O Happy Day!
Yesterday, a number of books from Amazon.com arrived in the post for me, including the long-awaited and much drooled over Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by Chris VanLandingham which was published this month. So far it is living up to my expectations - an amazing feat given I was expecting it to be a book to end all books. Though this is not a good time of year for uninterrupted reading. Thus far, my one-sentence summary of it is this: Move over E.P. Sanders, VanLandingham is in the house.
VanLandingham powerfully and competently lays waste to (part of) Sanders' thesis which I described here. Specifically he attacks what I labeled part 1 of Sanders view - that in Judaism, election is by grace. As I pointed out in my post on Sanders, I did not agree with Sanders on this and his view is contradicted by the evidence. VanLandingham points this out competently in lengthy detail.
According to Judaism, God chose Abram because of Abram's virtue and merit. The covenant is only established after Abram has done something especially deserving. This is in perfect agreement with other biblical covenants eg with Noah, Phineas, David etc where the individual's especially high level of righteousness leads to God rewarding them and making promises to them.
Furthermore, Israel, the descendents of the patriarchs are largely expected to stand or fall on their own merits. If they obey God and keep the covenant, they are blessed, and if they don't they are destroyed. The one caveat is that God is generally expected to keep a small remnant of Israel for the sake of his promises to Abraham.
Also, I felt important, though it was noted in passing only, was that the Hebrew words for grace do not occur in conjunction with election in Jewish literature.
A minor quibble I have with his treatment of the subject is that he freely admits that for the average Israelite, they are born into the covenant by the fact that they are born an Israelite, and in that sense have done nothing to deserve the covenant. Thus, in a sense, they have got what they have got through "free grace" (or without deserving it anyway). The quibble I have is that VanLandingham brushes this observation under the carpet somewhat. Perhaps he does this because he himself does not seem convinced that there is much value to the covenant from the average Israelite's point of view? He points out that on occasion, Israelites are held to a higher standard than the gentiles by God because of the covenant and so are punished first for their sins. So whatever benefits these Israelites have inherited through birth, there are corresponding difficulties inherited through birth. Furthermore, since Israel's status before God is re-evaluated continually based on their obedience, the "free grace" of being born into the covenant is quickly replaced by a judgment of their deeds. Anyway, it would have been nice to see a paragraph or two discussing this (maybe there is and I just haven't read that far yet?) - in what sense can the idea that a person is born an Israelite and into the covenant be accurately labeled "grace"?
I was surprised when VanLandingham took issue with Yinger, whose work on judgment according to deeds I would regard as just about the last word on the subject. However, VanLandingham takes issue with Yinger's secondary passing references to Covenantal Nomism, and not at all with Yinger's primary thesis regarding the predominance of judgment according to deeds in Judaism and early Christianity - which VanLandingham references approvingly. (Although VanLandingham criticizes Yinger for not dealing with ALL the references to judgment according to deeds, which I felt was unfair - Yinger's book is book-sized when he limits himself to only dealing with some of the references, does VanLandingham expect a 12 volume set or something??)
I was pleased to see VanLandingham note in passing that people misuse the "sinner" terminology by implying that sinning once makes you a sinner. He points out that in pre-Christian Judaism a "sinner" is not someone who sins once but rather someone who consistently lives a life of sin in opposition to God, and that this is in contrast to the "righteous" who are those whose lives are consistently lived in obedience to God (and who, obviously being human, aren't always perfect, but the occasional sin does not a sinner make). I have said this in the past myself, at length.