Alongside listening to and reading James Dunn (see here and here), in an attempt at balance I have been reading Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (and have John Piper’s The Future of Justification in line after I’m done with Waters). The difference in analytical style is so striking that I couldn’t help but report on it with an essay.
Who are these two authors? Both are Reformed Protestants (although Dunn is now a Methodist, but his intellectual framework is clearly Reformed). Dunn is a British Evangelical in the mainstream of intellectual thought. (This involvement with the mainstream draws the ire of most American Evangelicals and leads many of them to question his Evangelical credentials.) Waters is an up and coming theologian who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary, a bastion of very conservative Presbyterianism in the U.S. Just as Dunn is considered to be on the left fringe of Evangelicalism by many, so Waters would be considered to be on the right fringe by many.
Waters’ method of approaching history is the method I learned in Bible College; Dunn’s is the method I learned in seminary. In his analysis, Waters appears to stand outside history as both a neutral observer and impartial judge. Dunn appears to work within history, wrestling with the ideas and theologians of the past, and certainly not observing events, but doing his part to shape them.
Central to Waters’ method is what I will dub “the received Litany of Woes of Protestant theological history.” I’m not sure who wrote this Litany of Woes, but Waters’ litany is pretty much the same litany I memorized in Bible College, the same litany of history that no doubt every Bible College student across the land memorized. Waters doesn’t repeat the whole litany, but rather the high points that serve his purpose in this book. In his words,
“We jump now from 1564, the year of Calvin’s death, to 1826, the year that F. C. Baur began to teach at Tübingen. … European philosophy had now radically embraced doubt as its epistemological starting point.” (p. 3)
Why Bauer? He is a towering figure in New Testament studies, generally credited for being the first higher critic. From Calvin and Luther until the mid-19th century, pretty much everything was copacetic in Protestant theology; then Protestantism began it’s slow decent into exegetical decadence. Bauer is the figurehead of this decent.
So according to the litany, Bauer introduces dialectical materialism to theology (p. 4), which leads to the Classical Liberalism of Holtzmann, et. al. (p. 8). In response to those excesses we have the rise of the History of Religions school of thought (p. 9)on the one hand and another sort of primitivism in Albert Schweitzer’s “Participationism” (p. 11) on the other. (For the sake of clarity, Schweitzer never called his theology “participationism” but rather “Christ-mysticism.” Participationism was coined by either Dunn or Wright and Waters is reading Dunn’s late 20th century interpretation of Paul back into 18th century Schweitzer.)
And this sets the stage for the next towering figure after Bauer: Rudolph Bultmann. Waters observes that while Bultmann was formally a Lutheran he was materially an existentialist in the mold of Martin Heidegger (p. 17). Furthermore, he observes that his interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification is far more Existentialist than Lutheran.
“For Bultmann, the ‘individual’ was central, and justification (a ‘forensic concept’) was central to Pauline theology. Justification, then, was not an inward or mystical ‘change’; rather, it is an ‘eschatological reality’ made present to the believer, a ‘pure gift of God’s grace,’ not attained or attainable by the works of the law” (p. 17).
Well certainly this is an existential reading of Paul, but before anybody had even heard of Existentialism it was also a very Lutheran reading of Paul, straight out of old Martin’s playbook, except possibly for the phrase “eschatological reality” which Martin Luther never uttered, but is oh-so 19th century in quality. But “a forensic rather than mystical change,” and “justification as a pure gift of God’s grace” is about as Lutheran as it is possible to get.
So it is at this point that Waters’ standard Litany of Woes begins to break down. Bultmann was, if not formally, at least materially a heretic of the first order. (On that point I agree wholeheartedly with Waters. I named my dog after him after all! – Bultmann, that is, not Waters.) And Bultmann’s heresy (the theologian and not the schnauzer) was in no small part due to precisely what Waters describes above, but that inherent weakness did not come from Heidegger, it came from Martin Luther himself.
In fact one could argue (an argument that is far beyond the scope of this essay) that Heidegger’s existentialism is simply a secularized version of Lutheranism. The Heidegger we all love to hate could never have developed as a philosopher anywhere on the planet other than utterly Lutheran Germany (or possibly equally Lutheran Scandinavia, the home – not accidently – of the premier Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard).
But that particular insight is not part of the Litany of Woes that I learned in Bible College and that Waters repeats here. Is it possible that since the connection between religious Lutheranism and secular Existentialism isn’t part of the canonical Litany of Woes, the fact that Waters got the Existential cart in front of the Lutheran horse never occurred to Waters?
From Bultmann, Waters continues his Litany of Woes through W.D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, Krister Stendahl, and E.P. Sanders. But a litany is a litany, and we will not learn a great deal more to continue through this list of bad (from Waters’ perspective) Biblical scholarship. (Nearly all Lutheran, by the way, a likely significant point that the Reformed Waters curiously doesn’t explore. But again, the fact that 18th to 20th century Biblical scholarship was absolutely dominated by Continental Lutherans is not part of the received Litany of Woes, and the remarkable significance of that fact to Reformed theologians simply doesn’t occur to Waters without the nudging of the Litany. So Waters remains remarkably uncurious about this trend.)
Dunn sees the significance of this same history in a remarkably different manner. In his paper, “The Justice of God” (reprinted as ch. 7 in the revised The New Perspective on Paul), Dunn observes that due to Luther’s insistent emphasis on the individual (in stark contrast to the Reformed emphasis on the Covenant of Grace – a very corporate understanding of God’s work in the world), there has always been a strongly individualist (which is the very point of Existentialism) flavor to the Protestant understanding of justification.
“There were attempts, earlier in this century, to shift the focus of the traditional teaching on justification” ie, “the understanding of justification by faith in distinctively individualistic terms” [italics in original]) p. 196.
And here, Dunn observes the overwhelming influence of Bultmann, but Dunn’s observation is far more sweeping – and equally as damning – to the evangelicals as to the liberals. Dunn continues:
“But such protests were swamped by the tremendous influence of Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation of Paul, reinforcing as it did the more traditional, individualistic reading, and giving rise to powerful restatements of the classical Lutheran doctrine within the Bultmann School” (ibid).
Dunn recognizes that Protestants are all – liberal and evangelical, Lutheran and Reformed – children of Bultmann to the extent that they (and he has in mind especially, the Reformed or Presbyterian who should know better, given their Covenantal theology) are blinded to the corporate and covenantal nature of salvation because of the nearly exclusive emphasis on “the more traditional, individualistic reading” of salvation which is based in Luther at the expense of Calvin.”
The Litany of Woes leads us (and here I’m thinking of “us” as those of us who cut our teeth on conservative Reformed evangelicalism in places like Bible Colleges and Reformed campus ministries) to think we can stand outside of the history of theology to observe and judge it: In the beginning was Luther and Calvin, but then came Bauer, and Wellhausen, and Schweitzer, and Bultmann … Woe to them! But we believe in the Bible, so ultimately they are of no concern to us.
Dunn, on the other hand,
- although he is an Evangelical,
- although he believes in the Bible in the same manner that American Evangelicals believe in the Bible,
- although he fundamentally disagrees with and distances himself from the higher critical method that the Litany of Woes condemns
sees the “problem” as much deeper and more pervasive. Bultmann, rather than just being a heretic and a liberal, “one of them,” as it were … Bultmann, in his excess, expresses something common to all Protestantism, but less visible in all Protestantism because it isn’t so excessive. And Dunn sees no room for a holier-than-thou attitude because he embraces the Continental Protestant tradition as in some sense his own. Rather than trying to stand above and outside of history, he perceives in Bultmann and his ilk, a blind spot and failure in Protestantism as a whole. Bultmann unveils a Protestant problem (Dunn’s view) rather than a liberal problem (Waters’ view).
My point is not that Dunn is right and Waters is wrong. It is rather, that in his supposed critique of Dunn, Waters completely misses the point. Dunn says that amidst all the strengths and insights of the classic Protestant doctrine of salvation (of which Dunn believes there are many), Protestantism has had a blind spot that grew out of a misunderstanding of the Judaism that existed in the time of Jesus and Paul.
Rather than addressing whether there is a blind spot or not, Waters attacks Dunn’s conclusions using the standard, centuries-old line of argument (the Litany of Woes) that, if Dunn is correct, includes the very blind spot that Dunn is critiquing.
So, Dr. Waters, set aside the Litany and pay attention to Prof. Dunn’s insights into the history of Protestantism. Maybe then you can figure out what Dunn is talking about and offer an intelligent critique of Dunn instead of the canonical critique of the Litany of Woes that decidedly misses the point.