Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Problem of Christian Soteriology-Part 2

Robert - Blogging is such an ephemeral medium: if a thread is overtaken by more recent postings, any subject, no matter how engaging, tends to drop off into the aether, never to be seen, or commented upon, again.

I hope you'll be able to post your thoughts on Romans soon - Being of the old school, I've just spent the day reading and thinking about Fitzmeyer's critique of Paul's theology in the NJBC as well as an hitherto overlooked, 40+ year old paper by Krister Stendahl (included in Wayne Meek's The Writings of St. Paul, the "Norton Critical Edition") entitled "Paul and the Conscience of the West." Both seem critical to advancing this discussion.

Please resurrect this subject sometime soon?

The pivotal essay in modern Pauline studies is Krister Stendahl's "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." I've discussed this before (which simply means I'm probably going in circles), but Boreas' request prompted me to go back and re-read the essay last night. Sadly, the essay is not available on-line, and while that first link is to an essay analyzing Stendahl's analysis, it's as close as I can come to something resembling Stendahl's argument on the Web.

Which is still not "close enough." This is not a case where horseshoes or hand grenades will do, because Stendahl's argument is a subtle one, and worthy of careful consideration. I'll see what I can do to summarize it, without additional commentary, and then we can carry on the conversation on soteriology:

Stendahl opens noting that "In the history of Western Christianity--and hence, to a large exten, in the history of Western culture--the Apostle Paul has been hailed as a hero of the introspective conscience." He makes his first critical point by questioning "the often tacit assumption that man remains basically the same through the ages." "[B]oth the historian," Stendahl notes, "and the theologian, both the psychologist and the average reader of the Bible, are well advised to assess how this hypothesis of contemporaneity affects their thinking, and their interpretation of ancient writings."

This is, of course, now the basis of all New Testament scholarship (and even of Anne Rice's complaint about that scholarship).

Here is the key introductory paragraph, in part (I told you the whole essay was important!): is exactly at this point that Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experience of man, since Paul's statements about 'justification by faith' have been hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man ini his practice of introspection. Especially in Protestant Christianity--which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages--the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpeted in the light of Luther's struggle with his conscience. But it is exactly at that point that we can discern the most dramatic difference between Luther and Paul, between the 16th and the 1st century....

Let me try to bring this down to the issue of soteriology. Kaufmann plainly sides with those "interpreters [who] accuse Paul of misunderstanding or deliberately distorting the Jewish view of Law and Salvation." As Stendahl presents that interpretation:

It is pointed out that for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace. Hence Paul would have been wrong in ruling out the Law on the basis that Israel could not achieve the perfect obedience which the Law required.

Stendahl's interpetation of Paul turns on Phil. 3:6: "I was blameless as to righteousness-of the Law, that is," and he points out that Romans 2-3 "deals with something very different."

The actual transgressions in Israel--as a people, not in each and every individual--show that the Jews are not better than the Gentiles, in spite of circumcision and the proud possession of the Law. The "advantage" of the Jesus is that they have been entrusted with the Words of God and this advantage cannot be revoked by their disobedience (Rom. 3:1ff.), but for the rest they have no edge on salvation. The Law has not helped. They stand before God as guilty as the Gentiles, and even more so (2:9). All this is said in the light of the new avenue of salvation, which has been opened in Christ, an avenue which is equally open to Jews and Gentiles, since it is not based on the Law, in which every distinction between the two rests....The only metanoia (repentance/conversion) and the only grace which counts is the one now available in Messiah Jesus. Once this has been seen, it appears that Paul's references to the impossibility of fulfilling the Law is part of a theological and theoretical scriptural argument about the relation between Jews and Gentiles.

Stendahl makes one last critical point for our purposes. First, he points out that, until Augustine, Paul was relatively unimportant to the thinking of the church (he also draws a line from the Saint to Luther, a clear line since Luther was an Augustinian monk; I would extend the line, today, through Kierkegaard, the Lutheran pastor, and into modern theology through the melancholy Dane; but that's another story) . Paul was interpreted as grappling with the question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. But, after the 1st century, that was no longer a "live issue," and so Paul's importance receded. Until, that is, Augustine took up Paul. Augustine "universalized" the issues Paul wrote about (and this tendency flowered in the allegory and metaphor of medieval Europe) by universalizing his feelings (and not incidentally creating the "interior conscience" that has been the hallmark of Western civilization since; especially following the powerful impact of Wordsworth and Goethe). As Stendahl says, relating this (again) to soteriology:

The problem we are trying to isolate could be expressed in hermeneutical terms somewhat like this: The Reformers' intepretation of Paul rests on an analogism where Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety....Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic ommunity, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man's salvation out of a common human predicament.

And here we touch on the critical point: what is the nature of Christian salvation?

All quotes from: Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976).

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