[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification, a response to the criticisms of John Piper and others to his reconsideration of the Reformation’s understanding of Paul and the universal problem of guilt and righteousness. Want to catch up or refresh your memory? Here are the previous installments.]
“Works of the Law”: Soteriology and Ecclesiology
Following D. G. Dunn, Wright insists that the “works of the law” are not “the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile…” (117; cf. 172). Aside from the fact that the Reformation tradition—Lutheran as well as Reformed—has always affirmed the abiding role of the moral law for the Christian life, the deeper problem with this view is what it excludes. Of course, the Torah included the ceremonial and civil commands that governed the theocracy and marked Israel off from the nations. To be sure, these Israel-specific laws functioned as boundary markers. And surely their obsolescence (or rather, fulfillment) in the new covenant opens the door to the realization of the Abrahamic promise of the gospel to all peoples. However, is that it? Is there nothing more to the Good News than, “Jesus is Lord, so you don’t have to be circumcised and keep the dietary laws?” The new perspective misses the deeper problem of the “works of the law” as a means of justification in Paul. Paul’s teaching on justification surely involves an ecclesiological component (uniting two peoples into one in Christ), but only because it is the soteriological answer to a universal human problem: guilt before a holy God (Rom 3).
Wright insists that “justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin” (170). “The Reformation legacy, eager to deny that ‘good works’ in the sense of morally virtuous deeds can play any part in commending us to God, was happy to cite this passage [Eph 2:10] by way of answer to the normal charge that ‘justification by faith alone’ would cut the nerve of all Christian morality.” We’re not saved by good works, but unto good works. “Well and good. This is not far, of course, from what the new perspective would say about Judaism: rescued by grace then given Torah as the way of life. But I do not actually think that that is what Paul is talking about here…[T]he point of this is not simply ‘because you now need to be virtuous’ but ‘because the church is the body of Christ in and for the world’” (171).
Wright wonders, “Is resistance to ecclesiology in Paul bound up with resistance to finding too much for the Spirit to do as well?” The coming together of Jews and Gentiles into one body is integral to the mystery in Ephesians (173). “If initial membership is by grace, but final judgment is according to works—and the New Testament, at first glance, including the Pauline corpus, does seem quite clear at this point—then what account of those ‘works’ can we give? Is this not, at last, the moment when Jewish ‘legalism’ is exposed?” Wright doesn’t deny that there are Second Temple texts that highlight the importance of works at the judgment (75). “First, the key question facing Judaism as a whole was not about individual salvation, but about God’s purposes for Israel and the world…The ‘present age’ would give way to the ‘age to come,’ but who would inherit that ‘age to come’?” (76). This seems right, in light of some of the questions that Jesus’ hearers ask. However, don’t these questions inescapably involve the personal question, “How can I be saved?” “What right do you Pharisees think you have to escape the wrath to come?”, Jesus demands of the religious leaders. “You assume that you are among the righteous to be raised on the last day, but are you really?” And his clear answer, especially during Holy Week on the Temple Mount is “No!”
So again Wright and the new perspective help us to embrace a wider context—and we are foolish if we ignore their seminal insights on these points, but they apparently fail to understand how the cosmic-eschatological concerns and the personal anxiety over salvation from sin’s guilt and power are interdependent. Again he assumes he’s the only one who has ever tied justification to the covenant in Gen 15 (82-3). What was Israel’s expectation during Jesus’ ministry?
The answer, from source after source in the second-temple period, confirming what we might have guessed from Scripture itself, was this: Israel will be vindicated, will inherit the age to come—but it will be the Israel that has kept Torah, or that, through penitence and amendment of life (as in Daniel 9, looking back to Deuteronomy 30), has shown the heartfelt desire to follow God’s ways and be loyal to his covenant…’All Israel will inherit the age to come,’ said the Rabbis, with the following clauses indicating that some would not, opting out by their own rank refusal to follow Torah. Torah thus functioned, implicitly at least, within not only a covenantal framework but also a broadly eschatological one. The ‘age to come’ would see Israel vindicated at least. But the way to tell, in the present, who would thus be vindicated in the future was to see who was keeping Torah (in some sense at least) in the present…These questions could be addressed in terms of a theological account of how much of this law-keeping was up to one’s own initiative, and how much would be owed to God’s grace and help (76).
So much for their not being interested in questions of personal salvation, grace, and the extent to which one had to cooperate with God in justification! In fact, Wright refers to examples from early Jewish literature suggesting the importance of weighing works as the basis for final judgment and vindication. In fact, the Qumran community agreed with Paul in their expectation of the fulfillment of Deut 30. “Where they diverged was on the questions (a) What events have precipitated the advance covenant renewal with us in the present? (b) Who will be vindicated when God finally completes what he has thereby begun? (c) What are the signs in the present which mark out those who will be vindicated in the future? And perhaps also, as we shall see, (d) What theological account of how one passes from present grace-given membership to future salvation?” (77). From his own summary, it would seem that these questions are more integrally involved with the concern for personal salvation than Wright allows.
So again, the problem is not so much what is affirmed as what is denied. Wright is on target when he criticizes evangelicals for separating salvation (soteriology) from the church (ecclesiology) (132). He is also correct in seeing in Paul a thorough integration of those issues. The problem is that while the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (and male and female and free and slave) is for Paul a critical implication and consequence of the gospel, for Wright it is exactly reverse. For him, the message of sin, forgiveness, and salvation is an “of course” (131). “The problem of human sin, and the divine answer in terms of the rescue provided by the Messiah, is the presupposition. It emerges gloriously at several points, notably Galatians 2:19-20 and Galatians 3:22. But it is not the main argument” (133). It’s not just “at several points,” however, but throughout his epistles that Paul makes central the themes of personal salvation in union with Christ. Because neither Jews nor Gentiles keep the law, they are all lumped together under a common curse, but because Jesus Christ has taken our place, Jews and Gentiles together can be children of Abraham—part of God’s single, worldwide family. That is Romans 1-4 in nuce.
“How can ‘ecclesiology’ be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification,” Wright asks, “when Scripture itself gives it this high a place?”
Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, it serves directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world? It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective’s reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? (174).
Before we criticize too quickly, it is important to allow Wright’s concerns to sink in. Justification is not treated in the scriptures simply as an individual affair, but as a cosmic renewal, a divine re-writing of the tragic script that we have written for ourselves and the rest of creation. The church is integral to God’s saving plan—not as the source of redemption, but as the minister of reconciliation. Further, this ministry leads simultaneously to a justified and renewed people who fulfill their callings in the world with an eschatological anticipation of Christ’s fully-realized reign in a renewed creation.
However, this plan would be pie-in-the-sky if it were in our hands to accomplish or to complete—or if the justification of the ungodly were merely an “of course” rather than the reason why a united family of God is emerging in this passing age. Wright’s real target seems to be not so much the Reformation tradition as pietism. As on other points, his solution is just as one-sided, however. He worries that the “old perspective” on justification will revive “Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ theology…” (174), although it is not clear exactly what ostenstibly dangerous view he has in mind. Although he is anxious about an over-realized theology with respect to justification, he seems to advocate just such an eschatology with respect to the kingdom of God. In recent years, Wright has emphasized the political context of Jesus’ ministry and apostolic preaching, over against the claims of Caesar, particularly in an effort to challenge U.S. militarism. Even here, there are important insights. However, is Romans really a political manifesto against Caesar, especially when Paul’s call to obey emperors appears in chapter 13? The “two kingdoms” doctrine, which Calvin held as well, does not separate Christ’s reign from the world’s powers, but it also does not confuse them. In this time between Christ’s two advents, the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ and creating an end-time harvest of Israel and the nations. For now, the kingdoms of this world have not yet been made the kingdom of Christ in geo-political terms. Nevertheless, the church announces that imminent hope and lives in the present with patience, suffering for the sake of the gospel, until Christ returns in glory.
Next week, we’ll conclude this series with some final thoughts on the book as a whole.