Monday, January 16, 2006

Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright is something of a controversial figure. He is lionised by some as the doyen of "New Perspective" scholarship. For precisely the same reason he is distrusted by others, especially because of his views on justification by faith alone. As an "old schooler" who appreciated Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK 2003), I approached this book with a mixture of expectation and caution. As may be expected from Wright, this book is very well written. The author writes with verve and originality and expresses his ideas in crystal clear prose.
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The introductory chapter attempts to set Paul within the context of 1st Century Judaism and Roman and Greek culture. Here, Wright also discusses the current state of Pauline studies in terms of perspectives old, new and different. The following chapters on Creation and Covenant, Messiah and Apocalyptic and Gospel and Empire show the way in which Paul took these traditional Jewish themes and reworked them around Jesus Christ over and against the paganism of his day. Each chapter brings fresh insight to these subjects. Next, Wright considers Rethinking God, starting from the roots of Paul's theology in Jewish monotheism and tracing the development of the apostle's trinitarian thinking. Paul rethinks the God of Israel in the light of the coming of Messiah and the work of the Spirit.
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Justification Redefined
In some ways, the next chapter, Reworking God's People is the most controversial. It is here that Wright's "new perspective" thinking, that informs the whole of the book comes to the fore. Not that Wright accepts Saunders' reading of Paul uncritically (p. 12). He insists rightly that,
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'justification' does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul clearly and unambiguously, uses and different word for that, the word 'call'. (p. 121)
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According to Wright, justification is concerned with the question, 'Who belongs to the people of God?' Justification serves as a badge of membership for God's people both Jew and Gentile.
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Justification, for Paul is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God. (p.121)
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Justification certainly has implications for the question, 'Who belongs to the people of God?' Peter's refusal to have table fellowship with Gentiles in Galatians 2 was a denial of the fact that,
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a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; by by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16.)
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But, is Wright right to define justification primarily as a badge of covenant membership?
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Justification Defined
The verb, "to justify" means "to declare righteous",
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If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked... (Deuteronomy 25:1.)
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Paul works within the same legal framework when he says, "It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?" (Romans 8:33 & 34.)
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Wright tends to see Paul's argument in Galatians in terms of the themes of exodus and exile. The "curse of the law" that Christ bore in Galatians 3:13 is explained in terms of the curses of the covenant, especially exile, as set out in Deuteronomy 28. He says,
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The point about 'the curse' , and the Messiah's bearing it on behalf of others is not that there is a general abstract curse hanging over the whole human race....the curse is the curse of exile (p. 139).
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The curse which has come upon Israel has thus caused the promises made through Israel [for the Nations] to get stuck; and it is this curse from which...the Messiah has redeemed 'us'. (p. 140.)
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The problem here is that Wright has so stressed the important themes of exodus and exile that he has screened out the wider Biblical teaching. The "curse" is first mentioned in connection with the fall, where the ground is cursed for Adam's sake (Genesis 3:17.) This is a general concrete curse that affects man's life on earth. The curse described in Galatians 3:13 is that of Deuteronomy 21:22 & 23, where a transgressor of the law is hanged on a tree as one accursed by God. The context is that of the judicial punishment of a lawbreaker, not the curse of exile. Christ became a curse "for us" because he was condemned to die on behalf of those who had broken God's law, whether Jew or Gentile. To suggest that Christ became a curse simply to unblock the promises made through Israel is reductionistic.
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The people of God comprises of sinners who have been justified by faith in the Messiah. But justification is not a mere "badge of membership". It is God's declaration that a believing sinner is righteous on the basis of Jesus' death and resurrection.
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I wonder if Wright has really understood the traditional Reformed understanding of justification when he can say,
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It is ironic that some within the 'old perspective' on Paul, by continuing to promote the wrong view of justification as conversion, as the moment of personal salvation and coming to faith rather than God's declaration about faith, have reinforced as well a polarisation between Jesus and Paul... (p. 159 & 160).
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There is some real theological confusion in this sentence. No mainstream Reformed statement on justification regards justification as a synonym for conversion. Conversion is about faith and repentance. Justification is God's declaration that those who believe in Christ are right with him.
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Some Healthy Emphases
Throughout the book, Wright is very clear on Paul's teaching about the resurrection of Christ and the renewal creation. Chapters 2 and 7 are especially helpful on this theme. The concluding Jesus, Paul and the Task of the Church includes a discussion of the relationship between Paul and Jesus and makes some very valuable practical points. Wright criticizes the arrogance of the Enlightenment that puts "I" at the centre with Descartes' "I think therefore I am." He also distances himself from postmodernism saying,
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Welcome to postmodernity where even Descartes last bastion turns out to be an unreliable kaleidoscopic mirror. (p. 172).
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The distinctive Christian position is "I am loved therefore I am".
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This challenging and thought-provoking book is well worth reading. It certainly gave me some fresh perspectives on important Pauline themes. But I am not convinced that Wright is right on justification by faith.

2 comments:

Steve said...

I've not heard that befoer - so succinct

I am loved, therefore I am.

Thank you - that's a wonderful truth.

Steve

Exiled Preacher said...

He Steve,

Those were Wright's words, not mine. But it is a wonderful truth!

Guy