Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 7.2

This is the second dying gasp of my review of the seventh 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: Exegesis of Galatians
Chapter 6: Interlude: Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians
Chapter 7.1 Romans 1:16-17

Now the second gasp of chapter 7, on 1:18-3:20 (pp. 158-68).

Romans 2 features significantly in Wright's understanding of Paul and, despite the diversity of those claiming new perspectives, Romans 2 is a new perspective moment for him. He has mostly convinced me of his reading here, so amid many questions I have about his ubernarratives.

It seems to me there are three prominent readings of the verses in question in Romans 2. These are the verses that pose the question of Gentiles who by nature do not have the Law, but nevertheless do the righteous requirements of the Law, demonstrating the Law written on their hearts (e.g., 2:14-15).

The first is that there are Gentiles out there who are true to the little light they have who will be saved. These are the Socrates types, the "anonymous Christians" of Karl Rahner, etc. Unfortunately, despite the venerable tradition of reading the verses in this way (maybe they're right theologically), it does not at all seem likely that Paul had anything of this sort in mind. Wright doesn't even mention the possibility.

The more traditional Protestant interpretation is to see this verse as a hypothetical. Paul is leading his audience to the conclusion that all have sinned and thus that no one actually fits in this category. But, says Paul, if there were such a Gentile, they would be just as acceptable as any Jew who kept the Law. I used to hold this position.

But alas, Wright has convinced me of his interpretation, and I consider it--at least insofar as I agree with Wright--a boon for Wesleyan-Arminians. Although Romans 3 is headed to "all have sinned," Wright suggests that "This, in fact, is one of the few cases where a failure in exegesis is caused by too much attention to the overall scope of a passage, and not enough to the small details and sub-sections" (158).

For Wright, "the description in 2.26-29 of those who 'keep the commandments of the law' even though they are uncircumcised (2.26), who actually 'fulfil the law' (2.27), are Christian Gentiles, even though Paul has not yet developed that category" (166). I consider this interpretation by far to be the most likely one, given the phrase "written on their hearts."

Thus the other "new perspective" Wright takes in this chapter, which in fact I agree is none other than reading Paul in his Jewish context is the fact that "There is, then, for Paul, a final judgment, and it will be 'according to works'" (168). "The verdict of the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done" (167). Wright rightly finds the later debates about monergism (simply God's work in people) versus synergism (cooperation between God and human will) anachronistic. For Wright, it is both at the same time. "from one point of view the spirit is at work, producing these fruits... and from another point of view the person concerned is making the free choices" (167).

Here is Wright in a nutshell:

"(a) the judgment of which Paul speaks in Romans 2.1-16 is of course the future judgment, that which will take place on the last day. When, on that day, God issues through the Messiah the positive verdict spoken of in 2.7, 10, and 13, it corresponds to the present verdict which, in 3.21-31 is issued simply and solely on the basis of faith.

"(b) How do these two verdicts correspond? The answer has to do with the spirit. When Paul returns triumphantly to the future verdict in chapter 8 ('there is now no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah, Jesus'), he at once explains this with a long discourse about the work of the spirit (8.2-27). What Paul says about Christians could be said about the doctrine of justification itself: if you don't have the spirit, you're not on the map (8.9)" (165).

I agree with this analysis wholeheartedly and put in my pile of "a great day for Wesleyan theology" things. However, there may be one very significant difference between my analysis and Wright's, which is the "hair's breadth" between Wesley and Calvin. For Wright there is an inevitable correlation between the verdict that is given by faith at the beginning and the verdict that is vindicated by works at the end. To me this is to systematize Paul in a way he does not.

Given his rhetoric, it is possible for him to speak of someone as "justified by faith" at one point and yet for them not to win the prize or attain to the resurrection of the dead, thus not being justified by works at the judgment. Being true to Paul's rhetoric will require us to pull these two apart, while Wright's tidy system will no doubt hold them together, once again confirming that Wright's Anglican theology, as he actually implies at one point (205), is half Calvinist.

Here endeth the second gasp...

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