Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 3

I doubt I will get to Darwin's second chapter today--hopefully next Wednesday.

This is my review of the third chapter of N. T. Wright's, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, Wright's response to John Piper's book, The Future of Justification.

Chapters reviewed thus far:
Chapter 1: What's it all about and why does it matter
Chapter 2: Rules of engagement

Chapter 3: First Century Judaism: Covenant, Law, and Law Court
It is probably my own failing, but this chapter strikes me as Wright's clearest presentation to date of the inner dynamic of his signature themes. These themes are always there in his writings, but it seems to me the inner dynamics often lurk beneath the surface. You see the surface text, the visible part of the iceberg. But these inner dynamics to Wright sometimes are not obvious on the surface if you join one of his texts in progress.

And of course that makes some of these ideas more likely to be part of the 20% where he's wrong. I have significant confidence in the consensus judgments of scholarship (not absolute confidence, obviously). It is when a scholar is doing their thing that they must be examined most carefully. This paragraph raises a number of rejoinders, I know, but I'm just going to stop there and move on.

Wright starts the chapter with a flashback, back to grad school days, while reading through Josephus. "Then and there I realized that most Jews of the time were not sitting around discussing how to go to heaven, and swapping views on the finer points of synergism and sanctification" (37). Fair enough.

I personally think it is beyond question that a lot of the questions we most debate over in conservative Protestant circles are not the issues Jews of the day were. The New Testament is not about how to get to heaven. It isn't even clear about whether heaven is the place of our eternal destiny. Fair enough.

Many Jews at the time were expecting that God would "bring Israel back from exile" at that time. They were reading Daniel 9, which they believed pointed to return from exile at about that time. As Wright says, "All generalizations are misleading," a statement which surely is meant to bring a smile to our face, given that this statement is a generalization.

If I were to critique Wright on this signature, "return from exile" idea, it is only that he perhaps overplays it. Yes, I think we have ample evidence to suggest that many Jews in Jesus' day did not believe that Israel was where it was supposed to be in the world. It was supposed to be free of foreign rule. It was supposed to be more faithful to God than it was.

At the same time, I don't want to subsume all these things under the heading "return from exile," for I think that skews the perspective. Return from exile is one way of expressing this sense of "wrongness to Israel's current status," but I strongly hesitate to make it the lens through which that "wrongness" is subsumed.

By the way, regardless of what we might debate about Wright's spin, it is hard to believe that there are imbeciles out there of the magnitude he seems to describe as his opposition. For example, are there really people trying to argue with him that the fact Israel had returned from exile physically precludes the possibility that Jews at the time didn't believe they had truly returned?

Wright sees two major implications for Pauline theology. First, Jews saw themselves as part of a narrative stretching back from earliest times and toward a climactic moment of deliverance. The ending of the story had not arrived.

OK. Yes. There is some truth to this. The question is the degree to which Wright has a far more developed version of that story than they did.

Second, Wright believes they read this story through the lens of Daniel 9. Wright claims that Josephus shows that Daniel was popular at the time. I have yet to figure out where in Josephus Wright means. He gives a couple references in the endnotes, Jewish War 6.312 and 3.399-408. It seems a thin prop for such a significant element in his agenda. What texts does he have in mind?

I'm open to being convinced, but Wright's evidence here seems rather thin to me at this point. It seems much more likely to me, to use his own illustration, that he is hearing a resonance of the first century situation and mistaking it for the central note.

Or to use my own illustration, the picture Wright is drawing uses genuine dots from the ancient world. But the most important parts of the picture he makes are in between the dots, in the lines he draws between them. You can draw a parallelogram from three dots, but the most natural picture to draw is a triangle.

I'm afraid I have the same reaction to Wright that Dunn does, of whom Wright says, he "has never been able to see what I am talking about" (43).

Wright seems to draw his central understanding of God's righteousness in Paul from Daniel 9, and Daniel 9 also provides a great picture of what he understands by covenant. When I read this section, I felt like the disciples in John 16:29, "Now you are speaking plainly." Now I can see why you make some of the distinctions you do, where it comes from.

You had this idea about Daniel 9 a long time ago and you've exported it everywhere else as you've interpreted the rest of the New Testament and Judaism. It's been there, almost beneath the surface, the x factor that explains why I've so often found certain statements a little puzzling, wondering why some particular point is so important to you.

Daniel 9 mixes for Wright with Deuteronomy 27-30, sprinkled with Sanders' covenantal nomism and voila. God had intended Israel to bring God to the whole world. But they have not been faithful to God's plan. They had never returned from exile for their sin, but they were about to. God was about to be faithful to his covenant with Abraham and Israel and thus restore His people. And it was all happening right now.

A lot of true elements here, but the picture has so much of Wright in it that I think he falls prey to imposing too much system on the biblical texts.

Part 2 Where Wright thinks Piper is wrong.

Wright doesn't think that Piper is massively wrong. But he does have these points:

1. Piper ignores the massive literature on the phrase "the righteousness of God." Piper does have a strange understanding of the righteousness of God here: "God's concern for his own glory." That's just bizarre. Wright's "covenant faithfulness" is on track, but I think it is, again, dubious methodologically to introduce the covenant word when it is not generally used in the OT texts in direct use.

God's propensity to be faithful to His relationship with His people and the world is, in my opinion, a more circumspect definition, with all the caveats Wright makes about not misinterpreting the word relationship in modern categories. Relationship is how two things relate to one another (47).

2. It is not at all clear how Piper's idiosyncratic definition of God's righteousness works out with his desire for God, the judge, to impute his own righteousness to us, the defendants.

Yes, this is nothing short of bizarre on Piper's part.

3. Piper's attempts to distance the righteousness of God from the idea of covenant faithfulness fails to convince.

Here Wright pushes his own more idiosyncratic ideas about the importance of Israel being supposed to be the conduit of God's blessing of all the nations. I'm open, but Wright has not yet convinced me that Paul understands Israel to be the linchpin of God's plan to bless the nations and that Israel has failed to do its job.

I hate to say it, but I find Sanders more likely than Dunn or Wright here. Paul in his writings seems to be working back from the solution to the problem, than planning from the beginning Wright's new systematic narrative. It seems to me that Wright is doing exactly what the Reformers and Augustine did in systematizing Paul. It's just they did it with propositions and he's doing it with narrative.

4. Piper tries to downplay the importance of the law-court metaphor.

Being justified is not about moral righteousness or virtue. It's about a not guilty verdict. The judge doesn't transfer his (or her) righteousness to the defendant.

5. Piper has God's righteousness going in the wrong direction. The emphasis is not on God glorifying himself in some narcissistic way but in "God's overflowing, generous, creative love" (51). "It isn't that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from disaster" (52). "God's righteousness is that quality or attribute because of which he saves his people." Now there's a definition I can live with.

Here, here.

Part 3
This third section seems to affirm Sanders' key idea that keeping the law for the Jews was not so much about "getting in" as in "staying in." Wright mentions Variegated Nomism again, saying this: "The essays in large part support Sanders' overall case more than (we may suppose) the editors had hoped when they commissioned them" (55).

In conclusion, "the key question facing Judaism as a whole was not about individual salvation, but about God's purposes for Israel and the world" (56-57). "Israel will be vindicated, will inherit the age to come -- but it will be Israel that has kept Torah, or that, through penitence and amendment of life... has shown the heartfelt desire to follow God's ways and be loyal to his covenant" (57).

To me, this seems a fair enough description of the form of Judaism that constitutes the backdrop of the early Christian movement.

Next installment will probably be Saturday...


Bob MacDonald said...

What a lovely summary! Thanks again. I hope to do a full length post reply to this.

Daniel said...

Great reviews so far!

I agree with most of minor critiques and nuances of Wright. I especially like "God's propensity to be faithful to His relationship with His people and the world" The absence of covenantal language in Paul should wider our scope a bit, I was thinking the same thing as I read ch. 3

Yet, I wonder with what do you disagree about Israel being the conduit through which God brings His worldwide blessings. How then do you read Paul's understanding of Genesis or Genesis itself?

Wyatt Roberts said...

I believe Wright is correct on return from exile. FYI, on Josephus, War of the Jews, 6.312-313:

"What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their *sacred writings* [i.e. Daniel], how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. *The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular,* and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea."