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Paul, E. P. Sanders

Well, here I am blogging about justification when someone had to burst my bubble. Apparently, there is a debate about the doctrine of justification that I had no idea was going on. After justifying my ignorance of this debate, I realized that I had some catching up to do- but where was I going to start?

I went to my local bible college’s library to see what they had on the topic. I, honestly, didn’t want to try and tackle the work that started the whole debate- Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism- so I resorted to a smaller (and more recent) book by Sanders simply titled, Paul. There are two justifications for this choice: it is better to read Sanders summarizing his own work than someone else and being a more recent publication, I figured it would have given him more time to clarify his own ideas.

In this work Sanders argues that Paul, being a Pharisee trained under Gamaliel, there were two important concepts influencing his thought: monotheism and providence. As a monotheist, Paul only believes in one power that rules the universe. Despite this belief, Paul describes sin as a nearly divine power in the universe- which Sanders sees as a contradiction with his view of monotheism. Therefore, Paul must have gotten this view of sin from Zoroastrian dualism rather than his Jewish education.

This contradiction in Paul forms the basis for Sanders’ criticism of forensic righteousness. Sanders denies this doctrine because of the limitations of the English language. He says that since there is no verb for to be righteous in English, translators had to resort to another word group to translate the Greek: to justify. When someone translates Paul talking about justification, they have to use two different root words, which differ in the nuance of their meaning. According to Sanders “justification” carries a more forensic connotation that “righteousness” which contains shades of inclusion and belonging. So, when Paul says we have been “justified by faith” what he is really meaning is that we have been “righteoused” [sic] by faith, and therefore included in God’s people. Thus, Luther’s doctrine of an alien righteousness given to us by faith in Jesus Christ is thrown away and replaced by inclusion into God’s people.

To be fair, Sanders admits that the judicial aspect to righteousness is not entirely absent from Paul’s writings. The states this clearly throughout this book. His point is that this isn’t Paul’s primary point. Paul is more concerned with the Gentiles being included into God’s people with the Jews- judicial righteousness is an afterthought.

Isn’t this a false distinction? By Sanders’ conception of Paul’s problem, the Jews do not want to accept Gentiles because the Gentiles do not obey the Law. Paul argues that no one- Jew or Gentile is part of God’s people because they obey the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. This doesn’t answer the question that the Jews were really asking, however. They are asking what makes the Gentiles worthy to be part of God’s people? Another way of asking this same question is: what makes them acceptable to God? Why is this an issue? Because God is holy and perfect and we are not- if we learned anything from the Old Testament, this is it. By Sanders’ redefinition of righteousness, he has taken God’s holiness and our sin out of the picture.

Sanders says Luther’s doctrine of forensic righteousness is a result of his own neuroses and guilt. If I were to resort to ad hominin attacks, I could say the opposite about Sanders: his resistance to sin lead him to deny forensic righteousness. I will be the first to admit that the doctrine of forensic righteousness is the most offensive thing in the Christian religion. It states that we are such sinners that there is nothing we can do to make up for it. Our only hope is to accept the humiliating gift of righteousness that we did not earn. This is the only way God can find us acceptable and love us. Who wants to be a beggar whose only hope is the condensation of someone else? If I could get away from these statements about who I am, I would do just like Sanders.

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