Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Response to Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification: Part One

Dave Woolcott has recently posted on his blog a response to the 32 theses listed in my website article “Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled.” Dave’s critique can be found on my blog in the post entitled “Dave Woolcott’s Critique of My View of Justification,” or on his blog in his post entitled “A response to Steven Coxhead’s ‘Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled.’”

Dave is a student of mine from a few years ago, but I don’t think he has fully understood my views on justification. The best critiquers of a system are those who are can develop an empathy with the system that they’re critiquing. Otherwise there’s the problem of the straw man, and I think a bit of that is happening here. That Dave hasn’t fully understood my view is partly understandable, as I think my teaching of him was primarily limited to the Old Testament prophets and wisdom literature. The Old Testament concept of covenant righteousness would have been explained in that class, but the ins and outs of my view of justification would not have been explained there in great detail, as they are not part of the syllabus. Anyway, Dave has expressed in his post that he is keen to be corrected if he has misunderstood my view in any way, so I’ll respond to Dave’s critique bit by bit and point by point over the next few days or so, but I’ll start off with a response to his introductory comments.

Dave says that “[f]or a number of years students at the PTC have been confused by Steven’s teaching.” I’m not sure if he means by this that “all students” or “students generally” or “some students” have been confused by my views, but I am aware that there are some in the wider church who are suggesting that a disconcertingly significant number of students have been confused by my teaching. However, my experience, gleaned through interaction with the students in class, outside of class, through assessment tasks, and formal student feedback, is that the majority have had no major problem. Indeed, a significant number are keen to hear more. So if Dave means by his statement that “some students have been confused,” I’d agree with that as being accurate. If I come into the classroom with set views about certain things, which are then challenged by God’s word, then confusion can result; but it is always my hope and prayer that any reshaping or remoulding that takes place in my classes happens in accordance with the whole counsel of God. We could conduct a poll in relation to this point, but since it doesn’t lie at the heart of Dave’s critique I’ll leave the comments section below open to any former or current students of mine to comment upon as they see fit.

It should also be kept in mind that the 32 theses in question are not meant to be a comprehensive statement as to what I believe concerning justification. These theses emerged in the context of staff development at the PTC [Presbyterian Theological Centre] involving a paper of mine on the Old Testament, and were placed on my website for easy access for those students who wanted to find out more regarding righteousness concepts in the Old Testament. As I state in the introductory paragraph to the theses, they are primarily an attempt to describe the relationship between the righteousness of covenant obedience and the righteousness of sacrifice as they functioned under the Mosaic covenant. The 32 theses, therefore, are not a comprehensive statement regarding my views on justification; so I hope that is kept in mind.

Dave also asks the question: Is there a difference between a covenantal definition of faith and works, and an anthropological one? The simple answer is: Yes. The distinction has to do with understanding what the Apostle Paul meant by the term faith in contrast to the works of the law. In particular: what did Paul mean by the term the works of the law?

The classic anthropological definition of faith and works has been in operation since the time of the early church, but in Protestant circles it goes back to Luther. Luther effectively divides the human person into two parts: body and soul. Faith is the action of the soul, whereas works are the action of the body. See his discussion of this in the first few paragraphs of The Freedom of the Christian. It is a strongly dualistic distinction, akin to what is found in classic Greek philosophy. Perhaps most Reformed systematic theologians do not hold to such a crassly dualistic anthropological distinction between faith and works in the way that Luther does, but I would hazard a guess that for most of us the distinction between faith and works that we operate with is nonetheless an anthropological one. Faith is an action of the heart, from which works flow as fruit. This is a valid distinction psychologically and biblically. James’s teaching in Jam 2:14-26, for example, involves an anthropological distinction between faith and works.

But the problem we have is that we have assumed that that is how Paul was using these terms. It has not dawned upon the vast majority of Christian theologians that a covenantal reading of faith and works in Paul is a genuine possibility that deserves to be investigated and debated. This lack of awareness to the possibility of a covenantal reading of Paul is primarily due to the influence of Greek philosophical categories on our reading of Scripture, which have assumed the place of more organic Old Testament and Jewish ones. For example, how many people are aware of the idea that the phrase the works of the law solely denotes the requirements of the Mosaic law? Likewise, how many people are aware of the idea that doing the works of the law is Jewish idiom for faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant? Combine this with a face-value reading of Deut 6:25, Ezek 18:5-9, and Paul’s statement in Rom 10:5 that Moses spoke about a righteousness that comes from doing torah, and you start to get a different take on what Paul was on about. Is there actually a genuine concept of law righteousness in the Old Testament? And could it possibly be in the light of this that the issue for Paul was not primarily one of legalism, but the specific issue of Christian Judaizers trying to force Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision (if male) and to keep the law of Moses “in order to be saved” (see Acts 15:1, 5), all in the name of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, on the mistaken assumption that the Mosaic covenant continued on as is and was still normative for salvation as it had been since Sinai (despite the coming of Jesus)? Just imagine if Paul was arguing for the primacy of Christ and the new covenant over against the traditional Jewish commitment to Moses and the Mosaic covenant as the way of covenant righteousness before God? Is that not a strong possibility in the historical context of his day and the primarily Jewish nature of this dispute? I believe that this view deserves some genuine investigation. To find the accused guilty before the investigation has been finished and all the evidence has been tabled is not an honorable form of justice.

Concerning Dave’s last point in his introductory comments, it is true that Paul is not explicitly concerned to teach such a distinction, but this is not to say that such a distinction is not relevant to how Paul uses these terms. The main problem is that it has been assumed in Christian theology that the anthropological distinction is the only one that exists. In an effort to understand God’s word with greater precision, are we willing to investigate whether or not a covenantal reading of Paul makes sense, or do we think we already know all the answers? Dave says he’s willing to debate this, and that’s a good thing. But the best way to review a car is to take it for a test drive. You have to get in the system and see how it works, not just give an opinion as you see it driving by. Are we willing to seriously investigate this issue, and to grow in our understanding of God’s word as a result of the process? I say this not so much to Dave, but to others out there who (from my point of view) have come to radical conclusions about my orthodoxy without seriously investigating the possibility of a covenantal reading of Paul in an empathetic way. This may very well be the new wave in Pauline research; and my humble opinion is that we need to investigate it in a genuine, open, honest, and charitable manner.

I’ll endeavor to deal with points 1-3 from Dave’s critique in my next post, and I thank him for being willing to discuss the issue in a good spirit. I hope that charitable discussion will always be a hallmark of the debates conducted in the Berith Road Blog.

8 comments:

Steven Coxhead said...

The following is a copy of Dave's comments on this post from his blog.

Dave Woolcott
December 28th, 2009 on 8:27 pm

I want to thank Steven for being willing to discuss this topic. As we are not yet discussing the ‘guts’ of the issues I will respond very briefly to just a few things here in the comments section. I would invite others to do so too.

Steve said, “Dave is a student of mine from a few years ago”. I ‘was’, not ‘is’ a student of Steve’s. In 2003, to be precise, was the year that Steve lectured me on the topic he outlines. I guess I never cease to be a past student!

I appreciate that I probably have not fully understood Steve’s position. Hopefully this process will clarify things for me.

I said in my critique, “[f]or a number of years students at the PTC have been confused by Steven’s teaching.”

Steve then said, “I’m not sure if he means by this that “all students” or “students generally” or “some students” have been confused by my views, but I am aware that there are some in the wider church who are suggesting that a disconcertingly significant number of students have been confused by my teaching. However, my experience, gleaned through interaction with the students in class, outside of class, through assessment tasks, and formal student feedback, is that the majority have had no major problem. Indeed, a significant number are keen to hear more. So if Dave means by his statement that “some students have been confused,” I’d agree with that as being accurate.”

I stated what I stated because I believed it to be accurate. In my year, I was confused, as was at least two other students. Because of my role in the Student Representative Counsel I fielded concerns and queries from a number of students over the following three years I was at college. I kept my finger on the pulse with some students I came in contact with after I left college. Steve is correct, some did want to know more. Some where also confused. I am sure that the reasons why some wanted to know more was varied. Usually when I am confused I seek to know more (like I am doing now).

I stand by my statement that “for a number of years students at PTC have been confused by Steven’s teaching”, but I do not mean to suggest that all were confused, nor that an insignificant minority were confused. I did not conduct a poll so I cannot be more specific! ;-)

Finally, in regard to the distinction between an anthropological and covenantal use of the terms “faith” and “works”, I have investigated such ideas that Steve speaks about. I found them to be built on assumptions and “what ifs”. I am willing to give Steve a fair hearing. Perhaps he has something to bring to the table that I have not heard before. If so, then I am more than willing to consider it. It should probably be noted that my view was not what Steve would describe as anthropological. I am still unsure of what he means by covenantal so I cannot comment on that yet. I might also add that I am not overly preoccupied with the views of Luther, Calvin or the WCF. I am happy for Steve to refer to them, but I will not be defining my own understandings from their perspectives, but rather from scripture. There are several reasons for this, none of which are very exciting!

Steven Coxhead said...

Just wondering what scholars Dave would classify as espousing a covenantal approach to Galatians and Romans, and perhaps Dave could explain his understanding of what Paul means by the terms faith and the works of the law.

Dave said...

I guess you Steve, are a scholar espousing a covenantal approach to Galatians and Romans! Yes, I figure that you are a scholar! ;-)

I will come back with my understanding of faith and works shortly!

Steven Coxhead said...

In my mind, a covenantal approach to Paul is different from a New Perspective approach. There aren't many people out there that I know who advocate a covenantal or salvation-historical reading of Paul. Bill Dumbrell is one who does, and I'm interested in exploring further in that area. In my mind a covenantal approach views the works of the law as solely denoting covenantal obedience to the law of Moses. That is, the issue in Galatians and Romans is commitment to the Mosaic covenant versus commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the Christian gospel. To understand the works of the law as denoting obedience to law in general (whether divine or man-made rules) is not what Paul had in mind.

Dave said...

Steve, you said, "In my mind a covenantal approach views the works of the law as solely denoting covenantal obedience to the law of Moses".

I find it hard to see how that is the case. I cannot remember where yousaid it, but you mentioned that the "works of the law" in Romans referred to the Mosaic law? Anyway, I believe that to restrict the works of the law to only the Mosaic covenant is to restrict them too much. Obviously, in the case of Romans at least scholars have been divided over what the 'law' is.

I have my own theory. My exit thesis gives some details as to my view (it was on who the wretched man of Romans 7 is). To keep it brief, I guess I see some issues with your view that cause Paul's letter to the Romans to become confusing and nonsensical if such a strict understanding of law is used.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Dave, if you could summarize your thesis for me in a few words, that would be good.

We have to keep in mind the issue that Paul was dealing with: see Acts 15:1, 5 for a summary. This was the issue that his Galatian epistle dealt with. This is also the issue that was being played out again at Rome with large numbers of Jews returning there after being kicked out by Claudius.

Paul presents a powerful and devastating argument that the Mosaic covenant was not able to bring the fullness of salvation to Israel. In fact, it made things worse, simply compounding the problem of sin in Adam that Israel also shared in. I simply can't see how a covenantal interpretation makes parts of Romans nonsensical, and I don't think any of my students who I have discussed this with in my Romans classes over the years have come to that conclusion. I don't think you've fully appreciated this approach so far, so I hope you'll give me a bit of time to explain it. Please, it's worth it. A bit like a Damascus Road experience.

Dave said...

Steve, sorry for any confusion but I was not meaning that a covenantal view of Romans is nonsensical, but rather holding to the law in Romans being only the Mosaic law. I will try and briefly explain my view to see if it helps. By the way, I have not gven up trying to understand you yet!

My understanding of Romans (I have not looked at Galatians as closely but see many similarities) is that Paul is not just dealing with the Mosaic law, but all ‘law’. I do not believe that there is more than one covenant and follow Bill Dumbrell’s understanding of God ‘causing his covenant to stand’ rather than beginning a new covenant at each new mention of covenant. As a result, Romans is to do with circumcision, the Mosaic law, the law written on the hearts of Gentiles (all people). So when I see Paul talk about the works of the law, yes I can try and narrow it down to speak of a specific covenant or law (e.g. Romans 7:7 would appear to be Mosaic), but if I say that the truth Paul is speaking is only relevant to the Mosaic Law, then I have reduced the impact of what Paul is saying too much. After all, Romans 7:7 is an example of how any law (be it written in our hearts or on tablets of stone) when combined with our flesh leads to sin and death.

To me, this is keeping a true covenant paradigm, because wherever there has been covenant, there has been law, and what Christ has done impacts all of this covenant (or covenants according to your view).

Now, to explain my view further, I think you are right when you say, “Paul presents a powerful and devastating argument that the Mosaic covenant was not able to bring the fullness of salvation to Israel. In fact, it made things worse, simply compounding the problem of sin in Adam that Israel also shared in.” I just do not see why you limit it to the Mosaic Covenant. Has there been any covenant (in your multi-covenant view) that has not made things worse? Paul also makes statements that are true for any law (Romans 7:14-20) and makes it clear that no one has been free from the impact of ‘law’ with flesh (Romans 2:14).

Paul makes it clear in Romans that no one will ever be righteous following the law (except Jesus ) because the law, combined with our flesh only brings sin and death. I believe that the wretched man in Romans 7 is not a comment on Paul or anyone else as a believer or non believer, but rather someone in the flesh. And being in the flesh, for Paul is something that is true for believers and non believers alike. As Paul says, the law increases sin, because of our flesh. BUT – in Christ we are released from the law (it is met in Christ). We are no longer slaves to sin, because the law, with its negative influence on us is dealt with. BUT – are we free to abuse this grace? No. Rather we are to take on the new commandment, the only debt that remains outstanding (Romans 13:8-10). As it happens, this new commandment is what has been at the heart of the ‘law’ since Adam was a boy! I find it rather ironic – we could not keep the law, so Jesus released us from the law – so we could keep the law!

This is why I so strongly stress that our ’slavery to righteousness’ comes as a result of what Christ has done. It is not helpful to say to believers that they must live out righteousness if it is not within the context of what Christ has done. To do so is to simply place them again under law, meaning that sin and death will have power again.

I also believe that my view is truly covenantal!

I would love you to explain your view as I have with mine above (I hope it was clear!). I would love to know from your perspective how you view law before and after Christ and how this interacts with living as a believer.

I hope this has been helpful!

Dave said...

Further to this, I think I understand what you are trying to do with your view (as I understand it). I just think you are looking for a solution where there is not one. Some issues are

*You believe there are two types of righteousness. But why does Paul not mention this in Gal 2-3? It would surely have made things simpler for him!
*Following on from above, you can say Paul is talking about circumcision only, but this is not how he comes across at all. At the very least you would have to say that what he says is true for all covenantl law (including Adamic). C.f. Gal 2:15, 3:11, 21.
*Paul makes it clear that he might be dealing with circumcision specifically, but law is law (Gal 5:3).

I will give you a chance to say something!