Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chris VanLandingham interview Part 3 of 3

Chris Tilling: I was thrilled that Mike Bird suggested a few questions to put to Chris VanL. Not only has Mike recently published a book on Paul and justification, he has also written a helpful review of Chris' book. Below are Mike's questions together with Chris VanL's responses.

Mike Bird: 5) What role does assurance have for faith in Paul? [A bit of background: It was this issue that, I think most of all, differentiated the Reformers from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. The Reformers claimed that Christians can have assurance, in some cases they reduced faith to assurance, while Catholics denied it].

Chris VanL: Assurance, if by this term you mean guarantee, has no role in Paul, just as it has no role in any other early Christian author. I prefer the word "confidence" instead of assurance. Since I treat this issue at length, I'll not get into my arguments, but admittedly if one selects a few verses here or there, my statement could appear unsupported. I try to take into account all of Paul's statements.

Mike Bird: 6) Does Rom. 8.1 treat the eschatological verdict as a stated reality for believers?

Chris VanL: Romans 8:1 does not address the eschatological verdict directly. (I would replace the word "verdict" with "finding", which is what I think the judgment is all about.) "Being in Christ" entails more than you assume in your question. "Being in Christ" involves far more than simply having faith, but encompasses obedience to God, that is, living by the Spirit and putting to death the deeds of the body (8:13 et al.). So the Rom 8:1 statement of "no condemnation" is a stated reality as long as the conditions outlined in Rom 8:1-13 (and elsewhere) are met. This being the case, at the judgment God will find that the believer, being in Christ, is righteous and thus will pass muster. With regard to the Last Judgment in Paul, Romans 8:1 may appear to be so clear as to obviate the need to consider other texts, but in reality Rom 8:1 is less clear than Rom 8:13 and far less clear than Rom 2:6-11.

Mike Bird: 7) Does Rom. 10.-9-10 equate eschatological salvation with eschatological justification (in distinction to your arguments that salvation and justification are quite distinct)? [Käsemann's exposition is good on this].

Chris VanL: I am not sure what you mean by "eschatological justification" since "justification" does not appear to be eschatological (again, "justification" is a mistranslation). I guess you're not convinced by the typical differences in verb tenses between the righteous verb and the salvation verb. This aspect is much clearer in Rom 5:9-11, which is why I treat the two passages together. The language of Rom 10:10 "for righteousness" and "for salvation" is ambiguous, and so I would prefer to interpret the more ambiguous passage in light of the more clear passage. However, Rom 10:9-10 is a strange interpretation of Deut 30:14 in which Paul is bound somewhat by his proof-text. Still, I think Rom 10:9-10 is a summary statement that encompasses in succinct fashion more than what is specifically stated. In other words, Rom 10:9-10 is not the whole story. By this point in Romans, Paul has said quite a bit on this subject—none of which can be ignored in favor of Rom 10:9-10. I understand the question, and if Rom 10:9-10 were all that Paul has stated, then I could not make the claims I do. But what makes Rom 10:9-10 more important than Rom 2:6-16, where along with a number of other texts, being righteous and salvation are distinct? What if I thought Rom 2:6-16 was the whole story, would that be acceptable? Mike has legitimate questions about Rom 8:1 and 10:9-10, but isn't the real issue how we should reconcile Rom 10:9-10 with Rom 2:6-16, or Rom 5:9 with Rom 8:13, or Rom 6:23 with 6:16 and 19, or Gal 3:10 with 1 Cor 7:19, or Phil 4:3 with Phil 2:12 and on and on and on? A Pauline theology created solely from Rom 10:9-10, Rom 5:9, Rom 6:23, Gal 3:10, Phil 4:3 etc. is quite a bit different from a theology created solely from Rom 2:6-16, Rom 8:13, Rom 6:16, 19, 1 Cor 7:19, Phil 2:12 etc. So, again, I think the issue is reconciling the seemingly contradictory texts in Paul. I look to post-biblical Judaism for help, partly because I think Paul considered himself a true Jew and his faith the only legitimate form of Judaism.

Mike Bird: 8) During your book you were not able to interact with H. Cremer about the relational view of tsdaq/dikai- that he championed. How would you respond to Cremer's arguments for a relational understanding of righteousness in a place such as Genesis 38?

Chris VanL: I read Cremer's book early on in my research, but since it was so old I didn't feel it necessary to take up his arguments directly. As I recall, I preferred to argue with recent scholarship, which takes into account Cremer's positions.

Hopefully, I have been able to clarify my positions or help those struggling to understand where I am coming from. From some of the posts on my book, it is obvious to me that some are quite upset with my theses. I can't help that, but be assured that I had no agenda or axe to grind in this project.

Chris Tilling: My thanks once again to Chris for having taken the time to write such helpful responses! He has done us all a service by being so open for dialogue.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Chris VanLandingham interview Part 2 of 3

Chris VanL: After this, your readers posted some comments. Let me respond to a few.

Kevin Davis finds that Matt. 25 agrees with my thesis. He is certainly correct. But Luke's comment to the criminal/brigand is not contradictory to my thesis. Jesus is the judge; he determines who is righteous. Jesus has determined that the brigand's repentance demonstrates his righteousness. What happens in this scene is much like a death-bed conversion—the person has no time to perform good works. Otherwise, Kevin, I don't find it necessary to reconcile one Biblical author with another. Moreover, I don't think Jesus uttered the words in either Matt 25:31-46 or Luke 23:44, but that's another matter, isn't it?

Kevin Bywater: With regard to the Testament of Abraham, this text is pretty clear. The T.Ab. supports my thesis primarily for two reasons: only 1 in 7000 saved at the Last Judgment at 11:12 (A) and judgment according to deeds at 13:9-14 (A),. Even the judgment of the soul with equally balanced righteous and wicked deeds in chapter 12 supports my thesis. Your post doesn't convince me that these texts should be read differently. And, as I state, 14:15 (A), whatever it means, shouldn't supplant the straightforward readings of these three passages.


Chris VanLandingham interview Part 1 of 3

In three posts I will share Chris VanLandingham's response to a number of questions I sent him last week about his book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. In part 1 I will share his answer to my questions. I attempted to be more general in my questions, as the really interesting questions of substance were best posed by Mike Bird, I thought, especially as he has just written a book on Paul and justification, and written a lengthy review article of Chris' book. Chris' response to Mike's questions will appear in part 3. In part 2, Chris responds to a couple who left comments on my blog review of his book.

Chris VanL: First of all, Chris, I am delighted that you have found my book worthy of some attention.  It is a pleasure to answer a few questions about it.  

Chris Tilling: 1) What or who was the biggest influence in the development of your thesis? Was there any passage of scripture that promoted an 'ah ha!' moment for you?

Chris VanL: As you probably know, Judgment and Justification is simply the published form of a dissertation I wrote at the University of Iowa under the supervision of George Nickelsburg. For years I intended to write a dissertation in the area of Christology, but just as I was preparing a proposal, I discovered a recently published book by Larry Hurtado that already stated everything I was thinking.  Feeling pressured to find another dissertation subject so that I could take my comprehensive exams on schedule, I decided almost by default to do something along the lines of what E.P. Sanders did in Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  For some time I had been troubled by Sanders's reading of the post-biblical Jewish texts as well as his approach to the earlier Second Temple texts from the vantage point of later Rabbinic texts.  As I recall, I decided to include a treatment of Paul simply because this is what Sanders did in his book.  In this regard, I was troubled by how easily Romans 2 was ignored by interpreters of Paul, and so decided to treat the Pauline judgment texts in light of similar Jewish texts.

Chris Tilling: 2) What do you hope your thesis will achieve?  

Chris VanL: When I sent the manuscript to Hendrickson four years ago, I had hoped that a book-length publication on my résumé would lead to an interview for a tenure-track position teaching in my field of early Judaism and Christian origins.  By this time I had applied for over 250 such positions, but had not been invited to a single interview.  I am still waiting for that first interview.  So, my hopes are actually quite mundane.  Otherwise, my book is one of 100,000 published this year, so in reality I don't expect my thesis to achieve anything of significance.  Personally, though, it sure feels good getting one's thoughts down on paper.

Chris Tilling: 3) How has your thesis affected your own religious and theological life?

Chris VanL: Although my studies have affected my religious/theological life a great deal, the research and writing of this book has not changed it at all.  My approach is entirely secular; I write as an historian, not a theologian.  Nevertheless, I don't think my conclusions are anti-Jewish or anti-Christian at all.  But, and this is an important point, if my conclusions happened to be anti-Jewish or anti-Christian, I would still be willing to let the chips fall where they may.  I do exegesis as if nothing is at stake.  If I can't do this, then I need to find another occupation.  I intend to seek the truth despite the consequences of what that truth may hold.  Such intent doesn't mean I will find the truth, but my chances of finding the truth are better than those who think they already know the truth before they seek to find it.  By analogy, the archaeologist who a priori is unwilling to admit that the bones he or she may find belong to Jesus is not really an archaeologist, but a blind apologist.  I am aware that many who read my book cannot do history or exegesis as if nothing is at stake because they are being paid by a church or religiously-oriented university that mandates certain theological positions.  Thus when a professor signs a "statement of faith" as a precondition for employment, one wonders how credible that person's research is that always supports that signed "statement of faith."  When our livelihoods depend on us not seeing the moons of Jupiter through Galileo's telescope, how can we expect to have 20/20 vision?

Chris Tilling: 4) Are there any issues you would like to address in response to the second part of my blog review of your book? (It was posted here)

Chris VanL: As you suggest, allow me to respond to the points you make in Part 2 of the review of my book. First, the theses in Chapters 1 and 2 are about post-biblical Judaism, not the Hebrew Bible.  As I state on page 65 where I admit Ezekiel 16 may be an exception, the purpose of discussing the Hebrew Bible is to establish a pattern, that is, the Deuteronomic formula as I put it.  Elsewhere I cite the Hebrew Bible in order to compare it to later Jewish texts, as for example what I do when I show what post-biblical texts do with the call of Abraham.  (Chris, you also mention 1 Esdras, but don't explain how this text is problematic for my thesis.  Perhaps after I read Michael Bird's review, I can respond.  For now, I should state that even though 1 Esdras is a post-biblical text, I treated in depth only those texts that deal with the Last Judgment or the assigning of a certain eternal destiny in the afterlife.  The compiler of 1 Esdras doesn't show a belief in the afterlife or the Last Judgment.)  Second, "being made righteous" in response to faith is a gift from God based on Jesus's sacrificial death.  It is not that Paul disagrees with the Jewish milieu, but that Paul treats Jesus's death as a sacrifice on behalf of others.  Let's be clear: good deeds are a rewarded with eternal life at the Last Judgment—good deeds are not rewarded with righteousness at the time of faith. On this point, Chris, I think you misread my argument.  Alas, I wish that Paul was clearer on the difference between "works of the law" that don't lead to righteousness and good deeds that do lead to righteousness, but he wasn't.  Third, after this, Chris, you have quite a bit of theological reflection to which I'm at a loss as to how to respond without going on for pages.  Obviously, however, I find being made righteous (i.e., "justification," which I find is a gross mistranslation) by faith and judgment by works impossible to reconcile if "justification" refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment (as most scholars assert) and if the purpose of judgment by works is to assign an eternal destiny (which I think Paul believes).  Fourth, you question whether I really explain the fierce nature of Paul's rhetoric against 'works of the law' in Galatians (Gal. 2.6; 3:2, 5, 10, 12). For Paul, the issue with regard to 'works of the law' was a de facto way of negating the purpose of Jesus's death.  Jesus died to make people righteous.  If it is possible to be made righteous by 'works of the law' as some asserted, then why did Jesus die?  Paul's fierce rhetoric is explained because he does not believe Jesus died in vain (Gal 2:21).  Last, with regard to 1 Cor 5:5, you will need to explain your point further.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Review: Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. Part 2 of 2

See the first part of this review here.

(Some of my points below have been informed by Michael Bird's helpful review article of VanL's book, forthcoming in BBR. I heartedly recommend it to all interested in this book. I will keep detail out of this reflection on the book as Mike has rather stolen my thunder!)

Having summarised VanL's argument we can now ask: What is one to make of his bold thesis? To be honest, I cannot really give a final definitive statement about my reaction to his thesis for quite a while; it will need to sink in and then be tested over a longer period of time together with a close examination of the primary material. Indeed, whatever one finally makes of VanL's reading of the second Temple Jewish texts and Paul, his thesis drives one back to the primary material, and this is always a good thing. Furthermore, his argumentation throughout has been one of clarity and focus and it impressively covers a wide range of material. This is a book that one will not be able to simply quickly dismiss, and it is one to which I will return to on a regular basis as I seek to understand Paul. Indeed, I admire VanL's courage and the sweep of his paradigm disrupting vision. May his clan increase!

Having said that, I have some misgivings which at the moment I can really only formulate as questions I need to take back to the primary material. But let me try to spell them out anyway.

First, one wonders if he rather neglects to seriously deal with texts that would appear to fly in the face of his of view of the Jewish literature. Off of the top of my head, not only Ezekiel 16, but also Deut 7:7, a passage I suspect he doesn't entirely convincingly 'explain away'. Following Bird's review article, I also note 1 Esdras. There is also the significance of the broader scriptural narrative (the Exodus comes before the giving of the law, i.e. grace comes before the law), a matter that the focus of his study perhaps wasn't best suited to encompass. While it may be responded that these few 'problem texts' are just blips compared to the rather consistent picture VanL paints, it may be wise to hold these other texts in play and not force all second Temple Judaism in one direction. Hence 'variegated nomism' has been pursued by Carson and co in response to Sanders' 'covenantal nomism'. Besides, I'm not yet persuaded that VanL's thesis best explains the nature and variety of Jewish material, so these 'problem texts' may well not just be infrequent blips. As I said: I need to sit on this for a while!

Second, a reason to keep a more variegated notion in view is that Paul arguably embodies a different type of Judaism to the one described by VanL. For example, my present reading of Rom 4 and Abraham has Paul making a point that would very much set him at odds with his Jewish milieu, if VanL's reading is to be believed. There it speaks of the 'one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly' (4:5). Besides, Paul's rhetoric in Rom 1-3 is largely to demonstrate that all have sinned; yet it is these sinners who are now dikaioed by God's grace as a gift (3:23-24). Quid pro quo?

Certainly VanL's focus on the 'day of the Lord' texts and the 'Two-Ways, Two-Spirits ideology' in Gal 5-6 are important points, yet my feeling at the moment is that VanL dissolves the texts in only one direction. I tend to see these matters as part of the logic of the content of the new covenant and the promise of the Spirit (and the shape of Rom and Gal and the point of 2 Cor 3), and so would want to posit a logical coherence between these matters and a covenantally framed justification. This means that I presently see no need pit an eschatological and forensic justification by faith against judgment according to works in the sense urged by VanL.

Naturally VanL's reading is in strong variance not only with all Reformation theology, but also present day Catholic scholarship which by and large accepts a forensic meaning of the dikai- terms. He is well aware of the boldness of his thesis at this point, but it is also the one that may prove to be the most unsuccessful. I refer people to Mike Bird's review article for more on this point.

While VanL's thesis explains much of the evidence well, one needs to be able to answer all of the pertinent questions to understand Paul. For example, earlier reformed exegesis could explain certain passages in Paul rather well with their more anthropological focus. However, where they lacked explanatory power was with the concrete social Jew-Gentile relationships in relation to the matter of justification in Paul's letters, a matter the 'New Perspective' has done a fine job of thrusting back onto stage. Could it be that VanL's thesis explains only some of the Pauline material leaving big questions unaccounted for? In this respect it could be asked if VanL's thesis can really explain the fierce nature of Paul's rhetoric against 'works of the law' in Galatians (Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10, 12). I suspect VanL's thesis cannot, and this causes me to wonder if the whole thesis is problematic, despite its explanatory power with regards other matters.

Furthermore, but without going into exegetical detail, it is likely that Paul's words in 1 Cor 5:5, that 'you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord', would cohere more plausibly with an understanding of justification with direct eschatological implications. To that one could make mention of Rom 10:10.

VanL's thesis leaves me with numerous unanswered questions, a desire to get back to the primary material and a fresh enthusiasm to grapple with Paul's teaching concerning righteousness. While many of my points above are critical, I do not pretend to have grasped the issues as profoundly as VanL. I write these issues down in order to think aloud through VanL's bold and challenging thesis. This is one of the most exciting and stimulating books on Paul and justification I have had the pleasure to work through in a long time.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Forthcoming interview with Chris VanLandingham

I'm thrilled to announce that Chris VanLandingham has kindly agreed to an interview, here on Chrisendom, about his exciting book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul!

I will be sending him some questions within the next few days, soon after I have completed my two part review of the book. As Mike Bird has written an extremely helpful review article of VanLandingham's work (forthcoming in BBR), I will give particular space to a few questions Mike has already suggested I pose. However, if you have any burning questions you think I should ask Chris V, then please let me know in the comments (though I can't promise I will send all to him - I'll do the moderator thing and make a selection in a few days).


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Review: Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. Part 1 of 2

My thanks to the kind folk at Hendrickson for a review copy of Chris VanLandingham's Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul
(Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2006)

I've been harping on about VanLandingham's (hereafter VanL) book for some time now, and I have noticed with little surprise the high level of interest the book has provoked. Why am I not surprised? Quite simply because of the breathtaking boldness of VanL's claims! It is not without ground that A. Das reviews VanL's thesis as 'stunningly provocative' noting that VanL calls for 'a complete overhaul in our understanding of both Second Temple Judaism and Paul'. This is indeed a uniquely thought-provoking, daring and challenging book – but is it convincing? It is difficult to offer a worthwhile response in so few words, but before I submit my answer to this question (in the second part of this review), his arguments first need to be overviewed. Buckle up, as this will be quite a ride.

Besides the introduction and conclusion, the book consists of four long chapters consisting of extensive engagement with the primary material. While noting the difficulties involved in this study, the problem the book addresses is the 'relationship between divine grace and human reward as these two concepts relate to an individual's eternal destiny within the writings of Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul' (1). Indeed, anyone with only a basic familiarity with Paul's letters will notice the apparent tension between such topics as grace, mercy, predestination and justification by faith, on the one hand, and Paul's clear statements of judgment according to works, on the other. For example, in 2 Cor 5:10 Paul writes: 'For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.' After reviewing the scholarly responses to this problem, VanL maintains that their suggestions 'still have not come to terms with how a forensic justification by faith can be reconciled with a judgment according to deeds' (15). Instead, VanL has his own very original thesis to propose as a solution to this supposed problem, one which he pursues is in critical dialogue with E. P. Sanders and his notion of covenantal nomism, and particularly Sanders' notion 'that in Palestinian and Diasporic Judaism obedience does not earn God's grace, election, or "salvation"' (15).

In chapter one, VanL takes to task Sanders' thesis that 'salvation is given graciously by God in his establishing the covenant with the fathers ... [that] salvation cannot be earned ... [and that one] can never be righteous enough to be worthy in God's sight' (cf. the citation from Sanders on pp. 15-16). Against this, VanL argues that election 'is not a gift of God's grace, but a reward for proper behaviour' (18). Indeed, he finds the concept of 'divine grace remarkably absent in Jewish accounts of Abraham's election' (16). God elected Abraham because of his righteousness. It will of course be responded that the election of Abram in Gen 12 doesn't supply any reason for God's promise. However, in the post-biblical texts, this election was understood as a response to Abraham's righteousness.

This leads to a discussion concerning the nature of the other covenants God made with people. In each case, VanL argues, human obedience is the cause and the covenant the result. VanL's thesis is not simply about finding the odd verse in support of this argument, but rather to determine the general thrust of the entire literary evidence. So he can dismiss the odd verse or chapter (e.g. Ezek 16 – noted on p. 65) that seems to contradict his view as simply a minority view and not representative of the general nature of these texts. Furthermore, unlike earlier works, VanL doesn't thus understand second Temple Judaism negatively, but he rather sees himself as an apologist of the fairness of the justice inherent in these views (cf. e.g. 35-36, 64). God's mercy is thus vindicated from the charge of arbitrariness.

In chapter two, VanL turns from the beginning of the process leading to eternal life (election) to the end of the process, namely judgment. He argues that the Deuteronomic blessings and curses and the associated promises of life and death are, in the Jewish texts of the Greek and early Roman periods, taken to refer to eternal life / damnation. This leads to the straightforward conclusion that one's eternal destiny depends upon obedience; 'God never shows mercy toward the wicked or unrepentant' (77). This is consistent throughout a large variety of texts and 'the extent that God's mercy is discussed, it simply refers to God's salvation, not the reason for it' (17). Eternal destiny has nothing to do with being a simple member of God's covenant people, but rather obedience. VanL further argues that covenantal nomism further flounders on the rocks of the rather extensive pessimistic anthropology and widespread notion that most Jews will be damned, in these Jewish texts.

Turning to Paul's letters, chapter three extends the discussion of chapter two concerning the criterion for receiving eternal life. VanL maintains that Paul's letters evidence the same burden of the previously examined Jewish material, namely that eternal destiny hinges on nothing other than obedience. Because '[e]ternal destiny is the primary issue at the Last Judgment' (176), as in the material examined in the previous chapter, it is possible that God will reject believers (here believers in Christ) at the judgment if their works are not sufficient. If 'justification by faith refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment, which one receives proleptically at the time of faith in Christ, then one should expect some hint of this idea in the Pauline judgment passages. This idea, however, remains absent in those very judgment passages where his notion of justification by faith should have some imprint' (176), at least if the forensic interpretations of justification are to be believed. VanL grounds his view primarily in Rom 2:5-16, but also upon the 'Two-Ways, Two-Spirits ideology in Gal 5-6 and Rom 6-8' (240). Furthermore, VanL contends his view is supported by paraenesis material in the context of the 'Day of the Lord'.

VanL argues that one must understand justification by faith 'in light of the judgment passages', and not the other way around. In the final chapter, VanL argues that justification by faith can only be reconciled to a judgment according to works if one resists the imposition of a forensic and eschatological verdict element to this justification. Indeed, 'justification' is a poor translation of the Greek and should be taken to simply mean '(1) forgiveness, cleaning, and purification of past sins and (2) an emancipation from sin as ruler over humanity' (245). There is thus no contradiction between the conclusions of the previous chapter, and Paul's notion of justification by faith. Justification is a 'concrete, objective reality of qualitative righteousness' (246). This justification happens at the start of a believer's Christian existence and does not necessarily carry definite implications for the final judgment at all. If it did, judgment wouldn't be according to works. In order to pursue this thesis, VanL studies the dikai- word group and supplies contextual reasons to reconsider the meaning of the terms. For example, he argues dikaiosunee, 'never means salvation, acquittal, absolution, or justification ... [but] refers to something one does' (252) and maintains that the dikai- terms are only rarely used in the context of the Last Judgment. Rather, they are ethical and qualitative (cf. e.g. 302). Furthermore, the phrase 'before God' in this context doesn't mean before God's tribunal (at least not God's last tribunal), an interpretation which would seek to emphasise the forensic nature of the terms. As 2 Cor 3, Rom 5 and 8 show, 'it is the one who is righteous, not acquitted, who is immune from condemnation' (332).

Before I share my reflections, what maketh you of this?

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