Saturday, November 3, 2018

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part Two)

Objection: What Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:11 indicates that he and the twelve apostles were heralding the same gospel.

In 1 Cor. 15:11, Paul wrote, “Then, whether I or they, thus we are heralding and thus you believe.” Some have understood Paul’s words here as evidence that Paul and the twelve apostles heralded the same evangel. According to this view, the truth that Paul had in view as having been heralded by both himself and the rest of the apostles was his evangel in its entirety. However, there is absolutely no evidence that Peter (or any of the other twelve apostles) heralded, as part of their evangel, the death of Christ for the sins of all mankind (which is a truth intrinsic to Paul’s evangel).

Peter, for example, is not recorded as having ever heralded Christ’s death for mankind’s sins, or as even having heralded Christ’s death for the sins of those to whom he spoke. The reader can verify this for themselves by reading through Peter’s evangelistic messages, as recorded in Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26 and 10:34-43. Was this not the evangel with which Peter had been entrusted (making it “the evangel of the Circumcision”)? I don’t see how this can be denied. How then could it possibly be the same evangel as that which essentially involves the fact that “Christ died for our sins,” and which Paul said had been entrusted to him as “the apostle of the nations?”

The answer is that it can’t be the same evangel. Consider the following logical (and scripturally-informed) argument:

1. The evangel which was distinctly entrusted to Paul essentially involves the truth that “Christ died for our sins.”
2. The evangel that was heralded by Peter (and of which we have three separate examples in the book of Acts) did not contain the truth that “Christ died for our sins.”
3. The evangel that Peter was heralding was not the evangel entrusted to Paul.

Given the logical conclusion of the above argument, what then did Paul mean in 1 Cor. 15:11? It must be kept in mind by the reader that the reason Paul reminded the Corinthian believers of the elements of his evangel in the first place was to defend the truth of Christ’s resurrection (which was part of his overall defense of the truth of the resurrection of mankind, in general). It is for this reason that Paul emphasized Christ’s post-resurrection appearances (vv. 5-8). Given Paul’s objective in writing this part of his letter, it can be reasonably inferred that the truth which Paul was referring to as being heralded by both himself and those who’d seen Christ alive after his resurrection was simply the truth that Christ had been roused from among the dead. That this was, in fact, what Paul had in mind in v. 11 is confirmed by what Paul wrote in the very next verse: Now if Christ is being heralded that He has been roused from among the dead, how are some among you saying that there is no resurrection of the dead?” It was this truth in particular – and not every element constituting Paul’s distinct evangel – which Paul had in view in v. 11. 

Objection: Based on what Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 3:6, we should understand those constituting the body of Christ as being beneficiaries of the new covenant.

If Paul understood himself to have been dispensing the literal new covenant between God and Israel, it would mean that Paul expected those to whom he wrote to share in Israel’s covenant-based expectation (see my response to the objection from 1 Cor. 11:23-26). But that’s contrary to the fact that Paul clearly understood the eonian life of those to whom he wrote as a blessing that would be enjoyed “in the heavens,” where Christ is presently located (2 Cor. 5:1-9). What, then, did Paul mean in 2 Cor. 3:6? Here’s the verse: “[God] also makes us competent dispensers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the spirit, for the letter is killing, yet the spirit is vivifying.”

By “us” in this verse Paul meant himself, Silvanus and Timothy: “Now God is faithful, for our word toward you is not "Yes" and "No," for the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Who is being heralded among you through us -- through me and Silvanus and Timothy -- became not "Yes" and "No," but in Him has become "Yes." For whatever promises are of God, are in Him "Yes." Wherefore through Him also is the "Amen" to God, for glory, through us. Now He Who is confirming us together with you in Christ, and anoints us, is God, Who also seals us and is giving the earnest of the spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:18-22).

When Paul went on to refer to himself and his co-laborers as being dispensers “of a new covenant” in 3:6, the more immediate context of this verse (as well as the larger context of everything Paul wrote to the body of Christ) indicates that Paul was using metaphorical language to refer to the “word” concerning Jesus Christ that was being heralded by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. And what “word” was this? Answer: it was the evangel of the Uncircumcision, which had been entrusted to Paul. In fact, Paul actually referred to himself elsewhere as the “dispenser” of this evangel:

Eph. 3:6-7
“…in spirit the nations are to be joint enjoyers of an allotment, and a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel of which I became the dispenser...”

Col. 1:23
“…since surely you are persisting in the faith, grounded and settled and are not being removed from the expectation of the evangel which you hear, which is being heralded in the entire creation which is under heaven of which I, Paul, became the dispenser.

Based on the above considerations, I think it’s reasonable to understand that which Paul referred to as “a new covenant” in 2 Cor. 3:6 as simply being a figurative reference to the evangel of which he’d been made the dispenser (and which certain other qualified men were helping him dispense among the nations). But why would Paul metaphorically refer to the evangel that he, Silvanus and Timothy were dispensing among the nations as “a new covenant?”

It must be emphasized that a metaphor is always based on some similarity, or point of continuity, between two different things. And in order to better understand what the likeness is between the new covenant and the gospel which Paul and his apostolic companions were dispensing among the nations, we need to understand the difference between the old and new covenants between God and Israel. The primary difference between the covenant made through Moses and that which God promised through the prophet Jeremiah is that God himself carries out the conditions of the new covenant, so that the recipients of the covenant inevitably receive the blessings promised in the covenant. Among other things, the blessings of the new covenant will involve God’s delivering the recipients of the covenant from condemnation (Heb. 8:12; 10:17), as well as the placing of God’s spirit within them (Ezek. 36:26-27).

This is very much like God’s blessings to those called through Paul’s evangel (hence, the metaphor used by Paul). As believers in the evangel which Paul was dispensing, our hearts are engraved “with the spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3; cf. Gal. 4:6). Significantly, the first time Paul referred to the spirit of God in this letter is in 2 Cor. 1:22 (which was quoted earlier): ”Now He Who is confirming us together with you in Christ, and anoints us, is God, Who also seals us and is giving the earnest of the spirit in our hearts.This verse provides us with a contextual clue as to what Paul was referring to in 2 Cor. 3:3-6 when he spoke of our hearts being engraved with the spirit of God. Paul went on to refer to the dispensing of the “new covenant” that is “of the spirit” as “the dispensation of the spirit,” and referred again to this dispensation in 2 Cor. 4:1. Notice, however, what Paul immediately began talking about in the verses that follow (vv. 3-6): the evangel which he and his co-laborers (Silvanus and Timothy) had been dispensing among the nations.

The evangel of which Paul had been made the dispenser essentially involves the receiving of the spirit, which, in 2 Cor. 3:6, is said to be “vivifying” (compare with Romans 8:11, where we’re told that the spirit of God within us - which we received when we believed on Christ - will be “vivifying [our] mortal bodies because of His spirit making its home in [us]”). The vivification to which Paul was referring here (as well as, I believe, in Rom. 8:11) is that which will occur when we undergo the “change” referred to in 1 Cor. 15:50-54, and receive our immortal, spiritual body. The glorified, immortal body which we’ll receive when we’re vivified at “the last trump” is referred to by Paul in 2 Cor. 5:2 as “a house not made by hands, eonian, in the heavens(as an aside, those who think that Paul didn’t reveal the truth of the heavenly destiny of the body of Christ until he wrote his later “prison epistles” must ignore this verse, among others).

Keeping in mind that Paul referred to believers as having been sealed and given “the earnest of the spirit in our hearts” in 2 Cor. 1:22, it’s significant that Paul went on to link our future vivification with “the earnest of the spirit” that has been given to us: “For we also, who are in the tabernacle, are groaning, being burdened, on which we are not wanting to be stripped, but to be dressed, that the mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He Who produces us for this same longing is God, Who is also giving us the earnest of the spirit (2 Cor. 5:4-5). God’s placing his spirit into our hearts is, in other words, his pledge to us that we’re going to be vivified at the time referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:50-54.

In light of these considerations, consider now the following verses from Ephesians:

Eph. 1:13-14
“In Whom you also -- on hearing the word of truth, the evangel of your salvation -- in Whom on believing also, you are sealed with the holy spirit of promise (which is an earnest of the enjoyment of our allotment, to the deliverance of that which has been procured) for the laud of His glory!)…”

The vivifying spirit referred to by Paul in 2 Cor. 3:6 is the same “holy spirit of promise” with which we’re “sealed” when we hear and believe. Hear and believe what? Answer: the same “word” concerning Jesus Christ of which Paul, Silvanus and Timothy had been made competent dispensers. But was this “word” the literal new covenant that God will establish between himself and Israel? No. The word that we hear and believe is “the word of truth, the evangel of [our] salvation.” This word is like the new covenant, in that, when we hear and believe it, we are freed from condemnation (Rom. 8:1), and our hearts are engraved with the spirit of God, which is the pledge of the “deliverance of our body” (Rom. 8:23) and of our eonian life “in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1-2).

Objection: According to Galatians 2:15, we should understand Peter to have affirmed the same truth concerning justification as Paul. 

In Galatians 2:14-16, Paul wrote, “But when I perceived that they are not correct in their attitude toward the truth of the evangel, I said to Cephas in front of all, ‘If you, being inherently a Jew, are living as the nations, and not as the Jews, how are you compelling the nations to be judaizing?’ We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having perceived that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus, we also believe in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law, seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified.”

Some believe that, when Paul wrote “we” at the beginning of v. 15, he was including Peter (and, by extension, James and John). However, contrary to the “paraphrase” a fellow believer once provided me with, Paul did not write, “Peter and I, who by nature are Jews…” No, Paul wrote, “We, who by nature are Jews…” Was Paul referring to all Jews here? No; of course not. Was Paul even referring to every Jew who could’ve been considered a “believer” during the apostolic era (such as the “tens of thousands” of believing Jews who, we’re told in Acts 21:20-21, were all zealous for the law of Moses)? I don’t think so, and I doubt that even those who believe Paul was including Peter in v. 15 would go so far as to affirm this position. The only Jews to whom Paul was referring in v. 15 were those who, like himself, had come to perceive “that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus.” Thus, only if we have good reason to believe that Peter was among those who had come to perceive this truth concerning justification do we have reason to believe that Paul was including Peter in the “we” of Gal. 2:15. And I’m not at all convinced that we do (for my thoughts on a passage commonly appealed to in support of the idea that Peter understood himself to have been justified through the faith of Christ, click here). Instead, everything Paul went on to write is perfectly consistent with the view that Peter’s understanding of his own salvation and justification was the same as that affirmed by James in chapter two of his letter to the twelve tribes (which was clearly a salvation and justification that was based on both faith and works).

Now, it must be acknowledged that, if what Paul wrote in v. 15 should be understood as a continuation of the quote that begins in v. 14, it would be unavoidable to understand Paul’s “we” as including Peter. However, there were no quotation marks in the original text of Galatians 2, and it would simply be question-begging to argue that Paul was including Peter in the “we” of v. 15 on the basis of when it’s believed Paul’s quoted statement to Peter ends. The position that Paul’s statement to Peter continues beyond v. 14 is no less dependent on conjecture and broader contextual and doctrinal considerations than the view which sees it as ending with v. 14 (the lack of scholarly consensus on where, exactly, Paul’s quoted statement to Peter should be understood as ending further supports this fact).[1] Grammatically speaking, we have no more reason to understand the “we” of v. 15 as including Peter as we have to understand it as excluding Peter.

On the other hand, everyone would agree that Paul’s quotation of his statement to Peter has to end somewhere. So why shouldn’t it be understood as ending in verse 14? Paul’s question to Peter in v. 14 is a perfectly adequate rebuke in and of itself, and would’ve been sufficient to elicit a positive change in behavior from Peter. And insofar as this is the case (i.e., insofar as the question in v. 14 constitutes a sufficient rebuke of Peter in response to his hypocritical behavior in Antioch), anything written after this single, pointed question can be understood as unlikely to have been part of Paul’s public rebuke of Peter. In other words, to whatever extent the question in v. 14 would have succeeded as a behavior-changing, public rebuke of Peter, everything said in verses 15-21 is, to that extent, unlikely to have been part of Paul’s rebuke of Peter. This simple fact alone can, I believe, be understood as tilting the scales in favor of the view that Paul’s quotation ends in v. 14. In conjunction with this consideration, I suspect that even those who think Peter is to be understood as part of Paul’s “we” in v. 15 would agree that, when understood as forming part of Paul’s public rebuke of Peter, verses 15-21 (especially verses 17-21) begin to look unnecessarily wordy - and even downright puzzling - as an intended rebuke of Peter. In any case, the position which sees the quotation as ending in v. 14 is no less plausible than any other position one could take, and is by far the simplest option available.

It may be objected that, even if Paul’s statement to Peter is to be understood as ending in v. 14, one could still believe that, nevertheless, Paul would’ve understood Peter as being included in his “we” in v. 15. However, I think we have good reason – both from the larger context of this letter as well as the Greek scriptures as a whole – to understand Paul’s “we” as a reference to Jewish believers whose ministry was in accord with the distinct administration given to Paul, and who were said to be “for the nations” (such as, for example, Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Silvanus and Timothy). In fact, in the context, Paul makes explicit mention of himself and Barnabas as those who, in contrast with Peter, James and John, were to be “for the nations,” bringing them the “evangel of the Uncircumcision” (Gal. 2:1, 7-10, 13). In verse 9, Paul even contrasts himself and Barnabas with Peter, James and John by using the words “we” and “they.” In other words, Paul had already made a distinction between two clearly defined, separate “ministries” involving two groups of Jewish believers, and Paul’s “we” in v. 15 should, I believe, be understood in this broader context.

Beginning around v. 13 of chapter 1, Paul had been recounting past events that were pertinent to the issue at hand, and which served to support his apostolic authority and the truth that he and his co-laborers had been dispensing among the nations. This historical recounting ends with the words Paul declared to Peter in Antioch (v. 14), and in v. 15 Paul has “returned to the present,” so to speak, and resumed his direct address to the saints to whom he wrote this letter. Verse 15 is the beginning of another “phase” in Paul’s doctrinal defense of the truth he had previously taught the ecclesias of Galatia. Paul mentioned the incident involving Peter at Antioch in order to further defend his apostolic authority and ministry, and because it served to support his point that the Gentiles didn’t have to become proselytes to Judaism (or “be judaizing”) in order to be saved. 

Even Peter had come to realize this through the events involving Cornelius and his house, and had to be rebuked for behaving in a way that was inconsistent with what he’d learned through these events (and which was inconsistent with the truth of the evangel Paul had been heralding among the nations). And if this was something recognized by Peter (as well as James and John), then what the Galatians were being pressured by certain Judaizers to do (i.e., proselytize to Judaism) was inconsistent with not only Paul’s administration and ministry, but with Peter’s as well. However, it should be emphasized that Peter’s realization that those among the nations didn’t have to proselytize to Judaism in order to be saved is a far cry from saying that, like Paul and Barnabas, he had come to perceive the much greater (and more recently revealed) truth that Paul went on to defend in this letter, concerning the righteousness that is based on Christ’s faith alone rather than on anything that we do or don’t do (including any and all “works of righteousness”; see Titus 3:4-7). 

Excluding Peter from Paul’s “we” in Gal. 2:15 is, therefore, not some “ad hoc” move on the part of those who affirm the “two evangels” doctrinal position. Rather, it’s an interpretation of what Paul wrote that is informed by the broader context of Galatians, and is in keeping with what we know to be true about the two distinct apostolic ministries and administrations that belonged to Paul and Peter, respectively. Paul (and his apostolic companion at the time, Barnabas) had been severed to God from the rest of the apostles for a distinct ministry that was in accord with a new dispensation and administration (Acts 13:1-3; 20:24; Eph. 3:1, 9). And the truth that they dispensed among the nations (and those Israelites who came to faith in Christ through their ministry rather than before the start of that new administration) was truth that I see no reason to believe or assume that Peter, James and John had come to embrace, or had begun teaching the Jews, proselytes and God-fearers within the sphere of their “for the Circumcision” ministry.

[1] In addition to the conflicting opinions we find expressed in the literature and in commentaries, the lack of scholarly consensus concerning where Paul’s quotation ends is also evidenced from the fact that some Bible translations end the quotation at v. 14 while others continue it to v. 21 (for examples of translations in which the quotation is understood as ending in v. 14, see the ESV, the HCSB, the NET the RSV and the NRSV).

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