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.