"Vertical" and "Horizontal" Aspects of Righteousness

Michael Bird insists that “vertical” and “horizontal” components to Paul’s use of righteousness are equally important, and I think he’s right. Justification deals with the vertical problem of a believer’s orientation to God and the horizontal problem of Jew-Gentile relationships. “Lutheran” (vertical) and “New Perspective” (horizontal) dimensions to righteousness are inherent to Paul’s theology, but the question remains how we should understand them. This is how Michael puts it, quoting himself:

“A holistic reading of Romans and Galatians should tie together the covenantal [horizontal] and forensic [vertical] dimensions of God’s righteousness… According to Paul, faith alone in Jesus is the basis of vindication; and faith alone marks out the people of God.” (The Saving Righteousness of God, p 153)

Michael has the right idea, but “forensic” and “covenantal” are poor ways of understanding the two components, especially the former.

In my blogpost, Paul’s Use of “Righteousness”, I followed Philip Esler’s view that dikaiosyne means privileged or blessed identity — or acceptability — based on the Septuagint’s intense usage (over 100 times) in Proverbs and Psalms. The bible uses righteousness as a form of ascribed honor (“acceptability”) all over the place, and this is clearly the use Paul picked up on. When he was dragged into conflict with the law, he seized the prize of this righteousness from traditional associations with Israelite privilege under Torah, and claimed that Christians not under the law were in fact the ones blessed in God’s eyes.

Against the forensic understanding, the Septuagint uses righteousness in a judicial setting only 8 times, and where it means “find in favor of” more than “acquit”. Luther’s idea that the future judgment occurs proleptically in the present when a person is righteoused by God is alien to Paul’s thought, because for the apostle righteousness and the judgment are distinct — and even more importantly, the righteous (elect) are not even judged anyway. They simply give an account of themselves on the last day, receive their reward, and are waved through. Yes, there is a vertical component to righteousness, but it’s not as “Lutheran” as most assume; it’s not forensic/judicial.

Against the covenantal understanding, Paul reached a point where he stopped thinking in covenantal categories, certainly by the time of Galatians where law and covenant were obsolete and irrelevant to the Christian believer. The post-I Corinthians Paul wasn’t even in bed with a “new” law or covenant, despite echoes of this previous stance in places like Gal 6:2 and II Cor 3:6. “Covenant” may get at the right idea behind the horizontal component to righteousness — and admittedly does justice to the pre-Galatians Paul — but we should avoid it when assessing his letters which deal with righteousness head-on.

Let’s keep the matter simple like Paul did. The Christian believer was righteous — or privileged, or blessed, or acceptable — by virtue of being elect and chosen by God, irrespective of anything he/she may have done to deserve this. Being righteous entailed a specific way of orienting oneself to God, namely, participating in Christ’s death apart from the law and living by the spirit (the vertical component). It also entailed a specific way of orienting oneself among Jews and Gentiles in community, again apart from the law (the horizontal component). Righteousness was radically co-opted by Paul so that one’s acceptability had nothing to do with the law along either coordinate.

I should stress that there’s no reason Paul had to do any of this. He could have easily abandoned righteousness to his opposition and conceded it as a purely Judean phenomenon associated with the law, and rest satisfied in the knowledge that he and his converts were the truly sanctified. Esler points out that Paul did exactly that in I Thessalonians, using sanctification language alone and even going out of his way to delete “righteousness” from his scriptural source (Isa 59:17) in I Thess 5:8. Schweitzer and Wrede were right about righteousness not being central to Paul’s thought. And the fact that Paul saw fit to wrest the term from his foes and radically rework it — reclaim it for his law-free Gentiles — speaks volumes for his audacious character.

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A Paranormal Movie Trailer

I’m wary about the hype for Paranormal Activity, a low-budget horror film released last night in select theaters. It’s being compared to The Blair Witch Project and is supposedly the most frightening thing to hit the screens in a long time. I’ll believe that when I see it (Blair Witch didn’t scare me at all), though the audience who screen tested it evidently felt terrorized. Watch them and it here.

Paul and the New Perspective: The Evolution of a Theology

That’s the title of the book I’ve started writing, and it’s already loads of fun.

It’s been 18 years since I first cracked Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and over the course of these formative years my allegiance to the New Perspective has been challenged and amended as much as Paul’s theology itself. With adult confidence setting in, I figure it’s time to nail down the issue more formally. Here are a few thoughts as to where I’m going in the book.

I regard New Perspective scholars as falling into one of three camps:

(A) The “Replacement” Group, which claims that Paul thought the law was finished. He was concerned with the scope of God’s salvation, but also that grace and law were mutually exclusive. A sectarian Christology had as much to say about the law as the Gentile question. Lead advocates for this group are Ed Sanders, Philip Esler, and Francis Watson.

(B) The “Boundary Markers” Group, which argues that Paul thought a kernel of the law remained in force, minus its boundary-marking “works”. He was almost entirely concerned with the scope of God’s salvation. The law was finished as a badge of national privilege, but it still had a salvific role to play. Spokesmen for this group are James Dunn and Tom Wright.

(C) The “Two-Covenants” Group, which maintains that Paul thought the law was still in force for Jews, though only a kernel of it for Gentiles, and that he possibly even held out hope for Israel’s salvation apart from Christ. This group is similar to (B) except that nothing changed for Jews. Ethnic works were optional for Gentiles only. Think Lloyd Gaston, Mark Nanos, and Stanley Stowers.

All three groups agree on two things. First, the law wasn’t a burden for ancient Jews, and Paul was no exception; he had no problems as a Pharisee doing what the law required. Second, his conflict with the law originated in the Gentile mission. He was neither a disembodied theorizer nor an introspective soul-searcher. These two common denominators — which should by now be accepted as plain facts — are what define a New Perspective advocate. But beyond them lies heavy disagreement.

As I recently explained, the (B) group is the weakest of the lot, representing a step backwards from Sanders even as its advocates think they’re improving on him. The (C) group has shown how Dunn and Wright ultimately fall back on apologetic foils, replacing legalistic Jews with racist Jews, and obsessing “boundary markers” and “covenant badges” to the point of caricature. The result is that Paul emerges for the (B) group as a hero fully justified in his critique of Judaism, as much a hero as in the days of Bultmann. The (C) group, while pushing ethnic issues as strongly the (B) group, at least steer clear of foils and anachronistic categories. They may be Jewish apologists instead of Christian ones, but allow for nuances in Paul’s thought which yield some accurate results in a letter like Romans.

Thesis. The intent of my book is twofold. (1) To show why the (A) group is essentially right, despite claims that Sanders et. all have remained largely within the old framework and repeated Lutheran themes. Paul thought grace and law were mutually exclusive alternatives, and he broke with mainstream Judaism. (2) To chronicle the evolution of Paul’s theology, and see how he went from advocating a new law (the Torah’s messianic successor) to dispensing with moral imperatives completely, and then backpedalling a bit to salvage something good about God’s commandments. This evolution occurred in the face of many pressures: hostile situations, failed expectations, a bad reputation, and personal unease with his own convictions. As his theology changed, echoes of what he discarded inevitably lingered. Thus he referred to “Christ’s law” in Gal 6:2, even as Galatians makes clear that Christians aren’t under any law at all (against the earlier view of I Corinthians). Thus he implied that the Christian body is Israel in Rom 9:6-8, even as Romans makes clear that only ethnic Israel is Israel (against the earlier view of Galatians). Paul’s theology cannot be systematized coherently, even within single letters. We can only systematize the continuum of his theology by accepting tension as inherent along its spectrum. The sequence of Paul’s letters is crucial to understanding this continuum, and a post-I Corinthians dating for Galatians makes perfect sense of the proposed evolution. In the end, Paul’s theology can be legitimately said to encompass a Lutheran credo — and more than just as an accidental byproduct of “central convictions” — and that this was a monster of his own making.

Pushing beyond the Lutheran and New Perspectives is definitely in the air. Francis Watson recently took a swing at both, and Douglas Campbell has just done something similar. Now it’s my turn. I’ll be showing why the New Perspective is a good bedrock but shouldn’t be taken too far, and that the Lutheran paradigm does Paul more justice than we want to admit. We’ll see an apostle who was dragged into demolishing the law against his will, but then seized the higher ground by expanding on his polemic in deliberately shocking directions.

Of course, my book will probably be read by less than a dozen people…

The Last House on the Left

I’ve been dreading reviewing The Last House on the Left. It’s a remake of what many consider to be a great cult classic of the ’70s, which in turn was derived from — believe it if you dare — Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. But I’ve always despised The Last House on the Left for being repulsive while not in the least bit scary. With lousy production values, terrible acting, and a silly banjo score playing over cheap comic interludes, it’s way overrated for its transgressiveness. I know Wes Craven admitted he was on drugs half the time he was shooting the film, but really. Despite my love for hardcore horror, his “classic” nauseates me. It’s so badly done that it’s impossible to be emotionally invested in the girls who get tortured, and so it plays like a snuff film. When last year around this time I heard it was being remade, I groaned but knew I’d have to see it in the theater. When in March I went to do that, I was… well, pleasantly surprised. And remain so after watching it again on DVD.

Dennis Iliadis’ remake isn’t perfect. The problem with revenge films is the payoff is hollow, and this one is no exception. But aside from the final act, most of it is quite impressive. In the first 50 minutes we’re introduced to Mari and Paige who are abducted by lethal killers, and then brutally tortured in the woods close to where Mari’s parents are lodging for a weekend vacation. Unlike in Craven’s original, this is all well scripted, edited, and acted, so we care about the girls. Their ordeal is just as harrowing as in the ’70s version: Paige is killed and Mari violated, the latter being the most disturbing rape I’ve seen in a film along with the one in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. It goes on for a long time (a full three minutes in the unrated version) and can make a seasoned horror veteran feel helplessly angry, but it’s a necessary and pivotal scene which molds our mindset to everything that follows.

What follows at first is a well-orchestrated, atmospherically menacing 30 minutes, as night falls and the stranded killers come calling for help at the lake house of Mari’s parents. The parents put them up for the night, serve drinks, and the father (a doctor) even treats a nose injury. It’s a scary and suspenseful half hour, because we know what these scumbags have just done to Mari while Mom and Dad are all hospitality. Camera shots are slow, patient, and unnerving; everyone sips their drinks awkwardly in candlelight; the mood is as dreadful as the rape was upsetting. We expect the guests to show their true colors at any moment, and the mother seems to sense something isn’t right about them.

Then come the final 30 minutes, which are neither disturbing nor scary, but cathartically entertaining — if this is your sort of thing. Mari’s parents learn the truth about their guests, and things deteriorate into a formula of overblown revenge, with Mom and Dad triumphing a bit too easily. Because audience members still feel as violated as Mari, they roar approvingly when the scumbags get bashed, pounded, shot, and shredded six ways to Sunday. The most memorable scene has the parents subduing one of the baddies, thrusting his arm down the kitchen sink, turning on the garbage disposal, and holding his arm in place for a long time (his hideous screaming is finally ended by the back end of a hammer being bashed through his head). Many people love this stuff, but I do not. What began as a serious film is now a popcorn movie, and part of me wonders if the clash of genres wasn’t intended. Is Iliadis asking us to look at ourselves and question our willingness to indulge fantasies of unholy revenge? If so, then perhaps he deserves more credit than I’m giving, but I can’t say I believe it.

The Last House on the Left is, for the most part, a vast improvement over an old travesty. Iliadis has probably done the best he could with the inherited material. Even the final act I complain about has been toned down to make it at least somewhat believable. Craven gave us a mother who couldn’t emote a single tear for her torn up daughter, and who was oddly capable of exacting revenge by giving one of the killers a blowjob (all the way to climax) so she could bite off his member. Iliadis, thankfully, never descends to such depths.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

Sanders vs. Wright: Whose New Perspective?

In his live office hours, Mark Goodacre answered a question about Pauline justification by endorsing the New Perspective, but more in line with Ed Sanders than Tom Wright. Readers of this blog know I feel much the same way, that Dunn and Wright have tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way by reducing the totality of Paul’s justification doctrine to ethnic issues. While the message of Gentile inclusion was crucial for Paul, it was subordinate to a radical Christology which encapsulated a Lutheran-like paradigm even if only by way of consequence or corollary.

N.T. Wrong isn’t far from the truth when he charges Wright with turning Paul into an apartheid protestor obsessed with “boundary markers”.

“If there is anything that is a testimony to the failure of the New Perspective, it’s the unbelievably contrived stretches which result when Wright tries to apply his ideas in a full commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). It’s like watching a defender of the Ptolemaic view of the universe adding epicycle upon epicycle. His very defence of the New Perspective shows something must be wrong with it.”

The same could be said for Dunn and his Word Biblical Commentary (Vol 38 A&B), in which all of the textual data in Romans is strained through the sieve of ethnic privilege. That works fine for Rom 2-4 but not Rom 5-8, where Jewish “works” aren’t even mentioned, even if we were to grant that “boundary markers” were what Paul had in mind with the term (on which see further). Paul speaks about the law phenomenologically in Rom 7, even if only consequentially, and even if he never actually experienced the futility and anguish he goes out of his way to describe so graphically. He invokes the figures of Adam and Medea in an exercise of theological give-and-take, shifting the blame for sin onto devilish agents (Rom 7:7-13) and people themselves (Rom 7:14-25) so as to exonerate God and salvage something good out of an entirely useless law which can’t save at all. Paul was digging himself out of a major hole in Rom 7, not talking about how the law merely leads one astray by coveting privileged status!

But even in a context like Rom 2-4, Wright and Dunn run into problems. Yes, Paul characterized the law as effectively limiting God’s grace to Israel (Rom 3:28-30), but the term “works of the law” shouldn’t be formally understood as “boundary markers” or “badges of covenant membership”. Jews wouldn’t have defined themselves by overt signals at the expense of value orientations, and Gentile outsiders wouldn’t have obligingly characterized them by their own self-understanding on the assumption that were true (so Esler). (In an agonistic world, outsiders use hostile stereotypes, which Gentiles of course did.) True, Paul often had in mind special works like circumcision, food laws, and holy days, but to categorize ἔργων νόμου as “boundary markers” gives the impression that he was programatically concerned with breaking down racial boundaries as we are today, when his view was more apocalyptic — and even here only initially. As the kingdom didn’t come, Paul actually reasserted distinctions in Christ. (See “In Christ There Is Jew and Greek”.)

Readers may wonder why I don’t indict someone like Mark Nanos here. The reason is a bit complex. Although Nanos pushes the New Perspective by making Paul more Jewish-friendly than any other scholar under the sun, he steers clear of anachronistic categories. In fact, he’s been very critical of the way “boundary markers” have been used to caricaturize Judaism. In place of legalistic Jews, Dunn and Wright have given us racist Jews. Nanos reaches many of his conclusions via rhetorical analysis, which I view as important, even if I think he has the wrong rhetorical model for a letter like Galatians. He takes Paul to places few scholars dream of going, but his methods are ironically more sound than those of Wright and Dunn, and his results somewhat less apologetic.

That, for my money, is why a Sanders/Esler approach is to be preferred over a Wright/Dunn approach. And if we go with the former, we needn’t be driven to N.T. Wrong’s conclusion that “the New Perspective has failed”, though in some ways we clearly have to move beyond it. Mark Goodacre may have other reasons for preferring Sanders. In the office hours he was more concerned to emphasize the lasting contribution which I hope everyone agrees with: that foils have no place in the academy.