Friday, March 20, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 6

This is my review of the sixth 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.

Sorry it's taken so long. I have to work at least occasionally... :-)

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: Exegesis of Galatians

And now, Chapter 6: "Interlude: Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians." Only one more chapter (a biggie, Romans) and we're done.

Wright sees 3:2-11 picking up and building on the Christological poem of 2:6-11. I personally don't see this in anything but largely coincidental connections. If some people tend to see the discontinuities between things, Wright's besetting sin is probably that he sees more connections than are there. While I don't side with them, it is no surprise that some scholars think 3:2ff might have come from a separate letter to the Philippians as they seem to come out of nowhere.

I'm not sure how to summarize this section other than interesting snippets. On 3:6, "as far as righteousness according to Law, [I was] blameless." Wright agrees with Dunn that this statement includes participation in the usual means of atonement. I still agree a little more with Stendahl than them here--Paul really felt like he did a pretty good job at Law-keeping before believing on Christ.

He looks a little at 4QMMT. He thinks the question "works of law" is answering is "How can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future?" He nods to Sanders that this was about staying in rather than getting in. "Works of law" were thus the works "which would function as a sign in the present that he was a part of the people who would be vindicated in the future" (125).

I feel a little uneasy about this definition on the lips of Wright, because on his lips words like "people" take on loaded meanings. For me, the phrase "works of Law" for Paul did, primarily, have to do with the more "Jewish" parts and they were about being acceptable to God within the context of those already in Israel. I admit, however, that Paul can go more abstract into more generic acts of goodness.

Wright rightly sees that moral holiness is important to Paul in Philippians 3, something I have repeatedly emphasized as a reason why those in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition should generally be friendly to the so called new perspective on Paul.

Wright looks at two passages here, 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. The first is a very general statement, "From him are you in Messiah Jesus, who became wisdom for us from God, yes, righteousness and sanctification and redemption." Wright rightly concludes that "Paul is not here trying to make a precise theological statement" (133).

As a side note, he says of sanctification that it is "in one sense their status as God's people, but is also, and more particularly, their actual life of holiness through the power of God working in them by the spirit." This would be true of the various ways Paul uses the word, although I suspect in this particular verse Paul is thinking more of their connection to God's holiness rather than their moral life.

Then he gets to the biggie: 2 Corinthians 5:21: "He made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God." This is one of those signature interpretations for Wright. The traditional interpretation of this verse is an interchange. Jesus had no sin and we did. Jesus had righteousness and we did not. God makes the one without sin--Jesus--to be sin and in exchange we who were with sin become the righteousness of God.

This interpretation seems so straightforward, so balanced, that when I first heard of Wright's interpretration, I scoffed at it. What is his interpretation? His interpretation is that becoming the righteousness of God is "that, in the Messiah, we might embody God's faithfulness, God's covenant faithfulness, God's action in reconciling the world to himself" (140). Gufaw, says I.

But I considered the argument and it grew on me. It grew on me for precisely the reasons Wright presents.

1) The idea of God's righteousness was not something Paul came up with. It had a history and it had a history in relation to God's relationship to His people. It referred to God's propensity not only to judge sin but also to His propensity to save His people. There is thus a bias in the language that makes a meaning consonant with this idea the most likely meaning, the default.

Just on linguistic grounds alone, then, we would expect the statement, "we become the righteousness of God" to mean that we establish concretely God's propensity to save His people and, indeed, the world.

2) Paul has indeed been talking about this subject for chapters. And he continues to talk about it. I'm reformulating Wright's arguments into my own arguments here to some extent.

Wright spends chapters talking about the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to Paul as a minister. The verses just preceding have that great verse about the ministry of reconciliation (that Wright does not think is directed at the Corinthians).

He has a few other arguments, but those two are the primary ones. He does mention the possible intertextuality with Isaiah 49:8.

This section seems somewhat of an aside to me, since Ephesians does not even use the word justification. It has the famous verse, "By grace you have been saved through faith," but it does not use Paul's characteristic language of justification by faith of Christ instead of works of law. One strength of the "new" perspective is that it has noticed this distinction for the most part. The "old" perspective, I have noticed, uses passages in Ephesians and 1 Timothy to read statements in the key letters, thus skewing them rather than letting them say what they say in their own right.

I think Wright's main point in this section is to show that soteriology and ecclesiology sit side by side in Ephesians.

On Monday, perhaps, the final review of this book, and then we're off to his Surprised by Hope with hopes to finish by Easter.

1 comment:

davey said...

Maybe I'm not reading Wright properly on Phil 3:6, but from the way he writes the impression I'm left with is that he thinks Paul, on the strength of his Law-keeping, was in the covenant and among those who would be vindicated. Yet Wright also finds in Paul that 'real' righteousness does not come through the Law.
Wright, then, seems to me to write confusingly about righteousness, covenant membership, justification by works, etc. If, as would seem to be correct, Paul (when he was without faith) was not righteous on account of his Law-keeping, then how are we to view his efforts? Can these deeds be said to be showing gratefulness to God, when Paul was in fact an enemy of God? Even if Paul felt he was grateful to God.