Ok, I lied. I told myself I’d take the weekend off from blogging. Then I thought I’d just get on for a minute and see if anything new had been posted. Before long I was posting a long reply. Now I’m reposting it here. Hello, my name is Ken and I have a problem.
The following is a modified version of the comment I just added to James’ latest offering in the present discussion of inclusivism and salvation (all I’ve changed are the pronouns). The topic is “the new perspective on Paul,” which essentially says that Paul is not writing against those who think we can earn our salvation through “good works,” but rather against those who think that Jewish ethnic boundary markers are what delimit the people of God. Paul is not worried about people trying to earn their salvation, but rather that some people thought that Gentiles could not come to Christ unless they first became Jews. [UPDATE: see here for a fuller introduction to the new perspective]
This post is more technical than my usual (this is why I don’t normally post on Biblical Studies issues!), but the subject is important to the present discussion. So if it’s helpful to you, read on; if not, that’s ok too (go enjoy your weekend!):
I think that more still needs to be said about the new perspective than merely that James and Michael (and I as well) both accept it. Granted that Paul was not opposing works-righteousness legalism, there remains a vital question within the new perspective on which James and Michael (and I) seem to disagree: why did Paul think that those traditional ethnic markers were no longer the distinguishing feature of the people of God? I think James is right in saying that Paul had seen uncircumcised Gentiles experience God’s spirit, and therefore concluded that such Jewish boundary markers no longer applied. Such explains his anger at those who would continue to try and exclude such believers, of whom God had already displayed his acceptance (Gal 3:1-5 makes this explicit, and 2:11-16 and 5:1-15 fill out the picture). But when James goes the next step and says that the same is true of the distinction between Christian and non-Christian, I think he ignores Paul’s own line of argument. Paul makes clear (e.g. in 2:15-21 and 3:10-14, and even in 3:1-5 itself) that it is precisely because of “Christ in me” (2:20) that these things are true.
Paul’s point in Galatians, as I understand it, is not that all barriers have been broken down, but that for those in Christ, the curse of the law, which previously hung over the Gentiles (and indeed, assuming N.T. Wright’s reading of Deuteronomic theology is correct, the Jews too), has been exhausted. The problem was precisely those who, by continuing to insist on the necessity of Jewish boundary markers, were in essence denying that Christ’s death had accomplished anything (cf. 2:21).
James is right that this has little to do with opposing works-righteousness, but it has even less to do with abolishing the line between Christian and non-Christian (admitting that such terms are anachronistic), for it was precisely because of their acceptance of Jesus that the Galatians experienced the Spirit at all (going back to 3:1-5). It was because the were “in Christ” that the curse of the Law held no danger to them, even though they remained uncircumcised. Thus, when 5:6 says “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” it must not be ignored how Paul introduces this: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision…” (emphasis added). The same is true of Paul’s striking claim in 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” for he immediately completes the thought like this: “for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29; emphasis added).
Perhaps more than Michael is, I’m willing to concede that it is possible to “belong to Christ” without knowing it, but it seems to me that, to claim that this in any way abolishes the distinction between Christian and non-Christian is not just to go beyond Paul, but to contradict his clear intent.
UPDATE 2: Be sure to read the comments on this post; Michael has highlighted an important point on which I should have written more clearly!
UPDATE 3: This post is part of a continuing conversation.