Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Significance of Abraham’s Justification for Paul’s Defense of Justification Apart from the Law

I wrote the following as a graduate student for a course in Pauline Soteriology. It obviously does not reflect expertise in either the Pauline epistles or the New Testament in general. This is because I am not a Scripture scholar nor have I read a great deal of what is called the “New Perspective” on St. Paul. I do find, however, that when the epistles are placed within a broad context it helps to illuminate the meaning of justification by faith.

This paper will examine the manner in which St. Paul applies the account of Abraham’s justification (Genesis 15:6) in defense of justification by faith apart from the works of the Law. It will focus on the importance to the Apostle of the order of events in the Genesis narrative which places Abraham’s justification prior to the Covenant of Circumcision. It will be shown that the centrality of this text and the related theme of justification by faith are entirely determined by the conflict between the Apostle to the Gentiles and certain Jewish Christians who taught, on the basis of the same narrative authority, the necessity of keeping circumcision and other aspects of the Law.

The letters of the Apostle Paul, especially those adorned with legal and exegetical subtleties, document at least one side of the first great debate – and possibly schism – in the history of the Church. It had to do with the relationship between the Gospel, specifically the lives of those who believe in it, and the Mosaic Law, established – seemingly in perpetuity – on Mt. Sinai. From the point-of-view of certain evangelists, centered in Jerusalem and unnamed in the Pauline correspondence, the relationship between God and Israel cannot not be revoked, receded nor superseded. Indeed it is fulfilled by the advent of the Messiah, but fulfillment means a more perfect submission and a more universal reception.

On the other hand, the Apostle’s radical doctrine of the saving work of God in Christ maintains that it is substantive, complete and eschatological precisely because it is the fulfillment of the ancient promises made in connection with the Covenant.

Both interpretations have momentous consequences. The Evangelists [the “opponents” from hereon] apparently teach that non-Jewish believers must be circumcised (Gal 5:3) and thereby become obedient to the Law. Paul, on the other hand, teaches that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision have any covenantal significance (Rom 5:6).

There is, as in all debates, a common language and common authorities between the opposing sides. Both Paul and his opponents speak of Abraham as the “Father” of Jewish and gentile believers. Both appeal to the Abraham narrative in support of their respective views.

In order to gain a better appreciation for the particulars of the debate which lies behind the Pauline emphasis on justification by faith, I will examine it in three aspects. First, the polemical context in which Paul’s expressions and arguments were shaped. Second, the exegetical methodology of his self-defense. Third, what consequences such contextualization has for certain dogmatic assumptions made about the Apostle’s statements regarding faith and works of the Law.



dmartin said...

Very interesting, looking forward to the completion of the article.

Not to go down a rabbit trail, but what is the New Perspective on Paul?

Thomas said...

See the following link for a good summary of the New Perspective on Paul:


Thomas said...

The article I referred to above is good but not written from a specifically Catholic point-of-view.

I especially like what the author says about the "analogical" application of certain statements and arguments in the letters of Paul to the Church today. I think this is also a fair way of reading Augustine. Paul was not fighting Pelagians or late medieval Nominalists, but there is an analogical link between Pelagianism, legalism, rationalism, secularism, and other “isms” and the errors which Paul opposes with the Gospel.

dmartin said...

It seems as though Paul was fighting Judaizers and NOT Pelagians or Aminians or any other of the other later heresies, not that it doesnt' apply.

It looks like Paul's fight is the same as Jesus fight in Matthew 12:1-7.