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Wright Wednesdays: Part 5

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[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 and God’s Righteousness: Covenant and Eschatology

Wright sees Genesis 15 as the background for everything that Paul says in Romans 4 (66).  So too did the Reformers (especially Calvin) and the federal theologians who followed.  Wright is even willing to speak of Abraham’s righteousness as “his right standing within that covenant, and God’s righteousness” as “his unswerving commitment to be faithful to that covenant—including the promise (Romans 4:13) that Abraham would inherit the world.  Here we have it: God’s single plan, through Abraham and his family, to bless the whole world.  That is what I have meant by the word covenant when I have used it as shorthand in writing about Paul” (67).

Wright does a great job of showing how Romans 4 is rooted in Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30, and Daniel 9 (67).  However, since he is only working with “one covenant” and his “single-plan” emphasis eschews any nuance between different types of covenants (a temporal-typological and an eschatological homeland) even within this one plan, he mistakenly assumes that Deuteronomy (the Sinaitic covenant) is just another form of the Abrahamic promise except for its ethnic exclusivism (esp. 67).  Wright is most persuasive in his insistence that justification be interpreted in the light of God’s covenantal promise.  This is something I never heard in mainstream evangelicalism, but have heard repeatedly from Reformed theologians.  “As in Daniel 9, it is because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant that he must punish his faithless covenant people, and as a result their covenant failure (‘unrighteousness’) thus shows up his covenant faithfulness all the more” (68).

It’s not an abstract point that Paul is making, Wright correctly insists, but one that is bound up with the covenant history of Israel.  “The point of Romans 3:1-8 is not a general discussion about God’s attributes and human failure,” he properly contends.  Nevertheless, again we meet an example of a good point swallowing other important things whole: “Likewise, the unfaithfulness of the Israelites is not their lack of belief…The point is that God has promised to bless the world through Israel, and Israel has been faithless to that commission” (67).  Paul expressly says in Romans that his countrymen according to the flesh were condemned for refusing to place their faith in Christ rather than in their own works (Rom 9:32).  The writer to the Hebrews says that the wilderness generation was barred from entering the promised land because they did not respond in faith to the preaching of the gospel (Heb 3:16-19).  As covenant theology has emphasized, the covenants with Adam and Israel are indeed a commission to bring God’s righteous kingdom to the ends of the earth.  However, it is not only a commission to global mission, but a specific kind of commission to fulfill all righteousness.  Adam and Israel were entrusted with God’s law, on trial in God’s garden, and both probations ended in the failure of the covenant partner.  This is the bleak backdrop of Jesus’ identity as the Last Adam and True Israel.  However, for Wright there is no distinction between covenants: judgment on the basis of Sinai (Dt 27-30), with deliverance on the basis of the Abrahamic promise (Gen 15).

Remarkably, Wright accuses the old perspective (or at least Piper) of down-playing the law-court metaphor (68).  This is highly ironic, given the fact that the grounding of justification in the law-court (imputation rather than infusion) has been the heart of the debate between Reformation and Roman Catholic interpretations.  As in his other books, Wright mistakenly assumes that the Reformation view argues that God’s essential righteousness—in other words, his own attribute of righteousness—is somehow given to believers.  But this overlooks the crucial role of Jesus Christ as mediator in the traditional view: It is not God’s attribute of righteousness, but the right-standing that results from a complete fulfillment of God’s law, that is imputed to believers.  It is Christ’s obedience, not his essence, that becomes ours.  Further, Wright appears to argue against the “old perspective” as if it were the very opposite (viz., the Roman view).   In this context, Wright insists, “righteous” doesn’t mean “virtuous,” but in right standing (68).  “That ‘finding in favor,’ that declaration, is ‘justification’; the result is that Bildad is now ‘righteous,’ that is, ‘in the right.’  This does not mean, primarily, that Bildad is virtuous, certainly not that he has a special concern for the glory of the judge” (69).  Why does Wright keep criticizing justification as “making virtuous” as if it is the Reformation view, when it is precisely the view that the reformers rejected?

Unlike his other works, in this book Wright does recognize that Calvin did not completely miss these crucial aspects: the Genevan reformer emphasized that we are saved by grace, but also affirmed that God saved us for obedience.  (Surely Wright is not unaware of Luther’s similar point, often observed under such maxims as “justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”?)  This, Wright suggests, is nothing more or less than “what Ed Sanders was arguing about Torah-keeping within Judaism.  That is ‘covenantal nomism’: now that you’re in the covenant, here is the law to keep” (72).  However, this is a very grace-friendly interpretation of Sanders.  Of course, his thesis is that Judaism is a religion of grace rather than of moralistic self-salvation.  However, Sanders can only say this because his own synergistic theology assumes that grace is a necessary but not sufficient cause of salvation.  Sanders himself points out in that seminal work the extent to which early Judaism taught a view of “salvation” that was clearly dependent on our works (the “merit of the fathers” and the good works of the righteous outweighing their sins, etc.).  Sanders’ formula was actually “get in by grace, stay in by obedience.”

Neither Sanders nor Wright recognizes any difference between this Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant of grace.  Sanders’ formula does indeed capture the substance of the Sinai covenant, which pertained to the national status of ethnic Israel in the typological land.  Israel was given the land by promise, not because of merits (Dt 8).  Nevertheless, Israel could remain in God’s land only by doing everything contained in the law.  The conditions and sanctions are “do or die.”  This is not how Israelites were “saved” (i.e., justified before God), but it is the basis of their title to the land as a nation prefiguring the messianic kingdom.

Wright also observes, “Many a good old perspective Calvinist has declared that the best way to understand justification is within the context of ‘being in Christ’: the two need not be played off against one another, and indeed they hardly can be without tearing apart some of Paul’s most tightly argued passages (e.g., Galatians 3:22-29 or Philippians 3:7-11)” (72).  Even more: “In Calvin and his followers…the great emphasis is on the single plan of God, the fact that God has not changed his mind” (73).  Then why did he assert repeatedly until now that being in Christ, and the single-plan based on God’s promise to Abraham, are themes virtually ignored by the whole Protestant tradition?

Paul’s point in Romans 3 is that “since the whole human race is in the dock, guilty before God, ‘justification’ will always then mean ‘acquittal,’ the granting of the status of ‘righteous’ to those who had been on trial—and which will then also mean, since they were in fact guilty, ‘forgiveness’” (90).  So it can’t mean Augustine’s “to make righteous,” i.e., “transforming the character of the person” (91).  It “does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status” (91).   At this point, one might have expected Wright to announce that he embraces the Reformation interpretation of justification over against the Roman Catholic view.  However, he sweeps them together.  Unlike “the post-Augustinian tradition,” Paul didn’t understand justification “to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last…” (81).  Surely Wright must be aware of the reformers’ reluctant but firm criticism of Augustine and the medieval view at just this point (confusing justification and sanctification).

Romans 3 is not concerned with “a ‘moral righteousness,’” but “the status of the person whom the court has vindicated,” Wright insists, criticizing not only Piper but Stephen Westerholm and Mark Seifrid for dismissing the importance of the covenant-motif (92-93).  I concur with Wright entirely when he writes, “The contrast between promise and law is not merely that they function differently as abstract systems.  The contrast is that ‘the covenant’ is what God made with Abraham, the agreement that through him god would bless the whole world, giving him a single worldwide family, while ‘the law’ is what God gave to Moses, for reasons that will become (more or less) apparent, but which cannot include abolishing or tampering with ‘the covenant’ God had already made with Abraham…” (98).  Paul points out that “the promises to Abraham and his family were that they should inherit (not ‘the land,’ merely, but) ‘the world’ (Romans 4:13).  This is exactly the point” (99).  He adds, “It is also forensic, understanding the covenantal history within the lawcourt framework, not as an arbitrary metaphor chosen at random but precisely because the covenant was there as God’s chosen means of putting things right.  And it is also, of course, eschatological” (100).

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come.  Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated!  Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled!  Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well!  And these, for Paul, were not three, but one.  Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.  The eschatology, though, was as I said only partially realized (101).

The problem, as I see it, is that Wright can explain Paul’s contrast between law and promise, Sinai/Moses and Abraham, only on the basis of the former’s exclusivity rather than on the conditional character of the national covenant distinct from the gospel that God also promised to Abraham and foreshadowed in the typological rites of Israel’s worship.  He is right to criticize an abstract opposition of law and promise, but doesn’t recognize the deeper reasons why Paul indeed argues for a strict opposition when it comes to the question of how one is right with God.

Once more we are told, “This is the trouble with the great tradition, from Augustine onward: not that it has not said many true and useful things, but that by using the word ‘justification’ as though it described the entire process from grace to glory it has given conscientious Pauline interpreters many sleepless nights trying to work out how what he actually says about justification can be made to cover this whole range without collapsing into nonsense or heresy or both” (102).  But he nowhere observes that this “great tradition from Augustine onward” does not include the Reformation but was in fact the target of the reformers’ objections.  These sweeping indictments are made all the more confusing when Wright adds comments such as the following: “As John Calvin rightly saw—and as Paul himself said, in the first paragraph he ever wrote on the subject—we are ‘justified in Christ’ (Galatians 2:17)” (102).  Again, I ask, what then of the sweeping charge that nobody in the old perspective really understood this point?

Wright helpfully observes that “this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death ‘for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ as in one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3), is regularly understood in terms of the Messiah, precisely because he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves.  This is most clearly expressed, to my mind, in two passages: Romans 8:3, where Paul declares that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ (note, he does not say that God ‘condemned Jesus,’ but that ‘he condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus); and 2 Corinthians 5:21a, where he says that God ‘made him to be sin [for us] who knew no sin’” (105).  “Notice how the sterile old antithesis between ‘representation’ and ‘substitution’ is completely overcome.  The Messiah is able to be the substitute because he is the representative” (106).  With these assumptions, it is puzzling to me at least why Wright would have trouble with “this faithful obedience of the Messiah” and his representation or “standing in for” as a righteousness that is credited or imputed to his people.

“Fifth, the resurrection of the Messiah is, for Paul, the beginning of the entire new creation” (106).  “Sixth—it may feel like a different subject, but for Paul it belongs right here—the ‘Spirit of his Son’ (Galatians 4:6), the ‘Spirit of [the Messiah]’ (Romans 8:9), is poured out upon the Messiah’s people, so that they become in reality what they already are by God’s declaration: God’s people indeed, his ‘children’ (Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 4:4-7) within a context replete with overtones of Israel as ‘God’s son’ at the exodus” (106-107).  “Seventh, and finally, the point which has just been hinted at: for Paul, Jesus’ messiahship constitutes him as the judge on the last day” (107).  “And at that judgment seat the verdict will be in accordance with one’s ‘works’” (108).  The old perspective has not had any trouble affirming the abundant exegetical warrant for a final judgment of works.  Not only are believers judged worthy in Christ already (justification), but they will be publicly revealed as “the righteous” in glory (as sanctification is immediately perfected in the glorification/resurrection of the dead).  The danger, however, is in making faith the condition of present justification and works the condition of an eschatological justification in the future.  In my view, it is more consonant with Paul’s eschatology to speak not of present and future justification, but justification as the already fully-realized verdict that ensures our eschatological glorification.

Next week, we'll spend some time looking at Wright's formulation of faith and faithfulness in relation to Christ and his work of passive and active obedience.