Friday, July 20, 2012

Why Is a Raven like a Writing Desk? In the Same Way Liberals Are like Paul

James McGrath recently had a post where he argued that modern liberals are simply making the same type of arguments against Scripture that Paul made in his day.

Paul, in his time, made a case for relaxing Scriptural stipulations about the need for anyone within Abraham's household to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). He did the same with regard to the people of God being called to observe the things written in the Law of Moses, i.e. Scripture as it existed in his time. When he did so, he himself could not simply declare his own writings Scripture so that it was Scripture against Scripture. He made his case, as well as he could. Later, the largely Gentile church which benefitted from his case elevated his writings to the status of Scripture as a result.

I’ll have to set aside for another time the assumption that Paul’s writings were made into Scripture many years later by Gentiles and that therefore Paul’s texts weren’t Scripture until then (that assumes that they actually aren’t Scripture, but only considered that by humans--it also assumes that they are not the product of direct revelation that Paul had been previously given by the Lord Himself). 

Paul, however, does make his arguments from OT Scripture, so saying that they are arguments that are not Scripture because Paul’s writings aren’t seen as Scripture yet is a bit odd. His points are based on OT Scripture, so whether his writings are Scripture or not is irrelevant.

 His point in terms of circumcision is that it is a Jewish sign of the covenant, but that the element that actually justified Abraham is faith. Hence, one enters into the covenant of salvation by faith. That’s not contrary to the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament continually makes the argument that uncircumcised Gentiles should be considered a part of Israel by their faith/loyalty/allegiance to YHWH, and those circumcised Israelites who do not have faith/loyalty/allegiance to YHWH are to be considered cut off from the people (i.e., excluded). That’s why Egyptians are included in the exodus, why Rahab is saved and Achan is destroyed, why Ruth is incorporated into Israel even though a Moabite by birth, etc. It’s because one becomes a true Israelite by his or her allegiance to YHWH and one disavows his or her Israelite status by his or her disloyalty to YHWH. This is exactly what Paul is arguing. So Paul’s argument was made, so Christians believe, by the Holy Spirit through Him, and we can verify that by looking at Scripture to see the consistency. Paul is not arguing against Scripture, so this claim is unjustified.

It would therefore completely miss, even undermine, the point of Paul's letters to now say, as Paul's opponents did in his time, “You can't include THOSE people in the people of God – that's contrary to Scripture!”

It would be a miss because it isn’t contrary to Scripture. It picks up on a major theological theme in the Old Testament.

When conservative Christians use the current Scriptural status of Paul's letters to undermine or distract from what those letters were in the first place, when they were written, they are in using their canonical status not to elevate the authority of Paul's writings, but to avoid their radical implications, and the transformations they might lead us to make as a church in our own time, were we to understand what they are about and take them seriously.

No, when liberals try to make Paul an advocate for some contemporary denial of Scripture, it ends up being a huge misunderstanding of how Paul viewed Scripture, progressive revelation, and his own teaching given directly to him by Christ. Where is the argument that Paul outright rejected and contradicted Scripture? Paul’s interpretive methodology is consistent with Second Temple Jewish interpretation in that it saw a need to interpret the text with controlling passages (as all interpretation must do btw). Hence, the debates were over what passages were controlling. The larger theme, that Gentiles are included in Israel by their faith-allegiance to YHWH was used to interpret the Abraham narrative concerning faith and circumcision, and it was concluded that the latter was therefore not needed (and was much more in continuity with the promise that “all nations” would be blessed through him). The idea that Scripture harmonizes is more consistent with conservative interpretation today. In order for it to harmonize on this issue, circumcision must be something that is strictly Jewish and therefore of the Mosaic law code, which is also given to Israel specifically.

So don't let the fact that Paul's letters are now Christian Scripture lead you to miss their powerful, radical, inclusive, and at that time arguably “unbiblical” teaching. Otherwise, you are liable to line yourself up alongside the opponents of Paul against those who are making a case akin to the one Paul made nearly two thousand years ago, those of us who allow the most fundamental Christian principles to challenge us to accept those whom God accepts, even if it means setting aside some texts that were previously used to define a narrower and more restrictive community in the past.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and just say that I’m pretty sure who this “community” is of whom McGrath is speaking, and the problem with the argument is that it oversimplifies what Paul is doing. Paul is arguing who out of the two races of people on earth (see my post concerning two humanities) can become the people of God. Often in Second Temple Jewish thought, it was thought that one must become an Israelite specifically by being circumcised and following the Mosaic law. Paul argues that the Scripture indicates that it is through faith that one follows God and therefore becomes a member of His people. So Paul is using Scripture to argue his case. But faith to Paul, and all Israelites, includes the doing of good works and the refraining from evil. One cannot argue that Paul’s argument allows for those who would deny God by their unrepentant works. Paul’s theology excludes those who would indulge in evil (as do the theologies of all of the texts in Scripture). So Paul is not arguing for any sort of inclusiveness of people who are practitioners of evil deeds. He is arguing that anyone of the two groups of humanity can become the Israel of God by handing over their allegiance to Him.

Now, what McGrath is arguing is that Paul’s argument is somehow parallel to the modern liberal argument for inclusiveness of all sorts of groups the Bible would condemn, but this isn’t the same argument. The Bible condemns these groups precisely because their unrepentant conduct evidences a lack of allegiance with Jesus Christ as Lord. So this argument is the exact opposite of what Paul is arguing for.

So Paul is both arguing against the exclusiveness of a particular ethnicity being given the sole rights to become the people of God, and he does so by bringing out a major Old Testament teaching in order to harmonize them with other biblical texts, since he views Scripture much like modern conservatives do (i.e., as unified by the One voice who spoke them through many voices); and he continues to argue for the exclusiveness of the people of God as being those who have their faith-allegiance with YHWH through Jesus Christ as their Lord (notice that his inclusion via faith excludes even those who were previously considered included, so he’s not necessarily opening the door wider). In any case, one might see in Paul what later echoes in our own time from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Here the content of their character evidences their faith allegiance or lack thereof.

So modern liberals actually are not arguing together with Paul against the text, because Paul is not arguing against the text, but within it, taking it all into consideration, seeking to understand how it all fits together. Modern liberals just select what accords with the zeitgeist and dismiss the rest. Whatever that is, it isn’t Pauline argumentation.

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