Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reflections on Campbell's Grand Strategy

I have recently been reading The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy by DA Campbell and finding it rather thought provoking.

A useful image perhaps to understand what he's getting at is the vase/faces image. The image stays the same, but depending on how you look at it, you can see something different. On one way of looking at it, part of the image is a nose, and on another way of looking at it that same part of the image is an indent in the vase.

Campbell suggests that there are fundamentally three basic models for interpreting Paul. In other words, three basic and fundamentally different ways of seeing an image in the picture that Paul draws. Paul himself would have only meant to draw one of the images, he did not mean to draw the other two. One of those three ways of seeing an image in Paul's picture is right and the other two is wrong. But which is which?

The interesting thing is that due to historical chance, over the last five-hundred years one of these three ways of seeing the image has reigned supreme. This was not because the three different views were compared and one was judged superior. It is not that two views were tried and found wanting, but rather that due to chance they were never tried or even thought of.

The vast majority of modern biblical scholarship has, rightly or wrongly, been directed toward only one of the three possible models of understanding Paul's gospel. People have, rightly or wrongly, been taught how to view Paul's picture and told what they should be seeing in it.

Now, I have no problem with the models being carefully analysed and compared and then some models being judged faulty. Two of the models must indeed be wrong. But which two? There is a one in three chance that historical accident has indeed caused us to seize upon the correct way of understanding Paul's picture. A few basic assumptions were made which happened, by lucky chance, to be the right ones to make, and as a result the rest of the picture was filled in in fairly obvious ways. For example, if I tell you that the picture above is of a vase, then the precise shape of the vase is immediately obvious when you look at the picture. If you imagine, however that the picture was in colour and a bit more blurry, then once we had agreed the picture was of a vase, we could have small arguments over which particular lines represented the edges of the vase. This is basically what most modern biblical scholarship has been doing in the past 400 years - the basic shape of the picture is taken for granted and the arguments rage over the precise details.

But what if the basic shape wasn't right at all. What if it was supposed to be a picture of two faces, and not a vase? After all, if there are three possible pictures, then there's a two-thirds chance that the one we happen to have spotted and have run with is not actually the right one. The statements of faith and doctrine written since the Reformation times have canonised this particular way of viewing Paul's picture. This is not a Catholic-Protestant divide either, for the Catholics have bought into the same view as the Protestants but simply argued over the details (indeed the Catholics bought into the view before the Reformation, which is why the Reformers in turn used that basic view). But what we have done is written creeds and created ardent defenders of this one particular way of viewing Paul's gospel. These people, in the name of "defending the gospel" will attempt to wage war on any other way of viewing Paul's picture because it would be a fundamental challenge to their beliefs.

So, our ability today to perform any sort of fair comparison between the three views of Paul's picture is fundamentally flawed. Sure, we might today have the academic skill to analyse and assess the comparative merits of the three views far more than anyone else in Christian history ever did. But we do not have the inclination. The status quo reigns supreme, and its defenders would prefer to die rather than see their gospel corrupted.

In an ideal world, the three views would run in parallel. That is, there would be three accepted and recognised ways of viewing Paul. Any time a scholar did an analysis of a passage, they could say "I am using view 1 as a backdrop for my analysis" or alternatively could say "I am comparing the merits of the three views in understanding this passage". Let us switch analogies to where each view is a house. It would be nice to have three houses standing side by side down a street, and which I could walk up to and view and wander around in, and decide for myself which one I think is best. But that is not the situation currently. One of the houses stands completely built, and we've argued over the colour of the carpets and curtains for half a millennia. Two of the houses are only at the stage of architects' drawings - if even that. How are we supposed to tell which house is best, or which we'd prefer to live in?

I have seen this cause huge problems for scholars. Scholars often do studies into a small part of Paul's picture and concludes "this is the best view of this small bit of the picture". They have, as it were, constructed a single bedroom to go on the house. The only problem is it doesn't always fit on the house that is currently built - it might fit on one of the other two houses. At this point they get very confused - why does their bedroom not fit where it is supposed to? Usually, they end up doing one of two things - either frantically attempting to redesign the nearby rooms to make their new room fit properly, or abandoning their new room design in the belief that it doesn't fit with the rest of the house and that the rest of the house is right.

More often, scholars systematically bias their studies from the beginning by looking at the house and carefully measuring the amount of space that the new room will have to fit in, and take particular care in designing the new room starting with the bits that join with the rest of the house in order to make sure the edges match. This is the approach which fits with the "working from what we know to be true already, what else can we deduce?" way of doing things. It gets used a lot, probably because it gives very well-fitting answers!

So what is the way forward? Paradigms are notoriously difficult creatures. The difficulties of getting a person used to thinking in one paradigm to move to another are fairly renowned. The intellectual processing required to think in two paradigms simultaneously is phenomenal - and here we are requiring three simultaneous paradigms be maintained! But there seems no inherent reasons why it couldn't be done. Other disciples run different models in parallel. Physics for example has the ongoing problem of running Relativity and Quantum Mechanics side by side. But what is fundamentally needed is simply more research to be done on the two under-analysed models. It would be nice if at least the basic structure of the other two houses was created for us. It would be nice if we didn't have to stare at architects' plans and try to imagine how those lines would translate into real terms.

Campbell and I have both sneaked a peak at the architects' plans for those other two houses, and we both liked the same one. It looks like it could be good, very good - a mansion of radiant shining glory compared to the average looking house that stands already built. Others who skimmed the plans were unconvinced, and others thought the third house might look nicer. So it might turn to custard when we build it, or it might be a magnificent masterpiece... who knows? But surely nothing is to be lost by building the other two houses and seeing? Then, at least, we could make an informed decision, and not one based on ignorance and historical chance. After all, nothing less than the truth of the gospel and the meaning and purpose of Christianity is at stake, so it would be nice to make sure we got it right.

Friday, December 15, 2006

O Happy Day!

Yesterday, a number of books from 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.