Captured in the Glass

dust-and-ashesThen the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground…

Genesis 2:7 (NASB)

…we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.

-from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer

That’s how I feel sometimes. Like ashes. Like dust.

I’m no theologian. I just finished reading Jobes’s and Silva’s book Invitation to the Septuagint. The title is rather deceptive, since after the first few chapters, the book is anything but introductory. I came away from the text realizing that it’s amazing how Bible scholars act like they are sure of so much. I’m stunned at how we can be certain of anything at all about the Bible. I knew this already, but the book reminded me that translating ancient texts is an almost impossible task, especially if you’re going to do something crazy with the translations like establish binding theology and doctrine for large groups of human beings, telling them the intent of God for their lives.

How can we be so sure of every, single, tiny, detail that we say we’re certain about? Can we say what God and Moses talked about on Sinai for every minute of those forty days and forty nights? Do we know what it actually felt like to stand in the presence of Jesus, to have watched him right before he began to teach on any given morning? Do we fully, completely understand the lived experience of what it was like to be a human being listening to the prophesies of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, at the places and times where and when they lived and breathed?

We have words on a page, but that must pale in comparison to the original intent and action of the spoken words of Moses as he addressed all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan only hours and minutes before his death.

Who am I to tell anyone what I think as if I have any better thoughts than anyone else?

Sometimes I feel like I’m ready to give up spewing my thoughts and feelings into the blogosphere on a daily basis. Then I read something like this:

Another scholar who concurred with Sanders’s reading of Judaism was Heikki Räisänen, who retired from the University of Helsinki in 2006. Räisänen adopted a more radical solution than Sanders. If Sanders’s portrait of Second Temple Judaism is correct, then how do we explain Paul? Räisänen argued that the idea that Paul is a coherent and logical thinker is flawed. In other words, Paul’s theology of law is shot through with contradictions and is fundamentally incoherent. Scholars have labored to articulate Paul’s theology of the law as if it represented a consistent system of thought. They have generally failed to realize, according to Räisänen, that Paul operated with two fundamentally contradictory presuppositions. On the one hand, he posited that the Old Testament law was God’s authoritative word. On the other hand, he insisted that Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament law. Naturally, says Räisänen, Paul could not reconcile these two ideas since they are mutually exclusive.

-Thomas Schreiner from his book
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law
Question 4: What Is the New Perspective on Paul, and How Should It Be Assessed? pp 36-7

So close and yet so far. I believe Räisänen and ultimately Schreiner are missing the point. Räisänen lays it all out like a dream but still doesn’t grasp what Paul was doing. There was (and is) no contradiction between Paul’s view of the Torah and not requiring Gentile believers to keep it. Paul simply understood that Jewish believers continued to be bound to the Sinai covenant and the Gentiles were not.

Pastor Randy gifted me with this book a few weeks ago and I just started reading it yesterday (as I write this). There are significant parts I agree with and then there are parts that I believe miss the point. Yeah. Here’s me putting my thoughts and feelings out on the Internet again, non-theologian than I am. Go figure.

On the other hand, I thought Schreiner was more or less spot on in Question 2: Was the Mosaic Covenant Legalistic? when he said:

The giving of the law followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord. There is no basis in the text for the idea that Israel’s obedience established a relationship with the Lord. The Lord took the initiative in rescuing his people, and they were called upon to respond with faithful obedience.

-Schreiner, pg 26

Mount SinaiSchreiner almost has it right (IMHO) but he seems to believe that the Israelites observed the mitzvot out of emotional gratitude for being saved. This is a very Christian way of thinking. I agree that observing the Torah in a mechanical fashion does not make anyone right with God. It never did. However, once the Israelites were redeemed by God and agreed that He would be their God and they would be His people, He gave the Torah to the Israelites and they were expected to observe it.

When they didn’t, as the Tanakh (Old Testament) tells us, they didn’t lose their “salvation” (keeping in mind that Jewish people don’t think of salvation the same way we Christians do), but rather, they tended to lose their right to live in the Land of Israel and to enjoy personal and national freedom. They faced war, captivity, exile, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

Exodus 20:12 (NASB)

This is just one of the Torah mitzvot, contained in what we refer to as “the Ten Commandments,” that directly ties obedience to the mitzvot with continued residency in the Land of Israel.

I say all this because, in spite of the fact that Schreiner clearly states that Torah obedience is not and never has been tied to personal salvation and redemption by God, he subsequently becomes “confused.”

Consequently, Sanders’s claim that Second Temple Judaism did not emphasize the role of works in obtaining salvation is overstated. The Jewish sources do not so neatly support his contention that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace. At the very least some segments of Judaism focused on human obedience and had fallen prey to a kind of legalism.

We have significant evidence that Paul rejects the law because of human inability and that some of his opponents had fallen prey to legalism…

-Schreiner, pp 38-9

OK, Schreiner is talking about the practices of Judaism (Judaisms, really) during the Second Temple period and saying that some of the streams of Judaism believed that it was the scrupulous observance of the mitzvot that “saved” someone rather than faith in Hashem.

…and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:1

phariseesI tend to agree that the connection between faith and obedience became lost by many Jewish people in those days. Given that Israel was an occupied nation and that the Jewish people had no reason at all to love or regard the Gentiles, a form of ethnic and national “pride,” and in some cases, “egotism” was to be expected. You see that in any oppressed population. But if, as we have seen Schreiner state in earlier portions of his book, the Torah was considered a valid and indeed commanded form of response to God by the Israelites in ancient times, why was it suddenly so hard to obey in the late Second Temple era? Furthermore, why, given that we already know from Schreiner’s book, not to mention the Biblical record, would Paul, who esteemed the Torah as God’s Holy Word, ever reject it?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that a lot of what Paul wrote really does seem contradictory. We have an extraordinarily difficult time in the 21st century trying to figure Paul out. In fact, Christians have been trying to understand Paul for who knows how long? My opinion is that he is woefully misunderstood and miscast in the role of the villain who took the teachings of Jesus and made them anti-Law and anti-Jewish. I’m not alone in this opinion.

…and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Peter admitted that Paul’s writings were hard to understand and that even during the time in which Peter was writing, “untaught and unstable” people were distorting Paul’s words. How much more do we experience this distortion as we work from copies of copies of copies of his original writings, translated again and again, and on top of all that, rigidly filtered through the smoky lens of thousands of years of Christian theology and doctrine?

The reason that Schreiner can’t figure out the contradiction between Paul’s reverence for the Torah of Moses and Paul’s specifically not requiring the Gentile believers to keep the Torah in the manner of the Jews, as well as forbidding them to circumcise and thus convert to Judaism, is that the Christian lens of theology and doctrine is not designed to “see” the obvious resolution.

I know I’ve said this before, but when we understand how the Abrahamic covenant ties all nations to the Messianic promise by faith but links only the descendants of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob to the Sinai covenant, then we realize on what basis Paul, and the Council of the Apostles in their binding ruling of halachah for the Gentiles, established that the Gentile believers had a different legal status; one that didn’t require conversion to Judaism and being yoked to the entire mitzvot of Torah.

I’ll say it again for any Christians reading this. Keeping Torah or not keeping Torah is not an issue of personal salvation. The fact that Jewish people, including those who have faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, observe the Torah mitzvot doesn’t save them, but that doesn’t mean the Sinai covenant no longer applies to them. Paul, James, and the Council absolved the Gentile believers from having to take on board the same yoke. Once saved, we were given a status somewhat like non-Jewish people living among Israel (but not identical to the ancient Gerim) and obligated to a modified set of the mitzvot that, on the surface, seem deceptively simple.

shattered-glassBut there’s nothing I can see in the writings of Paul, especially the record of his life we read about in Luke’s Book of Acts, that tells us Paul dispensed with Torah observance in his own life, taught other Jews to do such a thing, or ever, ever disconnected Torah observance from the proper Jewish response to God.

I know this book is going to cause me more than a few headaches. It already has, and I’ve only read four of the questions. I’ve got thirty-six more to go. I suspect that my conversations with Pastor will be very dynamic. Hopefully, my conversations on this blog will be dynamic as well.

Our view of Paul is like he described our understanding of the Bible and God, as seen “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our beliefs, theology, doctrines, and dogma are captured in that glass, trapped in crystal, frozen in amber. It’s time to take a big brick and start pounding on that glass, which was heated, blown, and cast by men who have long since died, and take a fresh look at Paul, Moses, Jesus, Torah, the Bible, and God.

Religious Judaism is accused of taking the Bible and weaving tons and tons of interpretations and traditions around it so that the original intent of the text is barely recognizable. What Protestant Christianity doesn’t realize is that we’ve done exactly the same thing with our post-Reformation, post-modern theologies and doctrines. That we are told we must see Paul’s love of Torah as God’s authoritative word, and his command to the Gentiles that they (we) are not required to observe Torah as mutually exclusive, is a perfect example of our own tradition-induced blindness in the church.

The next part of my review of Schreiner’s book can be found in Blessings, Curses, and Works of the Law.

6 thoughts on “Captured in the Glass”

  1. Thank you, I found this article very helpful to clarify my own thoughts on this matter. I look forward to your further posts in response to the book you have been reading.

  2. Thanks, Hannah. Another commentary on the book will appear on this blog tomorrow, but I don’t know if I’ll write any more unless something in Schreiner’s book really surprises me. It seems like he’s picking out different parts of the Bible and saying the same things over and over again.

  3. Theologians have made an art form of straining out gnats and swallowing camels – while missing the point that scripture (and study of it) is not an end in itself, it is intended to be an introduction to the Living God.

  4. Yes James that should be the case, but Jesus made it known that unfortunately it isn’t.

    “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”

    Sadly, so much “theological” activity is just a continuation of the situation Jesus was addressing.

  5. Oh, I agree. The study of scripture isn’t an end to itself, but to explore the revelation of God.

    Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

    Acts 17:11

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