Friday, December 01, 2006

Judgment and Justification

I was browsing the biblical study section of the webpage of Hendrickson Publishers tonight, and I happily noticed that they often serve up a generous sample chapter for a number of their titles. And one book that has caught my eye recently, which I look forward to reading in due course, is Chris VanLandingham’s Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Hendrickson, 2006). In the sample chapter VanLandingham starts off with an astonishing and to my mind counter intuitive claim (how far the NP has brought us that this should seem ‘counter intuitive’!):
“Countering E. P. Sanders’s notion that in Palestine and Diaspora Judaism obedience does not earn God’s grace, election, or salvation, I take up in this chapter the issues of election, grace, and their relationship, and in the next chapter salvation, grace, and their relationship. I contend that election (like salvation) is not a gift of God’s grace, but a reward for proper behavior” (italics mine)
Can this thesis really be sustained? I look forward to this book!


At 12/01/2006 4:27 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Yeah, I've been drooling for a month over the thought of reading that book. It looks like it says a lot of things I've been saying for ages.

At 12/01/2006 4:27 AM, Anonymous Brian said...

interesting indeed.

At 12/01/2006 11:51 AM, Anonymous dan said...

"Can such a thesis be sustained?"

Short answer: Of course not!

Long answer: How is it that people are still making these arguments? Are you kidding me? There's no way that such a thesis has any hope of being sustained.

Although I'm sure that certain Reformed Evangelicals will disagree with me.

Sometimes I (tangentially) wonder if the real issue that so many American Reformed Evangelicals have with the NPP isn't actually the (often highly technical) "justification by faith" debate but rather the socio-political implications of the New Perspective. What do you think?

At 12/01/2006 6:02 PM, Anonymous David Wilkerson said...

Interesting book, Chris. Wouldn't it become interesting if we found we had to distance ourselves from the biblical theology of Paul to embrace the eclectic theology of Christianity?

Dan, I know you are fond of Wright, but zeal for Wright's house consumes you.

This is not reformed evangelical stuff. This book is arguing that Paul is like his fellow Jews in espousing something like 'salvation by works'. So can you afford for this to be true?

This seems undeniable to me on the face of it and is similar to the implications of some of Wright's proposals about a second justification (though he pulls back from the notion when it is suggested he doesn't believe in assurance).

This guy studied under Nickelsburg so I assume he knows his Second Temple Judaism. Nickelsburg and other scholars of early Judaism like Seth Schwartz, Shaye Cohen wonder why Sanders et al are trying to save Judaism from charges of 'legalism' Seth Schwartz's response to accusations of Jewish legalism was "Yeah, so what?"

NPP writers like Wright (like historical Jesus scholars of the 19th century) have known what they were looking for when they went looking for "the real Judaism" and they have made it in their image. There are now many modern day Schweitzers ready to call everyone's bluff (the reformed orthodoxy and the NPP). Judaism (like Jesus) fits none of our pretty little systems it seems.

Wright is good at opposing anti-Catholic readings of Paul but don't think his version of the NPP has become a consensus outside of fringe evangelicals. (The longer I espoused the less convincing it became to me.) This argument here is more typical - a radical pendulum swing where Paul becomes the Catholics we always feared.

No matter what at least entertain challenges to the NPP paradigm. Don't become a NPP fundamentalist. If fundamentalism fools you once shame on it, if it fools you twice shame on you.


At 12/01/2006 7:12 PM, Anonymous David Wilkerson said...

Interestingly this book begins with tackling the meaning of slippery words like 'mercy' and 'grace' and the theology we often import into them. I recall Wright in Climax of the Covenant, after tackling traditional theological definitions (TDNT) of 'faith', saying that someone could do Ph.D. work on re-defining words like 'grace' that keep us from understanding Paul or have simply caused us to read Luther into Paul. CVL seems to be doing some of that here with surprising results.

(In this regard the logic of Rom 4:16 has always been difficult for me to understand. It is not about merit but ethnicity.)

Wright does admit a certain ethnic privilege quasi-merit theology that crept into Judaism pre-Christ. He confusingly views this as a failure of mission but not a denial of grace. I think it is all of a piece with OT theology generally and hard to distinguish from a 'merit' theology or 'salvation by works' and in the end bears certain similarities to Paul's theology.

At 12/01/2006 9:27 PM, Anonymous T.B. Vick said...


I am so glad you stumbled upon this book. This work looks really good and i have already put it on my wish list at Amazon.

I am very anxious to see how VanLandingham is going to argue his thesis - and, like you, I am not sure it can really be sustained.

At 12/01/2006 11:06 PM, Anonymous One of Freedom said...

That seems to fly in the face of everything I've been learning about grace from Augustine to Gutierrez. Let us know if he manages to make a good case, always room for another angle. I have my doubts though.

At 12/02/2006 11:26 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

How is it that people are still making these arguments? Are you kidding me? There's no way that such a thesis has any hope of being sustained. Although I'm sure that certain Reformed Evangelicals will disagree with me.

Well Dan...
I'm well-read in the New Perspective and a New Perspective advocate and am about as far from Reformed Evangelical as you can get (being a liberal, emergent, post-protestant, open-viewer), and I agree with the thesis. David's explanation was masterful.

You see, Sanders implicitly bought into the Reformed Evangelical worldview insofar as he implicitly accepted that (the Reformed version of) "grace" was a good thing, and that Judaism was bad unless it contained "grace". Accepting that the Evangelical ideal of what constituted good religion was correct, he tried to demonstrate that Judaism lived up to that ideal and didn't fall short.

Some of us, however, don't trust the Reformed tradition's ability to get itself out of a paper bag, nevermind define words like "grace" or say what constitutes good religion. Trying to show that Judaism was really not that far in "error" when compared to the "ideal" religion (namely Reformed Evangelicalism) is not a goal I share.

In fact the reformed tradition gets a whole lot of the keywords like "grace", "mercy", "justice" and "fatih" so very badly wrong that it is funny. The problem with most New Perspective writers so far is that they have largely assumed that the Reformed understanding of these things was correct and not bothered to assess them. The great thing about this book seems to be that it goes back and questions the Reformed view of those words, resulting in a fully-orbed New Perspective, rather than just having a partially New Perspective partially Reformed view.

I totally agree with Schwartz's response to accusations of Jewish legalism: So what if it does? In fact, it's pretty clear the Jews did believe in what we could aptly term "salvation by works" and "earning God's favour" and so did Paul. The Reformed Evangelicals might run in terror at the words salvation by works, but really, who cares about them? (On this subject I recommend Yinger's "Paul, Judaism, and Judgment according to Deeds")

Now it's true Judaism wasn't legalistic in the same way that Reformed theologians often read it as, and Sanders et al have helpfully corrected this. But at the same time, we need to resist over-correction and avoid turning Judaism into proto-Reformed Evangelicalism out of a desire to defend the validity of Judaism.

At 12/02/2006 12:12 PM, Anonymous dan said...

Well, it is only fair that I should be taken to task a little for my provocative (albeit playful) comment.


You are correct to assert that I am fond of Wright but there are several other NT scholars that I am also rather fond of (I think, for example, of Dunn, Hays, Horsley, Fee, and Gorman -- and, although I often disagree with him, I am quite fond of Schweitzer). My exegetical zeal isn't so much for "Wright's house" as it is for a communally transformative reading of Paul -- and I happen to think that Wright (and these other scholars) do much to inspire such a reading.

That said, I agree that if Second Temple Judaism was a religion of works, then "so what?" might be an appropriate response. However, I think that scholarship (post-Sanders), has done a fine job of showing that that is not the case with Second Temple Judaism. Granted, Sanders is mistaken about a lot of things that he says about Paul, but his thesis about Second Temple Judaism as "covenantal nomism" is quite helpful -- even if it is more nuanced by Dunn, or Wright, or those who speak of "variegated nomism." While Sanders' position may be called a "radical pendulum swing," I am not conviced that that phrase accurately describes many others who belong to the NPP. Thus, I support the conclusion that, while elements of "works' righteousness" can be found in certain pockets of Second Temple Judaism, Second Temple Judaism itself was not, by and large, a religion of works' righteousness.

As for questions of "works," "ethnicity," etc., I'll leave aside commenting on those things since I hope to have something in print on that topic in the near future. For now let me suggest that (IMHO) Wright and Dunn do not push their thesis nearly as far as they should.

At 12/02/2006 12:26 PM, Anonymous dan said...


I appreciate the thoughtful comment in response to my not-so-thoughtful comment. I'd be curious to hear you say more about what it is to be a "post-protestant" "open-viewer."

As for Sanders, as I suggested in my response to David, I do agree that there is much about his writing (and perhaps even his motivation?) that is less than satisfying. However, I do think that the nuanced paradigm shift that has resulted from his work, and that is expressed in the writings of other members of the NPP, is quite helpful.

However, I think that our fundamental disagreement comes from that fact that you think that it is "pretty clear the Jews did believe in what we could aptly term 'salvation by works' and 'earning God's favour' and so did Paul", while I think that something pretty close to the opposite of this is "pretty clear."

Again, I think a key part of this is how we understand phrases like "works of the law" and Paul's language about "boasting" but discussion of these things may lead us quite far afield.

Finally, let me also say that I agree with you that many within reformed circles do misunderstand what Paul means by "grace," "justice," "faith," etc., and I also share your (at least implicit) skepticism about Christian efforts to defend the validity of any form of Judaism post-Jesus.

At 12/03/2006 3:50 AM, Anonymous David W. Congdon said...

Even if it could be sustained, I think we would be obligated to ignore it. Such an idea runs counter to everything that Christianity stands for and proclaims. At least, that's how it seems to me, unless I am missing something.

At 12/03/2006 6:13 AM, Anonymous David Wilkerson said...

"Even if it could be sustained, I think we would be obligated to ignore it."

It seems fitting that we should keep up the pattern - Paul ignored the historical Jesus, we should ignore Paul. I'm just kidding.....right?

At 12/03/2006 10:34 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Even if it could be sustained, I think we would be obligated to ignore it.

Surely if it turned out that what Paul was teaching is not what Christians today are teaching, we would be obligated to change our doctrines to conform with biblical truth?

If what the bible actually teaches "runs counter to everything that [modern] Christianity stands for and proclaims" doesn't that just make reform all the more urgent and important?

At 12/03/2006 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Calvinistic/Reformed side, Cornelis Venema's The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ is now available from the Banner of Truth Trust here


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