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A Response to “Not the New Perspective”

not new perspective

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. Written by Kevin Bywater.

Professor Francis Watson (currently at the University of Aberdeen) has migrated from being a rather energetic, if a bit eccentric, proponent of “the new perspective on Paul” to being a vocal and determined critic of the same. Though he recognizes that the Christian caricature of Judaism in days past is something that needed to be put to rest (an accomplishment he attributes, in part, to the work of E.P. Sanders), in his article Not the New Perspective he argues that such a project need not bring an end to the gospel-law antithesis—an antithesis Watson sees as shared by the Reformation heritage and the apostle Paul himself.

In some ways, Watson’s online critique is a healthy reminder of what we can and cannot expect of ourselves. While we may seek complete objectivity in our exegesis of Paul, such objectivity is an ideal, something not easily accomplished, and something not likely achieved through our own efforts; hence the need for regular consideration of the proposals of others. Watson concludes his essay with these words:

After every allowance has been made for its [the new perspective’s] genuine and valuable insights, the verdict must be a negative one. By imposing its own pseudo-theological agenda on the Pauline texts, the new perspective has hindered our access to Paul’s own theology—that is, to his complex elaboration of the gospel’s simple announcement that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has acted definitively and unconditionally for the salvation of humankind, as the law and the prophets bear witness.

Watson does put his finger on the interpretive missteps of some advocates of the new perspective (see his “4. Critique (III): point 4”) when he notes the mantra-like appeal to Sanders’ work, as though Sanders was correct in any and all regards. Such appeals need to be mitigated by the texts themselves, as well as through the works of Sanders’ dialogue partners. Even Sanders acknowledged some diversity in the material he surveyed (though one may be forgiven for seeing Sanders as promoting his thesis at times without such qualifications being pronounced).

But Watson’s constructive proposals need a bit of assessment as well. Personally, while I have been uncomfortable with some of the proposals and readings put forth by Watson in his doctoral thesis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge, 1986—proposals put forth when he was a vigorous advocate of an eccentric version of the new perspective), I’m at least as uncomfortable with some of the proposals he now sets forth as foundational for how we might recapture Paul’s actual theology. For example, Watson writes:

Paul’s understanding of the law is an attempt to resolve a fundamental scriptural anomaly. On the one hand, God commits himself unconditionally to future saving action on behalf of Abraham and the world. On the other hand, the law sets the divine-human relationship on a different basis, in which divine saving action is conditional on prior human obedience to the commandments.

Is this really the way the law is presented in the Pentateuch (or anywhere else in the Scriptures)? I suspect that Watson has misunderstood the way of the Torah. For the simple fact that even the law of the covenant is prefaced with a proclamation that God is the Deliverer of his people, the one who rescued them from bondage, places the law’s commands and demands within the purview of Divine initiative and grace. On the other hand, while we may suppose that God’s promise to Abraham was “unconditional,” this is qualified by the fact that not only do we find post-Sinai reasons for upholding conditions (at least with regard to those who may enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant; cf., e.g., Deut. 27ff), we find such conditions explicit or implicit within the pre-Sinaitic Genesis narratives themselves (e.g., 17:1; 18:19; 22:18; 26:5).

Watson continues:

The one who does them shall live by them: that, in essence, is the law’s project. The entire book of Deuteronomy is the message of Leviticus 18.5 writ large. How may Genesis and Deuteronomy be reconciled? The answer, for Paul, is that the law itself declares that its own project is a dead-end. It teaches that the one who does these things will find life thereby, but it also teaches that this quest is doomed to failure, leading inevitably to the execution of the curse that the law itself proclaims against transgressors (Gal.3.10-11, cf. Rom.3.9-20, 7.7-12).

But this reading of Paul seems not to get to the heart of Paul’s project. By no means does Paul hold that all Israelites, throughout all generations, fell under the curse of the law due their disobedience. The examples of pre-Sinai Abraham (Rom. 4; Gen. 12-15) holds forth hope for subsequent generations of Israelites. Paul’s exemplary appeals to David (Rom. 4; Ps. 32), Elijah, and the 7,000 faithful in Elijah’s day (Rom. 11; 1 Kings 19), illustrate that God’s grace has been operative even in the lives of some who sought to express fidelity to the law’s commands.

As Watson acknowledges, the “curse of the law” is something that the law “itself proclaims against transgressors.” But given what we’ve already noted, regarding those who exhibited fidelity to God in their faithfulness to his commands, it would be strange to read Paul as simply sweeping all pre-Christ Jews to the dustbin of “transgressors”—as though the fundamental distinction between the righteous and the wicked no longer played for Paul.

What would that make of Abraham? What of Noah? And to speak to a post-Sinai context, what would that make of the likes of Joshua, Caleb, Phineas, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon, or John the Baptist? What I’m getting at is the fact that if we read Paul the way Watson does, I fear that we will be putting Paul in the precarious position of assigning to these faithful individuals condemnations quite contrary to the judgments put forth in the Scriptures themselves. Is Paul really an historical revisionist? Simply put, while Paul sees sin as a universal issue, he also testifies that God graciously has saved sinners in days gone by.

And certainly Watson would not be among those who suppose that it is in the seeking to obey that one’s fleshly “human agency” is quintessentially expressed. For the thought of passive or active lawlessness can in no way, at no time, be conflated with virtue and faith, neither in the Old Testament, the gospels, nor in the theology of Paul. For this would not be a solution to an alleged “Scriptural antinomy” but a blatant expression of unfaithfulness. It would reveal Paul as one who in seeking to solve an alleged “Scriptural antimony” was willing to revisit some of the judgments made by God himself. What a precarious project that would be. I cannot but doubt the hoped for success of Watson’s most recent reading of Paul.

Watson continues:

The law places responsibility for ultimate well-being in human hands, offering the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. But it also acknowledges that, through human sin, the inevitable outcome of its offer is not life or blessing but death and the curse. In that way, by acknowledging the failure of a project based on human agency, the law confirms the gospel’s announcement that God in Christ has taken the human cause entirely into his own hands. ‘Faith’ is the acknowledgment, elicited and enabled by the gospel, that all this is indeed the case.

It is strange that while Watson would seek to expose the theologically-invested exegesis of new perspective advocates, he himself tips his theological hand so much. For his theological abstraction regarding “human agency” reveals, I would suggest, something quite foreign to Paul’s project regarding the law and its relationship to faith. This can be seen in the way Paul himself continues to set forth “the choice of life or death, blessing or curse” in such passages as Romans 8. While Paul ascribes to God the way of salvation from sin and the flesh, and acknowledges that it is through God’s gift of his Spirit that one may be enabled to walk Divine paths, Paul himself also rings the tone of human responsibility (read, “human agency”) with regard to the follow-through. For even those invested with the Spirit are not passive with regards to their response of lives of faith, nor is the dichotomous threat of life and death no longer to ring in their ears. True faithfulness, given definition by the law, has always been embodied in those who place their hope in the Lord, trusting him for forgiveness and salvation.

It would seem that Watson’s overall reading of Paul fails to appreciate the full force of Paul’s ethical imperatives as they are applied to Christians, not to mention the attendant chorus of the threats of death, wrath, judgment and destruction (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 10-11). In other words, if Paul found the promotion of “the choice of life and death” essential to the failed project of the law, it is awfully strange that he himself would propagate it within the gospel context. In other words, while Paul does indeed proclaim that the gospel accomplishes deliverance from the curse of the law, the curse of God remains a real threat upon any within the Christian community who would fail to abide by the ethics thereof (not to mention the fact that Paul’s ethical prohibitions of idolatry and immorality are the very prohibitions that hung over the heads of the Israelites in times past).

Watson continues:

What I am suggesting in these all too brief remarks is that the primary location of the antithesis of divine and human agency in Paul is his scriptural hermeneutic, his interpretation of scripture in the light of the gospel and of the gospel in the light of scripture. If so, then his own evangelical construal of scripture can be compared and contrasted with the readings of Jewish contemporaries or predecessors for whom the covenant established through Moses at Sinai remains normative and intact. Paul and his fellow-Jewish interpreters are all reading the same texts. They share a marked bias towards the Pentateuch, believing that it is in the writings of Moses that the fundamental dynamics of the scriptural revelation come to light, and that the role of the prophets is to repeat, confirm and amplify what has already been said through Moses. They believe that their message to their contemporaries is inseparable from their construal of the scriptural texts. Yet for Paul these texts attest a definitive, unconditional divine saving action, whose scope is universal and whose glory quite eclipses the glory that once irradiated Moses’ face. That is what differentiates him from his non-Christian contemporaries and predecessors, who all assume—in their different ways—that the law’s project remains intact, and that those who observe it will find it to be the divinely ordained way to life and salvation.

Again, Watson presumes that Paul’s problem with the law is located in the law’s demands. He construes this as promoting “human agency” as antecedent to salvation. Yet the law does no such thing, we’ve already noted. And while it may be the case that some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries promoted such a false agenda, and while it also may be that Paul speaks to them in some regards, that does not seem to be Paul’s primary focus throughout his epistles. For, as already noted, Paul, no less than Moses, calls both for the necessity of human allegiance to God and his ways of deliverance, as well as for the human response of fidelity to God’s promotion of communal or social ethics. Even so, it is clear that Paul does hold that in his day the curse of the law has fallen uponIsrael, such that the way of escape is through the faithful realignment of the people toward allegiance to the Messiah rather then to the projects of the pre-Christ era’s older covenant. But this seems a very different agenda that the one ascribed to Paul by Watson. The simple fact that both Moses and Paul set forth ethical imperatives, and that with the attendant threats toward those who would live ungodly lives, should tell us that the contrast is not simply between Divine initiatory agency and human agency. Rather the latter’s quality of fidelity is determined, according to Paul, precisely with regard to one’s fidelity to Christ and his law. We can in no way regain access “to Paul’s own theology” by muting the significance of Pauline ethics and their attendant promises or threats. To do so would be to reduce Paul to something less than the full-orbed apostle of Christ he was enslaved to be.

In the end, while some of Watson’s notes of caution should be heard and heeded, and while I too believe that some of the proposals of the chief advocates of the new perspective (e.g., Sanders, Dunn, Wright) need to be revisited, I find that Watson’s presentation of his own project leaves me cold. I too desire to uncover and reclaim Paul’s real theology. But I refuse to believe that such an endeavor can be accomplished in any significant way if our theological convictions cause us to construct false dichotomies, or to reduce Paul’s convicting and consoling theological ethic to something less than it is in all its gospel glory.

Watson’s brief critical presentation is alleged to be a foretaste of a much larger discussion of Paul’s hermeneutics and theology, a discussion promising to be critically postured against ‘the new perspective.’ One can only hope (though it may be in vain) that in the larger work Watson retracts some of his most recent proposals.

All rights reserved by Kevin James Bywater. Published here with permission.

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