05 March 2007

Watson: NPP

An excellent (and humorous!) 2001 article on the New Perspective from Francis Watson, professor of NT at Aberdeen, who argued for the NPP in the 1980s (in this book) but has changed his mind (in this book). He suggests a new 5 points of the NPP, using the acronym--you guessed it--TULIP. Humor aside, it is a brief but penetrating, to my mind, critique of the NPP. I am grateful for it.

Here's a fascinating excerpt (especially considering that the fundamentally sociological approach which Watson criticizes is the approach he himself took 20 years ago), which I think is right on. Italics are mine.

The law, it is said, functions primarily to assert and preserve the difference between the elect and the Gentiles, and that is why 'boundary markers' such as circumcision come to the fore as fundamental to Jewish identity. The terminology and conceptuality here are derived from the social sciences, and therefore bring with them the assumption that a social-scientific account of the phenomena in question will shed far more light on their reality than a traditional theological one.

Sometimes these social-scientific accounts of the phenomena of the New Testament appear to be simply misguided - as, for example, when we're offered massive over-generalizations about something called 'ancient Mediterranean culture', in its contrast to an alleged 'modern western individualism'. On other occasions, the problem is that the social-scientific terminology and conceptuality produces conclusions that are not so much wrong as superficial. Certain practices may indeed serve to differentiate an in-group from an out-group. We remain seated to pray, and this differentiates us from those others, who kneel to pray. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, whereas they fast on Mondays and Thursdays - to take an example from the Didache. Yet the functionalist explanation of these practices in terms of group boundaries leaves unanswered the question why the in-group should wish to differentiate itself from an out-group in the first place. Why is the in-group a group at all? The answer is that the so-called 'boundary markers' function internally within a far more complex network of practices and beliefs that constitute the group's particular ethos and are sanctioned by its core ideology. Identity is not to be understood only in negative terms, as though one could be something purely by not being something else. On the contrary, group identity must be constituted positively as well as negatively; it must have its own positive content, offering its members or would-be members a total framework or paradigm within which life is to be lived. Identity is necessarily clarified by differentiation from others, but differentiation in itself cannot constitute that identity. A functionalist account of certain practices as reinforcing group boundaries tends to abstract them from the group's internal economy, which cannot be adequately explained in terms of any functionalist reduction, but can ultimately only be described. But to describe the ideology, ethos and practice of a group, in terms of its positively and negatively constituted identity, one must give an account of its 'theology'.

Here’s another gem:

In interpreting the relevant Pauline texts, the new perspective repeatedly performs a characteristic exegetical manoeuvre in three steps. Here's how it works. Step one: we observe that a Pauline text appears to be contrasting the logic of the gospel with the logic of a Jewish or Jewish Christian understanding of the law. Paul speaks of grace over against law, faith over against works; he seems to set believing the gospel of divine saving action over against practising the law. Step two: we know, however, that the point of these Pauline antitheses cannot be to contrast the gospel's emphasis on divine agency with a Jewish emphasis on human agency. If we think we see this antithesis between divine and human agency in Paul, we're still held captive by the ideology of the Reformation, resulting as it must do in a hostile caricature of Judaism. But how do we know that an antithesis between divine and human agency cannot be present in Paul's texts? Because Sanders has taught us that Judaism was and is a religion of grace; and, on this matter, Sanders speaks not only the truth but also the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Step three: we must therefore read the Pauline antithesis differently, as an 'ecclesiological' statement about the nature of the people of God. For Paul, 'faith' represents an inclusive understanding of the people of God as including non-law-observant Gentiles; 'works' represents an exclusive understanding of the people of God according to which full conversion to the practice of Judaism is a necessary precondition of salvation. What Paul is propounding is, in effect, an inclusive, universal, liberal form of Jewish covenant theology. To summarize the three steps, then. Step one: observation of an apparent antithesis in Paul's texts between divine grace and human law-observance. Step two: rejection of the view that this amounts to an antithesis between divine and human agency, with an appeal to the authority of Sanders. Step three: reinterpretation of the antithesis as arising from debate about the scope of the covenant people. With a little practice, this three-step routine becomes almost second nature. It's simple enough to be taught even to first year undergraduates. Yet we need to unlearn this routine, and stop teaching it to others. It rests on an inadequate reading both of the non-Christian Jewish literature and of Paul.

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