Theology: August 2009 Archives

In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus raises a question to the Pharisees who were doubting his identity as sent from God. He cites Psalm 110:44, which has the psalmist saying:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies beneath your feet. [Matthew 22:44, NLT]

Jesus asks them how David could call the Messiah "My Lord" if the Messiah is David's son, and they have no answer.

There are plenty of interpretive issues going on here, but it strikes me that Jesus' argument relies on Davidic authorship of the psalm. Most scholars today deny the authenticity of the psalm headings as later additions. I have a couple contemporary commentaries on the Psalms that do take these headings seriously (I think the arguments in the introduction to Geoffrey Grogan's Two Horizons commentary are excellent, and if I remember correctly Derek Kidner's Tyndale volume takes this approach), but a lot of pretty conservative evangelicals, even inerrantists, don't consider the psalm headings to be a genuine part of the canonical scriptures. The problem with this is that anyone who takes Jesus' teaching as authoritative has strong reasons to accept Davidic authorship of Psalm 110, because Jesus' argument relies on that. So there's a choice between (1) accepting Jesus' teaching as true and accepting this psalm's heading as reliably reporting the truth about David's authorship of the psalm or (2) allowing Jesus to have taught something false if David didn't actually write this psalm.

The only way I can think of to get out of this argument is to consider Psalm 110 to have been written by someone other than David but to express something that, if David had said it, would be true. Then Jesus could give an argument that relies on David having fictionally said something that would be true if he'd said it, and it would therefore have to make sense with David saying it, so his conclusion would follow. But this isn't how those who reject Davidic authorship generally take Psalm 110. They generally take it to refer to God speaking to a Davidic king and a human but not Davidic Israelite (not a king) referring to God speaking to that king as "my Lord". So it seems as if the usual non-Davidic-authorship interpretation still doesn't work if Jesus' teaching is accurate. So even though there does seem to be a third option available, I don't think it reconciles how most who reject Davidic authorship actually take the psalm with how Jesus takes it.

A little while ago, this discussion led me to looking around to answer a question I've had for a while. There's a famous passage in John Owen on limited atonement that presents what I take to be a good argument for limited atonement but is often taken to imply something well beyond what Owen intended. I hold to limited atonement, but I think the view is often misrepresented even by its own proponents to be claiming something far beyond what the doctrine as defended by Calvin amounts to. You can see my careful statement of the issue and my reasoning here. The short of it is that I think limited atonement is the view that most Christians, Calvinist or not, have historically held and that contemporary Calvinists have co-opted the name for a further doctrine that seems to me to be neither biblical nor genuinely Calvinist.

As the argument is often used, Owen is trying to establish that the atonement covers only those who actually achieve salvation. Those who receive grace are saved, and no one else is covered by the atonement. My insistence is that limited atonement doesn't imply that there's no sense in which the atonement doesn't extend to those who do not attain salvation. The atonement covers all in the sense of being an offer available to all. It just actually covers only those who avail themselves of it. This view isn't just a Calvinist view, either. Most non-Calvinists, in my experience, accept limited atonement understood this way, and this was Calvin's own view. Some contemporary Calvinists interpret limited atonement as the first part (the atonement actually covers only the elect) and the denial of the second part (there's no sense in which it covers anyone else), but this was not Calvin's view.

What I've recently discovered is that it wasn't even John Owen's view, so the people who use his argument to establish that view are misunderstanding his argument. Owen, like Calvin, held that the atonement is effective for the elect but available to all if they were to repent. Theopedia's article on definite atonement (the term some Calvinists now prefer to refer to what is more usually called limited atonement) attributes this view to Owen and Hodge as well as Calvin, with a paragraph explaining that the view doesn't imply that God intended but somehow failed to save those for whom the atonement is sufficient but not effective.

So I think it's not just a fallacious logical inference to take the more extreme view (that there's no sense in which Christ died for those who wouldn't be saved) from Owen's argument. It's a historically inaccurate portrayal of Owen to use his argument as if he supported such a view. I consider such a view to be one kind of hyper-Calvinism (among many, some more seriously wrong than others). A friend of mine once told me that Owen must have written that passage on a bad day, but it seems on reflection that he just didn't intend it the way it's often taken.

By the way, if anyone reading this has an account at Theopedia, could you please fix the link on that entry to my Limited Atonement post? I'd do it myself, but they canceled my account a while back without ever notifying me, and I can't get reinstated without writing an essay application to satisfy their test of orthodoxy (which I'm sure I'd pass, but every time it occurs to me I'm not interested in taking the time).

The so-called New Perspective on Paul, spearheaded by E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, is
sometimes seen (and I think this is part of the motivation for some of its proponents) as a more Jewish-friendly view than the traditional understanding of Paul. On the traditional view, the prevailing mindset among the Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees of Paul's day was a theology of works-earned salvation. On the New Perspective, the Jews held a view more like the contemporary Roman Catholic view. People enter the covenant by God's grace but remain in it by works. I've wondered sometimes if some of the idea behind the NPP is to try to make the New Testament more friendly to Jews in this politically-correct age. If the view we attribute to the Jews of Paul's day (at least a notable portion of certain sorts of their leaders and those they
taught), then we don't seem as down on the Jews. Given the history of negative attitudes toward the Jews from the Christian-influenced world, anyone with a shred of respect for Judaism should at least like the idea of distancing Christianity from Anti-Semitism.

I don't happen to think the arguments for the NPP are remotely convincing, and for that reason I do wonder if some who want to be tolerant of Jews are engaging in wishful thinking in adopting the NPP. I don't see the need, because I don't think the traditional view is even close to anti-Semitic. Paul was in the tradition of the prophets, culminating in Jesus himself, in his self-criticism of his own Judaism. The internal critique found in Hosea or Jeremiah certainly wouldn't be seen by most Jews as anti-Semitic, and there's nothing that Paul does that's any different, even on the traditional view. But I'm not the only one who has wondered if some of the motivation for the NPP is a desire to abandon a view that's often been portrayed as anti-Jewish. Even if that's not true, there certainly are NPP proponents who offer that as a plus for their view.

There's a deep irony in all this, though, a double irony in fact. The very act of adopting the NPP, even if motivated by the a desire to think highly of the Jews of Paul's day, ends up leading to an unintended consequence while not really achieving the intended result to begin with. First, changing their view of the view Paul is condemning doesn't change the fact that he condemns it. It doesn't soften Paul's harsh language against the Galatians in calling them heretics and thinking it would be better to emasculate themselves than let circumcision do whatever it is (which is a matter of debate here) that they saw circumcision as doing. It doesn't make the Jews of Paul's day suddenly become orthodox Christian thinkers in Paul's mind. The Christians who were accepting the Jewish theses that the Galatians were playing around with would still be heretics in Paul's mind, no matter who wins the debate about what those theses happened to be. So the tolerance motivating the NPP doesn't lead to a tolerant conclusion on either the traditional view or the NPP. There's a theological view that gets rejected here, and revising our view of what that view is doesn't change the fact that Paul considers it s heresy.

Second, there's an unintended consequence. As I said at the beginning of this post, the view that the NPP attributes to the Galatians is pretty much the official Roman Catholic position. The view most people in the traditional approach attribute to the Roman Catholic position is actually a misrepresentation of official Catholic teaching but is common enough among Catholics who misunderstand the teaching of their church. I grew up in a very Catholic area, and it's obvious to me that many Catholics do hold the Galatian heresy to the extent that they have any beliefs on the matter at all (and many I knew didn't). But the official teaching of Roman Catholicism is not the Galatian heresy but rather a view very much like the view the NPP thinks Jews of Paul's day held.

The result is that, in extending so much tolerance toward the Jews of Paul's day, the NPP ends up closing the only door to separating Roman Catholicism from the Galatian heresy. Someone who holds the traditional view on what Paul was responding to can distinguish between that view (which Paul calls heresy) and the Roman Catholic view (even if many who hold the traditional view fail to do this). But someone holding the NPP seems to me to have to say that Roman Catholics are heretics. I wonder if the tolerance that NPP proponents are so motivated by can extend to Roman Catholicism. There's at least an internal tension within some who hold the NPP between one key motivation and one logical implication of the view.

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