Monday, September 04, 2006

How I understand the NPP Story (with tweaks here and there)

Ok, here’s the way that I construct the “NPP” argument, such as I understand it, regarding the trajectory of redemptive history, Israel’s role in that history, and how the coming of the Messiah changed that role (at least as understood by important segments of Jewish society in Jesus' time). I like parts of the story, but I'm not sure I agree with it all. Indeed, I'm not sure that I know enough to agree or disagree with some of the more central and controversial claims. So my goal here is mainly to engage in a useful exercise (useful for me, at least, I won't speak for the reader): to write down the overall story in order to understand it better, and to tweak parts of it that I think may need to be tweaked.

[1] God chose Abraham out of all the nations to work through him. God’s purpose in Abraham ultimately was to bless the world by taking away its sin problem, allowing it to receive life from God and live in his presence.

During this interim period – the transitory period during which God would work through Abraham – the other nations were allowed to go their own way in ignorance (Acts 14.16, 17.30).

[2] God would draw Israel out as a whole nation through Moses, creating them a nation of priests, and speaking to the world through them (Ex 19.6, Dt 4.6, Ro 3.2, Acts 7.38). But there was a problem – a sinful people cannot draw near to a holy God without incurring judgment.

Because of Israel’s proximity to God in the Mosaic covenant, God needed to deal with Israel’s sin problem in a way that he did not need to deal with the sin problem of the Gentiles (who, being allowed to go their own way, were not in the same proximity to him as the Israelites).

This is Gal 3.19 in which the (works of the) law were added “because of transgressions.” This does not mean that the law made sin all the more sinful by defining them. Rather, it means that the sacrificial system of the law was added in order to provide forgiveness (or protection) to Israel in their dealings with God prior to the definitive provision of forgiveness by the messiah.

To be sure, the “works of the law” include positive moral commands. To the extent that one does not sin against the law, then one does not need a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. But the law fully and completely anticipated that Israel would fail to obey the positive moral commands of the law. After all, the whole point of the sacrificial laws is to provide a remedy for Israel’s sin, even if that remedy was transitional, due to pass away when the messiah came.

Israel does the “works of the law” and is therefore “under a curse” not in the sense that doing the works of the law meant that one was involved in a cursed works-righteousness – practicing the “works of the law” actually protected Israel, “he who practices them shall live by them” (Gal 3.12) – but Israel was under a curse in the sense that if they did not do the works of the law they would be accursed. That is, they took a vow to obey the law (Ex 24.7). Taking that vow put them “under a curse” in the ordinary sense that, if one takes a vow and does not perform it, then one is cursed (Acts 23.21).

In Gal 3.10, Paul does not mean that works righteousness is accursed (although it is, it’s just not what Paul is writing about at that point), he rather means that an Israelite was cursed if he sinned by not performing one of the works of the law (for example, he stole something) and then did not perform the works of the law required to receive forgiveness for it – the sacrifices that the law stipulated.

These are “works of the law” because the Israelites had to do the work of sacrificing the animals, in contradistinction to salvation through trusting in the sacrifice of God for them – the work that God does for them (and for us as well).

So, in fact, those who practice the works of the law do indeed live by them. If Israel did not perform these works, their sin would be equivalent to that of the Gentiles, and they would die as a result of their heightened contact (relative to the Gentiles) with the holy God.

[3] Israel’s special status relative to the Gentiles of having heightened access to God (and, hence also, heightened judgment) was never meant to be permanent. The coming of the messiah would end that special status, not in the sense of demoting Israel, but in the sense of promoting the rest of the nations. With the coming of the messiah, the “times of ignorance” came to an end (Acts 17.30).

[4] There were many faithful Israelites in Jesus’ day. They obeyed the law (including sacrificing for forgiveness) and, therefore, were “perfect” in the law.

Jesus faced two main problems with official Israel and its followers. First, sheer unbelief. This is not a sin unique to people in positions of power. They worship the god of this world, and oppose those who would take power from them, as Jesus threatened to do in his own world-transcending manner.

Secondly, Jesus (and later, Paul) faced the problem that large segments of Israel did not recognize the transitional nature of the ministry that Israel held for the world. God set up Israel to be the transition into salvation for the whole world, as the Gentiles would be lifted up and, as it were, put on the level of blessed access to God’s presence. Indeed, Jews and Gentiles alike would be lifted to a level of greater access to God the father through the work of Israel’s messiah, having access greater than even Israel’s high priest (Heb 7.26-27, 10.19-22).

Because Jesus’ vocation as Abraham’s seed was precisely to bring the blessing God promised through Abraham to the world, opposition on the part of some Jews to that vocation (whether during Jesus’ life or afterwards through the ministry of Paul and others) represented a repudiation of God’s very purpose in the world and, particularly, a repudiation of God’s particular work in Israel. In that sense, this part of Israel becomes an anti-Israel that must be removed so that God’s true work through Israel may be brought to fulfillment.

Hence, the reconciliation of the Gentiles with Israel through the messiah is the Gospel of Christ (Gal 3.8). Rejection of this fact was of course not new to the Israel of Jesus’ time. Jonah grieved over the grace God showed to the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophets prophesized of God’s grace delivered through Israel to the Gentiles. From the very beginning, Jesus’ life is threatened when he preached that God shows his grace to the Gentiles (Lk 4.25-30).

Contrary to NT Wright and others, however, it’s not ethnic “exclusiveness” that is Israel’s problem. After all, Gentiles could become Israelites through circumcision (Ex 12.48). Rather, the particular sin of Israel in Jesus’ time was their failure to recognize that the “times of ignorance” were now over, and that the entire world would be blessed through Abraham. That is, that God had redeemed his promise to Abraham, and that the transitional edifice of OT Israel was not only no longer needed, but would become a barrier to God’s purpose in Abraham if maintained beyond the coming of the messiah.
So that's basically how I understand the overall story of the Bible, as told by the NPP guys (particularly via Wright). I biggest question concerns the arguments regarding the "works of the law" phrase in Paul. The overall story pretty much hinges on that. I don't know enough to be able fully to judge their work on that.


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