Thursday, October 01, 2009

Philippians 3 and the New Perspective

The Law/Torah is not a system of legalism by which a person tries to earn/merit a place in God’s covenant community. The question Paul is often dealing with is: Should ex-pagan’s be circumcised or not? Or more directly, “how do you define the people of God?”[1] The Torah provides the governing paradigm for how the people of God are to demonstrate that they are indeed part of the covenant people. The question in Judaism is, “how do you know who’s in and who’s out?” What marks out God’s people? Historically, the symbols of circumcision, Sabbath, food-laws, temple and land have demarcated the people of God. A version of the New Perspective suggests that the faithfulness of Jesus has inaugurated a new era of the kingdom of God and in this era the people of God are demarcated by faith/loyalty to/in Jesus. Jesus is now the boundary marker of God’s covenant people.
What has all of this to do with Philippians 3? We’ll start with Wright’s translation of Philippians 3:2-11
Watch out for the dogs; watch out for the evil-workers; watch out for the mutilated ones. For it is we who are ‘the circumcision’ – we, who worship God in the Spirit, who boast in King Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. I too, however, do have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks they have confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness in the law blameless.
But whatever gain I had, that I counted loss because of the Messiah. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worthy of the knowledge of King Jesus, my Lord, through whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and reckon them as trash, so that I may gain the Messiah, and be found in him – not having a righteousness of my own, from the law, but that which is through the faithfulness of the Messiah, the righteousness from god that comes upon faith: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.[2]
It is important to note that Paul has not named any “works” which would merit salvation. Rather, he is appealing to Israel’s ethnic identity markers.
The point to be noted in the debate occasioned by the new perspective on Paul, is that what he objects to thus far is confidence in ethnic identity, confidence in the fact of belonging to Israel, the covenant people of God, confidence in having been circumcised and thus, even as an eight-day old, having been faithful to that covenant. In speaking of Jewish confidence before God he did not turn first to thoughts of self-achievement and merit-earning deeds. Rather, it was pride in ethnic identity, of the Israelite over against the other, of Jew over against Gentile, against which he registered his first protest in setting out to express afresh what the gospel of divine righteousness meant to him.[3] The passage confirms that a central problem, which found its resolution in Paul’s understanding of how God’s righteousness worked, was Jewish confidence in their ethnic identity as Israel, the people of God, the people of the Torah, ‘the circumcision’. The implication is fairly obvious that such reliance on ethnic identity carried with it the corollary that Gentiles, ‘the uncircumcision’ as such, were debarred from the benefits of God’s covenant with Israel.[4]
It is clear that Paul undermines these boundary markers by appealing to the Spirit and Christ (3:3) as the new boundary marker of God’s people.[5] But Paul is not denigrating his Jewish heritage. Rather, when compared to knowing the Messiah, he can look back upon his ethnic identity markers as utterly worthless in attaining the righteousness of God. Rather, according to 3:9, Christ’s faithfulness (taking πίστεως Χριστοῦ as a subjective genitive) to humanity has established the righteous relationship that Paul now experiences.
What is the point of this passage within the context of Philippians? Why did Paul choose to incorporate this chapter into his epistle? How does this fit with the themes of Philippians? Wright argues that Paul used his own example of confidence and privileged status according to the flesh, and his now sacrificing all such privileged status to know Christ, as a paradigm for the Philippians to follow suit.[6] Given that some of them were Roman citizens who were perhaps prone to elitism due to their own status, Paul uses this scenario as an exemplary paradigm to show them that none of that really matters. In fact, compared to knowing Christ, it’s all σκύβαλον. They are to imitate Christ’s attitude to privilege and status, and consider others, laying down their lives for one another (2:5). Thus, we see the convergence of the New Perspective and the themes of Philippians coalescing neatly.
Bibliography on Philippians 3 and the New Perspective
N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997, 124-125
N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision London: SPCK, 2009, 119-130
J. D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008, 469-490
[1] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997), 120.
[2] Wright, 123.
[3] J. D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008), 475-476
[4] Dunn, 490
[5] cf. 1 Cor 12:3.
[6] Wright, 124

No comments: