22 May 2008

Was Judaism Legalistic?

Was ancient Judaism legalistic--degenerate, overly-scrupulous, self-centered, prideful? Yes. Not because it was Jewish. Because it was human.

The way to address what has rightly been seen as quite ugly anti-Semitism in twentieth century Paul studies is not to exculpate Judaism but to thrown in all the other religions, indeed the rest of humanity, with it. Indictment of pride and self-focus in everyone, not exoneration of Judaism, is the way forward in understanding Paul and the New Testament. Don't make Judaism better. Make everyone else worse.

Ancient Judaism is simply a picture of what happens when the utter clarity of divine demand interlocks with human fallenness--fallenness both in its failure to keep the law and its self-reliant success in keeping it (yes I think Bultmann took this too far). Jews are not legalists because they're Jews. Jews are legalists because they're human.

And such legalism is alive and well in Christianity, not least in my own denomination, the PCA (a group which I love dearly and for which I bless God). If I'm honest, I can bring it even closer to home. The worst legalist I've ever known or read of or heard about is the one who stares back at me in the mirror every morning. Which makes grace that much more beautiful.

Anyhow, I'm reading Dunn's Theology of Paul and had to get that off my chest.


Eric said...

Thanks so much for this, Dane. Do you like Dunn? He's on my list on good NT scholars to read. (I.e., is your post in reaction against him, or in support of him?)

Not to get into the whole New Perspective debate again, but it occurred to me some weeks ago that, outside of the NT, I can't think of a single text which explicitly states that God grants his own divine righteousness to sinners - no matter how they might talk about God being merciful and forgiving, I've never read that anywhere else. To my mind, that's significant!

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Eric. Yes, I enjoy Dunn and learn so much from him. Yet my post was in reaction to him.

I find Dunn very good, even fascinating at points, and his grasp of both the primary and secondary sources makes him so helpful. But his consistent horizontalizing of Paul's message of justification and works of the law and zeal is very frustrating to me. It prevents him from penetrating down to the radical core of what Paul is saying in Rom and Gal, both the depth of human rebellion and the astonishing depth of grace, and soteriologically castrates his exegesis of (e.g.) Rom 4:4-5 and 9:30-10:4 and Phil 3:9. I personally find Schreiner much more satisfying on these kinds of texts.

On a side note, we have to be careful about Dunn because he has shifted quite a bit over the past 20 years. His 2005 New Perspective on Paul, the first and last chapters of which are original, is far more 'reformed' or 'traditional' than his earlier work of the late 80s and early 90s.

Interesting point about imputation. I bet you're right about the significance of the stark contrast of this NT teaching with other contemporary sources.