Friday, January 31, 2014

Justin Taylor's Interview with Doug Moo: Some Reflections



Wheaton's Doug Moo
(image@mydigitalseminary.com)
Over the past couple of months I have written only sparingly due to various and sundry reasons, not least a project on the Greek text of Galatians that has taken up a goodly portion of my study/writing time. It was with interest, then, when I discovered, via the blog of my man Mike Bird, that Doug Moo, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton Graduate School, had been interviewed last month by Justin Taylor on the occasion of the long-awaited release of his new Galatians commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series.

The towering Moo (speaking in terms both of his physical and intellectual stature) has long been my favorite American evangelical New Testament scholar, not least because of his 1996 Romans commentary in the NICNT series, which has proven, along with those of Dunn, Wright, Fitzmyer, Jewett, and the two titans from my seminary days (Cranfield and Kӓsemann) to be among my most helpful companions when working on that greatest of Pauline letters. Indeed, in many respects Moo's commentary remains the best of the lot, a fact which for years whetted my appetite for his forthcoming work on Galatians, the letter on which I had written in my doctoral dissertation two decades ago. As it turns out, Moo's new work is no disappointment, clearly surpassing the works of Betz, Bruce, Dunn, and Longenecker that were the state-of-the-art texts when I initially worked my way through the epistle, as well as the fine rhetorical commentary of Witherington written shortly thereafter.

Taylor's interview of Moo is interesting in a number of respects. First, he gives insight into the way he writes commentaries. It is common for scholars—Gordon Fee, author of the NICNT volume on 1 Corinthians, comes to mind—to claim that they work through the text on their own before they ever consult the vast ocean of relevant secondary literature on their subject. Moo, on the other hand, proceeds in the opposite direction, devouring everything possible in the secondary literature before doing his own detailed work. For some, this may sound counterintuitive. But it is also the way I work (after, of course, doing the preliminary work of translation and grammatical analysis) … and, I propose, the best way simultaneously to temper the influence of one's preunderstandings and engender genuine originality of thought (so long, of course, that one doesn't treat these works as authorities to which to conform one's ideas).

Second, Moo tells us about his upcoming projects. Two in particular stand out: a forthcoming commentary on Hebrews and what may well prove to be his magnum opus, a Theology of Paul. It has been years since I have done serious work in Hebrews (the most recent commentaries I have used extensively are the major works of Attridge [1989] and Lane [1991]). But it appears that this great "word of exhortation" (Heb 13:22) is just now coming into its own in the academy, with the recent publication of the volumes by O'Brien in the Pillar series (2010) and Cockerill in the NICNT (2012, replacing the fine 2nd edition of F. F. Bruce's classic), not to mention the forthcoming ICC volume by Philip Alexander, tentatively scheduled for a 2015 release. I have no doubt that Moo's work will compare favorably with these.

The same goes for his volume on Paul. It has been 43 years since the publication of the English translation of Günther Bornkamm's famous work on Paul and 39 since the appearance of the ET of Herman Ridderbos's groundbreaking salvation-historical reading of Paul (the work which, when I devoured it in the summer of 1982, forever changed the way I read the theology of the New Testament). Since that time, Pauline studies have burgeoned due to the seminal publication of Ed Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, and numerous major Theologies of Paul have appeared, most notably those of Dunn (1997) and Schnelle (2003 [ET 2005]). And, of course, the Colossus of Rhodes of Pauline studies, N. T. Wright's magisterial two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, was just published in November of last year. Moo's projected volume promises to be the best and most responsible evangelical work written in its wake (for Moo's review of this work, see here) …

Which brings me to the third, and most interesting, aspect of the interview, namely, that Moo now affirms a dual aspect to Paul's signature theologoumenon, justification. In other words, justification, God's declaration that a person is "in the right," i.e., that he or she stands in right judicial relationship with him, is both already (Rom 3-5) and not yet (Rom 2; Gal 5:6). That such should be the case is hardly surprising to anyone attuned to the "inaugurated eschatology" that pervades the New Testament, and has been been articulated for decades by such conservative and even Reformed scholars as G. E. Ladd, Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin, and Tom Schreiner. Yet, as the comments to the Taylor-Moo interview demonstrate, such an admission is troubling to many "confessional" Reformed evangelicals, for whom any deviation from an exclusively past referent of justification is a step on the path to Rome or, worse (it sometimes seems), a "Wrightian" understanding of Paul. Witness one respondent who, while acknowledging Moo's point, still proposes that he substitute "vindication" for "final justification" because the latter "feels a little too Catholic" for his sensibilities (as an aside, one wonders if he catches the irony here, for N. T. Wright himself often associates our "justification" with our union with Christ in his death and resurrection/vindication).

Objections like this demonstrate nothing more than what Bird terms "ultra-Reformed paranoia" from folks he elsewhere describes memorably as "Procrustean Presbyterians," viz., people who "force the biblical story onto a bed of dogma" (Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. J. Merrick and S. M. Garrett [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013] 301), who have found a champion of sorts in Guy Prentiss Waters, whose unfortunate 2004 work Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul hardened skeptical Reformed attitudes to Wright and anyone broadly agreeing with his perspectives. But such hand wringing over Moo's supposed capitulation to error are as silly as they are misinformed. After all, Moo, like I, writes from the perspective of a Calvinistic theology of a broadly Reformed character. More to the point, he is quite clear—as is the execrated Wright, for all who actually take the time to read or listen to what he actually says—that the beneficiaries of initial and final justification are coterminous. Past justification through faith alone is, in Moo's (and Wright's) view, definitive, and so the works in accordance with which final justification is pronounced contribute not one whit to "achieving" the verdict. Indeed, past justification by faith contributes to the Christian's assurance of final salvation, based as it is on God's trustworthy promise.

Moreover, Moo can hardly be claimed to be an unabashed supporter of Wright's views on Paul. Indeed, Wright comes in for pointed criticism with reference to his famous "redefining" of justification language in terms of membership in God's covenant people. While recognizing that the context of Paul's initial articulation of justification is one dealing with the issue of Gentile inclusion in the messianic covenant community (the Antioch incident [Gal 2:11-14]; the Galatian crisis itself), Moo faults Wright for supposedly de-emphasizing the concept's lawcourt imagery and limiting the concept to matters of food and community identity/membership. The question to ask, as Moo sees it with reference to Wright's reading of the matter, is "whether the notion of membership in the people of God should be added to the notion of forensic acquittal, and indeed added to such extent that the latter becomes the dominant idea in the latter" (p. 54). His answer is as follows:
In this text, and the paragraph of which it is a part, Paul is using the Antioch incident as a jumping-off place to address the central theological issue that lies behind that incident and the situation in Galatia as well. And in both situations, the issue is the terms on which people can expect to find right standing with God. The focus is on Gentile inclusion; but Paul stresses that Jews also "know" that this right standing comes by christologically oriented faith and not by "works of the law" (2:16); if right standing with God could come by means of the torah, Christ need not have died at all (v.21) … There is no good contextual reason to insist that "justify" in 2:16 must be redefined to mean, or to include, the notion of membership in God's people. There is no need to collapse the two concepts into one … The flow of the text makes perfect sense if Paul in 2:16 is using the δικαιόω language in its well-attested sense "declare righteous."
Membership in God's people and justification are closely related, but they are not identical. One entails the other, but they are not the same. Paul argues both points in Galatians … But in Galatians, as in Paul's Letters in general, justification does not in itself refer to belonging to God's people; still less does justification include how one knows a person belongs to God's people (p. 55).
This reads like a thorough articulation of what Tom Schreiner succinctly argued at the 2010 ETS convention in Atlanta, namely, that whereas justification had ecclesiological implications, strictly speaking it was a soteriological doctrine concerned with an individual's forensic status before God.

In many respects I find myself in sympathy with Moo here. In particular, his last sentence straightforwardly rejects Wright's peculiar, unnecessary separation of conversion (which he equates with the Spirit's effective call through the gospel) and justification (indeed, faith is indeed the "badge," as he often says, of God's new covenant people; but how does that necessarily conflict with the notion that "justification," in Sanders's language, is largely a "transfer term" or "entrance requirement" through which God utters the verdict "not guilty" over the forgiven sinner?). Moreover, he has rightly noted the clear implication in Galatians 2:16's assertion that Paul and Peter, though Jews, believed in Christ so as to be justified by faith (an implication I myself strongly championed in my Dallas dissertation [pp. 171-73, 318-19]), that justification is indeed fundamentally a soteriological doctrine, it sociological context notwithstanding. Hence also the legitimacy, as Moo puts it, of the classic Reformational understanding of a "deeper, anthropological argument in the letter" (p. 160). The question then becomes one of whether or not this anthropological argument is allowed to eclipse the fundamental salvation-historical/ecclesiological one (as I would argue has happened in Protestant polemic since the days of Luther), or be seen as a legitimate implication able to be drawn upon when contextualizing the letter's message (again, as in Protestantism since the days of Luther).

Nevertheless, some nagging questions remain. Wright may be wrong when, in his recent book on Justification (p. 100) he carelessly, and in more than a little tension to what he says elsewhere, claims with regard to Galatians 2:16 that "the lawcourt metaphor behind the language of justification, and of the status 'righteous' which someone has when the court has found in their favor, has given way to the the clear sense of 'membership in God's people'." But such literary and rhetorical misdemeanors hardly are sufficient to overthrow the clear correlation of the biblical "righteousness" language and its covenantal overtones. Indeed, Wright isn't making things up out of whole cloth when he notes that Paul, in both Galatians 3 and Romans 4, bases his argument that justification is by faith, apart from works of the Torah, for Jews and Gentiles alike, on the Genesis 15 account of God's covenant with Abraham. Indeed, as Wright has trenchantly argued against Sanders, the apostle doesn't point to Genesis 15:6 simply as a proof text for a doctrine he held for quite other reasons. Rather, he believed that his law-free message of justification by faith was the fulfillment of God's promise to the patriarch of a single, worldwide family (Gen 12), which would be marked out, like Abraham himself, by faith (in contrast, that is, to the physical seed of Abraham who would be marked out, in the time prior to the coming of Messiah Jesus, by circumcision (Gen 17) (cf. Gal 3:7-9)..

This brings us to the key text itself, Genesis 15:6: "And [Abram] believed YHWH, and he counted it to him as righteousness." Now in its original historical context, only the most inveterate Reformed confessionalist would claim that the primary intent of the text was to portray Abram as a forgiven sinner and "justified" by having an external "righteousness" credited to his account. Of course, progressive revelation might later indicate that such notions are part of what this prototypical "reckoning" entailed. But in its context, as Richard Hays notes, being "accounted righteous" means, in effect, to be reckoned "in right covenant relationship with God" ("The Letter to the Galatians," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. XI [Nashville: Abingdon, 2000] 255). And, as Paul uses the text in Galatians 3, it is the text that defines who are truly Abraham's progeny in the eschatological age apocalyptically inaugurated by Christ's death and resurrection—not those who are "of the law" (3:10), who get themselves circumcised and hence stand under the Torah's "curse," but those "of faith" (3:7) who are blessed "in" and "with" the patriarch by manifesting the family characteristic he exemplified when promised an heir. And this, Paul is at pains to emphasize, is true for both Jews and Gentiles, who by faith are united to the single "seed" and constitute the one family originally covenanted to Abraham. Ecclesiology—eschatological covenant membership, if you will—is thus built right into the structure of the apostle's teaching on "justification." And that means that ecclesiology is not merely an implication or corollary of justification, but a constituent element in it. Justification, in other words, has both individualist/soteriological and ecclesiological/covenantal aspects, neither of which should be gainsaid or downplayed. God's acquittal of the ungodly by faith, to put it yet another way, finds its concrete expression in the membership of the believing sinner in his eschatological covenant community.

Such minor adjustments notwithstanding, I consider Moo's work on Galatians to be clearly the best available in today's market. Watching the interview, moreover, gives a sense of the character and humility of the man, one of God's great gifts to his people in the early 21st century. Watch, and by all means, pick up his commentary!




Friday, January 10, 2014

"Snorting" at Death


The past few months have been rough in our family. Last summer my mother's brother died in Oklahoma. Then in late fall a series of deaths occurred in swift succession: my wife's beloved, 97-year-old paternal grandmother and a long-incapacitated cousin shortly before Thanksgiving, a 100-year-old family friend after Thanksgiving, and, on 3 January this new year, another old family friend with no family of her own for whom my wife and I were privileged to serve as POAs. At one level, we can rejoice that these family members and friends were Christians and are now, we believe, "at home with the Lord," as the Apostle Paul tells us (2 Cor 5:8). At another level, we can be thankful for the long lives they lived in their mortal bodies. At yet another level, however, witnessing the ravages of age and illness, let alone contemplating the world's loss their deaths represent, inexorably produce sadness and grief in those left behind, even if we do not sorrow "as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13).

Reactions to death's inevitability are, of course, varied. Many live their lives as if they have somehow been uniquely inoculated against its universal sway and depredations. Such blithe avoidance is often born, of course, of a fear that inflicts most of us, religious and nonreligious alike. Avoidance of death's spectre doesn't negate its empirical inevitability, however. In recent years it has become fashionable, particularly among those committed to a philosophical naturalism, to claim that "death is just a part of life;" hence it shouldn't be feared, but rather accepted and even celebrated. Well, of course death is a "natural" part of the life cycle, at least as life on earth is presently constituted. Those of us for whom, as John Mellencamp once sang, "There's less days in front of the horse/than riding in the back of this cart" need to take this nasty fact seriously and plan accordingly. Nevertheless, one wonders if such apostles of "comfort" really do protest too much. After all, they are responding to the well-nigh universal phenomenon of the fear of death. Could indeed such a fear, manifest across cultural lines, reflect something hardwired into the deep structure of human personality and based ultimately on "religious" impulses and reasoning the naysayers would do well not to ignore?

I am writing for Christians, however, and there is one common response I have found increasingly troubling over the years. One manifestation often gets expressed after a saint succumbs to death following a long, painful illness: "So-and-so has now experienced 'complete healing'." Another instantiation of this general sentiment comes when various bodily attributes (seeing, dancing, etc.) are posited of the deceased in heaven. The point may be implicit, but it is clear nonetheless: the "real me" is the interior me. The body we inhabit is incidental to who we are, and thus is ultimately not necessary to human flourishing. The aforementioned Mellencamp, though not a practicing Christian, expresses this though nicely in his powerful song, "Don't Need This Body," from his 2008 album, Life Death Love and Freedom:

Ain't a gonna need this body much longer
Ain't a gonna need this body much more
I put in a ten million hours
Washed up and worn out for sure


Well all my friends are
Sick or dying
And I'm here all by myself
All I got left
Is a head full of memories
And a thought of my upcoming death

This, to be blunt, is bad theology. It is, in fact, a vestigial remnant of a sub-biblical Greek, especially Platonic, worldview. By contrast, the Bible consistently presents the human person as a psychosomatic unity. In answer to the question posed by Pete Townshend's character Jimmy in hos rock opera Quadrophenia, "Can you see the real me, doctor?" the scripturally-informed observer would respond with a resounding "Yes!" What this means is that, at death, the believer does not yet experience the ultimate hope for which he or she is destined. Without a body, the deceased believer has not yet experienced "ultimate healing." Whatever the mysterious experience of believers in the so-called "Intermediate State," it is not, we must suppose, akin to embodied life on earth. And what this means ultimately is that the Christian's hope is not for some nebulous, disembodied (?) life after death "in heaven," but what N. T. Wright has helpfully termed "life after life after death,"  i.e., the resurrection of the body promised in Daniel 12 and 1 Corinthians 15, of which Jesus' own resurrection was the firstfruits both representing and guaranteeing the eschatological resurrection harvest (1 Cor 15:53). After all, if all we have hope for is life without the body, then sin, despite protestations to the contrary, ultimately won the battle.

Death, on this reading, remains, not only a nasty fact, but a damnable one as well, one which ought to arouse the emotions of those who witness its depredations. Yes, death has lost its "sting" for those united with the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:55). Yes, it is a comfort to know that suffering believers are relieved of their pain at death. Nevertheless, death hurts, and that is true both for the one experiencing it and those loved ones watching it do its work. 

How, then, should we respond? Certainly not by pretending it doesn't hurt, whether out of a hyper-"spiritual" impulse or simple repression. I propose that the proper model is provided by our Lord himself in his response to the death of his friend Lazarus narrated in John 11. The story is as famous as it is vivid: Lazarus has been dead for four days, and his sisters Mary and Martha are following the cultural protocol by having mourners (some of whom may have been of the "professional" kind) aid in their lamentation. The ever-anxious Martha runs to greet Jesus, wistfully expressing her faith by immediately saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21). Jesus responds by telling her that Lazarus would indeed rise again (11:23), to which Martha shows her theological orthodoxy (Pharisee-style) by saying, in effect, "Duh! Of course I know he will be raised on the last day; that doesn't help me or Lazarus now" (11:24). The reader already knows Jesus' intent to resuscitate Lazarus's corpse (11:4, 11), and so John has Jesus proclaim his (ongoing) theological significance, to which the resuscitation will provide illustration, that he is "the resurrection and the life" (11:25-26). When Mary arrived, she repeated Martha's sentiments (11:32) and, along with the crowd of mourners who followed her, continued to weep. Jesus' response is instructive: 
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled (11:33).
The key word is the verb enebrimēsato, which the ESV, consistent with other English versions, translates "deeply moved." Frederick Danker, while acknowledging the "apparent harshness" of the verb, offers the same translation as an expression of Jesus' "feeling strongly" about the situation (BDAG 322). This "apparent harshness" is even manifest in the manuscript tradition, as such witnesses as P45, P66, and D add hōs ("as [if]") before the verb so as to soften the blow somewhat. What is this "apparent harshness" of which Danker speaks? Simply put, the verb embrimaomai implies anger, and was often used by Aeschylus and others of the "snorting" of horses when provoked to rage (cf. BDAG; EDNT 1:442). There is, in my view, no lexical justification to soften the force of the term so that it here speaks merely of an intense feeling of grief (indeed, the motivation is transparently Christological, viz., to protect Jesus from the implication of giving in to or displaying  "unsavory" emotions). Jesus, if we take the language of the text seriously, became indignant when he witnessed the tears and cries of Mary and the other mourners who accompanied her.

The text doesn't say what it was that moved Jesus to this inner (tōi pneumati) indignant turmoil. Suggestions have not been few. Among the many proposals, two have been predominant. Some (e.g., Bultmann) have suggested that Jesus was angered by the lack of faith he perceived in the mourners' lamentations. But the text portrays Jesus' indignation as precipitated by the weeping and wailing of Mary as well as the crowd of "Jews" from Jerusalem who had come to comfort her and her sister. Mary, as we may deduce from John's portrayal of her in chapter 12, as well as her averring that Jesus could have healed Lazarus had he been there earlier, already believed in Jesus and, like her sister, surely believed in the ultimate resurrection at the last day.

It is better, it seems to me, to look behind the mourners' grief and understand Jesus' anger as directed toward that which caused Lazarus's demise. Taking cue from the Markan episode of the healing of a leper (Mark 1:43), Raymond E. Brown argued that "he was angry because he found himself face to face with the realm of Satan which, in this instance, was represented by death" (The Gospel according to John [i-xii] [AB 29; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966] 435). No one expressed this perspective better than the Old Lion of Princeton, B. B. Warfield, back in 1912:
Why did the sight of the wailing of Mary and her companions enrage Jesus? Certainly not because of the extreme violence of its expression; and even more certainly not because it argued unbelief—unwillingness to submit to God's providential ordering or distrust of Jesus' power to save. He himself wept, if with less violence yet in true sympathy with the grief of which he was witness. The intensity of his exasperation, moreover, would be disproportionate to such a cause …The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its "violent tyranny" as Calvin (on verse 38) phrases it. In Mary's grief, he "contemplates"—still to adopt Calvin's words (on verse 33), — "the general misery of the whole human race" and burns with rage against the oppressor of men …It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. ("The Emotional Life of Our Lord," reprinted in The Person and Work of Christ [ed. Samuel Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1950] 116-17).
Christ, St. Paul wrote near the end of his life, "destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10). In that we have a sure and certain hope. Yet the "present evil age" lives on and death still holds sway over all who live in its midst. Thus we who follow Christ need not shroud our speech with euphemisms and shrink away from rage at the horror death in fact is. Witnessing the ugly horrors of dying should indeed rouse us to indignation against it and, though we all thereby implicate ourselves, at the sin which is its ultimate cause. But with the eyes of faith we see Christ, the firstborn from among the dead (Col 1:18), who was appointed "Son of God in power" at his resurrection (Rom 1:4) and who will continue to exercise his messianic reign (basileuein [present tense!]) until he places all enemies under his feet in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, the last of which to be subdued and destroyed will be death itself (1 Cor 15:24-26). At that time, in the words of John of Patmos, "[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former days have passed away" (Rev 21:4). What a day that shall be! 

Soli Deo Gloria!


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Chuck Bednarik ... ? (with Apologies to Paul Simon)


Chuck Bednarik celebrating over the unconscious Frank Gifford, 20 November 1960
(image@philadelphiaeagles.com)


53 years. That's how long it has now been since my beloved Philadelphia Eagles reigned supreme over the National Football League (As an aside, let one be reminded that, persistent ignorance by Philly detractors notwithstanding, the Eagles have indeed won three NFL championships, the league having existed prior to the founding of the upstart AFL and the inauguration of the so-called "Super Bowl" following the 1966 season). Sunday's home playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints was just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of postseason disappointments that Philly die-hards have had to endure—and expect—over the decades.

Fortunately for my blood pressure, I was unable to watch the game due to my fortnightly 24-hour weekends (12 hour shifts Saturday and Sunday) at R. R. Donnelley. Be assured, however, that my attention was as directed to the pressman's computer screen, on which the game was being followed on ESPN's GameCast, as it was to the all-important catalogs I was being paid to pack. When the Eagles surged ahead on a Nick Foles TD pass to rookie Zach Ertz with 4:54 remaining in the 4th quarter, I was happy, but I had the nagging feeling, born of five decades of following the team, that it would all come to naught. They had left too much time on the clock, and in today's offense-happy, arena-league NFL, one is shocked when a team fails to score. Of course the Saints validated my fears, never relinquishing the ball and winning the game on a last-second chip-shot field goal. Indeed, to make matters worse, the winning margin of two points was less than that which the Eagles failed to get on a badly missed 2nd quarter Alex Henery field goal attempt. When I returned home after midnight I devoured reports and video footage of the game with an alacrity surpassing that which I have shown in reading N. T. Wright's brilliant new opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Being a Philadelphia sports fan is not for the faint of heart. There is a reason, after all, that the city's surly fans have earned the reputation of being America's answer to England's notorious Liverpool supporters. Many of the city's more "respectable" fans supposedly see a silver lining: under new coach Chip Kelly the Birds improved from last season's dismal 4-12 campaign to go 10-6, win the NFC East and host a playoff game. Second year quarterback Nick Foles had a historically good season (27 TDs, 2 INTs) and led the league in passing. All Pro LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage, setting team records in those categories in the process. "We did far better than expected," sings the ever-growing chorus. "Wait till next year."

Hard as I try to accept such logic, and as compelling as it may appear on paper, once again I have a nagging feeling that tells me, "not so fast." Yes, the team performed better than I or anyone expected. Yes, Shady McCoy and the tiresome DeSean Jackson, who already is suggesting the team should renegotiate his 5-year, 48 million dollar contract extension, constitute possibly the most lethal one-two offensive punch in the league. Yes, Nick Foles will mature in his reading of defenses. Yes, even I, an inveterate pessimist, would consider the Birds to be the clear favorite to win the division next season. Nevertheless, the team still has some glaring deficiencies, mostly on defense (pass rushing specialist; large, run-stuffing interior lineman; cornerback; and especially free and strong safeties; I will personally escort Patrick Chung out of town if asked) and special teams. More significantly, this season's incarnation of the Eagles benefited from a last place schedule (aided and abetted by opponents' injuries and freakish weather—after all, they faced the Packers with Scott Tolzien instead of Aaron Rodgers at QB, and faced the Lions' lethal Stafford-Megatron tandem in a blinding, 8-inch snowstorm; next year, we will not be so lucky: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and Rodgers are all on the schedule, to go along with the NFC East's returning Romo, Eli Manning, and RGIII) and an extremely lucky lack of injuries. Theirs was the only team in the NFL whose offensive line was intact the entire season. But three of those linemen—All-Pros Jason Peters and Evan Mathis, along with Todd Herremans—are older than 30; remember the state of the Eagles' 2012 line and the team's resulting record. The Eagles may well duplicate this season's success. To do so, however, they will have to be a better football team.

Most importantly, however, is that history doesn't provide compelling support for blind optimism. Just last year the Washington Redskins, fueled by the otherworldly talent of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, improved from 5-11 in 2011 to 10-6 and the divisional championship in 2012. This season, due to RGIII's incomplete recovery from a devastating knee injury and general dysfunction caused by now-fired head coach Mike Shanahan, they regressed to an abysmal 3-13. The NFL's famous parity can be a real pain in the backside if things don't go one's way.

When I think of the 2013 Eagles, my mind immediately goes back to the team of 1988. A quarter of a century ago the Eagles were coming off six straight losing seasons in the wake of Dick Vermeil's "burnout" and the uninspired leadership of the "Swamp Fox," Marion Campbell. But coach Buddy Ryan had an unusually keen eye for talent, and in '88 he assembled the first of 5 consecutive squads that would win 10 or more games. Indeed, in '88 the team was young and populated by 10 players who would garner Pro Bowl recognition in their careers, including the legendary Reggie White and electrifying quarterback Randall Cunningham. On the last day of the regular season the Eagles defeated their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, 23-7, to win the division for the first time in 8 seasons and earn a right to play the Chicago Bears in the divisional round at storied Soldier Field. That game, which I watched with a raging ear infection at my in-laws' house in St. Petersburg, Florida, was one of the most surreal spectacles I have ever watched: 31 December 1988, the infamous "Fog Bowl." Cunningham lit up the Bears' vaunted defense for 407 yards. Eleven times the Eagles penetrated the Bears' 25 yard line. Five times they made it inside the Bear's 11 yard line. And all they ended up getting from such prodigious production was a measly 12 points: 4 Luis Zendejas field goals. A TD pass to the aptly-named Mike Quick was called back due to penalty. All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson dropped a would-be TD pass that hit him in the worst possible place: his hands. And so what could have and should have been an Eagles victory that day became a frustrating, excruciating loss that nonetheless suggested a bright future. Well, guess what? Ryan, despite fielding dominating teams, never won a single playoff game, dreadfully losing Wild Card games in each of the next two seasons at home as favorites. Losing, as they say, breeds losing. Sometimes, as Elvis sang, "tomorrow" never comes. That is why the opportunities "today" provides must be seized and occasions risen to.

Indeed, what I witnessed (metaphorically) on Sunday was a golden opportunity squandered. The Eagles had momentum. Winners of 7 of their previous 8 games, they were the hottest team in the league going into the game. They were at home, where they had won four straight, playing in 25 degree weather against a team from the deep South who plays their home games in a dome. Yes, the Saints are a good team with a sure-fire Hall of Famer in QB Drew Brees and a budding superstar in Jimmy Graham. Indeed, Philadelphia's own Pro Football Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger even claimed after the game that the Saints were the best team the Birds had played all season. However, with all due respect to Didinger, whom I consider the most insightful football analyst in the land (along with Jon Gruden and—I hate to admit it—Troy Aikman), I must demur, considering the Eagles played Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos back in September. At home the Saints are as good as anybody, as their 8-0 record there attests. But the Saints were a mere 3-5 on the road, including embarrassing losses to the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams. Simply put, this was a winnable game, a game that teams with championship pretensions simply cannot afford to let slip from their grasp. Who knows? Maybe another opportunity like this will not come in the near, or even foreseeable, future.

Yet, alas, they did fumble their opportunity. Quarterback Foles, while unspectacular, was efficient and workmanlike (23-33/195 yards/2 TD/0 INT). But one youthful error on his part played a major role in the team's demise. In the second quarter, Chip Kelly eschewed an "easy" 41 yard field goal, opting to go for a first down on 4th and 1 from the 23. McCoy easily got the first down, taking the ball to the 15. But the following sequence was of the sort that seems only to happen to Philadelphia teams. Tight end Brent Celek was dropped for an 8 yard loss on a screen pass. Then, on second down, Foles's inexperience and indecision proved fatal, as he allowed himself to be sacked for an inexcusable 11 yard loss. After a short gain on 3rd down, Kelly trotted out placekicker Alex Henery, who proceeded to hook a 48-yard field goal attempt badly. Henery's lack of leg strength has been a problem for some time. And when such lack of range is wed to somewhat suspect accuracy, one's team is in trouble. One suspects Kelly will bring in a kicker or two next summer to challenge Henery for his job.

Championship teams are also not sloppy. Yet Riley Cooper dropped a perfectly-thrown pass on 3rd down in the 3rd quarter with acres of real estate open in front of him. The Saints, as expected, responded by scoring their second TD of the quarter, turning a 7-6 halftime deficit into a 20-7 lead. In the 4th quarter, after the Birds forged ahead 24-23 on Foles's pass to Ertz, the special teams responded by allowing a 39-yard kickoff return, punctuated by a personal foul on Cary Williams for a horse collar tackle. That put the ball in Eagles territory, and at that point the historically-minded Eagles fan already knew that defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Worst of all, however—from the perspective of a dinosaur who still fervently believes that games are won and lost in the trenches—is that the Eagles lost the battle of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Conventional wisdom assumed that, if the Saints were to win, they would have to do it on the back of their legendary quarterback. Yet Brees, despite throwing for 250 yards, was intercepted twice, and on the decisive final drive only threw one pass, a six yarder to Harrisburg, Pa. native Marques Colston. No. They won largely due to two factors: they stymied the Eagles' vaunted rushing attack and unexpectedly ran roughshod over the Eagles rushing defense.

The Eagles, possessors of two All-Pro offensive linemen and the league's leading rusher, easily led the NFL in rushing this year, averaging 160.4 yards/game and 5.1 yards/carry. The Saints, meanwhile, ranked 21st in the league in rushing defense, allowing an average of 111.6 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. McCoy, however, managed only 77 yards on 21 carries, for 3.7 yards/carry. The team's vaunted linemen simply failed to play to their reputation, not to mention failing, for whatever reason, to rise to the occasion against a decidedly mediocre run defense.

More than anything, however, it was the Eagles' inept rushing defense that sticks in the craw of any old-school Philadelphia fan. The Birds' rushing defense was surprisingly good this season, allowing 104.3 yards per game and only 3.8 yards per rush. Only the week before, they had limited Dallas's formidable Demarco Murray to 51 yards on 17 carries. The Saints, meanwhile, ranked 25th in the league in rushing at only 92.1 per game and 3.8 per rush. And they were without the services of their leading rusher, Pierre Thomas. Yet the underachieving former Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram Jr., stepped in and promptly torched the Eagles for 97 yards on 18 carries. Even worse, Drew Brees—Drew Brees!—easily got first downs on two QB sneaks on the final drive, on one of which he managed to gain three yards behind the surging line. That is simply unacceptable.

Philadelphia, as all Americans are aware, is a hard-nosed city whose football persona was forged in the context of its being the erstwhile "Workshop of the World" from the Industrial Revolution until after World War II. Long time fans continue to long for the days of Buddy Ryan's "Gang Green" defense, even though they failed to win a single playoff game while he was coach. Of the team's all-time greatest football players, all but running back Steve Van Buren have been devastatingly tough defensive players: Reggie White, Brian Dawkins, and, above all, Hall of Famer "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik, the Bethlehem, Pa. and University of Pennsylvania (!) product who is famous for two things: being the last of the "60 minute men" in the NFL (as both center and linebacker) and for his devastating hit of Frank Gifford on 20 November 1960 that propelled the Eagles to the Eastern Division title and knocked the Giants star out of football for more than a year.

As the Saints kept marching inexorably down the field on that final drive on Sunday night, all I could think was, "Concrete Charlie would never have let this happen." Indeed, he would not have done. Bednarik was the Eagles' unquestioned leader in their last championship season 53 years ago. On 26 December 1960 the NFL championship game was played at Penn's venerable Franklin Field between the Eagles and Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. In the see-saw game the Eagles' Ted Dean had given the Birds a 17-13 lead in the 4th quarter with a 5-yard TD run. But the great Bart Starr, as was his wont, marched the Pack methodically down the field in the game's final minutes, helped immeasurably by the presence of two other Hall of Famers in his backfield, halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor, the latter of whom rushed for 105 yards and caught 6 passes for 46 more that day. But, on the game's final play, it was the 35 year old Bednarik who, despite having played the entire contest on both offense and defense, clinched the victory by tackling and sitting on Taylor at the 8 yard line. This remains the only Eagles championship of my lifetime.

Seeing the middling Saints' rushing attack making mincemeat of the Eagles defense made me long for the days of Concrete Charlie. And it brought to my mind the last verse of Simon and Garfunkel's classic 1968 song, "Mrs. Robinson," where Simon gives a nod to the virtuously heroic Joe DiMaggio (for Simon's reflection on the song's meaning and his encounter with Joltin' Joe, see here). Like Simon, I too yearn for a past with larger-than-life heroes who embody all I consider virtuous. I am not naive, of course, and know enough of Bednarik's warts not to apotheosize him. Nevertheless, as a sportsman he embodied many of the traits I see in such short supply in today's game. And he certainly embodies the type of play that the Eagles lacked in Sunday's loss. Thus I offer this adaptation of Simon's lines to honor him and hope against hope that another Concrete Charlie can make his way to Lincoln Financial Field and propel the Birds to the championship that has eluded them for more than 5 decades:

Where have you gone, Chuck Bednarik

Our city turns its weary eyes to you (Woo, woo, woo)
What's that you say, Dr. Snapper
Concrete Charlie has left and gone away 
(Hey, hey, hey...hey, hey, hey)