Saturday, August 28, 2010

Divine and Human Agency in Paul

Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment. Edited by John M. G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole. Library of New Testament Studies 335. London: T & T Clark International, 2008, x + 208 pp., $44.95; 2006, x + 208 pp., $130.00.

Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment is a compilation from a colloquium held at the University of Aberdeen in 2004. The book offers a fresh examination of Paul’s understanding of agency through a comparative approach of select Judean and Greco-Roman literary sources from around 200 BC-AD 200. It provides a contrapuntal reading of Paul within his cultural context that is both creative and informative. The need for this book, according to Barclay in the introduction, is based on the reemergence of the importance of agency by scholars working within the ‘new perspective’ and the postmodern turn which challenges scholars to re-conceptualize their assumptions concerning ancient and contemporary topics of study. It offers three models from which the various authors work in conceptualizing divine and human agency: competitive in which both agencies are mutually exclusive; kinship in which both are shared but transcendence is limited; and “non-contrastive transcendence” in which God’s sovereignty “grounds and enables human freedom” (p. 7).

The first three readings focus on early Judaism and Paul’s understanding of agency is peripheral. G. Boccaccini’s “Inner-Jewish Debate” surveys the emphases of those within early Judaism: Zadokite emphasizing covenant, Enochic elevating the role of non-human agents, and Sapiential seeing no clear link between divine and human agency. The next generation of Judaism continues the diversity of understanding of divine and human agency: the Sadducees seeking to restore balance, the Pharisees allowing for coexistence between the two agents, and the Qumran sectarians holding to a strong deterministic viewpoint. Early Christianity seeks to balance agency through the inclusion of the devil and Jesus, who is understood as divine wisdom, while Rabbinic Judaism reserves that place for Torah. Boccaccini’s survey clearly demonstrates the diversity of approaches to maintaining the balance between divine and human agency within the family of Judaism. P. Alexander’s “Predestination and Free Will” provides a cogent survey of agency within the Dead Sea Scrolls by providing an exposition of “The Sermon of the Two Spirits” with its dualistic and deterministic outlook, and convincingly argues for its centrality in the life of those living in Qumran. F. Avemarie’s “Tension between God’s Command and Israel’s Obedience” wrestles with God’s expectation of obedience from Israel and the various ways in which Rabbinic discussions understood the agency of the Torah in communal motivation. These discussions include humanity being modeled after the Torah, free will being necessary to allow for the possibility of punishment, and an evil inclination as the explanation for the struggle against God’s commands. He also concludes that there was significant diversity concerning the role of human cooperation in obeying God’s commands.

The next three readings discuss the cultural environment of Paul from both a Judean and Greco-Roman perspective and begin to narrow the focus of the book by considering their impact on Paul’s writing. S. Westerholm’s “Paul’s Anthropological ‘Pessimism’ in its Jewish Context” assesses Jewish writings concerning the capacity of humankind to obey the commands of God. Overall, the texts surveyed hold out the distinct possibility that humans can obey the commands of God – quite unlike Paul’s pessimistic view of humanity. F. Watson’s “Constructing an Antithesis” provides a stimulating reading of 4QMMT, 4 Maccabees, and Paul in which the diversity of viewpoints concerning divine and human agency are attributed to the diversity within the hermeneutic approaches of each author. So, the Pauline antithesis between grace and works did not develop in an analogous way with that of 4QMMT and 4 Maccabees, but was in fact a construct of Paul. Watson argues that one cannot know the extent to which Paul’s antithesis corroborates with or differs from other viewpoints held within Second Temple Judaism in that Paul’s construct is more clearly defining his gospel rather than summarizing views of others contemporary to Paul. T. Engberg-Pedersen’s “Self-sufficiency and Power” dialogic reading of Epictetus and Paul provides a study of the similarities and differences between Stoic and Pauline thought. He problematizes the distinction between divine and human agency and suggests that the interaction of humankind with the divine is a close approximation to current discussions of divine and human agency. He concludes, however, that in both Epictetus and Paul agency is intertwined and is not to be understood in a binary relationship.

The final three readings provide the most direct interaction with Paul’s writings and his understanding of divine and human agency. J. Barclay’s “By the Grace of God I am what I am” provides a comparative reading of Philo and Paul concerning divine grace and human agency. Both authors emphasize the priority of grace, but there are some differences concerning its place in their theological framework. Philo associates it with creation while Paul connects it with the Christ-event, and for Philo a “resting sage” (p. 157) is the ideal person while for Paul the ideal person is an obedient person. S. Gathercole’s “Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7” suggests Paul is arguing that God uses the history of sin for his divine revelatory purposes. That is, the history of sin is the way in which God makes himself and his righteousness known. L. Martyn’s “Epilogue: An Essay in Pauline Meta-ethics” provides a brief sketch of the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, and psychological components necessary for a complete meta-ethical theory, which he intends to develop further in an upcoming book. He summarizes and responds to key aspects of the preceding essays and offers brief remarks concerning an apocalyptic framework from which to understand Paul’s ethics. He argues for a corporate understanding of Paul’s ethics and that the new Spirit-led community is the new agent by which divine and human agents work together to overcome the “supra-human powers” (p. 178) warring against God.

This book’s strength rests in the mature reflection of seasoned scholars who provide even-handed conclusions while avoiding unnecessary speculation. The broad coverage of texts make this work a valuable addition to researchers working within Pauline studies, as well as theological studies within the fields of soteriology and theological anthropology. There are, however, a few weaknesses that need to be mentioned. Westerholm’s analysis has a distinctly pre-‘new perspective’ orientation to it, while Watson’s essay actually weakens the impact of other contributions within the book by pointing out the deficiencies of the comparative method because of the diversity of hermeneutic approaches employed by the various ancient authors, a perennial problem likewise noted by Barclay (p. 140). Gathercole’s contribution too quickly assumes the presence of a Jewish interlocutor in Romans 1-2, a viewpoint that has been called into question by both William S. Campbell and Robert Jewett. Also, it is not clear if this book was designed as a ‘call’ to return to a pre-Sanders understanding of Paul or as a contribution to the research to move beyond the ‘new perspective’ readings of Paul. That said, researchers from both sides of that debate will find material within this book both to embrace and critique. Pauline studies are enriched by this compilation of essays on divine and human agency.

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