As one surveys the landscape of biblical and theological writing in the last half-century, it is hard to think of a plot of ground whose appearance has changed more than Pauline studies. In the late 1970s, a little movement began that has become known as the "New Perspective" on Paul (henceforth, NP). The NP has given rise to a whole slew of scholarly publications proffering new insights on Paul, as well as an equal number of works qualifying or combatting the NP. In all, literally hundreds (if not thousands) of books, articles, and essays have been published in the last forty years or so, and the ground is still shifting, so to speak.
So what's a preacher to do when Sunday rolls around and the text is from Paul? This was my lot a few weeks back. Here I offer a few thoughts on how to preach Paul in a world where scholars are still arguing about, well, almost everything about the apostle's theology.
First, a little background.
It all started in 1977 when E. P. Sanders published a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders probably didn't realize it at the time, but his study created a seismic rumble in the scholarly world whose reverberations are still being felt today. In Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders didn't so much argue for a different view of Paul, but a different view of first-century Judaism. In particular, Sanders noticed that the dominant trend in Christian NT scholarship (let's call it the "Old Perspective" [OP]) was to view Judaism as a legalistic, works righteousness religion to which Paul provided the antidote. However, as Sanders pored over the Jewish sources themselves, the legalistic Judaism thesis just didn't seem to square with the data. So, Sanders proposed a new paradigm called "covenantal nomism"—the idea that Judaism was essentially a religion of grace based on a covenant relationship with God and that "works" were done as a result of that relationship, not in order to earn it.
Sanders' ideas were picked up and developed by others, most notably N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, and resulted in the NP. As NP interpreters are keen to point out, there actually is no such thing as the New Perspective on Paul. In fact, Sanders, Wright, and Dunn themselves disagree on numerous key points (as they have noted in numerous places). Nonetheless, the NP has become an umbrella term to designate a range of perspectives that share certain characteristics. In my view, the following elements at least are central to the NP:
Now for the preaching bit: This year, my church is reading through the entire New Testament together to the tune of six chapters a week. Each Sunday, we preach on the texts from that past week. I don't know why, but when the preaching team was divvying up the preaching dates, I picked the Galatians week. (Those of you who know Paul well will recall that all three of the NP elements noted above come to a head in this epistle.)
In contemplating what tack to take, I felt that it would be best to pick a passage that really lay at the heart of the epistle. For me, the obvious candidate was Gal 2:11–21, which, in terms of current scholarly discourse, was a leap from the frying pan into the fire. In the brave new post-NP world, the meaning of virtually every key theological phrase in this passage is contested: "sinners," "justified," "works of the law," "faith in Jesus Christ," etc.
Here was my thought process going in:
You can listen to what I did, but here is a brief summary:
In these last two points, I tried to give a nod to what I think are the best insights of both the OP and the NP in Gal 2:11–21. The OP reminds us that we have no hope for justification apart from faith in Christ—neither the works of the Mosaic law nor our own self-justifying strivings will suffice. At the same time, the NP highlights an important ecclesial/sociological dimension of the passage: Those who are justified by faith in Christ are simultaneously unified in Christ—Jew and Gentile, bricklayer and banker, secretary and student. In Christ all the justified are made one.
I am an expert on neither Galatians nor preaching. However, as I reflect on my little sermon in the context of all the ink that has been spilled over NP/OP issues over the last 40 years, I can't help but wonder if we could have saved some trees and time by preaching key texts like Gal 2:11–21 a few more times before firing off another book or article. Many of the stark dichotomies between OP and NP seem to dissolve or become irrelevant when one stands before a congregation waiting to hear from God:
Justification as soteriological or ecclesiological? Both.
Legalism or ethnocentrism? Neither.
Faith in Jesus or the faithfulness of Jesus? Yes, both/and, hallelujah and amen!
Of course, none of this is to undermine the need for serious theological discourse beyond the pulpit. The Church will always need pastors and it will always need theologians. However, perhaps the Church's theologians will serve her best when they have refined their ideas in the fire of preaching.
What do you think? How have you dealt with New and Old Perspectives on Paul in your preaching?