Friday, August 27, 2010

Does Paul Part Ways with his Jewish Heritage?

What Must I Do To Be Saved? Paul Parts Company With His Jewish Heritage. By Barry D. Smith. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007, xiii + 285 pp., $90.00 hardcover

Chapter one provides a wide survey of Second Temple literature that points out that obedience to the Law rightly interpreted leads to eschatological salvation. Barry D. Smith, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Crandell University, in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, sees a rather consistent teaching within these texts of God as a righteous judge who will hold people accountable for their obedience or their disobedience to his Law. However, God is not only a righteous judge; Smith also detects in these texts a consistent pattern that argues that God is also to be understood as merciful. Thus, God is described as the one “who removes guilt resulting from transgression of the Law on the simple condition of repentance” (p. 34). This forms the basis of the synergistic soteriology that Smith observes in these otherwise disparate texts from the various forms of early Judaism. Central to Smith’s argument is the rejection of ‘the new perspective on Paul’. Moreover, he contends that “Second-Temple Judaism was characterized in part by a legalistic works-righteousness” and that this historical-religious context is a prerequisite for a coherent reading of Paul’s soteriological reflections (p. 71, emphasis original).

In chapter two, Smith is convinced that Paul’s approach to soteriology was non-synergistic and thus discontinuous with other expressions of early Judaism which held that eschatological salvation could be achieved by obedience to the Law. This is the point at which Smith is in direct conflict with the scholarly conclusions of those within ‘the new perspective on Paul’. These scholars hold that such an understanding of eschatological salvation was not part of the various expressions of Judaism during the Second Temple period. Smith, on the other hand, argues that Paul rejects what ‘new perspective’ scholars argue did not exist – a legalistic works-righteousness approach to eschatological salvation. Paul’s understanding of synergistic soteriology, which Smith argues, was inherited from his Pharisaic background (Phil 3:6) was transformed into a non-synergistic soteriology in which no one can be declared righteous through obedience to the Law. Jew and gentile both can only be declared righteous by faith. Thus, humanity cannot boast before God in that their salvation is fully contingent on God’s grace through faith. Smith argues that Paul’s scriptural grounding for this understanding is sourced in his reading of Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous by faith shall live” (p. 160).

If this summary sounds rather conventional, this is intentional on Smith’s part because he states in the introduction that the purpose for this book is to offer “a restatement of the traditional formulation of Pauline soteriology in light of recent criticisms of it” (p. 1). Throughout chapter two Smith maintains the general contours of the accepted Augustinian-Lutheran understanding of Pauline soteriology. For Smith, Paul’s non-synergistic approach resolves the tension inherent in the existing synergistic soteriological formulations within early Judaism with regard to God’s judgment and mercy by completely relying on God’s mercy. Thus, there is no room for any human works-based contribution with regard to eschatological salvation (p. 75). For Smith, Paul has forsaken his Jewish identity and its accepted paradigm for salvation – a synergistic soteriological scheme in which humanity cooperates with God with regard to eschatological salvation. For Smith, this also includes a “repudiating of the idea that the Law was ever truly intended as a means of life (Lev. 18.5)” (p. 76). Thus, for Paul, who has now rejected his Jewish heritage according to Smith, faith and not obedience to the Law, is the only way to be declared righteous.

Chapter three addresses the issue of coherence with regard to Pauline soteriology in that several passages in his letters appear to indicate that Paul was synergistic with regard to the possibility of being disqualified based on patterns of disobedience (e.g. 1 Cor 6:9-11; 9:24-27; Phil 3:12-14; Rom 2:5-11). Smith, however, argues that these passages do not contradict the Pauline non-synergistic soteriological framework. Rather, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the lack of free will for Christ-followers guard against any possibility of practical unrighteousness and disobedience (pp. 201, 206). Thus, Smith argues that the same mercy of God that provides eschatological salvation also produces good works in the life of a believer.

A number of strengths emerge from this monograph. First, Smith provides a generous sampling of Second Temple texts that are directly relevant to the broader discussion of soteriological approaches in early Judaism. Second, he bifurcates the positive arguments that occur in the main text with extensive defensive arguments that occur in the footnotes. This allows the reader to follow Smith’s argument without too many digressions in the main text of the study. Third, Smith achieves his stated goal of providing a restatement of the traditional Augustinian-Lutheran understanding of Paul while addressing many of the critiques evident in the writings of, for example, E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright. This rather adventurous monograph is a welcome addition within the field of Pauline studies.

Smith’s work, however, is weakened by two issues: his approach to the continuing significance of Paul’s Jewish identity and his use of parallel literature. The critique that follows should be read in the context of an appreciation for the general soteriological framework from which Smith argues. Moreover, it is informed by a group of scholars broadly referred to as ‘beyond the new perspective on Paul’ (e.g. Robert Jewett, William S. Campbell, Kathy Ehrensperger, Neil Elliott, and Mark Nanos).

First, it is not clear how discontinuous Paul is with his Jewish heritage. Beyond the soteriological framework, Smith does not provide adequate documentation or argumentation that would substantiate such a strong assertion. It may be that Smith’s desire to critique the ‘new perspective on Paul’ has led him to assert more than the evidence allows. For example, in 1 Cor 7:17-24 Paul instructs the Corinthian Christ-followers to remain in the social situation in which they were in when they were called. This passage has significant soteriological implications and calls into question this component of Smith’s argument. He asserts that the calling in view in 1 Cor 7:20 is not soteriological but he offers no argument for why this view should be accepted (p. 181 n.13). While it is possible to argue that Paul’s previous existence and its relation to his Jewish identity have been reprioritized; it is too strong to argue that Paul has parted ways with his Jewish identity. In Rom 11:1, Paul declares that he is “an Israelite” and “a member of the tribe of Benjamin”. Smith does not address this verse in relation to the continuing significance of Paul’s Jewish identity (p. 217 n.167); nor does Romans 9-11 figure into his argument in any significant way. The last half of the letter is vital to understanding Paul’s Jewish identity and the manner in which his soteriological arguments in the first half of the letter are applied in the context of honor/shame discourse, ethnic diversity, and social identities that retain their fundamental significance ‘in Christ’ (Rom 9:1-5; 14:1, 5; 15:7; 16:16a).

Second, Smith’s argument in chapter one is based primarily on Second Temple texts in which the literary context is often unclear, the dating for some is an open question, and much of the Qumran material is too incomplete to serve as a useful guide for scriptural interpretation. Furthermore, it is not clear why one should employ these texts and not the ‘canonical’ texts for comparisons with Pauline soteriology. Is it possible that a comparison with the ‘canonical’ framework, interpreted in the context of kinship discourse, would reveal Paul as one arguing in a manner somewhat more consistently within his Jewish heritage? Smith’s book, however, fills a need by providing scholars and students interested in contemporary Pauline studies with a delineation of key aspects of the traditional understanding of the Augustinian-Lutheran framework for Pauline soteriology.

No comments: