Reframing Sanders

In my review of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God I mentioned his critique of four revisionist strategies used in the New Perspective:

(1) Generative Reframing (e.g. Francis Watson, Philip Esler)
(2) Editorial Reframing (e.g. Ed Sanders, Heiki Raisanen)
(3) Motif Rereading (e.g. James Dunn, Tom Wright)
(4) Comprehensive Rereading (e.g. Stanley Stowers, Mark Nanos)

As we saw in the review, the first and second groups of advocates concede a measure of validity to the “Lutheran” reading of Paul and focus on reinterpreting the circumstantial frame for that reading. The third and fourth groups challenge the “Lutheran” reading itself, whether by focusing on key semantic units (motifs) or by giving the Pauline texts a complete overhaul.

I want to focus on Campbell’s critique of two lead scholars from each group: Ed Sanders (reframing) and James Dunn (rereading). I believe his critique of reframing strategies to be weak, and of rereading strategies to be very strong. (This puts him on the spot, since he endorses a rereading strategy himself.) In this post we’ll look at Sanders.

After acknowledging certain gains from Sanders’ approach — that Paul thought from solution to plight (and so Paul’s negative judgments on the law are relative, not absolute or universally accessible) and in participationist categories — Campbell sees four major problems with it.

1. Sanders’ claim that the criterion of faith makes salvation universal — allowing Gentiles to be saved without going trough Judaism — is groundless and arbitrary, especially when viewed against Jewish tradition (e.g. Jas 2:14-26). The obvious response to any lack of universality on the part of law-observant Judaism would be to encourage openness to converts, not to change the criterion into something else. (DOG, pp 436-437)

This is true, but it’s not really a fair objection since for Sanders the Gentile issue is only half of the picture. He’s careful to emphasize that both the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul’s Christology dethrone the law, and that the two issues can’t be separated (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 497, 490). He gives the latter priority, moreover. In the same chapter criticized above (“The Law Is Not an Entrance Requirement [for Gentiles]”), Sanders insists that “Paul’s view of the law depends more on the exclusivism of his Christology than on anything else” (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 57), on the basis of texts like Philip 3:4b-11 and II Cor 3:7-11. The biggest challenge is nailing down the precise relationship between sociology and Christology (which came first? is one subordinate to the other? did one lead to the other?), and no scholar has done this yet to my complete satisfaction (not even Esler and Watson). I hope I can rise to the challenge in my own book.

2. Sanders’ editorial marginalization of Romans 2, although understandable, is not plausible. Sanders assumes a careless and even stupid integration, with arguments failing to match up with one another. (DOG, pp 437-438)

A fair objection. Even if Paul didn’t care about being coherent in a way that would please Campbell, he wasn’t this clumsy. The puzzle of Rom 1:18-3:20 (especially chapter 2) needs a satisfactory solution, and what Sanders offers is only slightly better than an interpolation theory. Having said this, I do prefer an honest Sanders who just “doesn’t know what to do” over the harmonizers who also clearly have no idea what to do, but won’t own up to it.

3. Sanders is able to provide a coherent explanation of Paul’s material only in conceptual and psychological terms (i.e. essentially in terms of “reframing”); he can only offer localized coherences. He still leaves Paul incoherent at the more substantive level. (DOG, pp 438-439)

Yes, but that’s as it should be. (My book will be all about this.) Basically this objection begs the question, assuming in advance that Paul must be coherent in a way that satisfies expectations for a clean theology. When Campbell starts his project by advising that “Paul must be given the benefit of the doubt” (DOG, p 13), I could as easily retort that we give him the benefit of the doubt in the other direction!

4. In Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders rightly argued that Paul thinks backward — from solution to plight. But the later explanation in Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People depends on Paul supplying different answers to different questions so that the thrust of this conceptuality is in the opposite direction — from plight to solution. (DOG, pp 439-440)

Well, of course. That’s the whole point of trying to account for theological conundrums which result from retrospective thinking. Just because Paul arrived at conclusions retrospectively (i.e. Philip 3:4b-11; II Cor 3:7-11) doesn’t mean he was incapable of presenting prospective arguments (Rom 1:18-3:26; Rom 7:7-25) when they suited his purposes. Campbell cites Sanders in a footnote, which really answers the objection: “Paul came to the view that all men are under sin as a reflex of his soteriology. Having come to this conclusion, he could then argue from the common observation that everybody transgresses to prove that everyone is under the lordship of sin. But this is only an argument to prove a point, not the way he actually reached his assessment of the plight of man.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p 499) We often have to distinguish between the reasons for which people hold their views and the arguments they produce in favor of them. Don’t we?

So the only objection against Sanders that really carries weight is the second. The first calls for more precision, and the third and fourth are almost non-objections.

In the next post we’ll look at Dunn and find Campbell on much stronger critical ground.


2 thoughts on “Reframing Sanders

  1. Your observation on #4 is a discussion that has been often addressed in the Duke halls the last couple years. I think Douglas would cede that point as you've framed it, with some caviats.

    #2 is what has offered me a lot of helpful space in which to work—I've become convinced that any account of Paul that does not satisfactorily and adequately explain Rom 2 and Rom 11 as of primary importance is hopelessly flawed.

  2. The value I see in #4 is that prior to Sanders, most accounts of how Paul came to believe the things he did were poor, or simply non-existent. There was a widespread tendency for people to project a Luther-like prospective experience onto Paul. Something Sanders convinced me of, and which Campbell touched on, is that the 'Lutheran' reading hasn't/can't provide a decent account of Paul's thinking leading up to and after his conversion.

    I think Sanders is on thin ice though in the quote in #4 when he claims that Paul argued “from the common observation that everybody transgresses”, since (as Sanders himself pointed out in his analysis of Romans 2) Paul doesn't actually seem to be doing this in Romans 2, or if he is then the logic of his argument is totally flawed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s