Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reformed and New Perspectives on Galatians 2:16

The latest issue of Expository Times is out (119.7 [2008]) and it has a cracking good article by Stephen Chester (North Park Seminary) on, "When the Old Was New: Reformation Perspectives on Galatians 2:16". Chester locates Luther's and Calvin's comments on Galatians 2:16 in light of the reformation context, in juxtaposition to Erasmus, and focuses on "works of the law", "justification by faith", and "the beliver's faith or Christ's faith". Interesting points of the article are:

1. On "works of the law" Chester notes the similarities between current discussions of "boundary markers" and reformational discussions over Jewish "ceremonies". The reformers rejected the notion of works of the law as merely the ceremonial aspects of the law and argued that Paul's point was orientated towards the entire law (cf. Gal. 3.10 too). On this point they were undoubtedly correct and Chester shows how the reformation reading is able to maintain the unity of 2.15-21. Nonetheless, Luther and Calvin pay very little attention to the Jew/Gentile relationships that were an issue here. Chester is worth citing at length:

How plausible is the proposition that by "works of the law" Paul intends to refer to primarily to some aspects of its observance rather than to the whole? True, recent advocates for understanding the phrase as focused on the boundary-marker function ofthe law accept that the phrase does refer to all that the law requires, but contend that some parts are more prominent than others. Their position is more subtle than was that of the Reformers' opponents, but is it any less vulnerable to the rejoinder that much of Paul's sebsequent argument in Galatians concerns the whole law? Where is the particular focus on boundary defining practices? The ability to offer plausible interpretations, opposed to those of the Reformers, of texts such as Galatians 3:10 and 3:18 therefore becomes a key test for the revised understanding of "works of the law". On justification, Luther and Calvin especially are able to read Galatians 2:15-21 in a unified manner. Paul speaks in his remarkable way in 2:19-20 about the relationship between the believer and the divine precisely as a further unpacking of what he said about it at 2:16. Galatian 2:19-20 concern justification. This statment makes excellent sense given that the climactic statement of 2:21 so clearly concerns justification. Can alternative readings of justification, more concerned with identifying the people of God, provide a similarly integrated and plausible exegesis of 2:15-21?

As regards "works of the law", it is certainly true that to understand them as boundary makers [sic?], separating Jew and Gentile, which Paul believes to have been overcome in Christ, offers a valuable theological resource for today's diverse global Christianity. A theological reading of Galatians would be inadequate that failed to draw attention to the contemporary implications of the disputes concerning different ethnic groups and their customs in the early churches at Antioch and Galatia. Yet, as we have seen, Reformation readings do not entirely neglect this dimension of Paul's argument. Calvin especially is deeply conscious of the shift in Paul's argument between the particular instance of Jew/Gentile relationships in the church and the wider principle that justification depends entirely upon grace, irrespective of human attempts to please God by our actions. In exploring the relationship between particular instance and wider principle it is possible to read Galatians in a way that holds the Reformers correct about "works of the law" and yet also devotes proper attention to Jew/Gentile relationships in the church and their contemporary implications.

2. Chester also points out that Calvin and Luther did not disconnect justification and christology as much as their later interpreters did (as by e.g. Melanchthon and Perkins). Both Calvin and Luther connect justification to union with Christ in Gal. 2.19-20.

3. Chester notes that both the Reformers and their Catholic interlocutors understood ek pisteos christou as "by faith in Christ". This pistis christou debate was a non-entity during the Reformation.

This is a fine article, let me add a few comments stimulated by Chester's article:
  • I think it is certainly correct that "works of the law" means simply the works which the law requries. However, this is not an atemporal statement of human effort to please to God, and it includes commandments that set-apart the Jewish people from Gentiles. A cursory reading of Menahem Stern's Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism shows that it was the peculiar behaviour of Jews that stood out to pagan authors (esp. circumcision, sabbath keeping, and the food laws). Thus, "works of the law" designates the epoch of the Sinaitic legislation but also the distinctive social practices of the Jewish people. In other words, it denotes the entire Mosaic code and the Jewish way of life as codified in the Torah.
  • In SROG I explored more fully the link between 2.11-14 (Antioch episode) and 2.15-21 (justification by faith). The question is, how do you get from a debate about food and fellowship to some dramatic and powerful statements by Paul about righteousness by faith? What starts off with a basic discussion of maintaining Jewish distinctiveness in a mixed Jew/Gentile setting soon gives way to a more fundamental question of the individual's relation to God and what mediates that relationship: law or Christ. For Paul, "righteousness" is not a cipher for "covenant status" or "identity legimitation" but it refers to one's status before God at the eschaton in light of the final judgment. Of course that of itself has huge sociological consequences for one how initiates and integrates non-Jews into Jesus-believing fellowships with other Jesus-believing Jews.
  • Before lampooning "boundary markers" as Jewish "ceremonies" redivvus, see Dunn, "The New Perspective: Whence, What, and Whither?" p. 25, n. 106.
  • Chester has confirmed for me what is my basic suspicion. We have no need to abandon the basic theological architecture bequeathed to us by the Reformation, but we have to recognize and grasp more closely the sociological dimensions of Torah concerning group identity and group boundaries etc, and also the ecclesiological implications of justification.
  • As I've said before: justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age!

No comments: