Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Carson on the New Perspective

I'm listening to a series of lectures that D.A. Carson delivered at RTS-Charlotte regarding the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Here are my amateur musings and observations on them:

Admittedly, I still have one lecture left, but I have not been thoroughly impressed so far. To be fair, Carson has attempted to lay out an overview of the NPP and the differing strands of thought to which that moniker has been assigned. Although his stated purpose is to critique the manifold problems he perceives within the NPP, his tone is less antagonistic(albeit condescending in several places) than the level of vitriol found in other discussions on the topic. And, he has stated on more than one occasion that the NPP and related authors have made worthwhile contributions in some areas. But, overall, I think Carson's overview suffers from many of the same problems as other critiques of this topic.

Although Carson makes the standard disclaimers that "there is no 'new perspective' but rather several 'new perspectives,'" he -- like many others -- tends to lump them indiscriminately together in his discussion. Although he traces academic developments from E.P. Sanders to James Dunn to N.T. Wright, he often seems to gloss over the specific differences between them. Although I have not read Sanders or Dunn, I am familiar with several places in Wright's work where he criticizes or even rejects the positions held by the other two. Carson's presentation, however, tends to iron over these distinctions. He will give a specific example or citation from a particular author, but his delivery gives one the impression that it is the uniform NPP view.

For example, Carson discusses the debated usage of God's "righteousness," both in the Hebrew and Greek. The broad NPP understanding is that this term refers to God's covenantal faithfulness, rather than an abstract moral quality. However, Carson rejects this view on the basis of Old Testament word studies which show "righteousness" most often appearing amidst references to God's justice and judgment against the wicked. But Carson has limited "covenantal faithfulness" such that it only refers to God's faithfulness in blessing His covenant people. If this limitation was accurate, then Carson has a point. I cannot speak to Sanders or Dunn, but Wright's understanding of "righteousness" is certainly not restricted in this way. Far from it. Wright's understanding of God's righteousness is not merely referring to YHWH's blessing of His people but also to His promise that the broken creation will be "put to rights" (as NTW often puts it) -- that is, God's own promise that He will undo the cosmic results of the Fall, to protect the helpless and to punish the wicked. (See, for example, Wright's description of a "righteous judge" used by the lawcourt metaphor, as shown in What Saint Paul Really Said.) With this in mind, Carson's critique seems to fall flat.

Another pervasive problem with Carson's presentation is that he (like many others) begs the question as to the meaning of justification. One interesting quote (paraphrased) from Carson: "They [the NPP] make justification a matter NOT about who is just but about who is a covenant member." I thought this statement was silly, and he actually repeated it another time or two. How can it not be about who is "just" if "justification" (however it may be defined) is in view? It reveals the recurring problem that many of Wright's Reformed critics keep slipping back into the traditional usage of terms like "justification," even when Wright's whole argument is that the traditional usage is incorrect. Again, Wright needs to be evaluated in his own terms before passing judgment.

Carson also takes issue with Wright's usage of the exile motif, drawing attention to NTW's claim that the Deuteronomic cycle of blessing and curse had not yet been fulfilled by the time of 2nd Temple Judaism. Carson claims that the Deuteronomic history (and the remainder of the Old Testament) establishes the pattern of man's utter inability to keep the Law. This, he claims, negates Wright's (alleged) indications that Israel had the potential to keep the covenant and be blessed as a result "if they tried hard enough." But this is not fair to Wright's own position. Israel's history is not merely a series of object lessons on the pervasiveness of man's sin and his need for grace (although that lesson is certainly there!). As Wright points out, Israel is a vital component in the work of redemption on many levels. The notion, offered by Carson as Wright's own, that national Israel could have somehow kept the Law and been blessed for obedience seems greatly at odds with Wright's own teaching about the "dark purposes of the Law," namely that a major purpose of the Law was to gather sin into one place so that God could deal with it, once and for all.

Actually, much of Carson's discussion of the exile motif proved frustrating. Although one could argue that perhaps Wright gets a bit too much mileage out of it, some of Carson's rebuttal was far from convincing. For instance, he takes issues with Wright's view that Second Temple Jews saw themselves as being in exile as punishment for their corporate sins. He points to Qumran as a sect believing itself to be a righteous remnant, the true and faithful Israel amidst a nation of corruption and compromise. Hence, they did not see themselves suffering under the weight of corporate guilt for the sins of the nation. But Carson himself admits that Qumran still saw themselves in a kind of exile, since the Temple and the land as a whole were under the control of corrupt leadership. So the exile motif still remains intact.

One of Carson's arguments against the exile motif that rang extremely bizarre was his discussion of the Judaizers in Galatians. If the majority of Jews saw themselves as being in exile, says Carson, then the Galatian Christians would never dream of returning to being Jews. Who in their right mind, he asks, would willingly go back into exile? But this assessment simply assumes too much. Was the problem really that the Galatian church was being tempted to return to Judaism? It seems far more likely that the Judaizers were convincing the Galatians to syncretize their Christian faith with Jewish Torah-keeping. In that case, the Judaizers could easily have believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought the end of the exile (per Wright) while incorrectly insisting on strict Torah observance. So Carson's whole line about the Galatians willingly returning to exile makes no sense.

(It was interesting to see that Carson admits to engaging in a fair amount of historical speculation on his own part. His view of Galatians, for example, has the "certain men from James" in chapter two as being unconverted Jews sent from Jerusalem to Antioch.)

One other annoyance: Carson again referenced the now-apocryphal story about Wright being questioned about what he would tell a person on their death-bed about how they might be saved. The story goes that Wright's answer was "I'll have to think about it." Interestingly enough, Wright specifically addressed this story at the Auburn Conference back in January. Not only did he deny that the alleged story ever took place, he also explained that he would have no pat response, because every situation is different. What kind of person are we talking about? A non-Christian? A baptized church goer? etc. Personally, this answer seems pretty sensible to me, but I'm sure some will see it as a cop-out. Carson even made a quip that, since the story has been making the rounds for awhile, Wright undoubtedly has whipped up a clever answer. (One interesting tidbit that came out, though: Carson himself admitted that this story comes second-hand from another colleague and not from his own experience.)

So, all in all, the lectures have proven somewhat frustrating. Carson does make the good point that the evidence shows a spectrum of diversity amidst Jews of the Second Temple Period. As such, there is always a danger of painting with too broad a brush. And Carson even admits that his critique of the NPP should not be perceived as advocating an uncritical return to the traditional "old perspective." Too many questions have been raised that cannot be properly answered under the old paradigm. Unfortunately, Carson's review often appears guilty of arguing against positions that are not actually held by the men he is discussing. Until these discussions can be framed in ways such that each side is actually addressing the other, it looks like the miscommunication will continue.

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