Much ink has been spilt over a little controversy amongst New Testament Theologians, the so called New Perspective on Paul. Neil Martin believes that he has found a way through the impasse to enable us to be enriched by Paul’s teaching, especially in Galatians.
The New Perspective was a response to the traditional Protestant position, sometimes referred to s The Old Perspective. The Reformation brough the church back to the beauty of Justification by Faith alone without the need for rituals, sacraments, priests, penance and the like. It has therefore been assumed that the Jews of Jesus’ day were in effect legalists, that they believed they were made right with God by works. If so, then Paul’s Gospel offered a radical alternative to this.
Then along came EP Sanders, shortly followed by the likes of NT Wright and James Dunn who after extensive studies of Rabbinical Judaism asked us to look again. Far from being a works righteousness religion, the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day was as much about God’s sovereign grace as early Christianity, so they argued. Jews were brought into God’s covenant through divine election, specifically through their inclusion in Abraham. They may then have been required to keep the Law to mark them out as God’s people and this may have been what kept them in God’s covenant but this was not how they were included. This is sometimes referred to as Covenant Nomism. The Jews did not suffer from legalistic pride/works righteousness though they may have been charged with ethnic pride. The good news of the Gospel was not so much that eternal life was a gift, through grace but rather that it was open to all, regardless of ethnic background.
Martin argues that both perspectives, along with some other related approaches have insights to offer whilst both failing to properly understand what was going on. It all boils down to understanding what the problem was in Galatia that Paul wrote to correct. Now, this seemed to be a problem with regression but a regression to what? Martin argues that it could not have been a regression back to a legalistic/works based Judaism because Paul was writing to Gentiles not Jews. They were not going back to such things.
So, he argues, the problem was not that they were being drawn into an unhelpful form of Judaism that undermined their faith. Furthermore, if this was the case, then Paul didn’t really have a problem with the Law and with the rites and rituals of Judaism. His issue was not with Jewish Christians observing circumcision, sabbath days or food laws. This was all well and good, indeed it might be helpful for those who understood what the laws and rituals truly meant. However, such things were toxic to baby Christians fresh out of pagan idolatry. They would be tempted to see the entry rites of Judaism as akin to the rites they followed in their past life and so be drawn back to the heart beliefs they had been rescued from, seeing Law observance as a means to appease Yahweh in exactly the same way as they had appeased Greek and Roman gods.
If Martin is right, then the problem in Galatians was primarily pastoral. This has implications for the church today. We might consider how often we make cultural accommodations to help seekers and younger Christians but we might do better to keep them away from such unhelpful memories and connections whilst being less worried about how mature believers engage with the culture around. Additionally, we may want to look at the messages that some of our practices send out. For example, he observes that often our publicity for events and conferences place the speakers on pedestals as expert celebrities which plays to the worst aspects of western, cultural idolatry. I am tempted to suggest that he might want o have a word with his publishers and those involved in reviewing and endorsing his book. I agree that we have a problem and one of the ways this plays is through conferences and events but another is through the celebrity endorsement of books often built up in hyperbolic language as offering ground breaking revelations.
And this takes me to my first criticism. I think that Martin is to a point correct in his final interpretation and application of Galatians but I fear that he has rather complicated things. These are the conclusions that many preachers will have drawn throughout the years through a simple exposition of the text. The real take home from the book is in the last couple of chapters and as is often the case, there’s perhaps a sermon or blog post worth of material in the book but lot of padding to justify a book and the need for an academic to appear to be offering some new and original research.
My second challenge would be that whilst I think he is right in terms of identifying the danger that the Galatians were in and whilst he does acknowledge that his thesis doesn’t in and of itself mean that the so called Judaizers had got it wrong, he does, in my opinion still end up over downplaying the problem of legalism and works righteousness.
You see, whilst Sanders et al have helpfully drawn our attention to significant bodies of literature from Jewish sources critiquing works righteousness and emphasising covenant election, I don’t think we can or should assume from this that there wasn’t a works righteousness problem within the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day. Let me offer two illustrations. First of all, consider the state of pre-Exile Israel and Judah. If we were to determine the spiritual state of the nation based on the theological beliefs of Isaiah and Jeremiah then we would not assume that because they emphasised God’s sovereignty, pointed to his justice, offered hope through his compassion and challenged idolatry and injustice alike that those views reflected the views of the wider people. Rather, we would appreciate that those prophets were offering a critique and a rebuke to the religion of their day. Similarly, we cannot assume that scholarly, or even popular level books, journal articles and blog posts today reflect the beliefs of Christians or even the sermons preached in our pulpits.
And so, I think that Martin plays down the level of danger from the “agitators” themselves both to Gentile and Jewish believers alike. To be sure there was a specific danger to the Gentile believers that Jewish practices might be confused with their old pagan lives. However, it was equally a risk for the Jewish believers that they might be drawn back into pre Gospel ways of thinking and acting. Furthermore, throughout Galatians, Paul is clear in his criticism of the “agitators” and it is obvious that he does not see them or their motives as benign.
Overall, the book is an interesting read and should prompt close interaction with the text. The concluding application is challenging and helpful to a mission context church in the UK. It is worth reading and engaging with. However, I am not convinced by the thesis and find that it over complicates things, particularly from the perspective of a pastoral practitioner.