Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blamelessness? -- Part I

In response to my friend Garrett, who asked me to share some of my research into what Paul meant by the word "blameless" in Philippians 3.6, I'll start a series of posts in which I will explore some of the things that have been haunting my waking and sleeping hours lately (and those of my wife too!).

To begin I should better frame the question that I have been exploring. I'll talk about how I became interested in this subject, the work of some scholars in relation to this issue, and then, finally, I will pose the question as I see it.

Upon coming to Fuller I basically had two research interests: ethics and eschatology in Philippians and Paul's view of the Law. My mentor, Donald Hagner, advised me against the former because it could have proven to be too large for a dissertation and, instead, urged me toward the latter. I couldn't have been happier because my reading for the previous two years had been almost solely devoted to Paul and the Law. As is well known, there is a major divide in the study of Paul and the Law -- there are the traditional interpreters (TPP) and those who have been labeled "The New Perspective on Paul" (NPP).

The TPP basically posits that Paul stood against a legalistic form of Judaism, which had even infiltrated the Church through Jewish-Christian missionaries. Thus, Paul countered this works-based salvation of his opponents with insisting that salvation came through faith in Christ alone.

Many scholars (most famously E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright; though many of their predecessors anticipated their work) found this interpretation unsatisfactory. Their primary complaint was that the TPP was not reading Paul correctly because they did not have a proper, fair, and complete understanding of first-century Judaism. If we only mirror-read Paul's letters to gain an understanding of what he was countering, then we could, conceivably, conjure up a picture of a legalistic Judaism. However, according to the NPP, first-century Judaism was not legalistic, it was nomistic (Law-centered). The Law, however, only found meaning in the context of the covenant, which was graciously bestowed upon Israel by God. The phrase that Sanders coined for this idea was "covenantal nomism."

Thus, Paul was not opposing a legalistic Judaism, he was, according to the NPP, opposing Jewish-Christian missionaries who were imposing their ethnic badges (circumcision, Sabbath, food laws) on Gentile coverts. Paul's problem was that salvation was not ethnically-based, it was based, instead, on faith in/of Christ.

So we get two very different pictures of Paul's view of the Law between the TPP and the NPP. The same is true when we talk about Paul's pre-Christian self-evaluation. The TPP argues that Paul was plagued by his conscience because of sin in his life and found a salve for this frustration on the Damascus road. As a proof-text the TPP scholars point to Romans 7 where it appears that Paul himself reveals his pre-Christian views on his personal sin, namely covetousness. (It should be duly noted that many TPP scholars either no longer hold to this view exactly or have nuanced it in response to the NPP.)

The NPP, lead by Krister Stendahl (see especially his article entitled "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West"), could not see how this reading of Romans 7 matched up with a fair reading of Philippians 3, in which Paul states that he was blameless under the Law. Thus, to compensate for this problem, much of the NPP has espoused a view that Romans 7 must not refer to Paul himself; perhaps he was utilizing a "paradigmatic I" or the section should be taken as hypothetical or something of that sort. Either way, the NPP has allowed Philippians 3 to control the reading of Romans 7. It is also important to note here that Stendahl saw in much of biblical scholarship the influence of Martin Luther, who was clearly self-dissatisfied before his "tower experience." Consequently, it has become ever-so popular for the NPP to accuse the TPP of reading Paul through Luther's glasses.

So this leads, finally, to the question at hand. What did Paul mean when he said that "according to righteousness under the Law," he was "blameless"? To put it slightly differently, has the NPP utilized and understood Philippians 3 correctly or is the TPP's view correct? Also, what impact does understanding "blameless" in Philippians 3.6 have on one's interpretation of Romans 7? Lastly, at the end of the study, has the NPP been fair in accusing the TPP of offering Lutheran readings?

Since I'm a NT student trained in the historical-critical method, I will proceed in Part II of this series by examining the immediate context of Philippians 3.6 and in Part III I'll muse on what sort of ideas about blamelessness may have been in play during Paul's time.

Blamelessness? -- Part II

Blamelessness? -- Part III A

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