Saturday, July 23, 2011

Islam's Scourge Returns

Anatomy of a killer

Faith is the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a guy. Guys are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is blond. Blonds are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a bodybuilder. Bodybuilders are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a thirty-something. Thirty-somethings are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is single. Singles are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a classical music buff. Classical music is the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a Facebook user. Facebook is the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is a farmer. Farmers are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is tall. Tall people are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Breivik is Norwegian. Norwegians are the problem, which can and does lead to fanaticism. Admit it you schmucks, or stay in denial. ;-)

Anders Behring Breivik

Friday, July 22, 2011

Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Reformed Theology: A Contemporary Introduction

The trials of Tuggy


“This is no more problematic than the existence of intrinsic change generally. Some philosophers think this is a big problem, but as I explained, I think the existence of intrinsic change is evident. (Thus, any argument that it's impossible must be unsound.)”

i) To say you think that’s “evident” begs the question in the teeth of philosophical arguments to the contrary.

And, of course, your statement is reversible. Thus, any claim that it’s evident is undermined by arguments to the contrary.

ii) You try to hold Trinitarians to rigorous standards, but you suddenly go lax when we measure your own position by the same criteria.

iii) Not to mention how you chronically fudge your appeal to monotheistic prooftexts, which you arbitrarily modify to allow for godlike agents while disallowing the deity of Christ.

Nice cheapshot. Anything to divert attention from the obvious truth, eh?

How is it a “cheap, diversionary” tactic to quote your own formulation verbatim?

You need to go back and look at my logic (i.e. my precise formulation of L's Law) and see that it allows for intrinsic change.

When you proceed to verbalize your formulation in your own words, the problem recurs, as I pointed out.

Glad to see that you're not denying L's Law.

Not affirming or denying. For one things, L's Law is ambiguous. Different interpretations and formulations are possible. 

Still waiting to see that your Trinity theory is in line with it.

My “Trinity theory” only has to be in line with it if that’s a requirement of God’s self-revelation.

L's Law applies to anything there is or can be; it is a necessary truth.

You still don’t get it. At most, L’s Law applies in cases where “absolute/numerical” identity is asserted.

You haven’t shown that your prooftexts assert absolute/numerical identity. You haven’t exegeted that technical notion of unicity from your prooftexts. You haven’t shown that they assert quantitative identity rather than qualitative identity.

Instead, what you’ve done is to gloss your prooftexts in light of that extratextual understanding. But you haven’t show that Bible writers are operating with that concept of unicity.

Appealing to “count nouns” won’t do the trick, in part because Bible writers use count nouns loosely (e.g. Jn 10:30; 17:21-23), and in part because Bible writers explicate divine unicity in terms of certain unique actions or attributes. They translate the quantitative aspect into qualitative aspects.

(Aside: I think you're confused about what ‘necessity’ means here; it is not ‘worldview-variant’. Basically, a nec truth is one such that it is absolutely impossible that it not be true.) Thus, it applies to God. What *sort* of thing he is can be disputed. But that that thing will ‘obey’ L's Law shouldn't be.

Which disregards arguments to the contrary:

Take psychologism:

In a world where logical laws are reducible to psychological laws, you don’t have logical necessity. And psychologism dovetails very nicely with evolutionary psychology.

Is that my own position? No. But you can’t say it’s “self-evidently” false. For it’s not “self-evidently false” in a psychologistic world. It’s only false in a non-psychologistic world. So you’d need to know which type of world you’re in.

Do I think evolutionary psychology and psychologism are ultimately self-refuting? Yes. But those positions need to be argued down. 

But this is Tuggy’s modus operandi: just keep paraphrasing the same repetitious claim while ignoring the counterarguments.

You've admitted L's Law, and thus that your 3 claims are apparently contradictory, and strongly so.

i) No, not to deny something is not to affirm it. I’ve simply bracketed that issue. And I’ve also pointed out that that’s been challenged by philosophers like Benjamin Schnieder.

But I don’t need to go there since this is ultimately a question of exegetical theology.

ii) Moreover, it’s only contradictory within you assumptions regarding “absolute/numerical” identity. But you haven’t shown that Scripture operates with that specialized concept of unicity. Rather, that’s an assumption you constantly bring to you prooftexts.

Bible writers tend to write in popular, picturesque language. They flag the true God as having certain defining attributes or certain defining deeds, in contrast to false gods who lack those defining deeds and attributes. And that’s it.

There’s no reason to think they’re operating with a highly-refined concept of “identity.” More likely, they’re operating with a rough-n-ready concept sufficient to distinguish the true God from false claimants.

They don’t begin with Tuggy’s customized formulation of L’s Law (“for any four things, the second and third are identical only if the fourth is a way the second is at the first just in case the fourth is a way the third is at the first”), then construct a concept of God according to Tuggy’s specifications. 

Philosophical theology can, of course, operate with more highly-refined concepts of identity, but in that case it needs to refine Biblical concepts rather than importing more refined concepts into Biblical texts.

“No, of course logic doesn't tell you what to do now. That's a matter of considering evidence. That's what my published work on this is all about.”

Your article does nothing to show that Scripture preferentially applies L’s Law to the Father, making him Yahweh rather than the Son and/or Spirit. Your article does nothing to show that Scripture falsifies one (or more) of these three premises (from my previous post), much less which premise(s) it falsifies.

In Christian theology, you can’t give revelation short shrift. You can’t bypass the exegetical spadework and jump straight to philosophical theology. As a preliminary step you need to ascertain what God has revealed about himself. You can then proceed to build on that foundation.

The Deliberate Protestant

HT: Patrick Chan

Dale's dissimulation


Sorry, but this shows you didn't understand what was going on the post. I start with a simple, too simple formula, actually two of them. I use that to draw attention to a fundamental intuition we all have - that a thing can't at a time be and not be some way.

Of course, that oversimplifies the issue. That’s a statement of synchronic identity (“that a thing can’t at a time be and not be some way”).

But the issue for you, given your temporalist view of God, is the problem of diachronic identity. Whether one and the same thing (i.e. God) can be one way at one time and another way at another time.

And you yourself unwittingly raised this issue when you brought up 1 Cor 15:24-28. For in that passage, the Father is one way at one time, but another way at another time.

I go through a couple of obvious problems with the simple formulations, then come up with a more complex, but true one.

And after doing all that, you fall back on this formulation: “Yet, things which have differed can’t be numerically one.

Yet in 1 Cor 15:24-28, the Father differs depending on the time-frame. During the church age, he transfers dominion to the Son; during the final state, he resumes dominion.

So, by your own logic, the Father is two different Gods.

Denying L's Law to save a cherished theological theory…

I realize that you suffer from a limited attention span, but in my various responses to you I haven’t denied L’s Law. Rather, I’ve done some other things:

i) I’ve documented your failure to show, on exegetical grounds, that divine unicity must meet that condition.

ii) I’ve pointed out that logical necessity is not worldview-invariant.

iii) I’ve pointed out that you dissemble over logic. Take your recent reply to Sam: “It's not easy to take seriously someone pushing a patently contradictory theology - that Jesus and YHWH are numerically identical, and yet differ.

But even if (arguendo) that’s “patently contradictory,” mere logic doesn’t map a way out of that patent contradiction. Mere logic doesn’t say the Father is Yahweh rather than the Son.

If, in various ways, the NT says:

a) The Father is Yahweh

b) The Son is Yahweh

c) The Father and Son differ

L’s Law has no directional force to relieve that “patent contradiction.” L’s Law doesn’t tell you which premise is false. The exegetical data don’t yield any preferential application of L’s Law.

iv) More recently, I pointed out that your unitarian temporalist view of God fails to meet that condition.

Now, there are philosophers who do challenge the facile appeal to L’s Law, viz.

I haven’t gone into that, but your “self-evident” principle isn’t as “self-evident” as you think it is.

Yes, Kant's version of the noumena/phenomena distinction has to do with sense perception of the physical world, but Hick's distinction does not.

Which you trotted out as a diversionary tactic. And you're the one who linked the two. 

If I thought you were serious, I’d ask you what you think the ‘ad intra/extra distinction’ amounts to.

Ad intra: God’s necessary attributes.

Ad extra: God’s contingent effects.

You’ve said that the EC is God's relation to the world, and inconsistently with that, you've said that it is (the sum total of?) his actions.

And that’s inconsistent…how, exactly? How do you think God relates to the world apart from his mundane actions?

But I thought you invoked 2, so as to say that one changes and the other doesn’t.

A changeless God effects change.

In any case, back to special ed for me, and back to anger management therapy for you.

You underestimate your unwitting capacity for comic relief. But that’s the fate of the straight man.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Special Ed for Dale Tuggy


Your position is that the IT isn't the ET? Thus, there are at least two Trinities, and at least six divine persons?

I see it’s now necessary to tutor Tuggy in the rudiments of Christian theism. The “economic Trinity” is a traditional designation for the Triune God’s relation to the world. A synonym for the creative, redemptive, miraculous, and providential deeds of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their respective economic roles.

But what God does is not identical with what God is. For one thing, not only is there all that God actually does, but all that God might have done, but refrained from doing. God’s counterfactual power. Likewise, God’s making Adam and Eve is not identical with God’s omniscience. God’s contingent, in ad extra works are not conterminous with God himself.

That doesn’t generate two Trinities unless you’re as clueless as Dale Tuggy.

I said:

Far from safeguarding unitarianism, Tuggy’s combined assumptions yields serial polytheism. Every time God changes, you have a new and different God.

To which Tuggy responds:

Conclusion jumping is fun!

Needless to say, my conclusion came on the heels of a supporting argument. Is Tuggy so spacey that he doesn’t know the difference between “conclusion jumping” and a reasoned conclusion?

Yes, all this as-it-is vs. as-it-appears business comes from Kant. It is notoriously deployed, e.g. by John Hick in his theory of religious pluralism. Distinguished Reformed Christian philosopher George Mavrodes has pointed out a crucial ambiguity of Hick's lingo in an excellent essay called "Polytheism." Many non-Kantian philosophers think this sort of talk tends to confuse things - e.g. Kant's noumena (things as they are) vs. phenomena (things as they appear) - are these one domain of objects or two - interpreters of Kant go round and round on that.

i) I see. Theologians prior to Kant (e.g. Aquinas) didn’t draw ad intra/extra distinctions with reference to God.

One wonders if Tuggy conducts his classroom lectures in clown makeup.

ii) Tuggy also confuses the ad intra/extra distinction in Christian theism with the appearance/reality distinction in certain theories of sensory perception (e.g. indirect realism), as if that’s somehow interchangeable.

I'd be careful not to confuse this with the essential vs. non-essential property distinction. But yes, in principle a unitarian could employ both.

Since I didn’t confuse them, I don’t have to be careful about not confusing them. But it’s useful to see Tuggy’s grudging concession.

No, nothing I've said makes change impossible, for God or for anything else.

Before we proceeds, let’s set the stage. The question at issue is whether diachronic identity (i.e. identity through time) meets the stringent conditions of numerical identity, as Tuggy defines it (a la Leibniz). And the problem is especially acute for Tuggy, given his temporalist view of divine eternalit–in tandem with his Leibnizian definition of numerical identity. For Tuggy’s God is a diachronic entity.

Is persistence (with attendant change) is compatible with numerical identity? That’s the question.

Coincidentally, I just posted on = today, and this topic comes up.

Let’s have a little look-see, shall we?

In the italicized line, I’m applying something called Leibniz’s Law, or the Indiscernibility of Identicals. I sometimes put this roughly as, some x and some y can be numerically identical only if whatever is true of one is true of the other. That’s a sloppy way to put it.
In logic, a more precise way of stating it (used e.g. by Richard Cartwright) is:
(x)(y)(z) ( x= y only if (z is a property of x if and only if z is a property of y))
Literally: for any three things whatever, the first is identical to the second only if the third is a property of the first just in case the third is a property of the second.
The basic intuition is that things are as they are, and not some other way. So if x just is (is numerically the same as) y, then it can’t be that x and y qualitatively differ. This seems undeniable.
There are a few problems, though, with the above formula, which any person trained in philosophy may spot.
First, don’t things change? e.g. Last year you weighed 200, and now you weight 210 lbs. But does this mean that the you of 2010 is not numerically the same as the you of 2011? Ridiculous! Things can qualitatively change while remaining numerically the same. That’s just common sense.

That’s it? “Ridiculous”? “That’s just common sense”?

Tuggy carries on and on and on about “absolute identity,” attacking Trinitarians for (allegedly) flouting Leibniz’s law; he wraps himself in the mantle of logic, but then, when confronted with a standard objection regarding diachronic identity, what do we get? Does he attempt a philosophically rigorous response? No. We’re treated to this rhetorical cop-out.

Why do philosophers engage in intricate debates over the respective merits of endurantism and perdurantism if they could simply exclaim, “That’s just common sense!”

Moreover, his denial is in point blank contradiction to what he just said. Notice how he himself laid down the necessary conditions of identity:

Some x and some y can be numerically identical only if whatever is true of one is true of the other.

So if x just is (is numerically the same as) y, then it can’t be that x and y qualitatively differ.

That’s how he framed the issue. So x and y can’t be numerically identical if they differ qualitatively. They can’t be numerically identical unless whatever is true of x is true of y.

Then, a moment later he says x and y can be numerically identical even if there’s a qualitative change between x and y–even if something that’s true of x isn’t true of y, viz. what’s true of you at one time is not longer true of you at a later date (i.e. weight loss or weight gain). Yet, according to Tuggy, it’s still one and the same you! “That’s just common sense!”

But that clearly fails to meet the conditions of identity which he himself specified at the outset. 

Self-stultifying methodological naturalism

Dale's dilemma


About "qua", here's a basic question. Consider "Jesus qua divine is omniscient." and "Jesus qua human doesn't know some things." One may think this is better off than "Jesus does and doesn't know all." But no one has ever shown how.

We don’t need to show how. We only need to be faithful to God’s self-revelation.

The "qua" or "as" would normally be read as citing a cause or reason, i.e. because he's human he doesn't know some things, and because he's divine he knows all. D'oh! The contradiction comes right back.

What you’re pleased to call a “contradiction” is simply the revelation of Christ in Scripture.

And you’re in no position to assert a contradiction, for this would only be contradictory if the hypostatic union can’t account for that difference. Yet we no direct access to the theanthropic mind of Christ. We don’t know what it’s like to be him. We lack his indexical viewpoint. Theanthropic psychology is sui generis. That’s not something we can ever grasp from the inside out.

So the "qua" is supposed to qualify some term. Which? Subject? (Jesus-qua-human vs. Jesus-qua-divine) Copula? (is-qua-man vs. is-qua-human) or Predicate? (all-knowing-qua-divine vs. limited-in-knowledge-qua human). These seem the only options, and each has severe problems. Reformed philosopher Tom Senor shows some of them.

Of course, Douglas Blout responded to Senor’s position. Cf. “On the Incarnation of a Timeless God.”

You claim to discern some metaphysical distinction underlying some such move; I wonder what that is.

More to come.

Better to actually read Rauser's carefully reasoned piece.

Rauser’s article is a red herring. He’s attacking Rahner’s slogan that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa. I didn’t say that. Indeed, that’s contrary to my stated position.

There's no hint of any "economic" vs. "immanent" Trinity idea in that passage, of course.

Well, if you want to be a stickler about it, there’s no hint of monotheism, much less unitarianism, in that passage. Taken by itself, 1 Cor 15:24-28 refers to a god called the father, who has a son, who temporarily reigns in his place.

That’s entirely consistent with polytheism, which had father gods and filial gods aplenty.

Indeed, that’s more than hypothetical. After quoting this and some similar passages, Margaret Barker says “there can be little doubt, in light of passages such as these, that Jesus has been identified with the second God…" The Great Angel (WJKP 1992), 152. 

Her reference to the “second God” distinguishes El/Elohim/Elyon (=the Father) from Yahweh (=the Son).

Do I agree with her? No. But 1 Cor 15:24-28, considered in isolation, no more “hints” at monotheism (much less unitarianism) than it does Trinitarianism or even polytheism.

That passage has to be contextualized by Pauline theology in general.

Given that change means intrinsic change...

Are Cambridge changes intrinsic changes?

(Tuggy says "no").

So, by your own belated admission, it's erroneous for you to say “change means intrinsic change.”

Therefore, the economic Trinity and/or the Son qua Incarnate can undergo real changes which, however, involve extrinsic (rather than intrinsic) properties vis-à-vis the immanent Trinity or the Son qua Son.

"Given that" means IF by "change we mean intrinsic change..." God created, and exercising a power is intrinsic change.
Can there be extrinsic changes? I suppose so. But our issue was whether the ec. vs. imm. distinction was needed to understand how God changes. My point is, if it works for extr. change, it does not for intr. change.

i) To begin with, you’re the one who cast the issue in terms of “change,” not me. And given your temporalist view of divine eternality, that makes sense on your position. But it doesn’t follow from my position.

ii) I’m talking about differences in status over time. Change may entail differentiation, but differentiation needn't entail change. 

iii) Apropos (ii), from the eternalist standpoint, there was never a time when these extrinsic properties weren’t divine properties (or relations) There was never a time when these differences did not obtain. Sub specie aeternitatis, there was never a time when God was not the Creator.

iv) And even if (arguendo) we were going to frame the issue in terms of change, you’ve given no reason why God’s creatorship couldn’t be an extrinsic property or Cambridge change rather than an intrinsic property.

For those who aren’t familiar with distinction, take the following comparison:

If I become a father, I make my late father a grandfather.

My father’s death is a real change, but his becoming a grandfather is a Cambridge change. That’s a change in his status. A relational predicate.

v) These are technical circumlocutions. In popular usage, we can speak of God changing. Ordinary language is vivid and imprecise.

Like many Christian philosophers, I hold that he does undergo change, given the existence of time. It's no good saying that "in himself" he doesn't change, but "in relation to others" he does. Given that change means intrinsic change, this is inconsistent...

i) One problem is that Tuggy’s claim about intrinsic change seems to ignore Cambridge changes.

ii) But there's a deeper problem. How is diachronic identity tenable on his view? Given his definition of numerical identity, vis-à-vis Leibniz's law, his temporalist view of God generates McTaggart’s paradox.

On the one hand, change demands sameness. A God who changes must be self-identical. Must be one and the same God both before and after the change–otherwise we have two Gods with different, incompatible properties rather than one God who changes.

On the other hand, change demands difference. Alterity. For change to obtain, the same God must be what he is not, since God must have a former property, then have a different, incompatible property later on.

But how can one God be both the same and different?

Far from safeguarding unitarianism, Tuggy’s combined assumptions yields serial polytheism. Every time God changes, you have a new and different God.

So Tuggy’s objections to the Trinity now circle back to bite him on the tuchus.

For Tuggy decided to quote 1 Cor 15:24-28 against Trinitarians. Yet that text specifies a change in the status of the Father, as we transition from the church age to the final state.

I’ve already discussed the conceptual resources available to Trinitarian eternalists. But for a unitarian temporalist like Tuggy, this involves real, intrinsic change. How can Tuggy can still say, consistent with Leibniz's law, that his God is one and the same God before and after the transitional phase? If the Son reigns during the church age, while the Father resumes his reign after the church age, and if, what is more, God (=the Father) subsists in time, then those are incompatible, rather than indiscernible, properties. How can Tuggy’s God be self-identical through time, given the intrinsic changes which he underwent?

I guess that “absolute identity” ain’t so “absolute” after all.

I think Randal Rauser has shown this distinction to be either trivial or mistaken. So, no, I don't think there's any such important distinction, despite the theological tradition of this sort of discourse. Steve, as you spell it out, one of them's timeless, the other in time. Therefore, the one Trinity isn't the other (since they differ). Therefore, there are (at least) two Trinities. Yikes!

A basic problem with this response is that it’s not confined to Trinitarianism. Although the immanent/economic distinction is conventionally associated with Trinitarian theology, a unitarian could evoke an analogous distinction. Tuggy happens to an open theist, so he denies the timeless eternality of God.

However, it’s quite possible for a unitarian to take a more “classical” view of God.  There's nothing in unitarianism per se that prejudges your position on the nature of God’s eternality.

So a classical unitarian would distinguish between God in himself and God in his relation to the world. God’s creatorship would be a economic relation. Between God qua God and God qua Creator.

Likewise, a unitarian could argue that God’s creatorship is a contingent property rather than an essential property. God was free to refrain from making the world, or free from making this world rather than some other world.

So we'd have a distinction between the immanent unitarian God and the economic unitarian God. Some things are true of one which don’t hold true for the other.

But doesn't that invite the same objection concerning numerical identity? Is the immanent unitarian God one and the same God as the economic unitarian God? They aren’t indiscernible.

According to Tuggy's application of Leibniz’s law, classical unitarianism generates two Gods.

Media Bias On Religious Issues

Alex Tsakiris interviewed Lisa Miller, religion editor for Newsweek, regarding her recent book on Heaven. Notice how evasive Miller is. Tsakiris provides specific evidence against Miller's position, with names and other details, while Miller is far more vague and unreasonably dismisses scholars who specialize in the study of near-death experiences. Yes, specialists can be wrong, but Miller doesn't give us good reason to think they're wrong in this case. Notice, also, how she keeps saying that we aren't "sure" of particular conclusions, either ignoring the category of probability or acting as if probability is insufficient. Imagine if we approached other areas of science, or research in general, the way Miller approaches near-death studies. And notice how impatient she is, how poorly she reacts when challenged.

“New Testament Backgrounds”: How They Work to Clarify Our Understanding of the Texts

In my first post here at Triablogue, I discussed the “oral character” of some of the New Testament documents, and especially with regard to a comment that R.T. France had made about a much-disputed passage, Matthew 16:18. In his commentary, France had posited a hypothetical oral presentation between Jesus and Peter, with France suggesting that if Jesus was pointing to Peter’s “faith” or “confession” in that passage, then “Jesus chose his words badly”:
A second escape route [to suggest that Peter himself was not “the Rock” of that passage], beloved especially by those who wish to refute the claims of the Roman Catholic Church based on the primacy of Peter as the first pope, is to assert that the foundation rock is not Peter himself, but the faith in Jesus as Messiah which he has just declared. If that was what Jesus intended, he has chosen his words badly, as the wordplay points decisively toward Peter, to whom personally he has just given the name, as the rock, and there is nothing in his statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words “this rock” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” R.T. France, Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2007, pg 622).
While France may be correct to suggest that Jesus “did not point to himself” when he uttered that phrase, given the rhetorical character of the ancient world, it is highly likely that Matthew had some form of oral delivery system in mind, complete with hand gestures, when he penned his Gospel. And within the context of that oral delivery system, the awkward construction of that verse (“you are Peter, and on this rock …”) can be seen in a new light.

Robert Jewett, in his 2007 Commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans (a part of the Hermeneia commentary series, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), building on the work of other scholars, has assembled a fantastic overview of “the cultural situation in first century Rome”, (from which I’ve taken much of my previous House Church series). I’d like to continue with this “cultural situation” in ancient Rome for a number of reasons.

The first of which is that, as in the example above, it helps to shed new light on the New Testament Scriptures. (And in fact, such “cultural background” is helpful for understanding all the Scriptures. I really benefitted from this series by John Currid in that regard.)

But “backgrounds” are important for many reasons.

In 1977, E.P. Sanders published a work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” (©1977, London: SCM Press and Philadelphia: Fortress Press) which, as many of you know, blindsided the world of Protestant New Testament scholarship and sent it reeling for a time. Sanders’s work was a study in the “background” of Second Temple Judaism, especially the Tannaitic literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sanders’s work was extremely difficult to respond to, precisely because not many others had studied these “backgrounds” in quite the detail that he had done. Fortunately, D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien and Mark Seifrid were able to “out-background Sanders,” and they also “out-Pauled” him in their two volume work on Justification and Variegated Nomism. Carson puts this into perspective:
This means that the place to begin is with the literature of Second Temple Judaism, and the questions to be asked have to do with whether or not “covenantal nomism” serves us well as a label for an overarching pattern of religion. The scholars who have contributed the chapters of this book are not in perfect agreement on this point. The disagreement may spring in part from legitimate scholarly independence, but it springs even more (as the following chapters show) from the variations within the literature: the literature of Second Temple Judaism reflects patterns of belief and religion too diverse to subsume under one label. The results are messy. But if they are allowed to stand, they may in turn prepare us for a more flexible approach to Paul. It is not that the new perspective has not taught us anything helpful or enduring. Rather, the straitjacket imposed on the apostle Paul by appealing to a highly unified vision of what the first-century “pattern of religion” was really like will begin to find itself unbuckled… (5).
In Volume 1 of this work, more than a dozen authors consider a far broader range of literature than Sanders himself assessed. And the results of this study helped to put “the New Perspective” into perspective. While Sanders had forced New Testament scholars to consider a far broader range of literature, the “backgrounds” of the New Testament, he himself had spoken too boldly about his own conclusions. Carson summarizes:
There is strong agreement that covenantal nomism is at best a reductionistic category. … But covenantal nomism is not only reductionistic, it is misleading, and this for two reasons. First, deploying this one neat formula across literature so diverse engenders an assumption that there is more uniformity in the literature than there is. In Philo, for instance, there is no real notion of being “saved” in any of the traditional senses. In Sanders’s usage, the “getting in” of covenantal nomism is bound up with how the community becomes the people of God. Philo is really not interested in this (though he does hold that Israel has a special relationship with God): his focus is on the individual’s pilgrimage toward God. Compare the “getting in” and “staying in” here, with whatever they mean in the Tannaitic literature, in Josephus, in the apocalypses: Sanders’s formula is rather difficult to falsify precisely because it is so plastic that it hides more than it reveals, and engenders false assumptions that lose the flavor, emphases, priorities, and frames of reference, of these diverse literary corpora.

Secondly, and more importantly, Sanders has erected the structure of covenantal nomism as his alternative to merit theology. At one level, of course, he has a point. Earlier analyses of the literature of Second Temple Judaism often found merit everywhere, and Sanders, as we have seen, is right to warn against a simple arithmetical tit-for-tat notion of payback. Even where some of the apocalypses use the language of weighing deeds in the balance and the like, it is possible to understand the relevant passages as reflecting a holistic assessment of an entire life and its direction. Nevertheless, covenantal nomism as a category is not really an alternative to merit theology, and therefore it is no real response to it. Over against merit theology stands grace (whether the word itself is used or not). By putting over against merit theology not grace but covenant theology, Sanders has managed to have a structure that preserves grace in the “getting in” while preserving works (and frequently some form or other of merit theology) in the “staying in”. In other words, it is as if Sanders is saying, “See, we don’t have merit theology here; we have covenantal nomism” – but the covenantal nomism he constructs is so flexible that it includes and baptizes a great deal of merit theology. …

Examination of Sanders’s covenantal nomism leads one to the conclusion that the New Testament documents, not lest Paul, must not be read against this reconstructed background – or, at least, must not be read exclusively against this background. It is too doctrinaire, too unsupported by the sources themselves, too reductionistic, too monopolistic The danger is that of the “parallelomania” about which Sandmel warned us, by which texts are domesticated as they are held hostage to the ostensible background called forth by appealing to certain other antecedent texts. One of the hopes of the editors of this pair of volumes is that the breaking up of fallow ground attempted in this first volume will lead to fresh exegesis of crucial Pauline texts in the next (543-548).
And so on it goes – new material is discovered and considered and incorporated into the historical-critical exegesis of a text.

My intention here is not to begin a discussion on the New Perspectives on Paul. I’ve not read nearly enough to speak confidently about it. But I do trust that Evangelical and Reformed scholars have treated the topic adequately, and I trust the work they’ve done.

But my intention rather is to highlight the process of how some of the background information – provided through historical studies in ancient literature and archaeology can help to shed light on things we’ve been reading all of our lives.

Ancient Rome is one of these topics where studies in secular history and literature and archaeology of the period are shedding new light on very old topics, and where some of the seemingly intractable dilemmas of the last 500 years and more (i.e., the history of the early papacy) are being forced to give way, in a decidedly Protestant direction, in the new light of the additional evidences that are being uncovered.

And it’s in this direction that I hope to move in the coming weeks.