election without exegeting Carson's favorite verse (do I care? Hmm, no.). And then Carson writes something that made my mouth fall open and my eyes widen:
He does not see that in its context Rom 4:5 presupposes that Paul understands God’s “justification” of Abraham to be the justification of the wicked;
What the...? I'm sorry, but one of my fields of expertise is Romans 1-4 and let me just respond again to Carson's comment here: What?!? Romans 4 is about how Abraham was uncircumcised when he was justified, so the context of 4:5 is the justification of the uncircumcised not the morally wicked. Unless Carson wants to argue that Paul saw Abraham as a morally wicked person? (I can't think that even Carson would want to argue for that one) Apparently VanLandingham's findings don't fit well with Carson's idea of "grace" either (who would have thought it?) so he rejects this (mere evidence cannot of course hope to compete with Carson's faith).

Finally Carson makes some observations that are actually useful. He notes that the topic of reconciling justification by faith and judgment by works is an interesting and important one (hear, hear!), and he praises VanLandingham for his subject (though not, I note, for the obviously massive effort VanLandingham has put into this huge study). He observes that some of the details of the way VanLandingham has chosen to reconcile faith and works "approaches the bizarre" (I totally agree) and highlights the most obvious problem with VanLandingham's reconstruction accurately. But then just when the going was getting good he finishes by admitting that he didn't understand part of VanLandingham's view (a part which VanLandingham had clearly spelled out, so I'm left wondering whether Carson actually read the book properly).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think of Carson's criticism about VanLandingham's examination of the Old Testament?

Blogger Andrew said...

As Carson points out, VL draws less strong conclusions about the OT than he does about the intertestamental literature, concluding only that the later Jewish tradition's way of interpreting Old Testament passages is a reasonable one, rather than saying it's the only possible one. As VL points out, there is a far smaller amount of literature in the OT on the subject than there is in the intertestamental works, and the OT passages generally aren't very clear in and of themselves about the type of answers that a study on this topic would ideally like to get from them. VL clearly realizes that it's possible to interpret the OT evidence in more than one way depending on how one wants to read it and therefore contents himself with concluding that as far as interpretations go, the later Jewish interpretation is a perfectly reasonable one and probably the most logical and natural interpretation to come to.

I would congratulate VL here for his care to not go beyond the evidence, and only draw conclusions that are warranted from the data. As to his conclusion that the Jewish understanding of their own scriptures is a reasonable one, that seems to me a thesis that is a priori extremely likely. It would surely be truly surprising if they didn't understand their own scriptures! So I felt VL was saying nothing particularly bold here. Carson would seem to prefer to believe that the Jews seriously misunderstood their own scriptures, and so makes rhetorical use of VL's less-strong conclusion here as a chance to simply claim victory.

Notably, both Carson and VL seems to agree the OT's a bit of a mixed bag on this topic, their disagreement is simply over what is the better interpretation of the mixed data. Given that, I'm inclined to think that any technical discussion of the OT beyond that is a little beside the point, because ultimately people are more interested in Paul vs Later Judaism than they are in trying to find out the 'better' OT interpretation. The real question is whether Paul disagrees with the Judaism of his day on the topic, not which one of these two groups had their interpretation more in line with the OT.

Blogger Dane Ortlund said...

I'm missing your point about Rom 4:5 and the justification of Abr. as "wicked." Doesn't the text excplicitly say that in this case God justified the ungodly (asebes)? It would seem Carson has made a valid observation.

Blogger Andrew said...

Romans 4:5 uses a slang term used by Jews to speak derogatorily of gentiles. This is sometimes helpfully translated "wicked", yes, but in the context of chapter 4 is better translated "gentiles" or "those without the law". Paul uses a similar Jewish derogatory phrase in Galatians 2:15, "gentile sinners".

The context in chapter 4 is all about the justification of the uncircumcised, ie Gentiles, and how Abraham was uncircumcised when he was justified. In this argument, Romans 4:5 points out that God justified Abraham when he was without-law, "wicked". Paul of course doesn't mean morally wicked (as the Jews all believed Abraham to be extremely morally good) but means that Abraham was without-law when he was justified, just like the Christian Gentiles now are.

Now if Carson had simply said that Rom 4:5 implies the justification of the wicked, I wouldn't have had so much of a problem. Because if you take the verse out of its context and translate it (which is of course bad exegesis), then yes it's possible to reasonably think it's talking about the justification of the morally wicked. But he says that the "context" of Rom 4:5 shows it's the justification of the wicked. The context is a chapter long argument that people who are uncircumcised can be justified, thus demonstrating that the meaning of the ambiguous key term in 4:5 is not 'moral wickedness' but 'those not following the law'.


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