Friday, December 11, 2009

David Kelsey on the New Perspective on Paul

A friend recently emailed me the following quotation from David Kelsey's new book, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. It's illuminating, I think, to listen to a theologian attempt to summarize the insights of the last few decades of work on Paul.

When Paul inveighed against justification by works of the law, the law he had in mind was Torah, God's revealed positive law that specifies what God wills that human creatures ought to do. It might well be interpreted as including a positive duty to forgive others. In seventeenth-century Protestant-Roman Catholic theological polemics, Protestant theologians held that Paul’s critique of the project of ‘justification by works of the law’ included works evaluated by ‘law’ more broadly understood as moral law, whether revealed in Scripture or rationally discerned in the structure of created reality as natural law. Such law might well include a duty to forgive others. It has not been uncommon in modern Protestant theology for Paul’s critique to be broadened to cover the project of justifying one’s life by ‘works of the law’ where ‘law’ is understood to cover any social convention that serves as a criterion for excellence in behavior…

These successive broadenings of what Paul meant by ‘law’ move entirely outside the theological context in which he framed his critiques Paul’s concern was highly particularist and Christocentric. He was concerned to reconcile the unbrokenness of God’s covenant with Israel, and the continued validity of Torah as the expression of God’s will regarding life in the covenant, with the Gospel claim that in Jesus Christ God enacted reconciliation with estranged human creatures, including Gentiles outside the covenant and not subject to all the demands of Torah. Successive broadenings of understanding of ‘law’ in ‘justification by works of the law’ do not develop Paul’s theological point. They simply change the subject.”

(I'm sorry I don't have the page number. I asked my friend for the full reference, but he said he was busy updating his Facebook profile or something. Ah, the life of a PhD student in theology...)

I do have one question (similar to something pondered here): what's the difference between developing Paul's point and simply changing the subject? I don't dispute that there is a difference, but I'd be interested to hear how new perspective folks answer this.


  1. I think that there is a difference (at least in this case) between "developing Paul's point" and "changing the subject." The position Kelsey is reacting against is that Paul's discussion of "law" can be broadened out to (basically) any "law."

    According to the position which Kelsey is reacting against, the relevant aspect of "law" which Paul is discussing is its function as a means of regulating human behaviour (thus enabling praise and blame to be assigned etc). But according to Kelsey, this is not the relevant aspect of "law" that Paul is concerned with, which instead is that the (Jewish) "law" was given by God. Therefore, when Paul refers to "law," the feature he has in mind (according to Kelsey, following the New Perspective) is very different from the "conventional" reading of justification by faith.

    If, then, we take Paul's discussion of "law" to refer to the former (behaviour-regulation) then we are "changing the subject," not "developing his point" (which was originally to do with covenant faithfulness etc.).

    A way that we might "develop Paul's point," then, would be to discuss in more detail God's covenant faithfulness through the Old and New Testaments (and beyond).

  2. Hello!
    You wrote: ” He was concerned to reconcile the unbrokennessof God’s covenant with Israel, and the continued validity of Torah as the expression of God’s will regarding life in the covenant, with the Gospel claim that in Jesus Christ God enacted reconciliation with estranged human creatures, including Gentiles ”

    (le-havdil) I want to comment about foregiveness, which has implications for eternal life.
    How to live in order to enable the Creator in His loving kindness to provide His foregivness is outlined in the Jewish Bible ; and was also taught by the first century Ribi Yehoshua from Nazareth (the Mashiakh; the Messiah).

    The Jewish Bible – for example Yekhëzqeil (Hezekiel) 18 – promises foregivness to those who do their sincerest to keep Torah. The Creator cannot lie and He does not change (Malakhi 3:6)! According to Tehilim (“Psalms”) 103 the Creator gives his foregivness to those who do their sincerest to keep His berit (“covenant”; the pre-conditions to be included in the berit is according to the Jewish Bible to do ones sincerest to keep Torah).

    You will find Ribi Yehoshuas teachings here: Netzarim
    Anders Branderud

  3. I think you're right, Maxim, but it seems to me that if a NP paradigm is to displace older (Lutheran or whatever) paradigms as the starting point for theology then it needs to say more about the "and beyond". Douglas Campbell's work is an attempt at just this, I think.

    I guess I'm interested in a attempt at a formal description of the difference between development and changing the subject. I suspect that the difference isn't as clear cut as NP folks (like me) would like to believe.

  4. 884-5 for the citation.

    As far as the formal description goes, Kelsey's language seems to be another instance of the either/oring of Paul. Id est, 'development' and 'changing the subject' are different words for exegesis and eisegesis with the moral weight (as usual) lying heavily on the former.

  5. I don't think it's right, Wilson, to suggest that the distinction between "development" and "changing the subject" maps on to the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis. Kelsey himself goes on to broaden the meaning of the law on different but equally weighted grounds than the Pauline text. Part of Nathan's point in posting this passage is that we don't have to stretch Paul to meet all subsequent theological needs, as if the sufficiency of scripture somehow meant that there has to be some direct and unproblematic connection between something that scripture says and something we need it to talk about for the concerns of the present day. What both NT Wright and John Piper (as broad but perhaps somewhat poor representatives of two trajectories in reading Paul) have in common is an inability to admit that Paul's gospel might not speak directly to what they or we need it to speak to for our present concerns, and that there is no way of getting him to do so. We must let his voice resonate in its context, and allow it to speak to the present only as what it was. Sometimes we move past Paul's questions and the theological needs of his churches and we encounter new needs and questions that his letters don't answer in any straightforward way. Changing the subject isn't something we need to do. History has already done it, and it is mistaken to pretend that is not so.

    BTW, Nathan, I believe your friend told me that he is studying for his exams coming up at the end of next month, not updating his facebook profile, and that the only reason that there was any rush to get the page numbers is because TJ refuses to update this blog like he said he would. As we say in German, sehr typisch.