Finishing Westerholm’s Book on the “Lutheran” Paul

I finished Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics.  I have two items:

1.  An issue that I have revisited continually has been whether Paul believed that the Torah was for Israel only, or for the Gentiles as well.  Some of the points that I will discuss under this item overlap with the points I have made in previous posts, and so I may sound like a broken record.  But I have some fresh meat—fresh in the sense that I haven’t discussed it before.

As I said in a previous post, Heikki Raisenen mentioned what he considered to be a tension within Paul’s writings.  On the one hand, Paul maintains that Gentiles are apart from the law and are not under the law, which is consistent with God giving the law to Israel alone.  On the other hand, Paul talks as if all of humanity, Jew and Gentile, is in the predicament of being under the law’s condemnation and unable to fulfill the law on account of sinful flesh.  Westerholm has said that (in Paul’s thought) right and wrong are the same for Jews and Gentiles; that the Jews have that morality in their Torah, whereas the Gentiles have it in their conscience; and that the Jews are supposed to instruct the Gentiles (but Paul notes that they are not doing so all that well because they, too, are sinners).  You’d think that Westerholm believes that Paul views Gentiles as under the law in the sense that they are under the authority of their inward sense of morality, which is consistent with the law, yet Westerholm does not go that route.  Ultimately, Westerholm goes with E.P. Sanders’ view that Paul is speaking as a Jew, even to Gentiles, and, as a result, Paul unconsciously projects the predicament of the Jews onto the human race as a whole.  It’s like when Paul calls Abraham “our forefather according to the flesh” in Romans 4:1, or the wilderness generation “our fathers” in I Corinthians 10:1, even though he is writing to predominantly Gentile audiences, who were descended from neither Abraham nor the wilderness generation.  Paul wrote as a Jew, and sometimes acted as if his audience was Jewish, even when it was not.

And yet, Westerholm does act as if Gentiles are under the law in the sense that they are under their conscience, or sense of morality.  On page 418, Westerholm states: “When flesh that is hostile to God encounters the wisdom of God in his created order or in the Mosaic law, the issue is inevitable: human rebelliousness is provoked into sinful actions ([Romans] 7:7-13).”  But Romans 7 only refers to the law, not God’s wisdom in his created order.  Westerholm is trying to show how Romans 7 can relate to Gentiles, even though it talks about plight under the Jewish Torah, which Gentiles were not under (and he does not agree with the proposal that Paul is primarily addressing Jewish Christians).  In the process, he appears to read into the text what is not explicitly there.

2.  On page 428, Westerholm seems to agree with the New Perspective that Paul was not plagued with a guilty conscience prior to his conversion to Christianity.  One version of the Old Perspective was that Paul felt guilty over his inability to fulfill the burden of the Torah, and that the message that God saves through Jesus Christ was relief for him.  Paul is said to have had the same predicament that afflicted Martin Luther.  But the New Perspective says that Paul was not plagued with guilt prior to his conversion, for Paul says in Philippians 3 that he was blameless in his obedience to the Torah prior to his conversion to Christ.  Many advocates of the New Perspective hold that Paul was working from solution to plight rather than vice versa: Paul believed that salvation was through Christ alone and that the Gentiles could become a part of God’s people through faith in Christ, and Paul worked backward from that to come up with the problem that Christ came to solve: human sinfulness.  For many New Perspectivists, it’s as if Paul did not genuinely believe that he was unable to fulfill the law, but merely threw that concept together so as to explain what Christ was saving us from.

I think that the New Perspective raises some good points because it shows how Paul’s writings do not necessarily coincide with the usual evangelical script, and it also demonstrates that there is more nuance to Judaism than trying to achieve merit (though, as Westerholm and others point out, there is more nuance to Judaism than New Perspectivists think, too).  But, to be honest, I really can’t stand the New Perspective, because it takes a central point of Paul’s message—that our sinful flesh cannot fulfill the law—and treats that as unimportant to Paul’s ideology, while over-emphasizing Paul’s statement in Philippians 3 that he was blameless.  I agree with the New Perspective in that I doubt that Paul converted to Christ out of a sense of guilt.  Before his encounter with Christ, he may very well have believed that his own righteousness was sufficient.  But the encounter convinced him that it was not sufficient.  As I mentioned yesterday, Westerholm does well to point out that Paul in Philippians 3 does not regard his pre-Christian righteousness as a good thing, for it entailed his persecution of the church.  Maybe Paul’s encounter with Christ led him to see his need for a savior, and, when Paul was talking about the weakness of the flesh and the predicament of humanity under God’s condemnation, he wasn’t just throwing something together, but he was expressing his genuine beliefs.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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