Saturday, February 24, 2007

Chris VanLandingham, Judgment & Justification

One provocative volume on Pauline studies in recent days is by Chris VanLandingham, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006). Available in the UK and Europe through Alban Books for £16.99 and through Hendrickson in the USA for $29.99.

VanLandingham (henceforth VanL.) contests the picture of second-temple Judaism as having a soteriological structured along the lines of E.P. Sanders' "covenantal nomism" and argues that it was more works orientated than is often recognized. At the same time, VanL. advocates that Paul is in many ways equally works orientated in his view of final justification by works. In this sense VanL. argues against the grain of both revisionist and reformed readings of Paul and Judaism. He wants to reevaluate the relationship between divine grace and human rewards as they relate to the destiny of the individual in Judasm and the writings of Paul. He writes:

"My thesis is that in the letters of Paul and in much of the literature of Judaism from the Greek and Early Roman periods, a post-mortem or Last Judgment of God determines an individual's eternal destiny. Moreover, both corpora agree that an individuals' behavior during his or her lifetime provides the criterion for this judgment: good behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation . . . This book also examines the notion of divine recompense within the framework of God's grace and mercy as understood in early post-biblical Jewish texts and in Paul's letters. God's grace and mercy may be present throughout a person's life, working on his or her behalf; but one's deeds determine approbation at the final judgment. On this subject, I find no difference between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries" (p. 15).

In chapter 1 VanL. looks at the theme of the election of Israel and he finds that in accounts of Abraham's election that divine grace is remarkably absent - election is a result of Abraham's obedience. In chapter 2 VanL. examines the criteria for eternal life. VanL. maintains that in much literature it is not God's covenant with Israel but one's behaviour that determines one's destiny. VanL. shifts his focus to Paul in chapter 3 and he asserts that at the final assize God could potentially reject believers for moral failure and God's judgment is principally retributive and behaviour forms the "sole" criterion. Then in chapter 4 VanL. offers his solution to the paradox of justification by faith and judgment according to deeds. VanL. contests the forensic meaning of justification and contends that it refers to forgiveness of sins and freedom from sin at the beginning of the Christian life. He writes in his conclusion:

"What happens to the Christian initiate at the time of faith or baptism of course has an effect upon how that person will be judged by God, but he or she is not ultimately approved solely because of the work of Christ, or because of baptism, or because of faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord. The Last Judgment is not a judgment over the work of Christ or even over what the Holy Spirit has done in the believer; it is a judgment over the individual and what he or she has done. The work of Christ has made it possible to receive approbation in a judgment according to deeds, but not because God is merciful toward the Christian based on Christ's merit, nor because in God's perception Christ's death has made it as though the Christian has never sinned. Rather, the process of salvation is worked out as follows: At the time of faith, a person who has been 'made righteous' is forgiven of past sins (which then become a dead issue), cleansed from the guilt and impurity of sin, freed from the human propensity to sin, and then given the ability to obey. The Last Judgment will then determine whether a person, as an act of the will has followed through with these benefits of Christ's death. If so, eternal life will be the reward; if not, damnation"
(p. 335).

I do not have time to enter into a major discussion with VanL.'s book. But if he is right it would have tremendous repercussions for understanding Judaism and Paul. Overall, VanL. offers a very careful analysis of texts from second-temple Judaism and Paul and his case is worth listening to as he questions many assumptions, both modern and ancient, about Judaism and Paul. In the final analysis, however, I am not convinced by much of his exegesis and I hope at a later date to offer a more extensive article review and engage with his treatments of 1QS and Romans 2 in particular - But that's for another day.

The commendations include:

“With Judgment and Justification Chris VanLandingham enters the fray that is the study of the Apostle Paul against his Jewish backdrop. But rather than simply logging another entry into the catalog of oft-repeated and well-worn arguments, VanLandingham proffers a thesis sure to challenge the positions of all parties in the debate. To those who have followed and advanced the “New Perspective” on Paul first put forth by E. P. Sanders, VanLandingham marshals an impressive array of evidence culled from Jewish sources to argue that the mainstream Judaism of Paul’s day was indeed a religion that urged good works as the path to God’s favor. He radically reinterprets the doctrine of “justification by faith” by arguing that Paul himself fits well into the mold of contemporary Judaism by teaching that those who have experienced forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ must themselves produce a life of good deeds to secure a favorable judgment in the end. Not only will the arguments of this book change the landscape of Pauline studies, but they should also be heard as a contributing voice to Christian theology. This book is not just an engaging piece of scholarship; it will prove to be one of those rare scholarly works that challenge the convictions of those who read it.”
Jeffrey S. Lamp, Associate Professor of New Testament, Oral Roberts University

“Chris VanLandingham’s stunningly provocative and well-argued thesis demands careful engagement. E. P. Sanders was simply wrong as were those who built uncritically on his foundation. Election in Second Temple Judaism was a reward for obedience. Salvation was earned as quid pro quo. The Apostle Paul, for his part, agreed with his Second Temple peers and encouraged his hearers to accrue the good works necessary for the reward of eternal life. Justification (by faith), never employed in forensic contexts, has been almost completely misconstrued. VanLandingham calls for a complete overhaul in our understanding of both Second Temple Judaism and Paul. The theological implications would be breathtaking.”
A. Andrew Das, Niebuhr Distinguished Chair and Associate Professor of Theology and Religion, Elmhurst College

Chris VanLandingham earned his Ph.D. in Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World from the University of Iowa under the supervision of Dr. George Nickelsburg. He has served as an Assistant Professor of Ancient History at Oral Roberts University and as an Adjunct Professor of Ancient History at St. Gregory's University, both in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


exegetical fallacy said...

VanL. says: "The Last Judgment is not a judgment over the work of Christ or even over what the Holy Spirit has done in the believer; it is a judgment over the individual and what he or she has done."

But does Paul consider the deeds of Christians as somehow autonomously achieved apart from the work of Christ and the Spirit? Certainly he does not (Gal 2:20; 3:1–5; 5:16–26; Rom 8:1–18; 1 Cor 15:10; Phil 1:6; 2:12–13).

From what I have read of this book, I would disagree that it makes a substantial contribution to the discussion on Paul, grace, obedience, the law, etc. I did not find his argument very carefully laid out (his section on L.A.B. did not show a very good understanding of this text) and his reading of Paul, while ambitious and to some extent challenging, reflects the rather absurd statement quoted above. Other sweeping statement like "[in the OT] The notion that God's grace precedes human obligation is nowhere to be found" (p. 64), are peppered throughout the book, suggesting that his ambitious argument is more novel than persuasive.

J. B. Hood said...


Are you publishing a review of this anywhere?

A. B. Caneday said...


I am in the process of working my way through the book. If all goes well, I hope to write a review/critique of the book.

To tip my hand just slightly, I am a bit surprised at the level of interaction with texts, both canonical and other. VanLandingham seems a bit unsophisticated, theologically speaking. He seems to make some rather crucial theological confusions. He levels the work of God in Christ to the same level as the gospel's call for human faith/obedience/deeds. Worse, he treats the gospels call to for faith/obedience/deeds as being meritorious, thus earning salvation. He seems not to make any discernible distinction between efficient and instrumental causation.