My flight back home is delayed, so while I’m waiting at the airport, I’m thinking the best use of my time is to do a quick post on SBL-AAR 2015. I won’t be posting on every session and every paper that I attended but I will highlight what I feel were presentations either of particular interest to me personally, or I think would be of wider interest to those who, as Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, appreciate that one aspect of pastoral ministry is being a public theologian and therefore do not shy away from the insights born from engagement with academic study.

Pauline Epistles Session at SBL-AAR Atlanta on Sat morning (11/21/15)

   The Saturday morning Pauline Epistles session (Nov 21) had some great papers. I’m grateful that David Wheeler-Reed mined Galen’s recently discovered treatise De Indolentia (now published in a critical edition) for how its exposition on λυπή (often translated as “grief”) might illuminate Paul’s discourse (paper title: “Paging Dr. Paul: Reading Paul’s Use of Grief with Galen“). Long story short, after a great summary of the treatise, Wheeler-Reed argued that the injunction μὴ λυπῆσθε in 1 Thessalonias 4:13 should be translated not as “Do not grieve” but “Do not distress over.” Galen, of course, was writing much later than Paul, but the former’s discourse on λυπή, so argued by Wheeler-Reed, was part of the wider linguistic currency of the Greco-Roman world that ran through the 1st century up until Galen’s time. 
   Theologically, the implications of the translation means that Paul was not against emotional grief per say (by all means, the loss of someone in this earthly life is an occasion to grieve, weep, and remorse). Rather “distress” relates to a mental state on how to deal with the tragedies and external circumstances surrounding an individual. Rather than reacting with visible demonstrations of panic, Paul’s antidote to distress is faith, especially a faith which confesses that those who have died in the Lord will not be excluded from the benefits and promises of salvation. 
   I’m not completely convinced that Paul would limit the definition of λυπή to exclude the emotional component of distress. Paul does say: Don’t grieve as those who have no hope, not: dont’ grieve at all [period!]. And since Galen was not a Stoic but accounted for emotional experience in moderated measure (see my essay in Klyne Snodgrass’ Festschrift), I’m inclined to think that Paul’s use of the term did include some emotional component. However, the paper was a helpful reminder that λυπή focuses not on an internal condition of the soul but one’s deliberate (not knee-jerk) response to present external circumstances. 
    I must mention also that my dean, colleague, and friend Stephen Chester gave a fantastic paper on “Conflicting or Mutually Dependent Perspectives?: Interpreting the Flesh, Sin, and the Human Plight in Paul.” I don’t think he meant to be humorous, but the points he made in his presentation were so clear, I could not help but laugh a few times throughout his presentation for the sheer irony that he was so ably cataloguing in his history of interpretation on Paul’s justification language. His central thesis was that the New Perspective has made the mistake of lumping together the views of Augustine and Martin Luther so that in their re-reading of Paul, the NPP (= New Perspective on Paul) ends up faulting Luther for concepts that Luther himself does not support. In fact, if one examines Luther’s interpretation of Galatians more closely, many of Luther’s exegetical conclusions anticipate the criticisms of the NPP against Augustine. 
   In regards to Luther’s understanding of the flesh vs. the Spirit, for example, the NPP has accused Luther of being dualistic in his views of human anthropology. However, Luther, in a text quoted by Chester, actually says: 

  • The apostle [Paul] does not wish to be understood as saying that the flesh and the spirit are two separate entities, as it were, but whole… [LW 25:339-41 = WA 56:350, 22 – 352, 9]. Note that one and the same man at the same time serves the law of God and the law of sin, at the same time is righteous and sins! For he does not say: “My mind serves the law of God,” nor does he say: “My flesh serves the law of sin,” but “I, the whole man,” the same person, I serve a two-fold servitude.” [LW 25:336 = WF 56:347, 2-6; excerpt from a handout given by Chester]

When Luther talks about the whole person, he is hardly being dualistic or positing an anthropological hierarchy (human spirit > flesh). So when N.T. Wright says: 

  • [Paul’s anthropological terms] sometimes appear to designate different ‘parts’ of a human being, but, as many have pointed out, it is better to see as each encoding a particular way of looking at the human being as a whole but from one perticular angle (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 491; excerpt from Chester’s handout)

Luther would agree with Wright, and would add: And I said it first! Luther says the whole man serves God or sins. He does not think two different faculties in a person are at war with each other in some sort of (Neo)platonic dualism as Augustine does, but the NPP wrongly posits Luther’s position as Augustinian. 
   So there is a delicious irony at work: the NPP has defined its movement vis-à-vis the Reformers but in fact many of its tenets (e.g., a holistic view of the flesh, or sin as an apocalyptic power) continue to depend on the exegetical work of the Reformers like Luther. 
    This paper, by the way, is part of a larger monograph that Stephen is almost finished with, and is tentatively entitled: Righteousness in Christ: Paul, the Reformers, and the New Perspective. He plans to submit a manuscript to Eerdmans and we will probably see it debut at the next SBL-AAR 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. Can’t wait!