The New Perspective on Paul: Käsemann vs. Stendahl

Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199-215.

Käsemann, Ernst. “Justification and Salvation History in the Epistle to the Romans.” In Perspectives on Paul. Translated by Margaret Kohl. London: S. C. M. Press, 1971. pp. 60-78.

In their respective essays, Krister Stendahl and Ernst Käsemann disagree over the heart of the Pauline message. In “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Stendahl advocates a view of Paul that very much resembles the portrait that E. P. Sanders would paint nearly fifteen years later. Käsemann critiques Stendahl’s use of the concept of salvation history as an organizing principle of Paul’s thought. The following paper will attempt a brief summary of each writer’s essay and evaluate some strengths and weaknesses of both.

Krister Stendahl
Little did anyone know that Stendahl’s little article would portend a great revolution in Pauline studies, “This article, like a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, gave promise of the coming storm.”[1] The storm came with E. P. Sanders’ epoch making work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published nearly fifteen years after the appearance of Stendahl’s article in Harvard Theological Review.[2] Ever since the publication of Sanders’ book, his thesis has virtually carried the day in scholarly opinion.[3] Yet it is Stendahl who is credited as having, “alerted the world to problems in traditional readings of Paul some while before Sanders.”[4]
Stendahl’s basic point is that Western Christianity has misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification, “Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament” (206). Western Christianity has wrongly read Paul and his opponents through the lens of the struggle that Martin Luther had with late medieval piety (206). Stendahl argues that Paul did not wrestle against a guilty conscience as the monk Luther had done with his confessors. On the contrary, Paul had a rather “robust” conscience (200). Citing Philippians 3:6, Stendahl maintains that Paul viewed his preconverted self as “flawless” with regard to the righteousness required by the law (200). Thus Paul the Pharisee had no problem with the law per se. Indeed there is no indication whatsoever that Paul found it difficult to keep the law as a Pharisee, “Paul’s references to the impossibility of fulfilling the law. . .is no indication that he had ‘experienced it in his own conscience’ during his time as a Pharisee” (202).

Stendahl really misses the point of Philippians 3:6 when he cites it as evidence that Paul thought of himself as blameless as a Pharisee. The point of Philippians 3 is not to show how Pharisees have an up beat view of the law and their obedience to it. The point of Paul’s argument is to show that, in spite of how “blameless” a Pharisee may think himself to be, the law is a deficient means to justify oneself. Paul explicitly argues against “having a righteousness of my own derived from the law” and likens such righteousness to dung (Phil 3:8-9a). For Paul, the only righteousness that will justify is “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9b). This makes it very difficult to agree with Stendahl’s assessment of Paul’s “robust” conscience; on the contrary, Paul renounces such pretensions.

Because Stendahl sees Paul as having a robust conscience with regard to law keeping, he is able to say that Paul’s references to sin have not to do with individuals but with communities of people (201). Thus, the famous formula, “at the same time righteous and sinner…cannot be substantiated as the center of Paul’s conscious attitude toward personal sins. Apparently, Paul did not have the type of introspective conscience which such a formula seems to presuppose” (202). One immediately wonders how Stendahl can reach such a conclusion given the famously introspective Romans 7. But in this chapter, Stendahl does not see Paul to be indicted personally by the law, but vindicated by it, “The argument is one of acquittal of the ego, not one of utter contrition” (212). For Stendahl, Paul’s apparent introspection is not the main point, but a “supporting argument” for his real thesis—“a defense for the holiness and goodness of the Law” (212-13). Even though one may agree that the main point of Romans 7 is the vindication of the law,[5] it does not follow that there are no anthropological implications. John Piper clearly sums up how the main point of Romans 7 (the acquittal of the law) does not nullify its anthropological/introspective implications,

So now we are in a position to see why the identity of this divided man in Romans 7:14-25 does not change the main point of the passage. If the man is a Christian or not a Christian, in either case his misery (‘O, wretched man that I am,’ verse 24) is caused by his indwelling sin, not by the Law. The Law is not sinful and the Law is not poison. I am sinful, and my sin is deadly poison.[6]

Contrary to Stendahl’s claim that this passage comprises an acquittal of Paul’s ego (212), the passage actually accentuates the guilt of the ego as the grounds for the law’s vindication. Stendahl tears asunder what Paul has bound tightly together in the argument of Romans 7—namely, his own sinfulness and the law’s goodness. The result of these observations is that the two crucial texts cited by Stendahl do not in fact support his thesis.

Ernst Käsemann
Ernst Käsemann criticizes Stendahl’s assumption that, “the introspective attitude of the west has led to a false stress on Paul’s struggle with Judaistic interpretation of the of the law and hence to an equally wrong emphasis on the doctrine of justification which grew out of that struggle” (60). Hence Käsemann criticizes the thesis which grows out of that assumption, “neither Paul the Pharisee nor Paul the convert possessed that pronounced awareness of guilt which his later interpreters imputed to him. His message rather centres on a concept of revelation based on salvation history” (60). Käsemann confines his rebuttal of Stendahl’s thesis to the book of Romans.

Käsemann criticizes Stendahl for playing the concept of salvation history against the doctrine of justification in Paul, “In Stendahl, consequently, the antithesis arises between salvation history as the apostle’s fundamental position and his doctrine of justification as an early Christian defence against Judaism, conditioned by its time” (63). This is not to say that Käsemann rejects outright the concept of salvation history. On the contrary, he asserts, “it is impossible to understand the bible in general or Paul in particular without the perspective of salvation history” (63).What Käsemann is concerned about is a question of emphasis. He warns, “It has always been a characteristic of Pauline interpretation in Germany to fall from one extreme into another and often enough to postulate alternatives which destroy the apostle’s dialectical treatment of the facts” (65-66). His point is that Stendahl has played off “salvation history. . .against the doctrine of justification” (66). Käsemann argues that the contours and the significance of salvation history in Paul’s theology is still in dispute (66), and when Stendahl “sets salvation history thematically over against the doctrine of justification” he assumes what is in fact “the absolutely decisive problem of Pauline interpretation” (66).

One critique of Käsemann is in order. He writes, “The Pauline doctrine of justification never took its bearings from the individual, although hardly anyone now realizes this” (74). If this statement is true, then why is Paul so often found reflecting on his own justification in terms of his own individual experiences? For example, Paul reflects, “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9). Granted, Paul does speak of justification in more generalized terms also (Romans 3:21-31), but such language should not vitiate the texts in which he clearly speaks in individual terms. It appears that Paul is able to speak of justification in both ways: corporate and individual. Perhaps there is a lack of clarity on what one means by “individual” and “corporate.” If so, such terms should be spelled out more clearly before criticizing previous scholarship’s “individualist curtailment of the Christian message” (74).
[1]Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 372.
[2]E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
[3]“We cannot here consider further, let alone discuss in detail, this exceptionally important contribution to modern New Testament scholarship. The impact of the book is still being felt in a multitude of ways ten years later. Criticisms have been made and will continue to be made; but no one can deny that, in this bright post-Sanders epoch, we are all Rabbinic sympathizers, though at second hand” (Ibid., 373).
[4]N. T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 190.
[5]“The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh” (Rom 7:14). “If I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good” (Rom 7:16). “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Rom 7:22).
[6]I cite Piper here because he is typical of the reformed position and might be considered one who would only be interested in the anthropological/introspective implications of Romans 7:14-21. Yet this is clearly not the case (John Piper, “Who Is This Divided Man (part 1),” [sermon delivered to Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, 27 May 2001], [on-line], accessed 22 March 2002, piper2001/5-27-01.htm.