The TULIP of the New Perspective

In preparation for the new edition of Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach — now Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, in which Francis Watson repents of his earlier enthusaism for the New Perspective — I’m revisiting the author’s essay which foreshadows this revision, explaining why we should move beyond the New Perspective. Granting many different points of view within the NP, there seem to be five common denominators, which Watson calls the TULIP of the NP:

(1) TOTAL TRAVESTY. The NP teaches that the Lutheran perspective on Paul has got him completely wrong — that the faith/works, grace/law contrast has nothing to do with an attack on any attempt to earn salvation by human effort.

(2) UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. The NP teaches that in ancient Judaism salvation was already understood to be by grace alone. The divine election of Israel was absolute and unconditional, and preceded the law. Law observance didn’t attain salvation; it maintained it. Only by throwing off the yoke of the covenant altogether (becoming an unrepentant apostate) would a Jew be condemned.

(3) LOYALTY TO THE LAW. The NP teaches that loyalty to the law — especially practices like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath — wasn’t a matter of crass legalism, but rather a matter of preserving ethnic identity as the elect people of God.

(4) INCLUSIVE SALVATION. The NP teaches that Paul objected to the law because it limited the grace of God to Israel (not because it constituted impossible merit-earning demands). For Paul, God was the God of Gentiles as much as Jews, and for this reason alone was Christ “the end of the law”.

(5) PRESUPPOSITIONLESS EXEGESIS. The NP teaches that the Lutheran view of Paul caters to western Protestant individualism, so much that the subject of “Paul and the law” has been the most difficult area of biblical studies to liberate from eisegetical biases.

While the TULIP of the NP serves as a healthy antidote to dated and hostile caricatures of early Judaism, Watson thinks it can be deflowered on all five points:

(1) TOTAL TRAVESTY. While we should indeed consign Luther to the dustbin, we should abandon question-begging talk of a monolithic “Lutheran view” of Paul just because one entertains the idea that Paul was speaking about something other (or more) than ethnic identity markers in critiquing the law. General human effort to obey the law doesn’t necessarily equate with legalism.

(2) UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. While the NP has successfully shown that Judaism wasn’t a legalistic religion (that salvation didn’t have to be earned in such a way that people were left feeling insecure), it has not successfully shown that election wasn’t conditional on faithful obedience to the law. Contra the NP, Israel’s divine election did not precede or relativize the Torah. The law was a gift and demand at the same time — both the expression of Israel’s election and the divine demand for righteous obedience — and Abraham was understood to be the recipient of God’s promises precisely because he kept the law. The law wasn’t given so that those who were already in the covenant could stay inside it; Abraham himself got into the covenant by observing the law.

(3) LOYALTY TO THE LAW. While the NP has (again) rightly shown that loyalty to the law wasn’t about crass legalism, it wasn’t simply about preserving ethnic identity either. Distinctively Jewish practices didn’t serve only as boundary markers (though they did that too). Jewish identity wasn’t understood only in negative terms or how it differentiated itself against pagans (though that was obviously part of the picture). Jewish identity was as much about inner values as overt signals.

(4) INCLUSIVE SALVATION. It’s worth quoting Watson directly here: “It’s true and important that Paul was concerned with the question of the scope of God’s saving action in Jesus. God is not the God of Jews alone, but of Gentiles also… Yet Paul’s statements about the scope of divine saving action do not by any means exhaust what he has to say about its content. Paul does not confine himself to the point that through Christ God has brought Gentiles within the scope of his covenant people… One 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 another basis, in which divine saving action is conditional on prior human obedience to the commandments [see (2)]… How may Genesis and Deuteronomy be reconciled? The answer, for Paul, is that the law itself declares that it’s 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.” The Gentile issue may have helped dethrone the law, but Paul’s sectarian Christology demolished it completely. His idea was that salvation is on another basis entirely. It’s not simply that Jewish works like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath have become optional for Gentiles, with a kernel of the Torah remaining in force. The entire law is finished as an avenue for salvation.

(5) PRESUPPOSITIONLESS EXEGESIS. This is the most pretentious of the five petals, for the NP has shown itself to be as much driven by modern biases (breaking down racial barriers; respecting those of different nationalities) as the old perspective (dislike for legalism; western needs for a more direct and personal relationship with God). Perhaps when we light on a truly alien Paul, we’ll finally be doing justice to him as an historical figure.

As I’ve said before, I still consider myself a (loose) New Perspective advocate in the sense that I think the Gentile mission caused Paul his initial grief over the law. The idea of insecure salvation has no place in historical inquiry, and to that extent “racism” trumps “legalism”. But the Gentile issue quickly became subsumed within a more over-arching scheme of Christology which portrayed the law as obsolete — not simply redefined around wider parameters for Gentile benefit. The New Perspective has failed to come to terms with this, and I think Watson (like Philip Esler) is moving us in the right direction.

My review of Watson’s book will follow later. It’s due to arrive in the mail today.

One thought on “The TULIP of the New Perspective

  1. As long as Torah is going to be misunderstood as Law, there is no hope of getting any of this right. The Pharisees and rabbis did not see Torah as a collection of laws demanding obedience. Their idea was much closer to a Constitution which demanded interaction from Jews, not slavish obedience. God wanted Jews to be creative with Torah and discover new things with it and to do this on their own, using their own minds and hearts. That is the world that both Jesus and Paul inhabited.For Paul, the big problem was that Torah was so attractive to gentiles that it represented competition with the Messiah. He wanted gentiles to love Torah but not so much that it overwhelmed their belief in the Messiah. This gets us much closer to what Paul is saying in his letters. Scholars still talk as if Paul had some tremendous problem with the Law (which is a mythical creation of scholars). They forget that Paul reserved his harshest criticisms for gentiles or pagans. He had a very low opinion of gentile or pagan culture. Torah morality was higher than anything in the gentile world for Paul. He just wanted the Messiah to have a greater glow than Torah.What I chiefly object to is the way scholars rewrite Jewish hsitory to make it fit their theological concerns. The Law should have gone out the window a long time ago. What a shame it is still around.Leon Zitzer

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