Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jesus' Death in Luke-Acts

Browsing the internet I came across this fascinating article by Richard Anderson on the view of Jesus' atonement in Luke-Acts. It's well worth reading in full, but for the lazy here's a short summary of some of what I felt were the important points:

1. Luke contains no statements that give any sort of 'theological' interpretation to the cross. Nor does Acts contain such statements except where it's quoting the speeches of Paul. (In Luke's gospel the sole interpretation of Jesus' death is that he was a martyr)

2. Luke-Acts heavily emphasizes the Jewish concept of repentance and forgiveness to an extent not found in the remainder of the New Testament. The Jews believed that a person who truly repented would be forgiven by God. The importance of repentance occurs regularly throughout Luke-Acts, and a primary function of Jesus' ministry is "to call sinners to repentance".

3. Luke omits all negative statements toward Sacrifices, Temple, and Dietary Laws from the preaching of Jesus. In Acts all such statements are placed in the mouths of certain followers of Jesus subsequent to Jesus' death. Luke's version of Jesus is acceptable to a person who is a Law-following Judean, and Anderson sees them as the intended audience.

4. Overall Luke-Acts is very careful in distinguishing between the theology of the writer and the theology of Paul in terms of what is said about Jesus' death, Sacrifices, the Temple, and Dietary Laws. (This would seem to raise the question, not dealt with by Anderson, of what Luke's own view of Paul's theology is, and how Luke is trying to portray Paul... it had never crossed my mind that Luke (or his audience) might not like Paul or Paul's theology!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paul on the Law

It frustrates me when scholars select a poorly chosen category or question and try to force an answer out of an ancient text. They typically then proceed to argue endlessly over various answers that they try to give.

I think Paul's views on the law is an example of one such offender. ("Was Judaism a religion of grace?" is another) In this case, I think the situation is very simple but that scholars have got confused by asking the wrong questions and trying to give answers. Often these issues can be resolved simply by starting with the obvious and seeing what light obvious things can shed on the situation under discussion.

These two statements, I think, may be said to be obvious and universally agreed upon: (1) Paul has certain expectations regarding the moral conduct of Christians. He exhorts his readers to aspire to and achieve moral behavior, and he rebukes his converts when he feels they are falling short of such behavior. (2) Paul is against Gentiles having to follow the rituals of the Mosaic Law.

Those form two poles of Paul's thought. In his rhetoric and arguments he sometimes talks about one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at once. In the course of these arguments he uses the word 'law' in different ways. On the one hand, because Gentiles do not need to follow the rituals of the Mosaic Law, the Law is for them abolished, finished, ended, gone, and irrelevant etc. On the other hand, because these gentile Christians live morally they can be said to meet the moral requirements of the law, obey the commandments, fulfill the law, obey the law of Christ etc.

In other words, the two basic elements of Paul's thought outlined above naturally give rise to him making statements about the law in the course of his arguments that taken literally are inconsistent because he is using the word law in different senses in different arguments. Paul's thinking on this issue is perfectly consistent, but his terminology varies depending of which of his thoughts he is expressing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A NPP exegesis of Romans 4:4-5

A central part of the New Perspective on Paul has been the recognition that when Paul speaks of the "works of the Law" he does not mean moral good works, but rather the following of Jewish customs such as circumcision, dietary rules, sabbath keeping and so forth, which Paul calls "works of the Law". Paul's belief was that a person did not need to adopt Jewish customs to be acceptable to God, but rather that God accepted both Jews and Gentiles who were faithful to him, who were living morally in accordance with his will. This distinction is needed, for example, to explain Paul's arguments in Galatians where Paul spends four chapters attacking the value works of the law and then turns around and spends the last two chapters affirming the saving value of works of morality.

Paul, sadly, does not meet 21st century standards of using perfectly clear and unambiguous terms in 100% consistent ways. So it requires some level of attention on the part of the reader to determine from the context of his argument when he is talking about morality and when he is talking about Jewish customs, as the words "works" and "law" sometimes occur in the context of each. Romans is certainly no exception to this, as Paul in Romans 2 affirms that God will judge people "according to their works" (of morality) and that it is the "doers of the law who are justified" (ie the moral law) but by 3:28 is asserting that "works of the law" (Jewish customs) are not the criterion of God's judgment. In the second half of chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4, Paul engages in a somewhat convoluted argument against this idea of Jewishness as achieving righteousness before God.

In 3:9-26 Paul has argued that there is no distinction between followers of Jewish customs and followers of Greek customs before God: Anyone who is faithfully obedient to God's moral commands is acceptable. Paul asks about what happens to "boasting" (3:27). If the Jews are they elect of God then they can claim to have been honoured above the Gentiles, but if God honours anyone who is faithful then the Jews don't have any privileged status to boast about (3:27-28). Paul clarifies that this would be analogous to God being "the God of the Jews only" and argues that God is not the God of the Jews only and will justify both those who follow Jewish customs and those who follow Greek ones (3:29-30).

Paul then turns to Abraham in chapter 4 and argues that when Abraham was called righteous by God it was at a time when Abraham was not a follower of Jewish customs and his righteousness was due to his faithfulness. Paul observes that if Abraham had been chosen arbitrarily by God because of Jewishness then he could have claimed to have been honoured above Gentiles by God (4:2), but he could not have claimed honour in God's sight because God would have been arbitrarily gifting him honour. (Paul's comment about Abraham not being able to claim honour from God would make no sense if he was talking about moral good works) Paul reiterates that Abraham's righteousness came from his "faithfulness" (4:3). Then follows 4:4-5, to which I will return shortly.

Paul says David teaches that people can be righteous apart from Jewish customs, arguing that God's forgiveness and acceptance is available to both those who are circumcised and those who are not (4:6-9a). Paul argues that Abraham did not follow Jewish customs when God first called him righteous (4:9b-11a). God calling him righteous was because of his faithfulness not his Jewishness. He argues that like Abraham, those who now have faithfulness but do not follow Jewish customs are righteous (4:11b-17). Paul argues that God's promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world would not be true if Abraham's descendants were limited to those who followed Jewish customs. Rather Abraham's true descendants are peoples of all nations who share the faithfulness that he exemplified.

Paul in the course of this argument has created a distinction between two groups of ideas. In one group are "Jewish Customs", "Law", and "works". In the other group are "faithfulness" and "justification". The average Jew of Paul's time would have argued these two groups of ideas are identical, saying that a person's faithfulness to God is demonstrated by their performance of God's commands - and that faithfulness to God and following the Jewish customs laid out by the law are therefore interchangeable. Paul however, is trying to make these two groups of ideas stand in a contrast throughout his argument. As a rhetorical ploy, in 4:4 he employs an analogy from everyday life in the ancient world that contrasts these two groups of ideas.

In 4:4 he gives this analogy which draws on two contrasting economic systems that ran side-by-side in Paul's day relating to work and payment. One was an informal system in which favours were exchanged as gifts and faithfulness was key. The other was a formal legal system in which work was performed contractually and a legal obligation for repayment existed. It is these systems which provide the separation Paul is looking for between his two categories. This contrasts faithfulness, favour, non-law, and non-work against law, and work. This provides the contrast that Paul is looking for between his two groups of ideas. Thus in 4:4 he references briefly the everyday-reality of these dual systems, which his Roman readers understood well (but which can seem strange to us today).

In 4:5 Paul draws this contrast into his argument, restating again his thesis that the person who does not follow Jewish customs but who is faithful to God is righteous. In this sentence, Paul speaks of God as being the God who justifies the "ungodly". This seems to be a somewhat derogatory Jewish term to refer to those who did not follow Jewish customs. Paul elsewhere speaks of "Gentile sinners" in the same vein. For Paul, God is a God who will call righteous these 'ungodly' Gentiles that do not keep the Jewish customs because they are faithful to God and keep God's moral law. He is the God of the Gentiles and not just the God of the Jews.

Romans 4:4-5 in my view, is thus a small part of Paul's wider argument advocating that what matters to God is a person's moral behavior and not their cultural customs. It is a brief reference to the everyday practices of the Roman world, and this reference is lost on many today. By failing to perceive this reference, and by misconstruing Paul's use of the word "works" in this argument, and by taking the passage out of the context of Paul's wider argument, the passage has often been interpreted incorrectly by pre-new perspective protestant scholars. The (mis)interpretation of this passage has all too often been used to proof-text against Roman Catholic, and new perspective interpretations of Paul's writings (as they do with Phil 3:9 also).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Judging historical theology

For some reason it cracks me up when modern scholars pass judgment on ancient theologians for failing to have "correct" or "biblical" doctrine. (In other words, failing to agree with that scholar's own denomination's theology, especially their interpretation of Paul's writings) I think part of why I find it hilarious is because I so often agree with the ancient theologians' interpretation of the bible and think the modern scholars are wrong (as, for example, the NPP has demonstrated).

The apostolic fathers is the title given to a dozen or so Christian writings in the period 90-150AD. Here is an example of one biased commentator's negative views of them:
"...occasionally these fathers of the generation after the apostles gave the gospel their own unique interpretations that began to turn it way from the great themes of grace and faith so strongly emphasized by Paul and the other apostles and more toward the gospel as a "new law" of God-pleasing conduct and behavior. Justo Gonzalez takes nothing from the apostolic fathers' importance or value when he rightly notes that "not only in their understanding of baptism, but also in their total theological outlook, one senses a distance between the Christianity of the New Testament - especially that of Paul - and that of the apostolic fathers. References to Paul and the other apostles are frequent; but in spite of this the new faith becomes more and more a new law, and the doctrine of God's gracious justification becomes a doctrine of grace that helps us act justly." Of course this shift was subtle and not absolute. It was a barely but definitely perceptible turn in these second-century Christian writings toward legalism, or what may be better termed "Christian moralism.""
From The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform by Roger E. Olson, pg 40-41

One particularly amusing commenter is Seeberg in his Textbook of the History of Dogma:
"It may be said, indeed, that Clement [of Rome] has not grasped the saving efficacy of the death of Christ in its full biblical significance" (pg 57)

[In the Apostolic Fathers] ""Righteousness" is always merely an active, actual righteousness." [and not the imputed righteousness of Protestant theology] (78)
..."the Pauline idea of justification was lost sight of, and a moralistic element readily became interwoven with them." (79)

"Thus we note the second great defect in the doctrinal conceptions of this period. As the work of Christ is not understood as having directly in view the forgiveness of sins, so there is naturally a failure to obtain this forgiveness as an essential object of faith. Good works are considered necessary in order to become sure of the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly proper to speak of the "moralism" of such views. Faith is more and more robbed of its significance. Love assumes the leading place in the soul, but, having by the depreciation of faith lost the inner impulsive power, it turns to the fulfillment of the commandments and the performing of good works. Thus was lost, however, the attitude of soul which distinguished primitive Christianity, the sense of receiving everything form God by his gift. Instead of this man's own works now occupy the foreground. This moralistic modification of the primitive Christian position was, indeed, brought about by means of the popular Greek-Roman ideal of human freedom. It Hellenized, but at the same time it proved a doorway through which Judaic legalism forced its way into the church." (80)
He doesn't seem quite to know what or who to blame it on, so he spreads the blame far and wide:
"A lack of comprehensive understanding and profound apprehension of the gospel itself is here undeniable. And this defect certainly reaches far back into the apostolic age. The legality which here appears is not of the Jewish sect, but it, nevertheless, without awakening suspicion, prepared the way for the intrusion of Judaic influences. The moralism is that of the heathen world, particularly in that age, and has its origin in the state of the natural man as such. The misconceptions of the gospel may be traced directly to the fact that the Gentile Christians did not understand the Old Testament ideas presupposed in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. But moralism always serves the interests of legalism. Making much of man's own works, the age accepted the legalistic works of the later Jewish piety." (115)
When he gets to the Apologists he is no happier:
"It may be said of the majority of these writers that they had no clearer conceptions of the gospel than had the Apostolic Fathers... In defining the work of Christ, it is first of all emphasized that he became a teacher of the [human] race, as he had already shown himself before his incarnation. The content of his teaching is found in the ideas of the One God; the new law, requiring a virtuous life; and immortality, more strictly speaking, the resurrection, bringing with it rewards and punishments... Man has the ability to keep these commandments, since God created him free. Although man, by disobeying the commandments of God, fell and became subject to death, he is nevertheless still free to decide fore God through faith and repentance" (115)

"The Apologists... make it evident that the general conception of Christianity in that day labored under the same defects and limitations as in the generation immediately preceding them (the work of Christ; moralism)." (118)
He is also upset they don't hold the Protestant interpretation of 'grace':
"Grace is no more than the revelation of doctrine and of the law." (116)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comments on Daley's article

One of the articles in the recent work The Redemption: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Christ as Redeemer is Brian Daley's article "He Himself is Our Peace' (Eph. 2:14): Early Christian views of Redemption in Christ'.

Rather than survey early Christian views about redemption comprehensively, Daley begins by asking what it is about the atonement that requires Jesus be fully divine. In asking and answering this question he seems to assume that the correct view of Christ's work would require Jesus be fully divine. I don't think that such an assumption is warrented. The New Testament writers do not seem to see a "need" for Jesus to be God in order for the salvation of man to be accomplished, and references to Jesus as God are few and far between.

In the pre-Nicene writers three distinct answers are given to the question of why Jesus was divine. (1) Justin Martyr's answer was that an important part of Jesus' teachings was to teach men the truth about the divine nature, and Justin therefore sees Jesus as being the "Word" of God, a Greek philosophical term to refer to a divine entity that conveyed knowledge of God to humanity. In other words, only God can truly teach accurately about the divine nature. (2) Lactantius' answer was that Jesus' teaching of moral virtue would only be perfect in all respects if Jesus was God. (3) Athanasius' answer was that Jesus had to be divine in order that by means of his human incarnation humanity and divinity could be metaphysically joined.

In the Christological councils of the fourth to sixth century it was the third view that was most influential, advocated by a vocal Alexandrian party. According to their soteriology, Jesus had to be fully divine and they succeed in legislating this idea. Daley's line of questioning hence strikes me as going backwards when he starts from the premise that Jesus is fully divine and tries to work to a conclusion about soteriology, when in fact it historically worked the other way around.

Daley then proceeds to outline major ways the Fathers speak of Christ's saving action. He lists and explains four views: The second and third of the three ideas I list here, and also Ransom and Christus Victor. That is a fairly comprehensive survey save that it is missing the most common view in the Fathers - Jesus as a teacher of moral virtue (see here and point 1 here and here and examples of that theology here and here).

Daley uses this survey to conclude that for the Fathers, generally speaking, salvation is not something Jesus "achieved or earned for the human race by acting on our behalf... Rather they all presuppose that salvation... is first of all something Jesus brought about in his own person". That idea appears to be Daley's thesis for which he wants to argue - that salvation is about who Christ is rather what what Christ did.

I would argue that this concept Daley proposes has only a very small amount of truth to it, and that by and large it is simply wrong. In the Fathers' generally it is not Jesus' divinity in and of itself which saves humanity. Rather the fact that Jesus is a divine being is seen as enabling and empowering him to do things that normal humans would not be able to do. Due to being divine, Jesus is able to perform actions to save humanity. For example, because of his divinity he can fight and defeat the devil, or is able to rise from the dead, or is able to teach humanity about the true nature of God, or is able to teach and exemplify perfect virtue. These saving actions that Jesus is seen as performing, he is capable of performing, empowered to perform, or can perform perfectly, due to being divine. But in these cases, humanity would not be helped if Jesus became incarnate and then did nothing.

Further I would argue that none of these ideas require Jesus to be divine: An arch-angel could potentially teach moral behavior, reveal the nature of God, be resurrected from the dead by God, offer his soul to Satan in exchange for humanity, or battle and conquer demons. A divine Christ might indeed accomplish these things better or more effectively, but divinity is not required in order to accomplish them.

The only view of Christ's work in the Fathers which absolutely demands and requires Jesus' divinity as absolutely essential to the very fundamentals of the theory itself is the Alexandrian view of Jesus uniting humanity and God metaphysically in the incarnation. In this view it is, just as Daley says, the very fact that Jesus is God and man which causes redemption. In this view, Jesus doesn't need to do anything or take any action in order to redeem humanity, but simply be who he is. Taken to its logical extreme, in this view Jesus could have lived a perfectly normal life with no one ever in history ever knowing that he had been God and his life would still have redeemed humanity because of who Jesus was. This explains why historically it was the Alexandrian party who held the divine-human-joining theory who were so adamantly against Arianism (which taught Jesus was a super-angel who was 'like' God rather than being one-in-essence with God himself). The Alexandrians' view required Jesus be one-in-essence with God as otherwise in his incarnation in which he united himself with human nature he would not be metaphysically uniting human nature with the divine.

So I see three fundamental flaws in Daley's approach:
1. He starts out by begging the question, asking why Christ "needed" to be fully divine. This presupposes that Christ did in fact "need" to be divine and that this was not simply an arbitrary decision on God's part as, for example, the Parable of the Tenants ("They didn't listen to my servants but maybe they will listen to my son?") might suggest.
2. In his survey of patristic views of the atonement, he omits the most commonly held one - that of Jesus as a teacher of moral virtue.
3. His attempt to draw the conclusion that the Fathers' saw Jesus as having saved humanity simply by virtue of being divine and not because of anything Jesus did or achieved is not supported even by the evidence that he presents. Daley's conclusion applies only to the Alexandrian theory about uniting divine and human natures, and while this theory was very popular in the East from the beginning of the fourth century onward, it was hardly the main patristic idea of the atonement.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Theology of the Apologists

The "Apologists" is the name given to the group of about 12 Christian writers in the second century AD who wrote public works to pagan audiences defending and explaining Christianity. Here's a selection of some of my notes on what a few Patristics scholars have to say about the writings of the Apologists.

Harnack, History of Dogma writes: The moralistic view, in which eternal life is the wages and reward of a perfect moral life wrought out essentially by one’s own power, took the place of first importance at a very early period.

2.4.3 The essential content of revealed philosophy is viewed by the Apologists ... as comprised in three doctrines. First, there is one spiritual and inexpressibly exalted God, who is Lord and Father of the world. Secondly, he requires a holy life. Thirdly, he will at last sit in judgment, and will reward the good with immortality and punish the wicked with death. The teaching concerning God, virtue, and eternal reward is traced to the prophets and Christ; but the bringing about of a virtuous life (of righteousness) has been necessarily left by God to men themselves; for God has created man free, and virtue can only be acquired by man’s own efforts. The prophets and Christ are therefore a source of righteousness in so far as they are teachers. But as God, that is, the divine Word (which we need not here discuss) has spoken in them, Christianity is to be defined as the Knowledge of God, mediated by the Deity himself, and as a virtuous walk in the longing after eternal and perfect life with God, as well as in the sure hope of this imperishable reward. By knowing what is true and doing what is good man becomes righteous and a partaker of the highest bliss. To the gift of imperishability God, however, attached the condition of man’s preserving... the knowledge of God and maintaining a holy walk in imitation of the divine perfection. This demand is as natural as it is just; moreover, nobody can fulfil it in man’s stead, for an essential feature of virtue is its being free, independent action. Man must therefore determine himself to virtue by the knowledge that he is only in this way obedient to the Father of the world and able to reckon on the gift of immortality.

...moral goodness consists in letting oneself be influenced in no way by the sensuous, but in living solely, after the Spirit, and imitating the perfection and purity of God. Moral badness is giving way to any affection resulting from the natural basis of man. The moral law of nature of which the Apologists speak, and which they find reproduced in the clearest and most beautiful way in the sayings of Jesus, calls upon man to raise himself above his nature and to enter into a corresponding union with his fellow-man which is something higher than natural connections. [In the Apologists' view:] Christ has also made special provision for the spread of the truth and is himself an unequalled exemplification of a virtuous life, the principles of which have now become known in the whole world through the spread of his precepts. These statements exhaust the arguments in most of the Apologies; and they accordingly seem neither to have contemplated a redemption by Christ in the stricter sense of the word, nor to have assumed the unique nature of the appearance of the Logos in Jesus. Christ accomplished salvation as a divine teacher, that is to say, his teaching brings about the [change] and [return] of the human race, its restoration to its original destination.

2.4.I [According to the Apologists] the redemption merely enables us to redeem ourselves
Here's a few other scholars on the subject:
"[The Apologists] are unanimous that man is endowed with free-will." (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 166)

"Undoubtedly the principal purpose of the incarnation… strikes him [Justin Martyr] as having been didactic. Having forgotten the truth and having been inveigled into ignorance and positive error by the demons, men desperately need the restoration of the light they have lost. As ‘the new law giver’ or again, ‘the eternal, final law, the faithful covenant which replaces all laws and commandments’, Christ imparts this saving knowledge. It was to bestow such illumination, in particular the realization of the oneness of God and the belief in the moral law, and to restore men by it, that the Logos in fact became man." (Kelly, 168-169)

"We have already noted the popularity of redemption as enlightenment among the Apostolic Fathers. It reappears in the Apologists..." (Kelly, 169)

"[In the Apologists] his chief vocation as Savior was to teach men the truth about monotheism and the moral life." (Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100-600AD, 153)

"The Apostolic Fathers. We can hardly overstress the importance in their writings of the idea of Christ the Teacher. Indeed it appears to be their principle contribution to the doctrine of Redemption... The Apologists take up the same theme." (Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption, 43-44)

"It is clear, then, that... we are on firm ground in treating the concept of Christ the Example, Teacher, and Illuminator as the starting-point in our study of the patristic doctrine of Redemption..." (Turner, 46)