[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N. T. Wright’s Justification, a response to the critique of John Piper and others to his version of the New Perspective on Paul, especially as it relates to the Reformation’s understanding of justification.]
Justification, Faith, and Faithfulness: The Works of the Law
So far, Wright has approximated a traditional Reformation definition of justification several times: representation and substitution, a courtroom verdict—not that people are morally virtuous, but that they are right before God simply by virtue of his verdict, on the basis of Christ. So then it seems odd that he should say so emphatically, referring to Romans 2:11-16a, that “to be justified” cannot mean for Paul “’to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ ‘to come into a right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.” However, Wright exaggerates the Reformation position in order to define justification as “God’s declaration of membership” (116). Though forgiveness/imputation and covenant membership are obviously connected in Paul’s thinking, to declare someone righteous is different from declaring someone to be a member of a group.
As is well-known, Wright affirms the “faithfulness of Christ” (pistis Iēsou Christou) interpretation of Richard Hays (117). “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah,’ in the sense described in the previous chapter—his faithfulness to the long, single purpose of God for Israel—is the instrument, the ultimate agency, by which ‘justification’ takes place…And the way in which people appropriate that justification, that redefinition of God’s people, is now ‘by faith,’ by coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah” (117).
First, in the light of this last statement, wouldn’t “faith in Christ” make more sense? Second, does it make any sense for individuals to “appropriate” a “redefinition of God’s people”? One may appropriate (or better, receive) God’s verdict of right-standing, but how can one’s believing affect the redefinition of God’s people one way or the other? Even on Wright’s own terms, there is no way to escape the fact that Paul is speaking about a transfer of someone from a state of condemnation to a state of right-standing and forgiveness in justification. “‘Works of the law’ cannot justify, because God has re-defined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah” (118). “Nor, of course, is the idea of faith in Jesus Christ hereby rendered unnecessary: that is the very next thing Paul says in [Rom] 3:22, exactly as in Galatians 2:16. God’s righteousness is unveiled through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah on the one hand, and for the benefit of all who believe on the other” (203).
Regardless of how one comes down on the genitive construction, the traditional Reformed view certainly includes Christ’s active obedience—his representative, federal (covenantal) fulfillment of the law—as the basis for both soteriology and ecclesiology. So once again I wonder why Wright is averse to Christ’s active obedience and the concept of imputation? He adds, “But in Romans 3:20 Paul does explain the meaning of the quotation [“By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified”], by adding, ‘For through the law comes the knowledge of sin’” (118).
Before moving on to Wright’s analysis, it is worth asking whether Paul’s justification for his claim that no one will be justified by works of the law makes sense in Wright’s view. How could a Gentile become aware of his sin by kosher laws? Wright believes that the “Gentiles” who “by nature” do some of the things prescribed in the law written on their conscience are actually Christians rather than the noble pagan. But Paul says that Jews and Gentiles come to know their sin by the law, whether written on tablets or on the conscience. Thus, every mouth is stopped (Rom 3:19). How could Gentiles come to know their sin if “the works of the law” are merely the particular commandments given to Israel to distinguish Jews from the nations? And why does Paul later mention even his own case of coveting in 7:7 rather than, say, keeping Sabbath? It was because Paul did keep Sabbath, but nevertheless violated the moral law (Phil 3:9).
Wright tries to explain Romans 3:20 in less reductionistic (“covenant membership”) terms than he does, by my reckoning at least, in earlier works: “There are, then, two interlocking reasons why ‘works of the law cannot justify.’ First, God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and ‘works of the law’ would divide Jew from Gentile in a way that is now irrelevant. Second, ‘works of the law’ will never justify, because what the law does is to reveal sin. Nobody can keep it perfectly” (118). Now he’s sounding like the reformers again! However, if “works of the law” refer only to boundary markers between Jew and Gentile, it’s obvious that Jews could—and did—keep the law in that sense. Paul does not indict Jews for being uncircumcised or eating with Gentiles, but for failing to keep the moral commands while glorying in their ritual cleanness.
Expanding “works of the law” beyond mere boundary markers of covenant membership is further in evidence when he writes,
‘Transgression,’ we should note, is the actual breaking of the law, whereas ‘sin’ is any missing-of-the-mark, any failure to live as a genuine human being, whether or not the law is there to point it out. Paul is still, in other words, continuing to explore the theological dimensions of the situation Peter had put himself in. Either you stay in the Jew-plus-Gentile family of the Messiah, or you erect again the wall of Torah between them—but there will be a notice on your side of that wall, saying, ‘By the way, you have broken me’—both in general, because nobody keeps it perfectly, and in particular, because you have recently been living ‘like a Gentile, not like a Jew’ (Galatians 2:14).
Again he does not seem to understand the Reformation view, allowing only for two interpretations: justification = either (a) a moral quality / God’s own non-transferable attribute of righteousness or (b) membership in God’s family. Justification “denotes a status, not a moral quality. It means ‘membership in God’s true family’” (121). He says, “The lawcourt metaphor behind the language of justification, and of the status ‘righteous’ which someone has when the court has found in their favor, has given way to the clear sense of ‘membership in God’s people’” (121). By why not read it the other way: the former as the rationale for the latter? Even in Wright’s own construction here, “someone” is declared righteous when the court has found in his or her favor. Actual persons are “declared righteous.” That is semantically distinct from “membership in God’s family,” even if it is the basis for it. Once more, in the form of “not just this, but also that” ends up excluding “this”:
But the problem is not simply that the law condemns (though it does), shows up sin (though it does) or indeed encourages people into self-righteous ‘legalism’ (which Paul does not mention at all, in this chapter at least). The problem is that the law gets in the way of the promise to Abraham, the single-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world, first by apparently choking the promise within the failure of Israel (Galatians 3:10-14), then by threatening to divide the promised single family into two (Galatians 3:15-18), then finally by locking everything up in the prison house of sin (Galatians 3:21-22) (123).
Wright reads Romans 2 as saying that Israel failed in its missionary enterprise, not in its faithfulness to the law. Israel is under the curse because it has “proved unfaithful to the commission (despite the boast of Romans 2:17-20)” (124). “‘Unfaithful’ here [2:17-20] does not mean ‘unbelieving’ in the sense of simply ‘refusing to have faith in God.’ It means ‘unfaithful to God’s commission” (198). But then why does Paul contrast the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant, especially in Galatians? In Galatians 3:16, 21-22, Wright interprets, “Yes, he says: there was nothing wrong with the law in itself, and had it been possible for a law to have been given which could have given life, then righteousness would have been on the basis of the law—the very thing which Galatians 2:21 had denied” (126). But why would Paul have said this if the only issue was extending the Abrahamic promise to the world? Paul’s point is that the law cannot give life, because it cannot give righteousness (justification) because of sin.
Where Wright is correct is in his insistence, “In fat, what appear to Western eyes as two separate issues—salvation from sin on the one hand, a united people of God on the other—seem to have appeared to Paul as part and parcel of the same thing” (127). “Paul is not saying, as traditional readings have had it, that ‘the law was a hard taskmaster, driving us to despair of ever accomplishing its demands, so that we would be forced to flee to Christ to find an easier way, namely faith” (129). But Wright can only dismiss this interpretation of Paul because he has reduced the law-promise contrast to the question of covenant membership. For Paul, faith is opposed to works (and not just some, but all) not only because it keeps the gospel from going out to everyone, but also because (more basically), the gospel itself is distinct from the conditional terms of Sinai! Where Paul sees the gospel as necessarily implying the reconciliation of human beings to each other, Wright sees the gospel as practically reduced to this social dimension: “The promises God made to Abraham were a covenant. Genesis 15 says so, Paul says so (Galatians 3:15, 17); that is the assumed starting point for the whole passage. The covenant always had in view the liberation of the entire human race from the plight of Genesis 3-11, in other words, God’s dealing with the problem of human sin and the consequent fracturing of human community…” (133).
Boxing at shadows again, Wright opposes the Roman Catholic view as if it were the “old perspective” of the Reformation:
But the verdict of the court, declaring, ‘This person is in the right’ and thus making her ‘righteous’ not in the sense of ‘making her virtuous,’ infusing her with a moral quality called ‘righteousness,’ but in the sense of creating for her the status of ‘having-been-declared-in-the-right,’ is the implicit metaphor behind Paul’s primary subject in this passage [Gal 3], which is God’s action in declaring, ‘You are my children, members of the single Abrahamic family’ (135).
Does he really think the old perspective advanced rather than rejected justification as infused righteousness?
Wright does indeed see Christ’s obedient life and death as the basis for eschatological salvation:
The basis for all this, in theology and eschatology, is the faithful, loving, self-giving death of the Messiah. This is the theological point of reading pistis Christou and its cognates in terms of the Messiah’s own faithfulness; and this brings us as close as Galatians will let us come to what the Reformed tradition always wanted to say through the language of ‘imputed righteousness’ …But this does not mean that he has ‘fulfilled the law’ in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a ‘treasury of merit’ which can then be ‘reckoned’ to his people. That scheme, for all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments (135).
“God’s promises to Abraham were stuck in the Deuteronomic curse, and could not go forward in history to their fulfillment,” flowing out to the world” (136). But his choice of the term “curse” is crucial here. It’s not just that Sinai stood in the way of Zion by virtue of the former’s exclusive claim upon Israel. Rather, it is that Israel too—like the Gentile world—is under the condemnation of the law.
Next week, we’ll move on to chapter 6 and begin reviewing Wright’s treatment of other Pauline texts.