Friday, March 06, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 5

Before I begin, I should mention that Pete Enns' mother died last week, so let's remember his family in prayer in these days. It was not unexpected, but that doesn't take away the grief!

This is my review of the fifth 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
Chapter 4: Justification: Definitions and Puzzles

Chapter 5 begins the second half of the book where Wright focuses on the exegesis of Galatians and Romans. I deeply appreciate this work because Wright is dealing with concrete passages and exegesis and it helps me evaluate what he's doing in my categories rather than in his general ones. It helps me see what words like covenant, eschatology, and law court justification actually do in his exegesis, how he is actually using these words in relation to how I think Paul was using them. The use of a word is its meaning.

As I continue to try to get my head around what he is saying and how I might take or not take exception to it, let me try to summarize and evaluate some key points.

1. The context of the proposition of Galatians (2:15-21) is the incident of table fellowship at Antioch.

I agree. While the situation may be a little broader in Romans, the picture in the bubble above Paul's head what he says "since we know we are not justified by works of Law" in Galatians 2 is the table fellowship issue of Jew and Gentile eating together.

And, yes, I agree Paul always has the Jewish Law in view when he speaks of the Law in this way (95, although I believe now one, now another part of the Jewish Law may appear in the bubble above his head when he uses this word).

And yes, they are not generic good works and yes, justification may entail the forgiveness of sins, but that is not what the word "justification" itself means (96).

2. Wright believes, as we have seen, that Jesus is the faithful Israelite, the one in whom God's promises to Abraham are fulfilled.

I am okay with everything in this sentence if you just take the word Israelite out, which of course is Wright's distinctive. I translate Galatians 2:20 in this way: "the life I now live, I live by faith, in the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." Yes, I know I am fairly alone to take the verse as a double entendre. But I think Paul is moving "from Hays to Dunn" in this passage.

I am part of a very small number, I think, to suggest that the phrase, "through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" was a slogan that derived, not from Paul, but from the Jerusalem church. Paul takes it and moves it to faith as the principle of justification in general.

But in any case, I agree with Hays and Wright here that Paul does have a significant place in this passage for our incorporation into the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

And yes, I agree, Christ is the seed to whom the promise was given, and those who are in the seed, whether Jew or Gentile, will be blessed on the basis of faith.

My problem here is that I do not see Paul equating promises to Abraham with promises to Israel. If anything, I would rather think that Israel comes into view with the Law, while Abraham represents the broader principle which applies to both Israel (=Jew) and Gentile.

3. "The Messiah's death and resurrection reconstitutes the people of God" (100).

OK. The part of this statement that slows me down is the two letters "re-." Do I agree that those who die and rise with Christ and are thus "in Christ" constitute the people of God? Yes. These are the sons [and daughters] of God. Yes, the boundary lines of slave-free, Jew-Gentile, male-female are obliterated as far as belonging to this family.

It's the "re-" that sticks a little. It sticks because it smuggles in a lot of stuff for Wright. It smuggles in "return from exile," but I'm finding it hard to see this passage demanding that theme. Wright sees overtones of the exodus in the slave-free imagery. Again, I'm finding it hard to see the passage demanding us see that theme here.

4. "Torah must be understood within the strange single-plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world, the covenantal and eschatological framework... within which the running metaphor of the 'lawcourt', always there by implication in the language of 'justification', is to be understood" (107).

One word that stuck out to me as I read this chapter is this word plan. There were a couple places in this chapter--including this one--where I began to see what Wright meant by suggesting we might start reading Paul with Ephesians. The other one had to do with Galatians 2:18 where Paul talks about rebuilding what he tore down. As I've said before, it is a dubious exegetical move to read Paul's earlier writings through the lens of Ephesians. Let each letter construct its own world.

I haven't fully conceptualized the hermeneutical distinction between Wright's "front to back" reading of Paul (which is more typical of Ephesians 1) and what I would call Paul's more normal "back to front" approach. Let me also say that this is my critique of the Calvinist reading of Paul that might logically prioritize predestination in explication of Paul's theology. Paul is dealing with an attack and he is reaching back into Scripture to respond. I do not believe he is writing the story from front to back in quite the way Wright presents him.

The difference here is that I see Paul's exegesis in Galatians 3 as less contextual and thorough than Wright does. It is not exactly ad hoc, for Paul surely has planned this letter out very well before sending it off. Nor is the word "atomistic" quite right, for the individual bits do cohere and relate to each other. But I think that Paul's argument is more atomized and ad hoc than Wright does.

5. The dikaios root implies the verdict (lawcourt) of "membership within God's family" (covenant) (112).

I don't think I'm splitting hairs to wonder if Wright has fallen prey to the same accusation he makes of Christian history. Has he confused a consequence or corollary of justification with justification itself. Yes, to be justified implies that you are a member of God's people. On the basis of faith, you are justified, and those who are "from faith" are "in Christ, sons of Abraham. What I am struggling with is whether the word justification itself means inclusion within God's people.

I do think I maybe, possibly am beginning to see Wright's point, maybe. The Law was not about getting into God's people but about staying in (Sanders, check). So the verdict in question (for those who are Jews by nature) is not about whether we are good enough, smart enough, and whether--dog gone it--people like us. The verdict for a Jew is whether we can stay in God's people. It is about responding appropriately to God's grace such that he accepts us.

So Paul comes to be saying, we do not remain in God's people because of our keeping these particulars of the Law, we stay in God's people through the faithful death of Jesus Christ. And, by the way, this is how Gentiles can also get in.

Well, thank you Tom Wright. I don't know whether I've completely understood you yet. But I think I am beginning to see what it might mean for their to be a "people of God" element to justification. I'll think on it. Could be an article.


Bob MacDonald said...

Bravo for taking this on.

Re Israel comes into view with the Law

Not only Israel. It seems to me that Law nomos raises the wrong image when considering Torah as Instruction whether this is personal, corporate, or cultic instruction. I was thinking 'personal' but it extends into the corpus much as salt does in meat - the flavor is changed. I don't see 'cultic' as different from 'corporate' with respect to salt (every sacrifice must be salted with salt) - it is the same for religion and politics... or policy in any corporation for that matter. See my essay on bugs and spirit here.

Paul has something additional in mind about 'works of law' in Galatians - and it seems to be posed as a threat of having to keep the whole law. Clearly he does not relegate the Jews to this obligation for salvation - otherwise even their grace of instruction is violated. By means of this he exalts the work of Christ. It does however, leave me puzzled as to the tension between a juridical approach to law and the grace of instruction that I see in the psalms. (Especially as there is no more sin offering.)

davey said...

My thinking is that Wright doesn't differentiate between faithful and non-faithful Torah people. The non-faithful are still in Adam, they don't just need to stay in, they need to get in. The faithful are in and sealed in, as Christians. Then the whole scheme needs a reformulation taking that into account.

Andrew said...

You're not the only one to take pistis Christou as a double entendre where Paul moves from Hayes to Dunn. I have long argued that Paul sees Christ's faith as an exemplar for our own faith and Paul has this imitatio Christi motif in mind when speaking of 'pistis Christou'. I would prefer to translate it "faithfulness like Christ's"... see here.