Thursday, February 19, 2015

My Journey, Part 13.1: Orthodoxy and Genesis 1-3

This is part 13.1 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

I apologize for the lengthy delay on this post. It is the result of a combination of schoolwork (I was taking two master's classes at once from November 10 to December 14, with two more systematic theology papers due in early January) and serious writer's block in composing this, probably the most crucial of all the posts in this series. Well, here it is. Or at least the first quarter of it.

I come at last to the number one reason that I found Orthodoxy convincing and compelling: its vision of the gospel is so coherent, compelling, and glorious that it is the answer to my multiplying doubts about the evangelical telling that I had thought I had to create for myself.

In my initial post explaining my turn to the Orthodox faith, I quoted Bishop Ware as saying that whereas Roman Catholics and Protestants generally start by asking the same questions before coming to different answers, Orthodox ask different questions altogether. This is less relevant to ecclesiology and tradition since Protestants are the odd ones out in these areas but pertaining to the gospel Orthodox theology is distinctively, refreshingly different from anything I knew from western Christianity.

Related to this is the fact that (in my experience, at least) Orthodox theology tends to ask fewer questions overall than western theology. On the whole, it is more mystical and experiential, less analytical and systematic, more attentive to the role of mysteries in theological method and less confident in the power of human reason to investigate them, less prone to seeking precise formulas or definitions to encapsulate theological truths. In one well-known formulation, the theologian is defined in Orthodox thought simply as "the one who prays". As I think I've mentioned before, there is little to no gap between theological academia and the clergy as there is especially in Protestantism. Because of its methodology raising them, western Christianity tends to ask more questions in general; it simply feels that it has to in order to do proper theology.

Foreword: On conversion sickness

Back up a bit, to when I was first starting to investigate the Orthodox Church. As I studied what Orthodoxy says about the "gospel" I was so confused about, I found a vision of the gospel much richer, more compelling, more glorious that anything I had known or imagined before. One reason for this was that the forensic or juridical themes which tended to occupy center stage in western soteriology (or something close to it) were relatively decentralized. The work of Christ was viewed more as a victory of life over death than as part of a legal proceeding. Salvation was viewed more as a hospital than a courtroom.

At this point I fell prey to what is apparently known in Orthodoxy as "conversion sickness": converts from western Christianity overreacting to the shortcomings of their previous church and arriving at a distorted version of the Orthodox faith that is its polar opposite. In my case, upon seeing how the focus of the gospel was shifted away from the legal machinery of justification and Anselmian satisfaction, I imagined that Orthodox theology simply had no legal component, that this was an invention of the west. Without realizing it, I was viewing Orthodoxy through a lens of my own making, my need for the gospel to be free from forensic language. Part of the reason for the delay of this post has been my need to get over this conversion sickness.

Though it hasn't been easy to admit, there is indeed a legal dimension to the Orthodox gospel. It is distinctly decentralized and less immediate compared to western theology and some of the particulars are different (as I will get into later), but it is still there. Part of my continued growth will likely be better understanding how this legal dimension fits into the "big picture" of the gospel without distorting or dominating it, which I once saw as inevitable.

There is also a more persistent form of conversion sickness. I am still months away from starting catechism. Where I once thought I was a fairly serious theologian, I now feel more ignorant of the faith than a child. In all likelihood, I will look back on this post and the ones to follow in a few years and remark at how foolishly I wrote. But (relevantly to the subject matter at hand) you must learn to crawl before you can walk. Better to write something now than wait until then. Reader, I eagerly want to share with you the riches I have found in the Orthodox faith. But for now, that means quite a bit of theological clumsiness. So please realize that everything I say is just a childish imitation of things I have read from far wiser theologians both ancient and contemporary. If you're curious, I would be glad to recommend some further reading to you.

The Fall: What is the problem the gospel solves?

A point often made by evangelicals is that in order to fully understand the gospel, it's essential to understand the problem to which it is the solution. I fully agree—but as my doubts grew I realized that I didn't really "get" what the problem really was or how it came about. The usual explanations I read or heard simply raised deeper questions for which few, if any, answers appeared to be forthcoming.

(A procedural note: I have structured my points around the "different questions" that Orthodoxy asks, or doesn't ask, compared to western Christianity, which was one cause of the writing delay. In the case where I couldn't think of a corresponding Orthodox question, either because there is a commonly accepted and uncontroversial answer or no need to ask the question at all, I have tried to summarize the Orthodox view in non-italic text.)

What can we learn from Genesis 2 about the way God intended life to be?
Genesis 2 depicts mankind in its infancy, not in a state of fully-realized perfection.

A common assumption in western theology is that Genesis 2 depicts humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation, exactly as it is supposed to be. It is a sort of divine blueprint for human existence. The whole biblical narrative, then, is one of a divinely-effected restoration back to the way things were/supposed to be. Maybe some of the details are different (the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city), but essentially we will be returned to the way Adam and Eve were: sinless, deathless, living in perfect harmony with God and the created order.

To which an Orthodox theologian would say, "Well, not quite." Orthodox don't believe the original state of humanity was complete perfection, but rather on the beginning of the path to it. This is because eastern theologians have understood "perfection" as something that we must attain to through grace-enabled labor, not simply possess by nature. (This process is what Orthodox call "deification", to which I will return later) This is not any limitation in God's creative potential; it is simply the nature of the perfection that God created us to enjoy that we can't simply start off possessing it, any more than we can be born as adults. The second-century theologian Irenaeus (who, despite being a bishop of Lyon, is much more influential in the eastern church) wrote of Adam and Eve, "Their being good would be of no consequence, because they were so by nature rather than by will." In the Orthodox understanding, Adam and Eve before the fall are viewed as existing in a state of childlike innocence, not mature perfection. In one of my journal entries during my period of questioning, I blindly grasped at something very similar to this (maybe I had just been exposed to some Irenaean theology):
Also, for reasons beyond our knowing God permitted the Fall to happen. But He won't do so again. Right? Right—all the promises in Revelation. Maybe we will be not more able to do evil than God is; it will simply be against our natures; whereas Adam and Eve were simply childlike and innocent, we will be grown into all the fullness God has planned for us. (2012-10-31)
Does man inherit the actual guilt of Adam's sin, or just his sinful nature?
Fallen man inherits not "original sin" (however that is understood) but the effects of Adam's sin: corruptibility, mortality, or the weakness of "the flesh"

This different understanding, of course, changes the corresponding understanding of the events in Genesis 3. Again, in western theology Adam's sin is viewed as having direct reverberations for us; we all inherit something called "original sin" from Adam's act. In the most common formulation held by Catholics and some Protestants, we are actually held guilty for Adam's sin; this is justified by saying we were somehow "in" Adam, or that Adam is somehow the "head" or "source" of the human race and therefore his condemnation applies to us as well. Though some Protestants downplay or deny this concept of transmitted guilt (sometimes called "original guilt" to distinguish it), there is near-universal agreement that original sin does include an unquenchable inclination to sin, often called a "sinful nature" by Protestants or "concupiscence" by Catholics.  In western (or at least Protestant) theology, sin is seen as the big problem that occurs in Genesis 3, which the whole biblical narrative is devoted to addressing. Through Adam's sin we were all made sinners (Rom 5:19), whether by inherited guilt or simply an inescapable disposition to sin, and death came into the world (Rom 5:12), along with corruption, disease, suffering, etc. I view this as a reflection of the legal inclination of the western theological heritage.

Again, in Orthodox theology though some of the large contours are the same, the details surrounding Adam's sin are quite different. Since Adam and Eve are viewed more as innocent children than mature, perfect adults, and because of Orthodoxy's de-emphasis of legal themes, far less emphasis is placed on the guilt or overall "bad-ness" of their sin. In fact, many church fathers apparently view Cain's sin of murder much more harshly than Adam's. The idea that we are held guilty for Adam's sin is very distinctly rejected as contrary to justice as well as biblical texts like Deu 24:16 or Jer 31:30. Augustine's biblical support for his teaching on this subject was partly based on a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 from Greek to Latin to conclude with in quo omnes peccaverunt, "in whom all sinned", but this reading is not supported by any modern translations.

Though they are not inherently opposed to the term "original sin", it is not very emphasized by Orthodox because of its connotations; recently through the work of John S. Romanides the contrasting term "ancestral sin" has become more common. I will explain this concept more later, but relevant to the current topic is the fact that Orthodoxy views death, not sin, as the basic problem of the human condition. (Or, more precisely, the corruptibility and weakness which makes humanity subject to the tyranny of the "unholy trinity": sin, death, and the devil) In an Orthodox reading of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created on the path to perfection through communion with God, with potential immortality. By sinning and falling away from God, they fell off this path and succumbed to mortality, an eventual return to nonbeing, the destiny of everything that does not receive incorruptibility through union with God. This corruptibility, this mortality, is what we inherit from Adam, and it is what gives rise to sin and the other problems of the "human condition". I will say more on this after a sidetrack on human depravity.

Just how depraved did human nature become as a result of Adam's sin?
Human nature is essentially good, but subjected to fleshly weakness, corruptibility, sin, and death

Orthodoxy follows quite a different track than Protestantism in regards to what is often referred to as "total depravity", while arriving at mostly the same practical destination. One of the primary controversies of the Reformation concerned the effects of sin on human nature and free will. This controversy played out between Catholics and Protestants (e.g. between Luther and Erasmus) as well as between and within Protestant confessions. Controversies of the former kind highlighted the difference between the Catholic Church's more positive view of human nature and free will (as merely having lost superadded divine grace in the fall, but still naturally able to choose good) and the much more negative Protestant view of human nature as inherently sinful; controversies of the latter kind were over just how enslaved the will is, or how sinful human nature has become. The theology of my own background is well summarized by the statement in the Westminster Confession, that "Man, by his Fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto."

So imagine my surprise when I learned that Orthodox theology holds that human nature after the fall is still essentially good! But this is not Pelagianism, a denial of the power or reality of sin and death. Rather, I view it as an affirmation that the way things are in the world is not what God intended, nor is it "natural". As C.S. Lewis said, evil is merely a parasite, not an independent reality. Human nature, created by God as such, remains good, but as a result of Adam's sin is subjected to sin, death, evil, and the devil. If human nature had become intrinsically evil, how could Christ have assumed it? Though we retain our God-given free will, this does not itself free us from our predicament, for in the Orthodox understanding sin goes much deeper than making wrong choices. The fact that human nature remains good does not mean that we are able to free ourselves, but is rather a powerful testimony to how far we have fallen from our divine vocation, and how badly we are in need of divine rescue. It also arguably heightens our culpability for continued acts of sin, since they are not committed according to Augustine's "harsh necessity" but freely. God is fully, unquestionably justified in holding us accountable for our transgressions.

Virtually untouched by the Reformation controversies relating to the freedom of the will, Orthodox theology pertaining to free will retains the semi-Pelagian (or, equivalently, semi-Augustinian) shape it has held since the patristic era. (And by the way, Orthodox theologians don't consider Pelagius the ultimate heretic or Augustine the ultimate church father; though considered a saint, his teachings on the will and predestination were not received by the church at large) After years of viewing Reformed monergism as the "orthodox" doctrine and Arminianism as a controversial minority position, imagine (again) my surprise to learn that Orthodoxy is unabashedly synergistic! The false dichotomy between Augustinianism and Pelagianism is not accepted the Christian east; both of these options are seen as too extreme. It is simply understood that salvation and deification takes place by the grace of God, and he expects us to freely, actively, willingly participate in this by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Phil 2:12-13) I now see fears that this active participation will inevitably lead to "works righteousness", and the implicit dichotomy between God's agency and ours, as simply superfluous, or even a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit.

All of this leads up to the question that seemed inescapable during my time of questioning: how exactly is Adam's sin supposed to be the explanation for all the problems in the world?

How is God to be absolved of all charges of being the author of sin and death?
Death is not "created"; it is the return of a creation alienated from its Creator to nonbeing

Now we come to how Orthodoxy alleviated my great confusion regarding the big problem to which "the gospel" is supposed to be the solution. Trying to understand the Fall within evangelical theology, I simply could not understand how the original sin of Genesis 3 explained everything that is wrong with the world. How did this sin somehow rewrite basic, formerly good human nature to be inherently sinful? How did it make immortal man suddenly mortal? How on earth is it the cause of disease, natural disasters, and animal death that was going on before humans even existed? And how did one human sin introduce all these problems seemingly instantaneously even though it is taking God thousands of years to rectify them? I also had trouble reconciling it with God's sovereignty; how could God be in control and let such a horrible tragedy happen to his formerly perfect world? As I journaled (probably aware of the Irenaean approach taken by Orthodoxy by now):
It's very hard to see 'the fall' from a state of sinless perfection as anything other than a great derailment of God's plans—protesting this doesn't make it any less true. We justify it by saying God used it to bring 'more glory' to Him—treating glory as a quantity. (Which, for God, is supposed to be infinite anyway”) What keeps people holding to the fall is the false belief that the alternative is a denial of sin and the gospel. What if we stopped seeing sin and evil as alien entities to God's perfect world and started seeing them as growing pains—the consequences of our freedom and maturity? (2013-5-1)
It seemed as though either man drastically re-created himself somehow at the moment of the first sin, or someone else did—demonic forces or, unthinkably, God himself. This last possibility was particularly unacceptable to me; as I wrote, this would reduce the gospel to the absurd story of God fixing what he himself broke. Such a story is no longer good news.

I have already explained some of the building blocks of the Orthodox approach to the Fall, which I have found offers a much better (but still somewhat confusing) explanation of the doctrine. Much of the difference comes in its distinctive approach to death. As I mentioned earlier, death/mortality rather than sin is viewed as the basic problem introduced by the Fall. Whereas in western theology death is seen strictly as the result of sin, in eastern theology of the relationship is more circular: Adam, by sinning, became mortal, this mortality is what is passed down to all humanity, and now we are enslaved to sin and the devil through the fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15) I will unpack this further to show how I am trying to make sense of it now.

First, it is not as though Adam and Eve were created immortal and then "lost" it when they sinned. They did not radically rewrite their basic biological makeup by sinning. Rather, they were created on the path to the (potential, not actual) perfection and immortality God made them for, but fell off it by sinning. (This is supported by the fact that the deathless resurrection body Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 15 appears to be new and totally different from anything that came before) Orthodox theology emphatically states that God did not create death (as often seemed to be implied by Protestant descriptions of the Fall); death is not an alien invasion force into God's good creation, nor is it a punishment for sin; it is simply a consequence of man's cutting himself off from the source of life and being, and failing to walk the path to deification that God made him to walk which is alone the way to immortality. (I am still not entirely sure, but I think a similar argument is applied to the rest of creation because of Adam's failure in his vocation to extend God's dominion over it) Per Genesis 3:22, death is even viewed as a mercy, limiting man's time of tribulation in the world left us by Adam. Essentially, the narrative told by Orthodox theology is not that everything was perfect, Adam somehow "broke" it, and now God is returning it to the way it was/is supposed to be. Rather, God made the world in its infancy, in order to grow to maturity and perfection, which it does not attain to because of the Fall. Jesus' description of entering the kingdom of God as being "born again" in John 3 is not accidental; after the new birth comes deification, development into the fullness in him God created us to enjoy. The story of redemption told by the gospel is thus seen as more continuous with God's initial acts of creation, not as a repair job occasioned by a fateful act of disobedience.

Second, how exactly Adam's sin affects us. Again, the teaching of Orthodoxy is not that death (or sin) is some kind of disease or infection that entered the world through Adam and now gets passed down by heredity, at least in my understanding. Rather, we are mortal because, like Adam, we have not fulfilled our vocation to seek immortality through participation in the life of God. But we are called, every one of us, to do so; this is the point of Christianity and the church. We are called, individually and corporately, to fulfill the vocation of Adam, our God-given purpose as creatures. Death is not (literally) some alien force that we need to be rid of; it is simply the result of our status as creatures and our failure at this vocation. But, paradoxically, through the cross of Christ, it has also become the means by which we enter into eternal life as he did. "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor 15:54); through the gospel, death becomes the gate to the life for which we were made.

But for now, we are mortal; we are weak; we are corruptible and subject to sin, death, and the devil. As I mentioned, death is viewed in Orthodoxy as more basic than sin; it is through death that we are "sold under sin". One of the most convincing evidences of this is something I read from John Romanides, and it gets a little technical. I already mentioned how Augustine drew strong support for his concept of original guilt from a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 into Latin. Well, it turns out there is a modern version of his mistake, and it is ubiquitous in English translations.

Romans 5:12 reads (in the Revised Standard Version):
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned--
Which goes, in Greek,
διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμονεἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάνταςἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον
Focus on the last part of this verse: "because all men sinned". The corresponding Greek for this is ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. Much is often made of the aorist case in the phrase πάντες ἥμαρτον, "all sinned", to demonstrate that Paul is speaking of a past event, namely Adam's sin, in which we all somehow participated. But then, the aorist case is simply undefined; it does not necessarily refer to a one-time event. Rather, focus on the part before that, ἐφ’ ᾧ, which is usually translated "because". This phrase consists of the preposition ἐπί (in contracted form) and the masculine dative singular relative pronoun. ἐπί, epi, is a very simple preposition that most commonly has a spatial meaning like "on" or "at", but can also have a more metaphorical meaning denoting the logical basis for something. In other words, the translation of epi to "because" is fairly justifiable.  But one question remains:

What is ᾧ translated to?

In the common translation, it seems to be folded into ἐπί to be translated "because" (or, in the KJV, the rather opaque phrase "for that"). But normally, relative pronouns translate to words like "what", "which", etc. For example, "Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up" (Mat 15:13), or "the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison" (Col 4:3). Applying this pattern to Romans 5:12, the result is the following rendering:
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because of which all men sinned--
Two words resulting from one Greek  pronoun completely reverse the direction of the relationship between sin and death. The verse which is usually treated as a slam dunk for the Protestant understanding of death as always a result or penalty of sin actually articulates the Orthodox understanding of ongoing sin as the result of death. Lest you think I'm just abusing my minimal Greek education, know that this is the understanding of the verse held by the majority of the church fathers (who, it bears reminding, spoke and read Koine Greek natively). I just know enough Greek to recognize that it makes sense.

Because of this shift in priority, Orthodox see the problem of the human condition from which the gospel saves us differently. Sin (and our resulting guilt/condemnation), rather than the big problem, is a sad (but real) consequence of death/mortality/corruptibility. Our problem is less legal, moral, or existential and more ontological. In Orthodox theology, the we are not so much rebels needing to be subdued, much less guilty defendants needing to be declared righteous, as we are patients needing to be restored to health and vitality. In this way, I think it is much clearer that we are saved by God, not from God (or from what he is going to do to us for our sins). God's reaction toward us for our predicament is one of compassion and pity, not anger, which I think makes much more sense. To sum up, the contrast between eastern and western theology on the Fall and the gospel "problem" can be summed up in something like the following:

How can sinful man be forgiven of his sins and be justified at the dread judgment seat of God?
How can fleshly man be freed from his enslavement to death, corruptibility, and 
the devil and come to enjoy the divine life for which God created him?

But besides all this, there is one other question that was pressing on me...

How does Genesis fit with science?
How does Genesis fit with Christ?

At the back of my mind through the whole preceding discussion was the fact that according to what we can now know of natural history, Adam and Eve were not historical people. And death was operative in the world long before any humans existed. This is rather problematic for the account of the fall that I just gave.

Unlike the previous points, Orthodox theologians don't give a better answer to this problem; rather, they simply tend not to address it much at all, drawing so heavily from pre-Enlightenment writings. This is something of a blessing, since it means that there is little perceived tension between science and faith in Orthodoxy (and where it does show up, it is elaborated in a much more thought-out way than I hear in Protestantism), and no cranks seeking to show that science really teaches creation and not evolution. Yet the incompatibilities between the scientific narrative and the Orthodox one remain. This is an area I'm very much still working through. My priest says he does not consider them incompatible, but I am waiting until biking season resumes to continue meeting with him.

For now, I have found some helpful resources. Foremost among these is the book Beginnings by Peter Bouteneff, a detailed survey of the early church fathers' writings on Genesis 1-3. As I read, I quickly realized their exegetical approach to these chapters was quite different from my own. My evangelical background accustomed me to reading this text historically: as describing a series of events that happened in the past and gave rise to/explain the present human situation. Because this reading of Genesis 1-3 is the primary one employed by Protestants, and because it is incompatible with scientific knowledge of natural history, it is understandable that evangelicals tend to approach it in terms of tensions between "literal" and "metaphorical" readings, or between "science" and "faith".

No such tensions exist in the patristic treatment of Genesis. The church fathers were much more inclined toward allegorical, typological, or Christological readings—Adam is more an archetype or symbol for fallen humanity, a foil for Christ in the gospel, than a historical figure. Christ, rather than Adam, is the beginning (and end) of humanity and the one through whom we are to understand our present condition. The liturgical use of Adam in the Orthodox Church closely fits this interpretation, which draws from the text what it has to say about God and man rather than about science and history. The fathers do maintain that Adam was a historical person (they had no reason not to), but this was more out of caution against allegorical excesses (as demonstrated by Origen) than a commitment to an essentially literal/historical reading as the default. Because of their willingness to look beyond the literal sense of the text to draw their theological and pastoral conclusions, Bouteneff explains, the fathers' use of Genesis is not invalidated by modern science; rather, it is a welcome alternative to a reading that is threatened by it.

So Orthodoxy has not so much answered my questions about Genesis and science as it has shown me an alternative to needing to ask them—an alternative to reading it through a historical lens that allows it to remain just as relevant to the modern world as it was in the ancient one, that allows science and faith to complement each other rather than compete. The price, of course, is that I must stop asking (or at least set aside) the question of where death, suffering, natural evil, etc. really came from—the question I was taught that Genesis 2-3 exist to answer. Well, maybe there are more important questions than this, and it is these to which the biblical origins narratives are meant to speak. Bouteneff's conclusion helps me to believe this:
The point is not, then, whether the fathers took the seven "days" or Adam to be historical. For the fathers, as for us, the historicity question has much more to do with how narrative, and scriptural narrative specifically, works to convey its message—something that both the fathers and we understand in a variety of ways. As to the end result, however, none of the fathers' strictly theological or moral conclusions—about creation, or about humanity and its redemption, and the coherence of everything in Christ—has anything to do with the datable chronology of the creation of the universe or with the physical existence of Adam and Eve. They read the creation narratives as Holy Scripture, and therefore as "true". But they did not see them as lessons in history or science as such, even as they reveled in the overlaps they observed between the scriptural narrative and the observable world. Generally speaking, the fathers were free from a slavish deference to science. Rather their theological and paraenetic approach to the creation narratives left them free to enjoy an unprejudiced scientific inquisitiveness. 
That being the case, those of us who seek fidelity to the fathers should likewise refrain from overly conflating Scripture with science, in order to bring realistic expectations to each. This means that we would have no reason to manipulate or ignore scientific findings that do not appear to accord with the Genesis accounts, since they operate on a different register. This separation is important for us because, unlike the fathers, we do have data that would make a sheerly scientific and historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3 well nigh impossible, despite some modern authors' best efforts. Yet the ever-unfolding data about the size, layout, and probable age of the created world—which goes so far beyond what the fathers knew about it—can give us the same exuberance as it did the early Christian writers: a joyous wonder in mystery and divine providence, and even, at times, a recognition of overlaps with aspects of the scriptural narratives. 
If we follow the fathers, we will see the Genesis creation accounts as God's uniquely chosen vehicle to express his truth about cosmic and human origins and the dynamics of sin and death, all recapitulated and cohering in the person of Christ. However we might want to reckon the narratives' relation to the unfolding of events in historical time, our gaze will be fixed decidedly on the new Adam.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The New Perspective on Paul and the Meaning of Justification

The following is the final paper for my Contemporary Issues in Theology class, which I refer to as Contemporary Issue in Theology since it focused entirely on the New Perspective on Paul.

In the last thirty years, scholarship on Paul (especially Protestant scholarship) has been in a state of turmoil unprecedented since the Reformation. The culprit: the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP), a paradigm for understanding the writings of the apostle that dares to examine some of the reformers' most cherished doctrines in a new light. Its supporters claim not to be introducing a new teaching, but correcting a long period of historical blindness that has kept their predecessors from understanding Paul rightly. Just what is the NPP? Referring to the movement with a unitary name is misleading, since there is no such single, monolithic theological entity.[1] Nonetheless, its major proponents share some key similarities in their theology.

The NPP understands itself as a corrective to Christian theologians' long history of misunderstanding the Judaism of Paul's time, from the early church to the twentieth century and beyond.[2] In modern theology, second-temple Judaism is commonly viewed as coldly legalistic and self-righteous, hoping to earn salvation from God by self-driven moral performance.[3] Based on this understanding of what Paul was reacting against in his letters, the salvific "faith" that he champions was defined in opposition to the "works" of the Jews, who became symbols of the basic, universal sin of works-righteousness; the essence of the gospel was to be found, it was thought, in Paul's teaching of justification by faith alone, rather than by works.[4] Eventually this consensus began to change via dialogue between Jewish and Christian scholars, the discovery of second-temple Jewish documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the study of the Septuagint, the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek which served as Paul's "Bible", and the ways it shaped his understanding of key terms like "righteousness" in relation to their meanings in classical Greek.[5] Jews who had long been calling out Christian scholars for misrepresenting their religion began to be joined by Christians like G.F. Moore, R.T. Herford, and James Parkes.[6]

The turning point came with the publication of E.P. Sanders' book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which drew on recent historical research on second-temple Judaism to paint a picture that was drastically different than the "traditional" Christian one. This reinterpretation centered on his concept of "covenantal nomism", which proposed a new understanding of the place of the law in Jewish faith and practice. The law, Sanders said, was never a list of instructions to perfectly follow in order to earn God's favor and salvation; this was simply a caricature. Rather, it was to be understood within God's prior covenantal election of Israel. The law was not the way to enter the covenant, but the way to live within it, and it included means of atonement to maintain the covenantal relationship despite transgressions.[7] Sanders' vision of Judaism placed the electing, saving grace of God before human obedience, just as Christian theology does. His conclusions about Judaism are foundational for the theology of the NPP, though its supporters do not agree with all of his conclusions, especially his view of Paul as arbitrarily jumping from Judaism to Christianity, rejecting the law simply because it is not Christ.[8]

The NPP proper seeks a coherent understanding of Paul's theology that avoids the mistakes of earlier scholars, based on Sanders' insights, especially his view of Judaism characterized by covenantal nomism.[9] In light of their historical context, several of Paul's concepts that are key to the theology of what is now known as the "old perspective on Paul” are reinterpreted. Nomos, or "law", is no longer abstracted to refer to a universal moral imperative on humanity in contrast to the principle of “faith”; it is simply taken to refer to the Torah, the Mosaic law, and the Jewish way of life following from it. Erga nomou, "works of law", are no longer human-driven efforts to "earn" righteousness or salvation, but, in light of the phrase's usage in 4QMMT (a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls written by a second-temple Essene sect), are understood as particular commands of the law acting as "boundary markers" that clearly delineate the difference between Jew and non-Jew, or more generally the law's function of establishing this boundary.[10] Dikaiosynē, the Greek word that is translated to both "righteousness" and "justice" (as well as "justification" in Gal 2:21), is no longer taken to be an abstract moral quality as in classical Greek usage, but is understood more relationally in light of its usage in the Septuagint as referring to God's covenant faithfulness or to our inclusion in the covenant. "Justification", formerly taken to be virtually synonymous with "salvation" or "the gospel", is now understood to refer more to something that happens after salvation, namely a divine declaration that one is justified, vindicated, "in the right", a member of the covenant.[11]

One of the best-known proponents of the NPP is British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who has written extensively on Paul's life, writings, and theology. He believes that the traditional Protestant reading of Paul is heavily colored by Martin Luther's theology and his struggle against Catholic teaching, and seeks to situate the apostle and his letters back in their first-century Jewish historical and salvation-historical context.[12] Jews in Paul's time "were not sitting around discussing how to get to heaven, and swapping views on the finer points of synergism and sanctification. ... They were hoping and longing for Israel's God to act, to do what he had promised, to turn history the right way up once again.[13] "Salvation", for them, was distinctly corporate (not individual) and this-worldly. Though they had returned to the promised land from exile, the exile still continued in a metaphorical sense, as life was still far from the way it should be.[14] God's "righteousness", far from an abstract moral quality, was his covenant faithfulness, his commitment to end this exile and fulfill his redemptive promises to Israel.[15]

But not just to Israel. God's initial covenant with the childless Abraham entailed the creation of a family more numerous than the stars—but this family was not just identified with Israel. Rather, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:3 ESV) "Paul's view of God's purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight."[16] The Abrahamic covenant was the answer to the problem made evident in the previous eleven chapters of Genesis, namely sin, death, and the fall of God's creation into corruption. For this reason, Wright frequently describes the covenant, considered by the Jews to be the founding moment of Israel, as God's "single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world".[17] But as it turned out, Israel was just as sinful as its neighbors. (Rom 3:9-20) Thus there was a new, twofold problem: Israel, too, was in need to rescue, and its sin prevented the promises made to Abraham from having their intended effect of blessing for the nations.[18] This, according to Wright, is the context of Paul's teaching about justification and the gospel. How was God going to be faithful to his promises for the world, through Israel, in light of human unfaithfulness?

Answer: through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus obeyed the law perfectly yet took the curse for disobedience (as in Deu 28) on himself (Gal 3:13-14); by rising from the dead, he made "a way through the curse and out the other side, into the time of renewal when the Gentiles would at last come into Abraham's family, while Jews could have the possibility of covenant renewal, of receiving the promised spirit through faith."[19] The point of all of this is not simply to establish a soteriological system of "justification by faith", but to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant by creating the global family of faith that God promised him and to restore the creation to the way it should be. (Gal 3:7-9)

For Wright, justification is not the imputation of Christ's obedience "to our account"; still less is it synonymous with "salvation" or the gospel. Rather, in the context in which it is first mentioned in Paul's letters (Gal 2) as well as in contemporary Jewish writings, it is a status of vindication, a divine declaration that a person is part of God's covenant family and will be saved at the last judgment. Paul's point is not to establish a dichotomy between the opposing principles of "faith" and "works", but to insist that it is by faith in Christ, not works of the Torah (becoming Jewish, joining the nation of Israel) that God's people are now marked out.[20] The present verdict of justification is by faith alone, but it anticipates the final verdict of justification described in Romans 2, which will be by works. This is possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, transforming us and manifesting our justification; as Paul goes on to explain especially in Romans 6-8.[21] Wright seeks to restore "the Jewish, Messianic, covenantal, Abrahamic, history-of-Israel overtones", which he feels are screened out by the traditional Protestant understanding of Paul[22] but become visible with a study of Paul in his Jewish context.

The NPP is often met with criticism from conservative Protestant theologians. Foremost among Wright's critics is John Piper, who wrote a book to critique Wright's claims on Paul and justification. He alleges that the NPP, especially as represented by Wright, dangerously distorts the gospel taught by the Reformation tradition.[23] One frequently criticized tenet of the NPP is its claim that justification per se is not part of the gospel. Piper argues that the gospel is only good news if it includes justification; without it, in light of our sin, the announcement of Jesus' vindication and lordship is terrifying.[24] "[Paul's] announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news in Paul's preaching precisely because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification."[25] He appeals to Romans 5:1 to show that justification is part of how someone becomes a Christian, since it involves a crucial change in the relationship of the sinner to God without which there can be no salvation. Without justification, the gospel gives guilty rebels against God no reason to hope for a good outcome for themselves. Sinclair Ferguson also claims that Wright has exaggerated the gospel individualism and subjectivism to which he sees the NPP as an antidote.[26]

Piper also questions what he sees as Wright's redefinition of "righteousness" as impartiality and covenant faithfulness (on the part of God) or a status of vindication and covenant membership (on our part). Rather, Piper argues, as he has elsewhere, that righteousness is the same for God and man: "For both the defendant and the judge, righteousness is 'an unwavering allegiance to treasure and uphold the glory of God.' This is what makes God and humans 'righteous.'"[27] Because of this and contrary to Wright, the imputation of Christ's righteousness (his unfailing obedience to God's righteous demand "that we unwaveringly love and uphold the glory of God"[28]) does make sense and is a real and vital part of justification. Justification is not simply a status given to us by a courtroom declaration, but the counting of a real, alien moral righteousness as ours; "in Christ we are counted as having done all the righteousness that God requires".[29] J. Ligon Duncan points out that in its discussion of justification, the NPP tends to neglect atonement theology, actually investigating the work of Christ and how it functions in favor of focusing on the person of Christ as Lord and Messiah.[30]

Piper and others also dispute the NPP's reassessment of first-century Judaism as a "religion of grace". Piper believes that Paul's descriptions of his pre-conversion life depict him not as a humble supplicant of God's grace, but an arrogant blasphemer; as well, Jesus' teachings on the Pharisees show that they pursued Torah not out of gratitude to God but a craving for human glory.[31] Ultimately, ethnic pride and legalism have the same sinful root: self-righteousness.[32] J. Ligon Duncan also believes the NPP's case is inconclusive because it only denies that first-century Judaism was essentially Pelagian. But Luther only ascribed semi-Pelagianism to the Catholic church and Judaism, and this description still appears accurate.[33] He also criticizes the NPP for allowing a provisional theory on first-century Judaism to dominate its exegesis and diminish what the text is actually saying in favor of overwhelming context.

Finally, Piper emphasizes that both now and in the end, faith rather than works is the instrument of justification. He believes Wright's case for final justification on the basis of works from Romans 2:13 is inconclusive in its immediate context.[34] With extensive support from historic Protestant confessions, he reiterates the Reformation truth that a transformed life of obedience is necessary for the Christian, but it is only evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose righteousness is the sole basis of our justification, both now and for eternity.[35] J. Ligon Duncan alleges that the NPP "diminishes the New Testament emphasis on the importance of the problem of sin and its forgiveness in relation to the Gospel" and focuses on Paul's soteriology and ecclesiology without considering his anthropology and hamartiology.[36] As a result of all of these factors, proponents of the old perspective believe that the NPP amounts to a corruption of the true gospel.

Several loci of disagreement between perspectives are evident. Most basically, they contrast on what second-temple Judaism was like, especially in relation to the Mosaic law: prototypically legalistic, or a "religion of grace" characterized by covenantal nomism. "Works of the law" are viewed as either meritorious actions intended to earn righteousness before God, or "boundary markers" or "badges" to mark one off as a member of the covenant. God's "righteousness" is his moral perfection and more specifically "[his] unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory"[37], or his covenant faithfulness and impartiality as a judge. "Justification" is either the imputation of Christ's righteousness and the forgiveness of sins, or God's public declaration that someone is "in the right", a member of the covenant; the perspectives also differ on the relative importance of justification in the gospel. The NPP views the human condition more corporately as alienation from God's covenant of redemption which is intended to save from sin and death, in contrast to the more individualistic traditional stress on escaping God's wrath for sins and having a righteousness to stand on at the final judgment. Procedurally, the perspectives differ on the relative priority of the well-tested Reformation tradition and new historical-contextual research as guides for exegesis.

I find the New Perspective more, but not totally convincing. It answers several theological problems I have had with believing the old perspective. It rightly calls out the flaws of the Lutheran view of the "law" (which is also present, to a lesser degree, in Reformed theology) as a harsh judge or taskmaster that exists to show us our sin and drive us to God's grace. While this may be true on an individual level, it doesn't work when applied to the historical narrative of the Bible, which is the focus of the NPP. If sin is virtually equivalent to self-justification, why did God give the Israelites a law that plays right into it and then leave them to struggle with it for thousands of years before sending the Messiah it was supposed to "point" to all along? What of all the Jews who lived and died before this time, who knew the law only in its negative function of inciting and condemning their sin? And if this function of the law continues in the church age (as Luther’s universalizing treatment of the law implies), why do we not repent of breaking the Sabbath or eating pork? This telling makes the law, as described by Paul, seem like something God saves us from, or at least a deliberately ineffective measure for dealing with sin. As well, the law itself commands its hearers to seek life and righteousness by obedience to it (Lev 18:5, Deu 6:25) which is seen as possible at the present time (Deu 30:11-14); the old perspective does not take these verses seriously, or even contrasts them with justification by faith! Crucially, the old perspective does not (in my experience) attempt to explain how the Judaism Paul denigrated is different than the Judaism established by God in the Old Testament, which is essential to avoid a neo-Marcionite reading of Scripture.

I also believe the NPP offers a somewhat better account of justification. The "traditional" view is based on an Anselmian, inward-oriented, demanding view of God's righteousness/justice that needs to be "satisfied" by the punishment of sin, whether in us or in Christ. The critical point of justification is a change in the divine disposition towards us, from "against us" to "for us".[38] I do not believe that this is an accurate understanding of God's justice. Though I don't exactly agree with Wright's understanding of "righteousness", I agree with him that the imputation of Christ's righteousness does not make sense; the logic of imputation is foreign to the Bible as well as common sense. Piper's criticism that the New Perspective understanding of "justification" makes it into little more than a status[39] rings hollow; what is imputed righteousness if not a legal status with no corresponding moral reality? Isn’t that exactly the point of justification by faith alone? The old perspective bases its view of justification on a merit-based concept of salvation, which, with the Orthodox Church, I believe is not a part of biblical soteriology.[40]

Finally, along with Wright I find it ironic that in his rebuttal Piper repeatedly appeals to Reformation tradition as normative. This is seen as he assumes that the old perspective is the default or "obvious" interpretation of Scripture; Ferguson calls it the "old wine" in reference to Luke 5:39 (seemingly unaware that the "new wine" stands for the gospel in this parable).[41] Aside from the fact that little effort is made to trace this tradition back any earlier than the sixteenth century (and thus demonstrate that it is not itself a corruption of an older tradition), it is hard to reconcile Reformed theologians' appeals to it with their claimed ancestors' opposition to established tradition and willingness to pursue fresh readings of Scripture. What do you do when a theology that emerged in defiance of tradition becomes the new tradition?

Perhaps because of these appeals to tradition, the old perspective tends to neglect to engage the NPP on its own turf: new historical research into second-temple Judaism and Paul's Jewish context. Piper's engagement with it is mostly limited to a chapter warning that studying first-century ideas may not be illuminating (which Wright satisfactorily rebuts[42]). I also agree with Wright that the New Perspective is more Trinitarian, creational, and Israel-focused than the old,[43] themes which are far too important to neglect when reading Paul. I consider his theology of synergism[44] to be an important part of soteriology rather than a "bogey-word" to be avoided.

Yet the New Perspective is not perfect. Many of its faults may simply be consequences of its break with Protestant tradition on such central doctrines and the need to distinguish itself from the "default" interpretation of Paul, which is not entirely without value. While I am sympathetic to N.T. Wright's points about the Jewish context and connotations of Paul's usage of terms like dikaios(yne) and erga nomou, I have trouble following the gospel narrative he builds out of them; it feels unintuitive, like an external interpretive grid laid over the text which confuses more than it enlightens. Some of this is from how he tends to look for one clear-cut context in which to define words, and then feels free to use this meaning everywhere (e.g. defining "justified" in light of what we can know of the "Antioch incident" in Galatians 2, and then reading it through this lens throughout Paul's writing). How does James use dikaioō in his epistle? In Wright's telling, the word seems to be defined almost entirely by context, with little innate meaning.

As well, due to its methodological emphasis on studying Paul in his social, cultural, and historical context, proponents of the NPP tend to interpret his letters in a very human way, more so than their opponents. Wright complains that the old perspective does not keep the Holy Spirit in sight in its understanding of final justification,[45] but he interacts little with how the same Spirit may be speaking through Paul to grant his words new dimensions of meaning for the church he helped found, beyond his original context. The old perspective does this better. Both perspectives also still tend to look largely to Paul (rather than the other epistles or, even the gospels) to understand what "the gospel" basically is, though Wright somewhat sees past this.[46]

Another result of the project of distinguishing itself from the old view is that the NPP tends to draw strong theological dichotomies for detractors like Piper to jump on: ethnocentrism vs. moralism,[47] or justification vs. reconciliation with God.[48] Both perspectives seem to support the familiar dichotomy between justification and sanctification, creating a sharp disconnect (or strictly one-way relationship) between justification and any moral righteousness on our part.[49]

The NPP works better as a part of a larger whole than as a complete account of the gospel; for example, Duncan is correct in pointing out that it says little about the atonement in itself. Wright and others, with their rigorous study of Paul's context, have produced a set of hermeneutical tools for glimpsing new dimensions of Paul's theology—but it would be foolish to use these new ideas exclusively (Wright would probably agree with this). James Dunn considers the NPP to be complementary with the historic Protestant doctrine of justification.[50] I would go a different route and combine it with an Orthodox understanding of soteriology, Christology, eschatology, and anthropology. Justification includes both reconciliation and vindication, with a definite beginning that is also maintained as the Christian continues to live and grow through right relationship (union) with God and the destruction of sin by the atonement of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Contrary to the old perspective, I believe the whole of Scripture testifies that God is always, unconditionally “for” us; the question is whether we resist his grace or allow it to be effectual in us. There is no need for justification to convince him to bestow grace on us or make up for a deficiency in merit on our part. This approach overcomes the shortcomings of both perspectives, complementing traditional Christian soteriology with the fresh insights of the NPP and offering a more satisfying answer to the issues at hand.

  1. Tom Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 12.
  2. Michael Wise, “Some Comments on Origins of the New Perspective: Part 1,” course notes.
  3. George Foot Moore, "Christian Writers on Judaism," Harvard Theological Review 14 (1921), 252–253.
  4. Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 30,37,51.
  5. Wise, "Some Comments on Origins of the New Perspective" (both parts), course notes.
  6. James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 199.
  7. E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 422.
  8. Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, 49; Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38A, Romans 1–8, (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1988), lxvi.
  9. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 1–6.
  10. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 8–15.
  11. Wright, Justification, 111–113.
  12. Wright, Justification, 53–58.
  13. Wright, Justification, 37.
  14. Wright, Justification, 41.
  15. Wright, Justification, 52.
  16. Wright, Justification, 73.
  17. Wright, Justification, 103.
  18. Wright, Justification, 175.
  19. Wright, Justification, 104.
  20. Wright, Justification, 96.
  21. Wright, Justification, 163–168.
  22. Wright, Justification, 62.
  23. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 16–17,25,37–38,61,181–183
  24. Piper, The Future of Justification, 89.
  25. Piper, The Future of Justification, 90.
  26. Sinclair Ferguson, "What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?", Ligonier Ministries, 1 February 2010, <> (31 January 2015).
  27. Piper, The Future of Justification, 71.
  28. Piper, The Future of Justification, 164.
  29. Piper, The Future of Justification, 171.
  30. J. Ligon Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul," Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 2009, < ttp://,,PTID307086_CHID560462_CIID1660662,00.html> (31 January 2015).
  31. Piper, The Future of Justification, 152,154.
  32. Piper, The Future of Justification, 159.
  33. Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul."
  34. Piper, The Future of Justification, 108.
  35. Piper, The Future of Justification, 110.
  36. Duncan, "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul."
  37. Piper, The Future of Justification, 66.
  38. Piper, The Future of Justification, 184.
  39. Piper, The Future of Justification, 78.
  40. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), 197.
  41. Ferguson, "What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?".
  42. Wright, Justification, 31–34.
  43. Wright, Justification, 212,222.
  44. Wright, Justification, 163–168.
  45. Wright, Justification, 163–164.
  46. Wright, Justification, 60.
  47. Piper, The Future of Justification, 160.
  48. Wright, Justification, 199.
  49. Wright, Justification, 180, 187.
  50. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 194.