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A Review of Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by Chris VanLandingham

Steven R. Coxhead, review of Chris VanLandingham, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul, Reformed Theological Review 66 (2007): 183–5 (used with permission, and re-edited to conform with SBL style).


RTR 66 (2007): 183

 

JUDGMENT AND JUSTIFICATION IN EARLY JUDAISM AND THE APOSTLE PAUL

By Chris VanLandingham (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006), xvi + 384 pp., hbk., $US29.95

This book is a revision of Chris VanLandingham’s provocative Ph.D. dissertation. The book consists of four lengthy chapters in which VanLandingham explores the relationship of grace and merit in early Jewish writings (including Jubilees, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, Josephus, the Psalms of Solomon, and the Qumranic material) and in Paul. His main thesis is that Paul, in common with many of his Jewish contemporaries, accepted the idea that “good behavior is rewarded [on the day of judgment] with eternal life” (p. 15). VanLandingham acknowledges that his thesis challenges E. P. Sanders’s concept of covenantal nomism. Where Sanders attempted to establish the gracious nature of salvation in early Jewish thinking by speaking of obedience as the means by which members of the covenant maintain themselves in salvation, VanLandingham argues that a person’s obedience or disobedience specifically determines a person’s eternal destiny.

VanLandingham has many helpful things to say about the close connection between obedience and salvation in early Jewish thinking. He correctly observes that in Second Temple literature generally and also in the Old Testament salvation is linked with obedience to torah. There is also something to his argument that election and covenant are viewed in early Jewish literature (and also in the Old Testament) as given in response to the obedience of those chosen. In these observations, VanLandingham provides a corrective to Sanders’s overly “gratuitous” reading of the evidence; but he also fails to present the right solution. Observing that election and salvation are linked with obedience, VanLandingham concludes that election and salvation should not be considered to be gratuitous.

The problem with VanLandingham’s approach at this point is that he has been unwilling to redefine grace in a more biblical way (see pp. 19–20). Instead he simply accepts the common Protestant definition of grace (which was also Sanders’s presupposition) that views divine grace as fundamentally incompatible with human


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obedience. But this is not the biblical understanding of the matter. Psalm 103:17 speaks of God’s grace (esed) as shown to “those who fear him,” which is paralleled in v. 18 with the phrase “to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” There is a sense, therefore, in which the expression of God’s covenant esed is given in response to the covenant obedience of his people. That is to say, the benefits of the covenant (including covenant grace) apply to those who are committed to the covenant. The popular understanding of grace as undeserved favour, therefore, is only half of the story. While it is correct to say that God’s favour is ultimately undeserved, there is nonetheless a legitimate sense in which God’s favour rests upon the covenantally righteous. VanLandingham has effectively replicated the fallacy of the false disjunction in following the thinking which says that we can have either grace or obedience but not both. He states, for example, that the terms esed, ēn, and raam refer in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish literature to “God’s beneficence or deliverance as justice” rather than “in spite of justice” (p. 65). Rather, the biblical position is that God’s mercy (implying and including the forgiveness of sins) is promised to those who keep covenant with God. In other words, deliverance as justice is at the same time also deliverance in spite of justice.

In the second chapter of the book VanLandingham discusses the concept of the last judgment according to deeds. Once again he correctly observes that behaviour in early Jewish (and biblical) thinking does determine a person’s eternal destiny, that “the righteous receive the reward of eternal life, whereas the wicked … receive the recompense of damnation” (p. 171). But instead of viewing the obedience of the righteous in the context of a covenant of grace and understanding that there is no incompatibility biblically speaking between grace and obedience, he suggests that the Qumranic Hodayot (and by implication, early Jewish literature generally) contradicts itself in asserting both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and in speaking of total depravity alongside the idea of the salvation of the righteous. Once again, this is a case or either/or thinking rather than the biblical both/and.

VanLandingham’s third chapter argues for the idea that the Apostle Paul (with Judaism generally) believed in a final judgment according to works for believers as well as non-believers. Here VanLandingham stands upon solid biblical evidence. His treatment of Rom 2:6–10 in a non-hypothetical way and his identification of the Gentiles in Rom 2 as Gentile Christians who keep the law is particularly refreshing. Sadly, however, the good work in chapter 3 is undone in chapter 4. Because he (correctly) understands a final judgment by deeds to be incompatible with the more traditional Protestant interpretations of justification by faith, he (also correctly) concludes that a different meaning needs to be assigned to the phrase justification by faith in Paul’s usage. He argues that justification by faith has been mistranslated and misunderstood by Protestants and modern-day Catholics alike. While there is something to his complaint, his suggestion that the language


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of justification in Paul only refers to forgiveness and emancipation from sin at the time of a believer’s conversion is a very unsatisfactory alternative. In effect, VanLandingham reduces justification to an initial experience at conversion, leaving the believer to stand “righteous” before God on the day of judgment in total isolation from the righteousness of Christ (p. 335). It is as if Christ only gets you in, and the believer is left to do the rest, but without the framework of covenant grace that Sanders has sought to emphasise.

Overall, VanLandingham’s book contains many insights into Old Testament and early Jewish thinking, but his “solution” for how to fit Paul into an early Jewish covenantal framework ends up being more problematic than the solution proposed by Sanders.

Steven Coxhead