Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill – Book Review

A. Chadwick Thornhill.  The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

As I was perusing new releases from IVP Academic, the subject matter of this book piqued my interest, and the description promising a “careful and provocative study” enticed me to secure a copy.

Thornhill’s purpose is to mine the non-canonical materials of Second Temple Judaism for some clarification of what those writers meant when referring to a person or group as “chosen.”  The documents used fall into three categories: Dead Sea Scrolls, The Apocrypha, and pseudepigraphal works (Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, etc.).  The typical Christian will wonder why any time should be devoted to reading, much less studying, these texts.  Not only are these worthwhile to understand the religious nature of Israel in the first century, but Christians, through the first fifteen centuries, held The Apocrypha in high regard and considered it useful reading.  With this in mind, we understand the importance of grasping the Second Temple mindset while reading and studying the New Testament.

Thornhill clearly identifies in the aforementioned texts the breadth of Second Temple understanding concerning God’s election.  The opening chapters seek to answer important questions:
  • God Chose Whom? Election and the Individual
  • Who Are the People of God?
  • Who’s In and Who’s Out? Election and “Conditions”
  • How Big a Tent?
  • Whose Turn Is It? Election and Responsibility
The author does a good job of laying out who was considered to be elect and in what way election was both corporate and individual.  The conclusions he reaches from this study help us understand how the rabbis and other spiritual leaders of this era viewed their place as God’s chosen people, the inclusion of Gentile proselytes, and the conditions for remaining within the covenant.  It also gives insight into the tenuous political relationship with the Roman empire as an occupied territory.  As Thornhill suggests, the disparate spiritual forces within Israel resulted in the heterogeneous interpretations of Judaism’s fine points, but the aggregate goal lay in a unity around their Scriptures and heritage.

After mining the documents, determining their relevancy, and producing appropriate conclusions, Thornhill attempts to demonstrate how Paul’s teaching on election is to be understood in light of these texts.  As a Pharisee, the apostle would have been schooled by Gamaliel in the ethos of the Second Temple, and upon conversion would have carried over into his missionary work and epistles.  In this regard, the author walks the path of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) blazed by E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright.  NPP promotes that people demonstrate their belief in Jesus (and previously YHWH) by works performed in faith.  In other words, if you do the works specified under the covenant, you show yourself to be within the covenant as a child of God, but if you do not, then your failure puts you outside the covenant.  This line of reasoning raises questions.

What is the purpose of good works?
While the concept of works performance may appeal to Christians as a correct understanding of such passages as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-26, works do not drive our position within covenant life.  Rather works demonstrate that one who has faith will do the good deeds as a natural outworking the new nature, not as evidence or maintenance of the new nature.  This can be shown via examples from the Scriptures.

Consider first two individuals from the time of the Judges: Jephthah (Judges 11-12) and Samson (Judges 13-16).  Both of these men lived within the governing parameters of the Mosaic covenant, yet both were clearly not performing works in accord with that covenant.  Were they in or out?  Clearly, they were in since they both operated as Judges through divine enabling and are given passing mention as performing their recorded deeds by faith in Hebrews 11—a contradiction to the tenets of NPP.

The second example comes from PaulTwo churches receiving epistles from the apostle performed works clearly outside of that proscribed by the New Covenant in Christ.  The church at Corinth had begun relishing in the newfound freedom that was theirs in Christ to the point of licentious living and worship.  The church of Galatia had done just the opposite by trying to add works to the grace and freedom given in Christ.  Both were acting in opposition to the covenant they entered, yet Paul refers to them as brethren, demonstrating their position within the covenant community, rebuking and admonishing so to turn them toward a proper life in Christ.  They were covenant-trusting believers who needed correction.  Again, if NPP is correct, Paul would have been incorrect to consider these members as within Christ’s body and should not have treated them as such.

Are the Second Temple documents relevant to Paul’s teaching?
As mentioned above, the body of literature developing at this time demonstrates the social, political, and religious views of the nation.  This background helps greatly in understanding the interaction between Jesus and the religious authorities (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.) as He corrected their improper handling of the Law given through Moses.  The documents produced would an incorrect view of God and Israel as to purpose in being and ongoing mission.  As a Pharisee, Paul would have been well-versed in the nuances of Judaic instruction, yet we see with the Damascus road incident, a complete shift in perspective.  The apostle later explicitly states that all he had gained through his heritage, instruction, and training in Judaism were worthless in comparison to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:4-9).  With this attitude driving him, we would not expect the teaching on the place of works that he received as a Pharisee to be passed to the churches he planted as they would be counterproductive to the gospel.

These serious questions must be considered while following the author’s attempts to make links to the Pauline doctrine of election, especially in his chapter on Romans 8:26-11:36.  While he makes helpful comments concerning both the individual and corporate aspects of election in this section of Scripture, we are left with the notion that the Christian is an integral, if not primary, agent in covenantal election.  To be sure, there is an aspect of the faith/faithfulness distinction made in the book that helps us see the link between belief and the life lived, but we cannot conclude that the lack of works places us outside the covenant.  More correctly, the person demonstrating these outward indicators does so from some measure of disbelief.  Depending on your doctrinal understanding, the lack of trust in the covenant-making God places or shows one outside the covenant (see Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31).  Whichever the case, the conclusion is clear: there is no longer an active faith, therefore no faithfulness in attitude or action—not the converse.

I commend Thornhill for his investigative work and excellent treatment of the source documents in presenting his thesis.  His careful work serves the Christian community with further understanding of the Second Temple documents and what that brings to the New Testament, however the conclusions that these documents are needful to comprehend Paul’s teaching on election should be dismissed.  One can gain much useful knowledge from this work, however discernment must be exercised as to its application.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free of charge.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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