Saturday, March 10, 2007

Initial Thoughts on VanLandingham's Book. More to Follow.

Earlier I posted a couple of notices (here and here) Chris VanLandingham's book, Judgment and Justificaiton in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. I have not yet finished reading the book, but I have definitely caught the drift of VanLandingham's argument in support of his thesis.

First, the author plainly expresses his thesis.
My thesis is that in the letters of Paul and in much of the literature of Judaism from the Greek and Early Roman periods, a post-mortem or Last Judgment of God determines an individual's eternal destiny. Moreover, both corpora agree that an individual's behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation. Paul agrees with a significant number of his Jewish contemporaries on the subject. This book also examines the notion of divine recompense within the framework of God's grace and mercy as understood in early post-biblical Jewish texts and in Paul's letters. God's grace and mercy may be present throughout a person's life, working on his or her behalf; but one's deeds determine approbation at the final judgment. On this subject, I find no difference between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries (p. 15).
The first half of Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (chapters 1 & 2) focuses upon extrabiblical or post-Old Testament Jewish literature but with commentary on numerous Old Testament passages as they are raised by Jewish extrabiblical literature. The first two chapters are "Election, Covenant, and God's Grace as They Relate to Obedience in Post-Biblical Judaism" and "The Last Judgment According to Deeds and Its Relationship to God's Grace, Mercy, and Covenant with Abraham." Chapters 3 & 4 focus upon letters from the apostle Paul respectively, "Behavior, The Last Judgment, and Eternal Destiny in the Pauline Epistles," and "'Justification by Faith'--A Mistranslated Phrase and Misunderstood Concept."

By the time one reads the first two chapters one gains considerable insight into the trajectory of thought that VanLandingham will have when he discusses the apostle Paul's letters in chapters 3 & 4. The author projects his observations and conclusions the following way.
In early post-biclical Judaism, it is axiomatic that God renders judgment to each according to his or her deeds. Likewise, in this chapter, I argue that Paul believes that dees not only affect one's eternal destiny, but form the ultimate criterion for determining one's eternal destiny at the Last Judgment. The specific deeds proscribed, permitted, or even required may differ, as they do, for example, in the Qumran texts and Sirach; but the idea remains the same: obedience matters to God and forms the basis for final acceptance with God, despite disagreements over what exactly God requires. Regardless of one's divine requital, whether eternal life or damnation, one's behavior determines the outcome (p. 175).
Indeed, it is clear from Paul and from all the other New Testament writers that judgment will be according to our deeds and that deeds are consequential with regard to our salvation in the Last Day. However, the direction VanLandingham takes the discussion poses enormous dissonance with the Protestant and Evangelical faith. He is aware of this, for he acknowledges
Of course, once cannot make any arguments about judgment by deeds in Paul without considering and ultimately reconciling them with the notion of "justification by faith." Since Martin Luther, the Pauline doctrine of "justification by faith" has had a direct bearing on the interpretation of the Last Judgment in Paul. . . . Widespread, though not unanimous, support persists for the view that justification refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment that is pronounced proleptically at the time of faith in Christ. Such an understanding cannot be sustained if at the Last Judgment God recompenses each one's eternal destiny according to behavior. In the pursuit of this overall thesis, a number of sub-arguments are necessary for correcting certain readings of Paul that force judgment passages to conform with the doctrine of justification by faith. The notion of justification by faith must be understood in light of the judgment passages (pp. 175-176).
Following are VanLandingham's itemized sub-arguments.
  1. One of Paul's primary concerns for his converts pertains to their moral state, particularly at the time of the judgment. Paul endeavors to make the Gentiles acceptable to God, in part by bringing their behavior into conformity with what God requires. What is at issue "before God" at the judgment is one's moral state--in the end one's moral state makes one "acceptable" to God.
  2. Justice at the Last Judgment is retributive and, consequentially, eternal life and damnation are given respectively to those who are deserving. Eternal destiny is the primary issue at the Last Judgment. One's eternal destiny has not been determined beforehand, such as at the time fo faith in Christ. Specifically, if justification by faith refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment, which one receives proleptically at the time of faith in Christ, then one should expect some hint of this idea in the Pauline judgment passages. This idea, however, remains absent in those very judgment passages where this notion of justification by faith should have some imprint (based on the forensic interpretation of the dikai- group of terms).
  3. The Last Judgment includes a possibility that God might reject believers on the basis of their moral failure. Paul does not state directly, or even imply that one cannot forfeit "salvation" regardless of one's behavior.
All this raises many questions, but one question leaps to the foreground. If entrance into eternal life will be on the basis of our deeds, as Chris VanLandingham contends, then for what purpose did Jesus Christ offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins? One will read page after page without finding the answer to this question. Nevertheless, while reading, the answer begins to dawn upon the reader. An explanation begins to take some anticipated shape, but the anticipated explantion for why Christ died may prompt the reader to adopt a Macaulay Culkin pose, expressing some measure of astonishment. Why did Jesus Christ give his life as a sacrifice for sin, according to VanLandingham?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul presents the solution to the problem besetting human existence. Indeed, the solution lies within the message of his gospel that God has sent his son Jesus, who in turn "gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age" ([Galatians] 1:4). The problem this solution addresses is less easy to identify, but apparently it either refers to "the present evil age" in which both Jews and Gentiles find themselves enslaved to malevolent, personal forces (4:3, 8-9) or refers to "our sins," which notes the process by which humanity is enslaved to these malevolent, personal forces. Both were perceived as major problems in the ancient world. Portions of the Hebrew Bible and a great number of post-biblical Jewish texts indicate that sin is endemic to Jews and Gentiles alike. . . . A thread runs through the Hebrew Bible--especially in Leviticus and Deateronomy, the historical books, and the Prophets--and in post-bibilical texts--many of the apocalypses, but also texts such as the Psalms of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, 2 Maccabees, Baruch, and Josephus--that state that foreign hegemony results from the presence of national sin and God's punishment of Israel. Paul lived in such a time (p. 206).
Are you clasping your face yet? Wait, we have not yet arrived at the part that prompts the Macaulay Culkin pose.
Paul certainly believed that a connection existed between sin and these sinister, cosmic forces, a point central in understanding Paul's soteriology, that is, how one will escape God's coming wrath and live eternally. Paul says that Jesus gave himself up for our sins, that is, he sacrificed himself in order that . . . he might set us free or rescue us from the present evil age (1:4). By expiating a person's sins, the power that demonic forces have over that person is broken. Of course, an individual appropriates this forgiveness by faith (2:16), but as a result the believer is "made righteous" in the sense that the person no longer bears the guilt, stain, and akaqarsia of personal sins. The believer, now purified and fit for God's presence (cf. 1 Cor 3:17b; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1), receives the Spirit of God/Jesus ([Gal] 3:2, 14; cf. 2:20 and Rom 8:2-4). In turn, the Spirit of God/Jesus inspires the believer so that he or she now has the ability to produce the obedience that leads to eternal life (6:8-9; cf. Rom 8:4-13) (p. 207).
What begins to emerge from the pages of VanLandingham's book, then, is that Jesus Christ's sacrificial death is not the basis upon which God renders his Last Day judgment in advance upon the one who believes in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16), that which I believe that the apostle Paul calls "justification, acquittal, being set right with God." Instead, according to VanLandingham, Jesus Christ's sacrificial death constitutes us righteous now because it is a sacrifice for our sins past but does nothing to atone for sins that the believer may or will commit after one first believes in Jesus Christ. He explains,
Accordingly, God rectifies this situation [of human sinfulness and inability to obey God's requirements] by making it possible through Jesus' sacrificial death for humans to possess the Spirit that catalyzes the obedience necessary for divine approval. Why it takes Jesus' sacficial death so that humans possess the divine Spirit remains unclear (p. 210).
So, evidently, Jesus' sacrificial death brings forgiveness for past sins and puts us into a new position to have the capacity to obey God's requirements by virtue of possessing the Spirit. Now that we possess the Spirit, however, our final standing before the judgment throne of God will be, not on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death but on the basis of our deeds.
Being a recipient of God's kindness does not indicate whether one will be spared at the judgment: but how one responds to this kindness, which has repentance as its goal, provides evidence. Even the participant in God's covenant is not guaranteed deliverance at the judgment. God's kindness is available only before the judgment and is presently active in order to make a favorable judment possible. A favorable outcome at the judment, then, depends on whether one obeyed the covenant stipulations, not on God's kindness or mercy at that time; otherwise the judgment would not be impatial (p. 218).
This is where I will suspend these first considerations of Chris VanLandingham's book. It should become rather apparent that he has recast virtually every aspect of biblical theology concerning salvation to fit his grid that entails a number of theological assumptions and beliefs that he has embraced. I invite you readers to identify several of his theological assumptions and beliefs that govern the conclusions I have cited above.

(Note: Some are speaking quite favorably of VanLandingham's thesis with regard to Paul's use of the dikai- group of terms. See here, for example.)


Jonathan said...

Dr. Caneday,
Have you read the most recent book by Guy P. Waters "Justification by Faith Alone"? I'm curious if you have what your thoughts are on it.

abcaneday said...


If you are referring to By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, I'm sorry. No, I have not read it. I do not yet own it. I can say, however, that I was asked if I wanted to participate in the book, either at some level of editing or by contributing an essay. I never actually turned down the project. Instead, the way the project developed, so incrementally and with fits and starts, it was uncertain whether the project would actually take root, emerge, and come to fruition. It was difficult to ascertain the level of commitment. In the meantime, I took on other writing projects that were clearly defined with target dates for completion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ardel,

I was reading up on your blog recently when I saw your post about Chris VanLandingham's book on justification. I was wondering if you published or wrote a complete review/critique of his work. I haven't read the book myself, but from what I've read on your blog, I agree that the Macaulay Culkin pose is the appropriate response. I'm not a scholar or even a student currently, but when I see these things they bother me quite a bit (both personally as a believer and publicly when I think about the effects teaching like this would have on the corporate church and our understanding of the Gospel). Thanks for taking the time to read this!


Unknown said...

Dr. Caneday,
I just finished reading VanLandingham's book. Although he does make many provacative arguments concerning the connection between "works" and "final judgment" (and especially between justification by faith and final judgment) I believe his arguments would have been much more compelling to me if I had not read your book "The Race Set Before Us."
I still need to spend time re-reading his final chapter on dikaiow and its cognate noun and adjective (which has created some questions for me) but I wanted to thank you (and Dr. Schreiner) for your book that wrestled with the relationship between works and salvation; warning passages and security and the "already" and "not yet" view of salvation/justification/redemption.
Many times while reading through VanL's book I thought about the parallels between your book and thought that he would be greatly helped by reading it (assuming he has not).
I am not trying to discount VanL's book, I do believe he makes many significant observations (especially regarding second-temple Judaism, but also regarding Paul) and his thorough study of the dikai- stem has some weighty arguments; but I did want to say thank you to you for your work.


Unknown said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

abcaneday said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Michael. God's richest blessings to you.