Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Understanding Paul: some brief reflections

In a recent post, Chris Tilling discusses Douglas A. Campbell’s work, The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy, and specifically the three models for understanding Paul’s thought which Campbell outlines. Chris lists the three models in the following way:
  1. The 'justification by faith' one
  2. The 'salvation history' model and
  3. The pneumatological participatory martyrological eschatology model (which in important ways is similar to what others call an 'apocalyptic' model) – Campbell makes a case that this is the best one to adopt.
Three things immediately come to mind. First, I always find it incredibly annoying when scholars provide three options, the first two of which are extremely oversimplified in contrast to the third (and clearly preferable option), which is highly nuanced and complex. This kind of procedure is massively disingenuous. Scholars who commit this academic sin should be disciplined in some way. As Paul himself would say, “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” (Maybe it’s Chris’s fault. But for now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and blame Campbell.)

The problem is that this procedure is blatantly manipulative. By placing the first two positions in quotes, it says to the reader: this is a static, closed, stock option which has already been defined and is thus open to no new interpretations. Similarly, by adding no qualifiers, in contrast to the highly qualified third option, it appears as if there is nothing more to be said about the first two options—as if they are each limited to “justification” and “salvation history,” respectively. The consequence is that the third model appears like a breath of fresh air: it is complex, interesting, new, and exciting all at once. We are psychologically predisposed to accept Campbell’s third option because of the freshness that it brings, when in fact we should be investigating the relative merits of each position with a fair and charitable disposition. But this kind of presentation is anything but charitable. It is thoroughly and unabashedly biased.

Second, it is by no means self-evident that the third option—“the pneumatological participatory martyrological eschatology model”—is really the same as the apocalyptic model which is so much in vogue today, thanks to the work of J. Louis Martyn, Beverly Gaventa, and Douglas Harink, among others. The description of the third option could also, it seems to me, be applied to Schweitzer’s mystical understanding of Paul. Moreover, it could also apply, in a way, to the work of E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul, though this group is partially represented under the “salvation history” model. In any case, these are three distinct groups (despite the historical connections to each other), and the incredibly broad and encompassing third option provided by Campbell is all the more compelling (and problematic) precisely because it blurs the distinctions between these various groups.

Because of its plethora of sexy adjectives, Campbell’s third option entices us by seeming to engulf all the right ideas within its overly generalized academic maw. The third model looms like a scholarly monstrosity, bullying and intimidating all other models so that it alone remains. And yet, like any bully or monster, when the dust settles, it’s unclear exactly who or what it actually is. The monster has no face. Similarly, the third model has no clear position; it is too general to stake a particular claim. It’s not identifiable with any of the three other options listed above (apocalyptic, mystical, New Perspective), because it is intentionally meant to encompass them all within its pacifying gaze. In other words, Campbell, I assume, intends to get beyond the contemporary debates over the New Perspective by offering a position which is so broad that all of the competing groups are included within it. But this does no one any good. Not only does it avoid addressing the actual differences between these groups (including the differences among those who identify in some sense with the New Perspective, which is itself a kind of academic monstrosity), but it also avoids examining whether the first two models might have anything constructive to offer to this conversation. Campbell’s third option presupposes that “justification” and “salvation history” have nothing new to say to us, and that’s a shame.

Third, in light of what I said above, what seems clearest to me is that Campbell’s list is seriously impoverished. At the very least, we could expand the list in the following way:
  1. Justifying address-divine righteousness model
  2. Covenantal-salvation historical model
  3. Cosmic-apocalyptic model
  4. Mystical model
  5. Judaic-eschatological model
  6. Pneumatological-participatory model
  7. Christological-typological model
This list is by no means exhaustive, nor are the positions meant to be mutually exclusive. The point is to keep each model distinct, not in order to limit a person to just one, but so as to discern how we combine perspectives in our various hermeneutical approaches to Paul. My position would primarily emphasize 1-3, with some of 6 and 7 included. I have tried to affirm each distinct position. As a result, the third model is represented by Martyn, the fourth by Schweitzer, and the fifth by Sanders—though of course none of these scholars is limited to just one position, nor is each position limited to the work of these scholars. Other models could be listed, of course, but these are the basic types.

Having outlined what I think is a more helpful typology, let me ask Chris’s question over again, along with some questions of my own:
  • What is your preferred model for understanding Paul?
  • Do you find my alternative list helpful in any way? If so, how?
  • How might you augment or pare down or change my list?
  • Do you have other examples of academic manipulation?


Halden said...

To my thinking this just underscores the theological problems that attend the practice of collating lists of models or typologies. I suppose sometimes it may be necessary for pedagogical purposes, but I've yet to meet a list of models or a typology that did not obscure more than it clarified.

Often times making lists of models and typologies just seems like a convenient way of trying to appear knowledgeable about a bunch of perspectives without actually having to really enter into the thought of the people we're trying to conceptually situate in relation to one another.

That's more just theological bitching than it is a response to your actual post or questions, but there you go. : )

Bob MacDonald said...

David I have left my too long comment here.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Bob. Here's the comment I left at your site, reprinted here for others' sake:

Interesting. Regarding #3 (cosmic-apocalyptic model), you really need to read J. Louis Martyn and Beverly Gaventa. 1 Thess. is actually the most apocalyptic of all Paul's texts, and the argument in favor of an apocalyptic Paul is found there, first and foremost, though augmented by Galatians and Romans.

Why your preference for the mystical model? That's the weakest one for me. Schweitzer's work on Paul has been roundly rejected by virtually all scholars of Paul, even though he is extremely enjoyable to read. Model #5 (i.e., E. P. Sanders) has much to commend it, and I would recommend reading more widely in that field. But model #3 is, along with #1, the most significant and helpful approach.

Bob MacDonald said...

David, thanks for your reply - I have more associations with number 3 than 1 Thessalonians. It would be appropriate also to associate it with the new creation (2 Cor 5:17 and Romans 8) and it raises the relevance of that model for me.

Re the mystical, I think I want to reread Paul with the psalmist's covenant dialogue in mind over the next two years. I am not sure I like the word mystical much - I prefer a word that works the life of the Spirit in us somehow - Paul's 'I live, yet not I'.

I have access to some of Martyn and Gaventa in two libraries I use - thanks for the pointers - and there are many on Schweitzer in both.

Shane said...

" pneumatological participatory martyrological eschatology "

4 adjectives for one view?

Ross said...

I love buffets. I'll take heavy helpings of 2 and 5, with a healthy portion of 1 on the side. For dessert I'll take an appropriately portioned dish of 6.

Cambell's list (based on your recap of Chris Tilling's recap) is of course a bit simpler to yours (which in some situations is preferred). However, your list helpfully allows for a more nuanced vocabulary. That of course nicely allows for more sopisticated dialogue.

Bob MacDonald said...

I thought about the potential for misuse of the word mystical - and this post came to my attention: