Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Justification by faith, the New Perspective and Luther: A remarkable interview with Udo Schnelle

This is part two of an interview with Professor Udo Schnelle, head of the department of New Testament, Martin Luther University, Halle - Wittenberg, Germany, held on 22 March 2011. Prof. Schnelle graciously consented that we publish it on the web.

Mulder: Do you think the New Perspective on Paul takes justification by faith seriously when it comes to Philippians 3?

Schnelle: I think that the New Perspective on Paul, especially concerning Philippians 3 is wrong, because there Paul says that his own history is σκύβαλα (rubbish). That means there was a break in his life; a radical change; he now saw his career in Judaism as σκύβαλα (rubbish). Now he understood himself and early Christianity not only as a variant of Judaism, but as a new way. From Judaism of course, but in a new way: a new religious world.

Mulder: Is there enough evidence to argue that the Law wasn't just an identity marker in Second Temple Judaism? That is, that the Law was prescribed, in order to be saved?

Schnelle: I think in late Judaism we have both. Of course we have texts that go in the direction of E.P. Saunders, but we also have texts, especially at Qumran which tell us that only those that follow the Law will have life. Thus, we have both. But we don't know as much about Second Temple Judaism as Paul did. He lived in that world, and said it was not his world anymore. Paul gives a new definition of what the Law is. Romans 13:8-10: Everyone who is in love is also in the Law. This was a new solution which was not convincing for Judaism.

Mulder: For both those who followed the Law in order to be saved, and those who saw the Law as identity marker only?

Schnelle: Yes.

Mulder: What about 2 Corinthians 5:10 which states that we will be judged according to works? What do you, as a Lutheran, make with those texts that seem to suggest that works will be important come the final judgement?

Schnelle: There is in Paul also a final judgement, but in this judgement, we have nothing we can show God. And therefore His mercy toward us is the only way to live.

Mulder: Lutheranism has probably been caricatured by some in different parts of the world. Some would say: “Luther was wrong about justification,” for instance. On which points however, will you concede that there were insufficiencies in Luther, or in how Lutheranism developed? And also, what issues often raised against Lutheranism do you regard as unfair criticism?

Schnelle: To say that the Lutheran position on justification is only an individual perspective would be an unfair criticism.

Mulder: Salvation is only focussed on the individual?

Schnelle: Yes. The focus on your own salvation is only the starting point. The main idea is that the life of people depend on the grace of God. I think this main idea is correct. This was in Paul and then in Luther. This was a new idea in the world, because before Paul, people like Aristotle’s and others, they spoke about justification saying people must do the justification yourself! But Paul said: no, you cannot do this.

Mulder: Are you implying then, and I must be careful how I put this, that some radical streams of the New Perspective on Paul, could in fact go back to the Aristotelian position on justification?

Schnelle: Yes, I think so. My view is that Paul is not an update of Judaism. It is a new way, growing from Judaism of course.

Mulder: If that is so, if it is sola gratia only, what is the place of works then?

Schnelle: They are following. But it is clear they must follow.

Mulder: And if they don’t?

Schnelle: If they do not follow, then you have not understood what grace is.

Mulder: Then you never had real saving faith from the beginning?

Schnelle: Yes.

Mulder: Well, that is actually one of the caricatures that we find: some people say: "Lutheranism teaches justification by faith through grace, therefore, you can do what you like?"

Schnelle: No, its wrong. That’s totally wrong.

Mulder: But it is often said of Luther, that it is all about grace for the individual. Where in Luther do we then find, that the ecclesia is important also? Some scholars would argue that you have a very under-developed ecclesiology in Luther, thus an almost exclusive focus on anthropology?

Schnelle: Here in Halle, at the Franckeschen Stiftungen, which is also from the Lutheran tradition, what are they doing? They help the poor children, they were the first to build orphanages. It is very clear that social justice is part of out tradition.

Mulder: So would you say it is a caricature to argue that Lutheranism doesn’t take things like social justice seriously?

Schnelle: Yes, that is not correct.

Mulder: So are you actually saying that in Lutheranism, justification by faith goes hand in hand with social responsibility?

Schnelle: Of course yes.

Mulder: What can we learn from the New Perspective on Paul?

Schnelle: At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, there was a misunderstanding of Judaism in some parts of the Lutheran church, which included Lutheran scholars. This is correct. It was good that the New Perspective started a debate about how near Paul the believer in Christ is still to Judaism. But, I say it again, for Paul, Christianity is not an update of Judaism. It is a new “meaning construction” with a new discourse founder – that is Jesus Christ. The discourse founder of Judaism is Moses. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is building it’s own world.

Mulder: OK, I understand. Last question on that. Was Abraham saved by grace?

Schnelle: Yes, because he was in a direct interaction with God.

Mulder: That was before the Law came?

Schnelle: Yes.

Mulder: I got that answer from an orthodox Jew also.

Once again a big thank you to Professor Schnelle for allowing us to publish this interview online!


Charles said...

Great interview. Thanks.

Frederik Mulder said...

Thanx Charles. I think at least some steriotypes often brought against the more classical understanding of justification by faith was debunked by Schnelle.

francois mulder said...

Great interview!

Frederik Mulder said...

Charels, although I admire NT Wright's work on the resurrection allot, I am much closer to Schnelle, Simon Gathercole and Francis Watson on justification.

Thomas Louw said...

Thanks for pointing me to this interview.
It seems to me we are on the same page.
I just wonder if it is best choice of words when he says “new”.

Would it not be better if we said something like it was “fully” revealed?

Or that the revelation of how we could be saved was completed with the writings of Paul.

I’m probably being too technical but, I think saying it is a “new” thing have some implications for your view of inspiration and the Attributes of God. Those errors have lead to a lot of false teachings.