Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 4

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

This morning we read chapter 4: "Justification: Definitions and Puzzles"

Wright begins with a quote from Alistair McGrath's two volume history of the doctrine of justification. The thrust of McGrath's introductory quote is to say that, yes, the idea of justification as it has been discussed over the centuries is not really what Paul meant when he used the word originally... but that's OK.

I think I would ultimately side more with McGrath on this one, although I believe a "thick reading" of Paul's texts will engage the Christian consensus definition with a knowledge of Paul's definition. This is a POST-modern approach to the Bible as Scripture. Wright's approach is merely modern. Meanwhile, John Piper's is just wishful thinking.

Wright suggests three reasons not to read Paul this way: 1) you will naturally misunderstand Scripture if you simply impose the later definition on the text (Wright says "misread," but I think "misunderstand" would be less ambiguous), 2) you will miss completely what Scripture was actually talking about at that point, and 3) you will imagine yourself to have biblical warrant for your reading, when in fact you are imposing a meaning on the text.

Fair criticisms of Piper. Wright is of course addressing unknowingly reading Paul this way, not doing so as a kind of catholic reading of the text.

Basically, Christian history, especially after Augustine, came to view justification as "the entire picture of God's reconciling action toward the human race" (65). For Paul, however, justification referred to the legal acquittal part of that bigger equation.

Wright gives one of his delightful illustrations. It would be as if someone were to refer to an entire car as a steering wheel. Then eventually people get upset when you point out that, literally, the steering wheel is only one part of the car.

In the second section of the chapter, Wright gets into the beautiful complexity and ambiguity of how the relevant Greek, Hebrew, Latin, English, and American! languages operate in relation to the words in question. The Greek root dikai- can in various contexts turn out to mean "justice," "justification," "just," "righteous," "righteousness," "right," etc.

He reiterates that in the Jewish, legal setting, "righteousness" refers to "the status someone has when the court has found in their favor" (69). "To justify," therefore (same root), is not an action which transforms someone but "a declaration that grants them a status" (70). "However much the Augustinian tradition has used 'justification' to cover the whole range of 'becoming a Christian' from first to last, Paul has used it far, far more precisely and exactly" (71).

In the third part of the chapter, Wright now gets to the more controversial part, although you wouldn't know it for his patronizing confidence :-) I am open to being convinced. I just continue to get the impression that Wright is overreading Paul, that he is imposing a system on Paul from the outside. Indeed, I felt that I might actually turn some of Wright's own arguments in relation to justification on him.

What did he say earlier in this chapter? He criticized Piper by claiming that he overreads a word in Paul, that he "uses a scriptural word or concept but denotes by that word or concept something more than, or even different from, what is meant by the word or concept in its scriptural origin... it will then misread scripture at that point... such a reading will miss completely the thing that scripture was talking about at that point... it will imagine itself to have biblical warrant for its own ideas" (61).

But now hear Wright on "covenant": "Call it 'God's single plan', if you like, to avoid the concordance-bound scruples of the doubters... who complain that Paul doesn't much use the word 'covenant'. Call it 'the reason God called Abraham'. Call it 'the creator's purpose, through Israel, for the world'" (73).

You can see what Wright is dealing with here. He is tacitly admitting that the organizing principle behind his interpretation is something "between" the actual texts of Paul. "Paul quotes one part of a chapter or passage and wants the whole to be in mind. But the unknown, unrecognized art is still despised" (73), the pesher of which is--it is something you have to have eyes to see, and many do not. "Can I, or anyone else, make it clearer than we have already tried to do? Will writers like [Mark] Siefrid or [Stephen] Westerholm be able to hear what is being said, or will they once more walk me up the hill to view the sunrise?"

Let me make a bold claim. If I finally get my head around what Wright is doing here, and if I turn out agreeing with Wright, I am quite confident I will be able to express his position in a far more convincing way than he has to date. I have read Wright's position on covenant several times in several places. My reaction to him on this point is not dissimilar to my early reactions to the ontological argument, which does not bode well for me eventually agreeing with him.

I regret that I am far from ever being able to say with Thomas Aquinas that I have understood everything I have ever read. But my early self-doubt has turned to self-confidence. Usually when I don't understand something now, I end up concluding that it's just wrong.

I look forward to reading Wright's interpretations of Romans and Galatians in the second half of this book. He does give a sampling in his interpretation of Galatians 3:15-18, a passage we just translated in my Greek Galatians class. In class, I followed the number 1 rule of original meaning exegesis--do not read more meaning into a sentence than is necessary to make sense of it. Wright has found bags of meaning I didn't.

Wright: "When someone makes a covenanted will, nobody sets it aside or adds to it..."

Schenck: "No one nullifies or adds to someone's will that has been put into effect."

To me, Wright presents us with a strong candidate for the overload fallacy. The problem--a modernist problem--is that Wright seems to need there to be continuity between the use of diatheke here and its meaning of "covenant" elsewhere and more normally. Me? I told my Greek class that Paul didn't care that he was using the word in a different way than elsewhere.

Many of you know the schtick. The Hebrew berith means "covenant." The Greek word diatheke can mean "covenant" too. But it also can mean a "will," a "testament." Semantics 101 these days, as I've mentioned over and over here, reminds us that there is no necessary connection between one use of a word and the next. I think Wright, unfortunately, retains some of the tendencies toward the overload fallacy that was typical of the Kittel generation just before him.

Paul glides from diatheke as "will" to diatheke as "covenant" (Hebrews does the same in chapter 9). The transition is jarring to us, especially to original meaning scholars. To an ancient Jew, it's great exegesis.

Paul's meaning. When a will is enacted by the death of the testator, it's in force. You don't nullify it. You don't add to it. "Covenantal will" is overload because it tries to combine two distinct meanings of the word into one.

Wright: "The promises were made 'to Abraham and his family'. It doesn't say 'his families', as though referring to several, but indicates one: 'and to your family' -- which means the Messiah."

Schenck: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and 'to his seed.' It does not say, 'And to the seeds,' as for many but as for one, 'And to your seed," which is Christ."

Wright's translation strikes me as trying to make Paul's argument modernly respectable. Paul makes an argument that we simply wouldn't make today. Indeed, he doesn't make this argument in Romans 4:18-19 when he is dealing with the same passage. Did he decide the argument didn't work very well himself?

Paul makes a point out of the fact that "seed" is singular, when it is obviously a collective noun in Genesis, referring to the numberless descendants of Abraham. Those "in Christ" are thus the seed of Abraham, whether Jew or Gentile. I will question Wright below for his too easy gliding from Abraham to Israel.

Wright: "God made this covenanted will; the law, which came 430 years later, can't undermine it and make the promise null and void."

Schenck: "The Law that came into existence after 430 years does not nullify the covenant put into effect previously by God so that it cancels the promise."

Maybe I just don't get it (possible), but it seems to me that Wright glides imperceptibly from God's plan through Abraham to God's plan through Israel. Yet isn't this exactly the contrast of this verse? God's plan through Israel that came into existence 430 years after God's plan through Abraham does not nullify the covenant with Abraham, which was something different?

Wright brings the Gentiles into Israel through Christ as Israel as the seed of Abraham. But Abraham is the father of Gentiles who have faith apart from Israel and he is the father of those within Israel who are circumcised and have faith. Two distinct children, one father.

The rest of the chapter went off into Wrightland. Wrightland is a happy theological place that engages biblical elements and mentions historical items. But its organizing principles, once again, in keeping with Wright's personality, are Wright's own monolithic ideological system that he brings to text. I look forward to the exegetical parts where the questions are more concrete and less macro-ideological.

The fourth section of the chapter brings in the third part of Wright's understanding of justification, namely eschatology. I agree with Wright that there is a very important eschatological component to understanding justification in Paul, especially when we are dealing with what, for lack of a better term, we might call "final" justification.

But it sure seems to me that Wright is doing something similar with his covenantal and eschatological elements to justification that Christian history has done to justification by broadening the sense of the word. For Wright, Christian history has made justification include lots of things that are perhaps true, but just not what the word meant. I strongly suspect that Wright as well has imported important meanings that have truth to them into a word that, really, more or less, simply is a law court term and little more.

Again, rule 1: Don't see more meaning in a word than is necessary to make sense of it. Don't bring in meanings the word has elsewhere. Don't bring the meanings of related words and concepts.

The final section is on Christology--Christ as a faithful Israelite, the seed, the one in whom God's people are summed up (82-83). Again, I am open but I find this whole line of thinking peculiar.

Here it is:

1. A fair assessment of Christological terms: Christ, Son of God, and Lord.

2. Wright's understanding of the Messiah as the one toward whom Israel's history was heading, in whom God's people are summed up.

3. Jesus as the one who offers God the obedience Israel did not. I'm just hearing overload fallacy, overload fallacy. Strikes me as the kind of paper I give an A to because the student is obviously thinking more deeply than the other students and is obviously doing more work than the other students. But all the while I'm thinking that they just don't get exegesis because they're seeing way more than the text warrants.

4. The messiah stands in for the people.

5. The resurrection of the messiah is the beginning of the new creation.

6. The Spirit is poured out on God's people.

7. The messiah becomes the judge on the last day.


billy v said...

I really appreciate your review of this book. I am a big fan of Wright's but even I get nervous about some of his translations/exegesis of certain key passages (not only in the NPP issue either). The one thing about Piper's critique is the way he characterized Wright's views as "dangerous." I feel that has poisoned scores of "Piperites" to immediately prejudge any value that Wright may bring to the table. Also, I agree with Wright that there does not seem to be enough talk about the Holy Spirit in the process of salvation in some of Piper's (and other neo-reformed thinkers) writings.

Ken Schenck said...

I hope it didn't sound like I was down on Wright. Whatever you call his interpretations (I prefer to think of him doing theological interpretation without fully knowing it), they are edifying and uplifting. I find Piper's theology much more dangerous in ways that immediately come to mind.

Wright's followers are optimistic, lovers of God and neighbor. Certainly many of Pipers followers are too. Then there are those with an edge, those that use double predestination as a cover for hate and complementarianism as a respectable way to put women in their place.

Anonymous said...

There is a book in my local library which contains the names and brief descriptions of over 2000 names of God from all times and place.

Plus we live in a time when ALL of the Sacred Scriptures of the entire Great Tradition of Humankind are freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

So why is Wrights tribalistic "God" binding on the nearly seven billion human beings on this planet, only a third of which are Christian anyway.

And besides which what does Wright, or anyone else, really know about The Indivisible Divine Conscious Light that IS Reality.

To "know" "God's" plan one would have to be fully conscious of every fraction of the Cosmos with all of its space-time paradoxes and multiple dimensions. Past, present, and future.