Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Taking the new perspective out of the classroom into the church

I've just finished preparing for tomorrow's Romans session at Spurgeon's tomorrow. We're looking at the new perspective and how we understand the term 'the righteousness of God'. The new perspective has now been around for so long that it really needs a different name. Yesterday evening I reread Krister Stendhal's essay 'The apostle Paul and the introspective conscience of the west' which first appeared in 1963. In many ways this was the spark that ignited the new perspective's fire - and it's still wonderfully fresh.

But it's Ed Sanders, whose book Paul and Palestinian Judaism, really opened a radical new way of reading Paul, dubbed 'the new perspective' by James Dunn in 1982. In fact, it wasn't so much a new way of reading Paul as a rereading of his Jewish context. If the Judaism in which Paul grew up was not the religion of works righteousness that Luther thought it was, then everything he says at the beginning of Romans needs to be reassessed. If Paul was not wracked with guilt as the young Luther was, then our understanding of justification needs to be rethought. That's basically what the new perspective is about.

It seems to me that it is a much more fruitful approach to Paul and, especially, to Romans, particularly in the way that it has been refined and fleshed out by Dunn, Tom Wright and even Francis Watson, whose Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles is the best book I've read on the New Testament this year.

But it leaves me with a huge question: if this approach is correct, how will we teach it in our churches? If it's correct, it calls into question a lot of what has been taught in evangelical and reformation tradition churches, in particular, because it shifts the focus of Paul's teaching from individual salvation to being the people of God.

As I've been tackling Romans in our church Bible studies over the past few months, I've lost count of the number of times that people have said 'this is so different from what I grew up with' and even 'am I supposed to regard all those teachers whose ministry I valued as wrong in the light of what you are saying?' I guess this applies to a lot of what is taught in theological colleges. there is always the temptation to leave the allegedly 'difficult' stuff behind and do what's always been done, say what's always been said. But are we robbing our people of the opportunity of hearing the fresh light and truth that God wants to bring forth from his word (something baptists have always thought important)? Answers on a post card, please...!

A good accompaniment to these musings has been Laura Veirs' Carbon Glacier album from 2004. Lovely stuff - like pretty much everything she's done.

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