THE JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH AND “ALL ISRAEL WILL BE SAVED” – THE INTERPRETATION OF KRISTER STENDHAL
by Br. Cristóvão Oliveira Silva, nds
The chain of ideas that we are going to show in the following paragraphs is a recollection of arguments taken from Krister Stendhal, former bishop of Stockholm, Church of Sweden, as he presented them in two books of his authorship. The first one is “Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays”, of 1977, followed by “Final Account – Paul’s Letter to the Romans”, released in 1995. From the Paul among Jews and Gentiles, we have picked up the third chapter [Justification Rather than Forgiveness], and from The Final Account we have chosen the chapter one [Paul and Israel]. The raison d’être of this selection is found in a common assumption claimed by both of these texts: Paul’s Theology of justification by faith was not a negation of the justice of the Law | Torah |, an assertion that opens up to a new Christian comprehension of the place and role of the Jewish people in the salvific designs of God.
We begin with Paul among Jews and Gentiles. The author begins with the affirmation that the term forgiveness is not found in the set of the authentic letters of Paul. There is only one exception, and it is placed in Rm 4:7, where the verb are forgiven is a quotation from the Psalm 32:1, more certainly from the Septuagint. The Swedish Theologian wonders then why there is much more reference to forgiveness in the daily life of the Church [ Liturgy, Preaching, Pastoral Care etc ] than to Justification, since it is missing in such a great “father” of Christianity, the Apostle Paul? The question of course is only an argumentative feature, since it is clear to everyone that the ever present concept of forgiveness in the life of the Church is a consequence of its usage in the Gospel, the main source of Christian life. The question, however, gives him an opportunity to suggest another reason for that phenomenon.
And this another reason is psychological. The term forgiveness is much more appropriate to appease the guilty conscience of people struggling with their sinful condition. But there is no problem with that, not at all. Problems, however, begin to appear when a psychological approach, born of a guilty conscience, is used to interpret Paul’s theology of justification by faith. And is precisely this psychological tendency, or anthropological emphasis, that Stendahl somehow denounces, through his research, in the traditional renderings of the Pauline Theology of justification by faith, and against such a psychological tendency he will now fight in order to re-establish Paul’s original insight.
His thesis is the following: excluded the hypothesis of the Pauline Theology of justification by faith be found in a context of a drama of conscience [ I know I am a sinner, and I know that God is just; now, for me to get freed from his wrath, I cover myself with the only virtue that’s possible to me, faith, and I say all the time to myself, “I’m faithful, God can’t condemn me”. ] a new context for this Theology can well be found in the relations of Jews and Gentiles touching the final salvation.
Now, to show that this new approach is reasonable, the author needs to prove two things: first that Paul is not trying to appease his conscience, and secondly, that there is a real link between justification by faith and the relations of Jews and Gentiles.
Touching the non-psychological drama of Paul, he cites Rm 7:15-24:
5 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Rm 7: 15-24 RSV)
Stendhal’s argument is that Paul is not describing here a guilty conscience. Although he may confess the commitment of some sin [what I don’t want to do is what I do], he exempts himself of being guilty of it [ it is no longer I that do it ]. Thus, there is no drama, there is no fight against himself. Paul here is humble, he acknowledges that he is a poor sinner, he is not struggling with a ever present feeling of guilty in his soul. This being said, the Theology of justification by faith is freed from a context of drama of conscience.
We may come to understand the insistence of the author in rebuking the psychological reading of the Theology of justification by faith if we remind ourselves of its place and importance in the Tradition of the Reformed Churches, to which he belongs. Maybe we can affirm that this Theology born of guilty is somehow a logical consequence of the absence of sacramental confession in the Reformed Churches. Sins are historical facts [ and of course we know that they are the final fruit of a spiritual process that begins its development in the bosom of one’s soul ], and against them, against their historical or factual attribute, simply words or mental concepts cannot do much. Historical sinful acts are more easily acquitted by an act of mercy that is also a historical and tangible fact – this is true at least under a psychological point of view. And I think the phenomenon [ tangible sins to be acquitted by a tangible mercy ] is found in other religious systems. Here in Israel, for example, we all have witnessed how tangible is Yom Kippur!
Now it comes the assertion that every single reference to justification by faith in Paul’s authentic letters is close somehow in the texts to a question of the relation between Jews and Gentiles. To verify this is very easy. We just have to have a look on those passages.
Two main passages in Romans are the most commonly cited: 1:16-17 and 3:28-31.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live’” Rm 1:16-17. NABRE
For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law | Torah |. Does God belong to Jews alone? Does he not belong to Gentiles too? Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Are we then annulling the law | Torah | by this faith? Of course not! We are supporting the Law | Torah |. NABRE
To sum up the whole thing, Stendahl’s argument is that Paul’s Theology of Justification by faith has as its background the relations between Jews and Gentiles, and the main conclusion is that this Theology is in no way a central point in Paul’s thinking, being only a lateral argument to help him in the affirmation of the right of the Gentiles to be received in the Kingdom of God.
As a son of contemporary exegesis, the author does not want to read a term used in the New Testament under the interpretation that was given to it by readers who lived more than fifteen centuries before it was written. He prefers to check the cultural background of it. For the term justification [ and for all terms in the NT ], what one can find beneath is of course the Hebrew world of the Old Testament. He appoints two interesting usages: the first in Judges 5, in the so called Song of Deborah; and the second in the Prophet Amos. In Judges 5, the tsidhqoth of the Lord | צִדְק֣וֹת יְהוָ֔ה | is a vindication. When the people of God defeats its enemies, even through a bloody war, this is to be considered a righteous deed of the Lord. However, in Amos, the divine intervention of God in relation of his people, his צִדְק֣וֹת does not seem to be such a favorable act. This is because the people have not been following the patterns of justice required by the Covenant. Thus, the right deeds of God become a sort of condemnation. “The day of the Lord is darkness and not light” (Amos 5:18). The righteousness of the Lord is then an intervention from above through which the people faces two consequences derived from their acts: if they have been living in accordance with the Law | Torah |, they will be saved, rescued; but if not, it they have been following paths of iniquity, they will face a hard time with God. In the Gospel of Paul, the believers get the divine rescue, justification, on account of Jesus Christ.
The question of how these new approaches can lead to a new evaluation of the place and role of the Jewish people in a Christian eschatology and soteriology remains open. The setting free of the doctrine of justification by faith from a psychological or an anthropological interest, can easily show us that it was really imprisoned in a dichotomist reading. The path by faith in Jesus-Messiah was considered holy, godly, spiritual, in opposition to a carnal one, the path of the works of the Torah, which was erroneously likened to a sinful situation of man. Nevertheless, Paul himself affirmed the spiritual essence and the stunning holiness of the Torah. “We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Rm 7:14).
Maybe the response to this question can be found in a novelty introduced by Paul in this Theological scenery: the no of the Jews is a cause for the yes of the Gentiles. In a paradoxical rendering of this thought [ and let us remember that a paradox is not the same thing as a contradiction ], one could say, Israel is so blessed that even through its errors God is acting to save all peoples.
To implement a more elaborated response, let us jump now to some ideas found in the second source text for this article, “Final Account – Paul’s Letter to the Romans”, more specifically, in the first chapter of it, Paul and Israel.
The chapter, before touching the subject itself of the position of Paul facing his countrymen, deals with the question of the thorn in the flesh, considered by the author one of the two problems that bothered Paul the most. The second problem, the only to be focused on here, was the painful “no” of the Jews to the Gospel. How to explain such a thing?
Paul was planning a mission journey to Spain, and Rome would be a stopover. Before jumping into a ship, he writes, better say, he dictates the Letter to the Romans. The letter was an opportunity for him to meditate on his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Then, an inevitable question comes: what about Israel?
Before we present some of the ideas of the author that we are shadowing, let us warn the reader that the text we are studying is not a work of exegesis in itself. However, it shows clearly that a very serious exegetical work lies behind it. For now, the author is thinking out loud, sharing the discoveries he found in his scientific research. This being said, we are excused if some assertions may look inaccurate under the eyes of other who may have meditated on these topics. This is valid for the whole of this article.
Maybe Paul had begun with a Theological principle, God’s promises to Israel are infallible, and Israel will surely be saved. However, if they now are refusing the Gospel, how come? How God will bring about their salvation?
Paul meditates on that, and [ what may appear astounding to the ears of Christians ] “it seems that God has put Israel on hold”. Perhaps the author was thinking of the divine mercy in Rm 11: 32, “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all”.
In this chapter, Stendahl makes us to contemplate something new, not only a very rich Theological feature in Paul, but, truly said, a beautiful aspect of Paul’s vision on Israel. It is the following: contrary to what happened in some strata of the Gospel Tradition [ the oral and written Tradition behind the writing of the 4 Gospel Books ], in which the refusal of Jews in believing the good-news raised a spirit of inventiveness against Jews and Torah, Paul stands firm in love and respect for his kinsmen. Paul is reminding Christians that they are not fit to judge the Jews.
The images used by Paul in the comparison with the Olive tree to describe the mystery of the election of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ, show also the elevated dignity of the Jews: the roots, the first fruits, the branches that have the same nature of the trunk. The author even says that Paul somehow foresaw “the specter of gruesome things to come” – the antisemitism.
According to the author, the secret that Paul wants to reveal to his readers in Rome is that high Theological affirmation, on which also our hope stands, “that all Israel will be saved”. Personally, we choose to close this article with another high Theological affirmation, that which says, “they are beloved because of the Patriarchs, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” ( Rm 11: 28-29).
The comprehension of the doctrine of justification by faith in a framework of contempt for Jews and the Torah are being put aside, at least in this Theological environment in which we find ourselves here in Sion. We think that a look at what the Torah is in itself, or at how she may have appeared to Paul in his time, in order to grasp what he may have meant with the term “works of the Torah”, can really help us to have a much broader view on the question of the works of Torah and the Justice of God through Jesus-Messiah.
Although having no pretension in defining what the Torah is, we think it is helpful to call to mind some characteristics of Her. The Torah of course is not simply the series of books we call the Pentateuch closed, or booked, in itself. More than a writing, the Torah, and we believe it is true in Paul’s time, is a living reality. The books, or the oral commentaries that explain them, are only a description of a reality that existed and exists by itself. What we mean is that the Torah unfolds in the real life of the Jews. The Torah was the living Liturgy in the Temple of Jerusalem, with its complex system of sacrifices; the Torah is the keeping of the Sabbath; the Torah is the circumcision; the Torah is the dietary laws of Kashrut; the Torah is the path that the Israelite follows in his and her relationship with their neighbor; the Torah is prayer and worship; the Torah is a Covenant; The Torah is a life of justice; the Torah is a life of faith [ emuna ]; the Torah is a supreme love for God and for your neighbor. The verb “to be” in these affirmations means “imply” or “hold”, although all of these activities bear somehow the essence of the Torah.
We ourselves would like to use a philosophical term to classify it, the Torah is the Weltanschauung of the Jews, that is, their world view, a insight giving meaning to everything that exists under and above the Heavens. Without fearing to commit a mistake, we dare say that the Torah was the human [ and why not divine ? ] Weltanschauung of Jesus, and the four Gospel books speak the language of the Torah Weltanschauung.
Well, if the Torah was [ and is ] such a great thing, we guess if there is any sense in the statement which affirms that having faith in Jesus is something completely opposed to the works of the Torah. Of course we are not to be so naive in denying that there are real and huge differences between the Church and the Synagogue. However, I think we are to imitate the apostle Saint John and fly to the highness and see things from above.
There is a passage in the Gospel according to John that may shed some light in our meditation on this very difficult question [ the question of faith in Jesus, the works of the Torah, and the final salvation of both Jews and Gentile Christians ]. It is Jo 8:25. That is the common translation we find in our Bibles: “So they [ the Pharisees ] said to him [ Jesus ], ‘who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘what I told you from the beginning’. However, this answer of Jesus is not an affirmation in many Greek texts; it was not an affirmation in all the Greek versions we have checked. In the Greek text, Jesus responds to the question of Pharisees with another question, which already sounds very Jewish; and the content of this question is astounding and stunning. The question-response of Jesus to the question “who are you?” is “What am I telling you since the beginning? [ ἔλεγον οὖν αὐτῷ, Σὺ τίς εἶ; εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Τὴν ἀρχὴν ὅ τι καὶ λαλῶ ὑμῖν; ] We all know the importance that John gives to the term “beginning”, and to the comprehension of the pre-existent Word of God. Since no man was at the beginning of the creation of the world, as described in the first verses of Genesis, I dare say that there is a subtle reference to the reshit or bereshit of the Torah. The reference is subtle for those who does not know the Jewish background of the Gospel; but for those who know it, Jesus is claiming to be He Himself the voice who speaks in the Torah, or that He is the Torah Himself. Who are you, Jesus? What have I tell you since Bereshit?
Another point for our reflection is the nature of faith. Faith is not a paralyzed state of mind; faith is engagement; faith is work; faith is search; faith is movement; faith is suffering; and faith is even death when you have to bear the ultimate witness. This being said, is faith [ engagement ] in Jesus so different than work [ engagement ] in the Torah? We think it must be taken into consideration when dealing with dichotomist renderings of the Justification by faith; a dichotomy that leads to opposition and contempt.
And when all’s said and done, is not that which Jesus taught us a commandment of the Torah? “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”; “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Mk 12, 30-31.