Review of Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God

Richard H. Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God: An Inquiry into Paul’s Theology of Israel, WUNT. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005. xxv + 550pp. ISBN: 3-16-148009-0. $175.00. Cloth.

Published in Bulletin for Biblical Research, 18.1 (2008), 161-64.

Having noted his shift in persuasion from the “new perspective” to a “more traditional ‘Lutheran’ approach” in his preface (VII), Richard Bell plunges straightway into a discussion of Paul’s birth, upbringing and education. The reader must deduce for himself what Bell’s thesis is and how the format of the material makes his argument.

Bell’s aim appears to be to establish his conclusion, deal with material that counters his conclusion, and apply his conclusion to recent history (the Holocaust) and the contemporary scene (various charges of anti-Semitism). Bell concludes regarding Israel that “the whole nation, including every single member” will be saved by faith in Jesus at his second coming (261-65). Moreover, he argues that “Israelites from every age will believe in the Christ when they see him coming again in his glory” (265).

As for material that appears to contradict his conclusion, Bell argues that “the views expressed in 1 Thes. 2.13-16 on the Jews cannot be reconciled with Romans 9-11” (61), that Paul changed his mind on Israel between Galatians and Romans (176 n. 95) “from a substitution model to one where Israel’s election remains firm” (315), that Galatians implies “a substitution model . . . that the Church of Jews and Gentiles replaces Israel” (179), that “2 Corinthians, like Philippians, does not seem to put forward an explicit substitution model” (184), that Romans 2:25–29 does not support a “substitution model” because “Paul is not concerned with Christians but with pious Jews and Gentiles” (196), that while “Most of the New Testament seems to support a substitution model” (313) this is not the “mature” (315) view presented in Romans 9–11, “But after Romans the tradition history ‘degenerates’. So Ephesians is clearly a development of Pauline theology . . . . But on the Israel question there appears to be a regression” (317).

Bell asserts, “So according to Paul all Jews will be saved, even those who were apostates” (392). Bell takes up the question of the millennium, rejecting it (386–88), but the question he does not address is how “even those who were apostates” will be saved by faith in Jesus—for he does affirm that salvation is only by faith in Jesus. Moreover, Bell argues convincingly that the church today should evangelize Jews (395–407). So how is it that all Jews across the ages will be saved at the second coming? Will there be a resurrection of all Jews of all ages at the second coming at which point all Jews will believe in Jesus and be saved? This Bell does not address.

While Bell argues that the “high point” (319) of Paul’s teaching in Romans does not present what he calls a “substitution model,” he nevertheless argues that Christian theology, if properly done, is going to be inevitably ‘supercessionist’” (416). But it seems to me that Bell’s presentation of the “substitution model” of Galatians is insufficiently nuanced. He too quickly concludes that Galatians teaches this “substitution model,” fails to helpfully define what such a “substitution model” does and does not entail, and does not entertain the possibility that Galatians and Romans—and 1 Thessalonians—might be reconcilable. He seems to prefer Sachkritik to harmonization—see below.

In addition to the question of how Bell sees all Jews of all time being saved at the second coming, I am puzzled as to what Bell means when he writes, “The sonship or adoption which Paul speaks of in [Romans] 9.4 is a present possession. It is a gift which Israel has retained whether she believes in Jesus or not” (203). But does it not seem more plausible that Paul thought that Jews who refused to believe in Jesus would face judgment, while all Jews living at the time of the second coming will see Jesus, believe, and thereby be saved? It is not clear to me why Bell finds his view, with its progression and regression, preferable to this position, which would seem to make sense of all Paul’s writings. The interpretation that allows Paul to be consistent with himself, rather than the one that creates internal incoherence, would seem to be the more plausible.

In response to the progression-regression he sees in the Pauline materials, Bell writes, “some form of Sachkritik (theological criticism) is going to be inevitable” (320). This method, however, appears to be inconsistent with the way in which Bell himself criticizes E. P. Sanders for his selective use of Jewish literature to make the case for covenantal nomism (e.g., 115, where Sanders “attempted to marginalize” 4 Ezra, and see 116 n. 176). Had Sanders made an explicit appeal to Sachkritik, as Bell does, what recourse would anyone have to dispute with his views? Bell writes, “The theologian therefore needs to engage in ‘Sachkritik’ of the biblical texts in order to seek after the word of God” (324). But again, it is difficult to see how a community of scholars can consistently engage in Sachkritik and maintain meaningful interaction with each other. For instance, Bell states, “The widespread belief that Jews (and those of other religions) do not need the gospel is, I believe, a major heresy in the Church today” (403). But what if those who think Jews and others do not need the gospel have practiced their own Sachkritik on the passages that led Bell to the conclusion that they do need it? How can a practitioner of Sachkritik maintain that there is orthodoxy, departure from which is heresy?

Bell does present a compelling argument for the view that “the Pharisaism to which Paul belonged did believe in salvation by works and his religion, like that of the Rabbis after 70 AD, can legitimately be described as one of ‘works-righteousness’” (130–31). He is also convincing in his treatment of the salvation historical dimensions of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3–4 (171). Bell’s view that Paul’s thinking about Israel is shaped by Deuteronomy 32 is a stimulating proposal, and he has a clear understanding of the doctrine of election. Moreover, he rightly affirms that “For Paul the sign of salvation is confession of faith” (289)—apparently to the exclusion of inclusivism (see 414–17, esp. 415: “there is no salvation outside Jesus Christ”). Bell is also commendably open to the historicity of the miraculous accounts of the Bible (e.g., 305 n. 55).

Some of Bell’s problematic positions are worth noting here. He has not understood the epistle of James, describing it as “a book in the New Testament with synergistic tendencies” (143 n. 310; cf. James 1:18), and then suggesting that “there is what I would call a ‘degeneration’ as we move from Paul to James” (321). Bell claims that Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 are to be understood as “mythical” (186–87 and n. 139). He thinks Romans is Paul’s last letter—not interacting at all with arguments to the contrary. And he seems to engage in theological eisegesis when he discursively elaborates on the idea that “just as the church is related to the exalted Christ, so Israel is related to the earthly Jesus” (301–02). Bell even has the audacity to assert that Jesus was fallible, stating, “He was fallible regarding biblical criticism,” and basically accepting “kenotic Christology” (310–11 with notes 78 and 82). He all too simplistically adopts the view that “Paul . . . was more concerned about what Jesus did than what he taught” (312), not bothering to interact with impressive demonstrations that Paul’s letters are heavily influenced by the teaching of Jesus. Bell problematically questions “‘consistency’ as a criterion of truth” (314 n. 93), and he suggests that “there are cases where Paul did not see the true consequences of his own gospel” (400), citing Paul’s “attitude to women in the church” and suggesting that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 “actually contradicts his own gospel (see Gal. 3.28)” (400 n. 104).

There is much learning in this volume, though I was surprised at the number of typographically related errors in it. Bell’s analysis of the text of the New Testament is marked by careful consideration of the various options, massive documentation of secondary literature in both German and English, helpful interaction with Jewish texts that shed light on the beliefs of Paul’s contemporaries, and the reader learns a good deal about the stances various German scholars took during the reign of Hitler. At several points Bell comes to the defense of scholars such as Billerbeck and Jeremias, and he presents what appears to be an even handed assessment of Kittel’s views, pointing out that the Nazis were not exactly happy with him. 

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