Thursday, September 17, 2009
Back from Leuven
I've just returned from K.U. Leuven from an amazing seminar on New Perspectives on Paul and the Jews. From the outset I have to say that I loved Belgium and it was great to be there when Kim Clijsters won the US Tennis Open! Leuven is gorgeous, so European, and best of all it has all the cuisine and culture of France but without the French!! I successfully delivered home a few boxes of Belgian chocolates which is the only reason my wife let me attend. My hosts were very amiable and the interaction with the other seminar participants was great. It was also good to catch up again with Mark Nanos as always and I got to meet Peter Tomson who is another Paulinist. I learnt with some frustration that "H" means mensroom and "D" means the ladies (pictures would have been easier). Some outstanding papers by the exegetes there including William Campbell, Tom Blanton, Michael Bachmann, and Mark Nanos (see photos here).
My paper went okay, though I was a bit out of kilt with the rest of my colleagues. I posit a discontinuity between Paul and Judaism to the extent that Paul is, socially speaking, sectarian. At least at the height of his Aegean mission he's moved his assemblies out of the synagogues and provided an ideological justification for an amiable separation in order to protect the integrity of his Gentile converts precisely as Gentiles. I think Phil Cunningham claimed that he was "disturbed" by my picture of Paul. The problem is that I just don't think Paul has a Sonderweg for Israel and he levels the playing field so that Jew and Gentile both stand condemned under the law (or what law they have) and both find salvation in Israel's Messiah. Moreover, while the church is not a replacement for Israel, the church (made up of believing Jews and Gentiles) is the representative of Israel in the messianic age.
There were two climactic quotes from the conference. (1) Hans-Joachim Sander (Salzburg) said that "[U]nfortunately Christian systematic theology is not George Clooney" - for context see this coffee advert - and he thus established the first piece of proof in modern European history that German theologians actually are capable of humour. (2) One seminar participant (whose name I shall conceal less he be excommunicated from Rome!) made the controverial remark: "Mission is a violation of human rights"! Now if what one means by that is that we should refrain from aggressive proselytizing activity or coercion or from inflaming religious tensions, then fine. But surely freedom of religion entails the freedom to practice and propagate one's own religion, does it not? Freedom of speech means I have the right to tell you what you don't want to hear. My response was that I thank God that 15 years ago my human rights were violated when a Christian community shared the love of Christ with me in telling me the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The concept of Jewish evangelism certainly was a "no, no". Mark Nanos said, "Jews have had more than enough oppotunity to be made aware of Christian propositional truths, including by coercion, and have suffered enough for them, that it is no longer necessary or appropriate to evangelize Jews with the hope that they become Christians. Christianity is no longer Judaism, unlike the case for Paul." The deplorable history of forced conversions to Christianity is just that, deplorable. Still, I know enough messianic Jews (including some in my local church!) that are grateful that those among the goyim shared the good news of Israel's Messiah with them. The Catholic document Nostra Aetate seems to lean in the direction of censuring evangelism of the Jewish people. Although whether this is a pastoral document or a dogmatic one is a matter of perspective. See further the article on mission in the Dictionary of Jewish Christian Relations by Helen Fry which overviews the background, issues, and concerns related to Jewish evangelism. I have to confess that I just don't get the Catholic doctrine here. Granted that we are now living in a post-holocaust age and we want to foster genuinely positive relations between Jews and Christians, even so, how can you forbid propagation of the "One True Faith" when the first bishop of Rome was St. Peter the Apostle to the Circumcision? Maybe Michael Barber and Brant Pitre can help me out on this one. With due respect to my colleagues, during much of the discussion one verse kept going through my head was: "If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for nothing" (Gal. 2.21).
My final comments at the seminar were: (1) Markus Barth is probably one of the best resources there is for doing exegesis and biblical theology about the Jewish people and more attention should be given to him on this subject. I think Barth can help us appropriate what Paul means when he said: "All Israel will be saved". (2) We should not tie any single view of Jewish-Christian relations to insights from the New Perspective on Paul since the NPP itself is diverse and, what is more, mainline scholarship is now effectively "beyond" the NPP polarities (see works by Robert Jewett, Francis Watson, and John Barclay as examples). (3) We have to remember that Paul's message of the cross was a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1.18-19) and Paul got himself flogged by synagogue officials he says five times (2 Cor. 11.24). If in our quest to find a Paul congenial to promoting good Jewish-Christian relations we end up with a Paul who is neither offensive nor whippable, then that is proof that we have made Paul in our own image.
Overall, a fine conference, very insightful and learned seminar presenters, a wonderful atmosphere and location, and much to think about as a result.