St. Paul, Prof. Dunn, Dr. Waters, and Bultmann (the theologian, not the schnauzer)

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.

14 thoughts on “St. Paul, Prof. Dunn, Dr. Waters, and Bultmann (the theologian, not the schnauzer)

  1. Mark

    I think you’re right on. Every time we have a controversial debate in Presbytery you can count on the right wing to argue about something that isn’t precisely on the table. They have these categories they have to stick to, or to use a Fox News analogy, they have their dozen or so talking points and no matter what the debate is actually about, they make it about their talking points of the week. It gets everybody riled up and we can’t get passed their talking points to make a decision about what’s actually on the floor.

    BTW, are you losing interest in Orthodoxy and drifting back toward the Presbyterian Church? You’ve been talking a lot about Reformed theology lately.

  2. justanotherjim

    I can see where you’re coming from, but in my experience, it wasn’t only the conservatives. In my second presbytery, the feminists always had to get their talking points in. In another Presbytery it was the social justice people. I think a lot of us see life through a pretty narrow lenses.

    And no, I’m not drifting back toward the PC(USA), I’m just avoiding a bunch of pissy and hissie Orthodox. At the moment the Antiochian Orthodox Church seems completely mired in controversy. When I’m at church (not worship, but for meetings, etc.), we always have to rehash the same b.s. When I’m shooting the breeze with friends, all we talk about is how bone-headed the leadership has been of late.

    Problem is I don’t have a dog in this fight and I mostly could care less. I’ve delved into Galatians, Dunn, Wright, and their critics mostly as a way to avoid the b.s. When the controversy settles down maybe I’ll get back to being interested in all things Orthodox again. For now, I’m avoiding it.

  3. Mark

    Actually, it sounds like you do have a dog in the fight: Bultmann. You really think he’s a heretic (the exegete, not the dog). Don’t you think “heresy” is a bit strong?

  4. justanotherjim

    I think Bultmann’s “History of the Synoptic Tradition” is beyond the realm of Christian faith and into the realm of full blown skepticism that seeks to destroy the kernal and maintain the husk. (Yes, the irony of turning his intent on its head is intentional.) He may have moderated his views in later life, so I am unwilling to brand him a heretic. But the content of that first book is heretical. Jesus is clearly just a man and not the incarnate Word in any meaningful sense. This reduces his role in the church to kerygmatic founder rather than Lord and Savior. That view ceases to be Christian and is therefore materially heretical.

    This is not to say that he wasn’t a believer. Full blown Existentialism is strange that way. It’s similar to the Aristotelian Catholicism of the Medieval period. Aristotelianism so twisted those Roman minds that their view of the mysteries actually made sense to them although they too were materially heretical. And this gets to a point you correctly made about a previous essay.

    In the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the creator does not join with the created, but replaces it. The host has the accidence of created material, but it is not really created material. In substance it is just Jesus Christ. This is a denial of the incarnational or sacramental principle. That is a materially heretical viewpoint, although there was never a formal ecumenical council called to reject the error, so it would be incorrect to call Medieval Catholicism formally heretical.

    Bultmann is in a similar position with his Existentialism. Lutheranism and its bastard offspring, Existentialism, both have a great deal in common with gnosticism.(Lutheranism has it’s Gospel/Law dualism and Existentialism has its internal meaning/absurd world dualism – both dualisms are an implicit rejection of the stuff of this world and an embrace of a sort of ideal forms.) This leads a person like Bultmann, who attempts to take his theology to its logical conclusion, to view historical reality through a very skewed lens. What is likely true faith on the inside gets expressed as a creation-denying myth event which is non-Christian.

    Karl Barth started in a very similar spot. His first book, “Ethics,” is thoroughly existential and as off-base as Bultmann’s “History of the Synoptic Tradition.” He spent the next thirty years battling that Existential tendency and ended up being one of the most orthodox and conservative theologians on the Continent. Bultmann’s and Barth’s demons weren’t all that different, but they battled them in a very different manner. It seems to me that Barth overcame them and Bultmann never did.

  5. Mark

    Lutherans a bunch of gnostics? Lutherans as proto-heretics? I think you’ve gone too far this time.

    Other than Kierkegaardians, Existentialism isn’t even a Christian phenomenon, so it seems a stretch to condemn Lutherans because of their association with Existentialists. Granted Existentialism had a huge influence on early 20th century theology but the identification of someone like Bultmann as an Existentialist came after the fact.

    The problems you describe weren’t Lutheran in origin, but Continental. It’s like trying to blame the Enlightenment on the Presbyterians.

  6. justanotherjim

    You misconstrue what I have to say, although in retrospect I can see it was easy to do.

    When I was still in seminary (or right after I got out) I read Philip J. Lee’s book, “Against the Protestant Gnostics.” It had a profound effect on me. Lee contends (and proves, in my opinion) that Protestantism has a tendency toward Gnosticism built into its very foundations. That tendency has flowered into full-blown gnosticism in many North American evangelical groups.

    When I was considering graduate school I had a fairly lengthy conversation by letter with Thomas Oden, whom I was seriously considering studying under. I mentioned my interest in this field and he was in agreement with Lee’s thesis and indicated that this was largely why he became the paleo-orthodox that he did.

    All of that history leads me to say that it has been my assumption for years, even for decades that Protestantism has always been on the edge of heresy. Because it began as a reaction to heresy within the Roman Catholic Church, it has never had its focus firmly on the truth per se, but rather on it’s own protest of a previous falsehood. This is not to say Protestantism is heretical; I don’t believe that.

    But, I would argue Unitarianism (in my mind a heresy) is the logical conclusion of Reformed theology when it loses its mooring in scripture, just as secular Existentialism (equally a heresy) is the logical conclusion of Lutheran theology when it loses its mooring in scripture. For these two groups, the natural drift is toward secular heresies. For Evangelicalism, which has never bought into Modernity like mainline churches, the natural drift is toward gnostic dualism, which distances God from creation in much the same manner as its secular counterparts (Unitarianism and Existentialism).

    This is neither an accusation nor a condemnation of Presbyterians, Lutherans, or Evangelicals. It is simply an observation of tendencies rooted in what I consider the inherent weaknesses of Protestant theology, which was cut off from the long tradition of Christian faith by an accident of history (the fall of the Roman Empire in the west).

    Kierkegaard, the early Barth, and Bultmann all illustrate these tendencies.

    I think this is why it was inevitable that I would eventually leave Protestantism for something else. I think reading Phil Lee and Tom Oden made that move unavoidable in the long run. As much as like Orthodoxy, with the exception of Schmemann and Hopko, they pretty much spend all their time talking to themselves. I was certainly drawn to Orthodoxy, but I wouldn’t have bothered checking it out if it weren’t for the devastating critiques that came from Protestants about Protestantism in general that caused me to look elsewhere.

  7. Mark

    I don’t care how nice you try to make it sound, or intellectually legitimate, the bottom line is that you think that all of Protestantism is but a single step away from heresy, which is simply the polite form of saying we’re a bunch of heretics, but heretics that can put a nice face on their heresy so you’re not too uncomfortable.

    This is a pretty triumphalistic point of view. Your little group is right and the rest of us are, let’s see, what’s the phrase you used, material heretics if not formal heretics.

    I think that the way you’re using the term, heresy becomes a sort of trump card, an argument of last resort that always puts you in the position of power over your opposition.

  8. justanotherjim

    I suppose you are correct, Mark, when you say that I believe Protestantism is but a single step away from heresy, but you assume that’s a sinister thing. I see it as the opposite. Protestantism was an unavoidable and necessary correction because the Roman Church had strayed so far from the true tradition. Furthermore and for the most part, Protestantism had no access to the true tradition. (Please bear with me and assume for a moment that Eastern Orthodoxy is the true tradition.)

    The miracle is that for the most part Protestantism got it right, and throughout its 500+ year history, even with its penchant for wandering off into goofiness, it continues to have these brilliant insights that once again get it right, as far as the matter in question. Since I’ve been involved with the Presbyterian Church I’ve been directly involved with two times that it got it right in spite of the odds. The first was the liturgical renewal that began with the Lima Document and resulted in the great liturgical resources of the last decade. The other is the New Perspective on Paul.

    One of Paul’s defenses of the Gentile mission was that they had received the Spirit directly, without the help (or interference?) of Jewish Christians. This was proof positive that God was in the Gentile mission. Similarly, I would argue that the repeated insights and moments of brilliance in an orphaned religious movement is proof positive that the Spirit of God is in it.

    Now, as long as Orthodoxy continues to snub its nose at Protestantism, Protestantism remains tenuous and one step away from heresy. Similarly, as long as Protestants continue to try to figure it out on their own rather than submitting to the Tradition, they are one step away from heresy.

    But it also needs to be said that Orthodoxy always remains one step away from heresy. The current crisis is a case in point where two patriarchs (Istanbul who pretends to be Constantinople and Damscus that continues to pretend to be Antioch) and an American bishop (Philip the Antiochian) are desperately trying to lead the Orthodox Church into a hierarchical system where the bishops and priests are the church and the top tells the everyone else what to do and precisely how to stick it. (Okay, I’m a bit angry about it.)

    If Orthodoxy ever abandons its true tradition, which it has been on the verge of doing several times in history, then it two will no doubt veer off into heresy. But just as Protestantism has the wonderful bright spots throughout its history, so does Orthodoxy. Currently, in American Orthodoxy, the great bright spot is Metropolitan Jonah who leads the Orthodox Church in America.

    So yes, you are correct in fact, but fail to appreciate that the facts point to a very positive future for both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, rather than an ominous future involving the imminent demise of American Christianity.

    And finally, it’s not triumphalistic, unless you mean that the Spirit of God will triumph in his work with a bunch of sinful, self-willed, independent Christians, the Orthodox first, but also the Protestant, and even the Romans, whom the Spirit saved from the brink through the Counter-Reformation.

  9. Mark

    You know what this sounds like? The New Perspective on Second Temple Judaism and Paul, except you’ve replaced Judaism with your Eastern Orthodoxy and the Gentile mission with Protestantism. I can’t imagine that this is a very good analogy. The Gentile mission was something new and different, after all. It undermined the very presuppositions of Judaizing Christianity.

    There’s no analog with Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Both are the same faith, but with different historical paths. Furthermore, Protestants don’t want in, we’re already in. As a result, there’s no tension between Orthodoxy and Protestantism like there was between the Judaizers, the Hellenists, and the Gentile Christians.

    But wouldn’t it be convenient if you could shoe horn the contemporary situation into the old model? Then there would be handy-dandy solutions to the intractible ecumenical problem that the modern reality creates. But reality isn’t convenient. You’re just short-circuiting the hard work necessary with a pipe-dream sort of solution.

  10. justanotherjim

    I did see such a correlation, but the way I noticed it was rather different than what you described. I embarked on this study of Galatians and the New Perspective for the purpose of developing a sensible critique of the Protestant doctrine of justification. In my opinion most of the current Orthodox critiques talk past Protestant sensibilities. The assumptions and ground rules in the two camps are so different that serious dialog is almost impossible. The New Perspective seemed like a way to critique the doctrine from the inside out rather than a full frontal assault from the outside in.

    But when I began to read Dunn and in turn read Galatians in light of the New Perspective I realized that the New Perspective offers a devastating critique on Orthodoxy. I have some Orthodox writers on my short list of reading. I want to get their take before I say a whole lot, but it seems that the New Perspective cuts both ways in its devastating critique of contemporary understandings of the grace of God. That came as a huge surprise to me and is worth further investigation.

  11. anonymousgodblogger

    You wrote, “…the New Perspective cuts both ways in its devastating critique of contemporary understandings of the grace of God. That came as a huge surprise to me and is worth further investigation…”

    Jim, can you give me a Reader’s Digest version of what this is? I’m ignorant but curious–
    it’s fine if you don’t have time–

    Thank you,

  12. justanotherjim

    I am indeed planning on saying something about this, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. Stay tuned.

  13. Pingback: Just Another Jim » The “New Perspective” and Orthodoxy, 1 of 6

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