Since Michael mentioned my ThM thesis and my reformed theological stance, I thought it would be good to discuss the thesis for my first series of blog posts here. First, a little of my background.
I became a Christian when I was 15. It was the typical youth summer camp conversion, but it was my first very real experience of God’s presence and the first time I believed the gospel. At that time, my family and I attended a small SBC church on Sundays and I attended an Evangelical Bible church on Wednesdays for youth group. This continued through high school. After my experience at camp, I became somewhat interested in the Bible as it pertained to debates with other religions and pseudo-Christian cults. Our youth group did a series on world religions that I found fascinating and I had a friend whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, which made me interested in defending the deity of Jesus. Also, in school one of the only classes I paid attention to was our discussion of Greek mythology in my classes on literature. I was not a driven student at that time, but I was interested in religion.
Since I was such a poor student, I had no intention of going to college after high school. Eventually, I came to believe that God wanted me to join the Marine Corps. Unlike most Marines, not long after my initial training courses for my specialty, I found myself working under a Christian who invited me to church. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and began attending Calvary Chapel in Vista, Ca. I was hooked from my first visit because this was the first church that I attended where there was a concerted effort to ground all we believed and did in the Bible. At that time, I began reading the Bible on my own for the first time and not long after believed that I had a gift for comprehension and theological inquiry. Wanting something deeper, I found myself attracted to the Reformed tradition (of the Baptist variety), since I found them to take a more scholarly approach to the Bible than I had experienced to that point, and I had become convinced of that tradition’s approach to God’s sovereignty in human redemption. I wanted to study the Bible in the original languages, so after completing my 4-year obligation in the Marine Corps, I enrolled in Dallas Christian College (an institution in the Restoration Movement tradition) to earn a degree in Biblical Studies and Biblical Languages. During this time I excelled in my studies and believed that I should pursue more advanced training focusing in New Testament, so I attended Dallas Theological Seminary because of their rigorous ThM program that focuses heavily on biblical languages (despite my rejection of dispensationalism). I have now completed my coursework there and will receive my diploma this December. I plan to begin PhD work in New Testament studies in the near future as well.
CHOSEN FROM THE BEGINNING—WHY THIS TOPIC?
I mentioned above that during my journey I became convinced that the Reformed tradition has broadly understood the biblical material about God’s sovereignty in relation to salvation better than alternatives. Today I would describe myself as lowercase “r” reformed since I do not subscribe to the traditional confessions. I’m a member of a Southern Baptist Convention church with a Calvinistic persuasion. I don’t want my scholarship to be focused on this topic as a hobby horse. In fact, my main area of interest is the Jewish background to the New Testament. It was this topic, not primarily my Calvinistic convictions, that led me to write my thesis on predestination in Pauline literature.
My academic work led me naturally to consider the history of Pauline scholarship. Paul’s writings have always been a place emphasis in my study. You don’t have to do too much reading in Paul before you come across the debates about his historical context that arose during the 1970s with the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders took on what had come to be scholarly truisms regarding Jewish religion in Paul’s day, demonstrating that they were, in fact, misrepresentative caricatures. Sanders demonstrated that Judaism was very much a religion founded upon the belief in a gracious God who had initiated the salvation of Israel and provided for its maintenance through his covenant. His extensive treatment of the Jewish materials created a wake in Pauline scholarship that continues to ripple today. All subsequent studies on Paul would have to grapple with Sanders’ work.
Like most Evangelicals, I was introduced to this world of scholarship through N. T. Wright and the debates over the new perspective. Wright and others took Sanders’ findings in the Jewish materials (rejecting much of what he had to say about Paul), and used them to create new paradigms of exegesis in Paul’s letters. This had its most significant impact on the topic of justification in Paul. I came to believe that much of what this new school had to say was insightful and helpful, but that it lacked explanatory value for understanding some key issues in Paul. Regardless of my disagreement on some issues, the appeal to the Jewish background to Paul led me into those primary sources and to read the best works that engaged in the debates about Paul’s relationship to 1st century Judaism. Again, I found Sanders’ work in the Jewish material to be extremely valuable, but reductionistic, since it did not engage in a discussion of what “grace” meant to different Jews and it did not deal adequately with the possibility that Paul evaluated his contemporaries in ways different from their own self-expressions.
As I was nearing the completion of the required course work at DTS, I still had to write a thesis, and I was having trouble coming up with a topic. Then I came across two newly published books that shaped my project. The first was John Barclay’s 2015 work, Paul and the Gift. This work has had a huge impact in Pauline studies, with some saying (and I agree) that this may be the most important book on Paul written in over 100 years. In my opinion, Barclay’s study is the single most important book on Paul’s theology of grace. Whereas Sanders showed that grace is pervasive in 1st century Judaism, Barclay has provided much-needed nuance, demonstrating that “grace is not everywhere the same.” Different Jewish authors understood grace differently, and the task is to locate Paul’s discourse about grace within this complex spectrum. Barclay’s approach to the question of grace in Second Temple Judaism was to treat the topic in five sources—The Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo (Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum), and 4Ezra. Barclay detects six “perfections of grace” in the material he surveys (which also includes some Greco-Roman material and major interpreters of Paul in history). These are superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity (pp. 70-5). Although I didn’t agree with Barclay’s reading of Paul in every respect (only about 98%), his work confirmed and solidified much of what I was finding in my own study. Most notably for me was his treatment of the Hodayot (“Thanksgiving Hymns”) discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QHa), which contain some overtly predestinarian language and emphasize the efficacy of God’s grace, as I believe Paul does, though Barclay disagrees somewhat at this point. This I thought, in agreement with Barclay, is markedly different from what we read in some texts that emphasize human volition in opposition to divine determinism, such as Jubilees and The Wisdom of Solomon. From this, it seemed abundantly clear to me that Judaism’s grace and election theology cannot be reduced to a single monolithic concept so that every author is thought to reject predestinarian election.
Barclay’s monograph had really reconfirmed some convictions I had arrived at after reading John Piper’s work some time before. Today, Piper is known for his prolific authorship and speaking as a pastor. However, he began his career as a New Testament scholar. While teaching in Bethel University, he published his monograph on Romans 9, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 in 1983. This was a masterful and robust exegetical study of this passage that is so remarkably different from the kind of writings Piper has produced since, such as Desiring God, that it’s hard to image the same man producing both. One aspect of Piper’s argument that I remember being very impressed with was his appeal to Sirach 33:7–15 (with some appeal to the Dead Sea Scrolls), following Gaird Maier’s study (Mensch und freir Wille nach den juedischen Religionsparteien zwischen Ben Sira und Paulus) as crucial background for understanding Paul’s potter/clay imagery in Rom 9 in a predestinarian sense. The combination of these studies by Barclay and Piper had me convinced that a compelling case for understanding Paul’s election theology in predestinarian terms in the context of Second Temple Judaism was not only possible, but could be made compellingly.
As much praise as I have for Barclay’s study, another study impacted me as profoundly, but in the opposite direction. Also in 2015, A. Chadwick Thornhill published a version of his dissertation completed at Liberty University, called The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. With both my theological background and academic interests, this title obviously called out to me. I have always tried to remain intentional about laying my own presuppositions and cherished views on the table for scholarly scrutiny. If what I believe does not hold up to the evidence, then it is not worth clinging to. So, as best I could, I read Thornhill’s study with an open mind. He essentially makes the case that elsewhere in the Jewish sources we find no evidence of belief that election was understood in terms of predestination unto salvation. Therefore, Paul should not be read as affirming any such thing. Instead, the careful reader of Paul should see his election discourse as it relates to salvation in terms of corporate theories rather and individual predestination.
I immediately saw three problems with this study: (1) Having just completed Barclay’s study (which was not available to Thornhill at the time of his research), and through my own reading of the primary Jewish sources, I knew that it simply is not true that the notion of election in terms of predestination to salvation is absent in Second Temple Judaism. Reading Thornhill’s study after Barclay’s made me wonder if the former would have said all that he did if he had the opportunity to read Barclay’s work before publishing The Chosen People. (2) Even if we were to grant Thornhill’s reading of the Jewish literature, it would not of necessity follow that Paul must have agreed with his fellow Jews regarding election and predestination. Paul is quite unique among Jewish authors of his day, for example, in his understanding of the role of the law in God’s economy of salvation. Paul tells us in several places that the law was given to reveal and increase transgressions, leading to death, whereas, his Jewish contemporaries would have said that it was given to curb sin and provide a means of obtaining life. (3) In the most detailed treatments of the topic of election in Paul’s letters, he seems (on my reading) to say some things that sound very much like what Thornhill says Paul could not have believed. So, I found Thornhill’s study to be lacking on historical grounds in these three ways, making a critical evaluation of his study a helpful avenue to consider afresh Paul’s relation to Second Temple Judaism with regard to election and predestination.
In the following posts, I’m going to rehearse some of the key findings in my study, beginning with what I regard as the most relevant materials in the Second Temple literature.