No Grace Without Weakness -- By: Dan G. McCartney

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: No Grace Without Weakness
Author: Dan G. McCartney

No Grace Without Weakness

Dan G. McCartney*

In the last two or three decades the scholarly view of Paul has shifted profoundly. This is true on two fronts. First, the scholarly view of Judaism in the first century has changed. Second, the view of how Paul was relating both to that Judaism and to the Law has changed. But I think that to some degree the very remarkable and genuine insights that this “new perspective” has produced have at the same time caused certain aspects of Paul’s radical view of grace to be overlooked.

Since the Reformation, Protestantism generally adopted Luther’s viewpoints on Paul, the Law, and Judaism. Judaism was seen as an essentially legalistic religion, which thought of itself as earning salvation and justification by God through obedience to the Law, utilizing a treasury of merit to cover the deficiencies (somewhat like medieval catholicism). Paul was viewed as having perceived the futility of this approach, because the law demands perfection, and curses everyone who does not do all of it. Because of the resultant awareness of his enormous guilt before God, as Luther thought was evident in Rom 7, Paul was driven to the grace solution, the atoning death of Christ, whereupon he entirely rejected Judaism and the Law as a means of relating to God. The Law then became for Paul a nemesis, something that stood in the way of God’s grace in Christ, and to which one must die in order to be saved.

Questions about this construction were from time to time raised by a few scholars. Particularly Jewish scholars such as Claude Montefiore1 questioned whether all first-century Judaism should be painted as a works-righteousness religion. And Krister Stendahl2 in 1963 questioned whether Paul was ever stricken with guilt. Stendahl argued rather that Paul’s conscience was robust, both before and after conversion, and that the “guilty conscience” was something introduced in the Augustinian West. Stendahl saw Rom 7 as Kümmel3 had seen it—not as autobiographical of Paul’s

personal conviction of sin, but as a redemptive historical contrast with Rom 8. Luther thus had read his own experience into that of Paul.

But it was not until the late 1970’s that the larger picture was seriously challenged in Protestant circles. In 1977 E. P. Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism4 extensively examined Judaism o...

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