Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Perspective on Paul Re-visited: James D.G. Dunn Conducted a Doctoral Seminar in Antwerp

On Monday, 12 December 2011, under the auspices of the Universitair Centrum Sint-Ignatius Antwerpen and in cooperation with the University of Antwerp, Philosophy Department; Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Research Unit Biblical Studies; Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Faculty of Theology; and Faculty of Protestant Theology, Brussels, Prof. James D.G. Dunn, emeritus professor and member of the British Academy, led a doctoral seminar on Paul. In the first part of this seminar, Prof. Dunn offered a brief review of his famous “New Perspective on Paul”, followed then, in the second part, by a session of questions and answers.

From the beginning Prof. Dunn set the terms of the discussion by quoting Rom 3,28 and Gal 2,16 and by asserting the centrality of ‘justification by faith’ to Paul’s thought. The traditional view of this matter was comprised in three dimensions: a) the individual coming to faith and finding peace with God (e.g. Augustine, Luther, Bultmann); b) the opinion that Paul constructs an argument against the belief that one can secure God’s blessing through good works (e.g. pastoral circles); c) the idea that for Paul the Gospel stands in antithesis to the Law and this being the reason why he rejects Judaism and the Law. Taking into account the traditional view, Prof. Dunn singled out a few aspects which arose from dealing with this view. First of all, it seems that the expression “the righteousness of God” (Rom 1,16-17) was often misunderstood due to the Platonic framework of interpretation. The Hebrew construction has a relational connotation in the Old Testament and can be better translated into English as “vindication, redemption by God??.” On this account, it points out to God’s commitment which He took by Himself towards the whole creation and especially to Israel. A remarkable parallel is to be found in 1 QS 11,11-15, where one can notice the dependence on “the righteousness of God” for salvation. Secondly, it was E. P. Sanders who, in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), challenged the traditional Christian perspective on Judaism as false or biased. For him, everything starts with the recognition of the divine initiative. The Law is given to the covenantal people and it is the answer of Israel to God’s saving grace. In this last regard, the Law shows them how they should live and not how to become the people of God. Thirdly, Prof. Dunn mentioned K. Stendahl’s work, Paul among Jews and Gentiles (1976), and his conviction that Paul’s preaching did not develop out of relief from a bad conscience. Conversely, Paul’s content of the Gospel draws more on his conversion, on his seeing of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9,1ff). Justification by faith is Paul’s response to the question of how can the Gentiles share in God’s saving righteousness. Going a step further, Prof. Dunn proposed “The New Perspective on Paul” (1982). In his judgment, Paul reacts against the Jewish belief that Gentiles as such were outside the covenant or were seen as sinners (cf. Gal 2,15; Ac 10,11-15.28). Furthermore, the Law is the paidagogos (cf. Gal 3,19-25; Eph 2,14-15) and its mission was to protect/guard Israel. When Paul writes “works of law” in Gal 2,16 he has in mind circumcision and the laws of clean and unclean which become boundary markers in Peter’s understanding. For Prof. Dunn, Lev 18,5 has the meaning of “by doing these things, this is the way you should live.” It is about covenantal nomism. In the same vein, Prof. Dunn asserted that Paul has his own version of covenantal nomism. Although Paul speaks about “justification by faith not by the works” (Gal 2,16; cf. Rom 3,28) he holds as well the “judgment according to works” (cf. Rom 2,6-11; 2 Cor 5,10). Prof. Dunn’s conclusion was that a solution which keeps both aspects together will resolve the problems between the old and the new perspective on Paul, between Catholics and Protestants, and perhaps between Eastern and Western Christianity.

The second part of the seminar turned into a lively dialogue with unexpected questions and unexpected answers. Among the first issues raised by the audience was the one concerned with the idea of salvation for non-Jews. This idea, already present in the Old Testament, might have been lost along the way and Paul seems to have been the one to recover it. Prof. Dunn replied that according to Galatians 3 there were three strands in the Abrahamic promise: the seed, the land, and the blessing of all the nations in Abraham. Paul builds upon the third strand of the promise and sees the Gospel as the covenantal grace of God to save the Gentiles. Another issue questioned the place of the new perspective on Paul in current scholarly research. In response, Prof. Dunn humorously quoted S. Gathercole who said that the new perspective on Paul was in fact the old perspective of his generation. Additionally, Prof. Dunn remarked that the merit of the new perspective was to draw attention to some missing or neglected elements and dimensions of the debate and to bring a balance between the covenant and the Law. One of the participants was preoccupied with the loss of interest in Paul from the side of the Rabbinic Judaism and with the broad perspective of the Second Temple Judaism. This time Prof. Dunn stressed the fact that Paul is for him an authentic voice of the Second Temple Judaism and that the rabbis considered Paul as a traitor. He also stated that the rabbis cut themselves off from the broad perspective of the Second Temple Judaism regarding Israel’s blessing to the nations. Lastly, the question of who would Paul have liked to be received a very short and comprehensive answer: a man in Christ. As the time allotted for the seminar quickly elapsed, Prof. Dunn brought the seminar to its end by thanking the organizers and the participants and by declaring himself happy with the discussions that followed his presentation.

Teodor Brasoveanu
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