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Will the Real Paul Please Stand Up?

Accordingly, NPP understands faith as enabling Gentiles to enter the covenant apart from distinctive Jewish dietary laws, keeping of holy days, and the rite of circumcision. They do not so strongly juxtapose grace and faith with the righteous requirements of the law as expressed in its obligatory moral commandments. Nor do they so strongly juxtapose it with overall human acts of righteousness. These simply were not Paul’s central concerns in developing his doctrine of justification by faith. Gathercole, however, thinks all of this, though not an outright denial of the traditional meaning of justification by faith, is still a refocusing that relocates its accent elsewhere. For him, a close reading of Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Galatians seriously challenges NPP’s assumptions and conclusions. However, he does not address Paul’s positive proclamations on good works and works of service suggesting Paul perhaps had a multifaceted view of works (e.g., Eph 2:10; 4:12; Pp 2:12-13). That such statements often occur in contexts of discussions of grace and faith challenges tendencies to define all works negatively as rivals to grace (cf. Rom 2:9-10; Titus 2:11-14). Is it just possible that Paul did not always mean only one thing by “works” or even “works of the law”? Is it possible he sometimes meant the one and sometimes the other? That does not fit with our desire for simplicity but it does fit with Paul’s reputation for complexity.

Gathercole does not deny any positive features at all for NPP. He thinks its inclusive accent on “the worldwide focus of God’s dealings in Christ” beneficial. He also applauds its “historical awareness of Paul’s situation.” Becoming more aware of the Reformers’ habit of sometimes reading into Paul their anxiety (and hostility) toward Roman Catholicism is a step in the right direction. Moreover, countering the traditional tendency toward “cheap caricatures of Judaism” is “an important contribution”. Yet he still insists that the oft-expressed high regard for the law in Paul as “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:12) indicates he did not see it as simply “a body of petty rules and regulations”. Accordingly, Simon Gathercole lists “Six Tendencies” in which he judges NPP as at fault. First, though Protestant scholarship has exaggerated Judaism’s attempt to earn salvation through obedience to the law, reading ancient Jewish literature demonstrates they were not wrong about it altogether. Yet for Paul, salvation is simply impossible apart from the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost.

Second, that Paul understood the works of the law as only applying to circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws is insufficiently supportable from his own writings according to many Pauline scholars. Third, criticism of “‘individualistic’ readings” of Paul, miss his emphasis on personal conversion and faith. Even the Church is an assembly of individuals. Fourth, NPP confuses the “content” of justification with its “applications.” The inclusion of Gentiles is part of the scope of justification made possible by its core reality of how “believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned righteous before God.” Fifth and sixth, NPP tends to downplay sin and the need for doctrinal clarity. Even in efforts to be inclusive and unifying, facing these factors is still necessary. Gathercole, however, admits that NPP is diverse and some of these criticisms may not apply to all. For him, they do nonetheless bear watching.

In his strongest section, in the sense of affirmative accentuation, Gathercole argues that what the Bible says about justification is of paramount importance. Relying mostly on Romans, he concludes: “Justification, in which righteousness is reckoned to us, is both a legal declaration of our status and a statement about our relationship with God. People who are sinners are declared by God to have done all that he has commanded.” Since the debate is not only about justification but also about justification by faith, Gathercole further defines faith. First, faith is an attitudinal reorientation in which one recognizes “the futility” of one’s “own future without God and God’s help.” Second, faith is “also the response to God’s promises.” Third, faith “focuses not only on what God has said [God’s promises] but on God’s character.” For Gathercole, the works of the law are associated with “the flesh”, or the sinful and weak nature of fallen humanity. This includes specific deeds of the law as well as all human acts of righteousness. In his mind, only such a position protects the principles that salvation is “purely by grace”, that “God is the sole operator in salvation”, and that “he alone does the whole saving work.” He concludes, therefore, that the doctrine of justification “says sinners can be miraculously reckoned righteous before God”, and reiterates that this has nothing to do with the law or its works in any sense, that is, either ceremonial or moral. Again, as above, in the present article he does not address positive statements about good works or works of service in the Pauline corpus.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2008

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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