7.12.2006

Wright, again

Wright's argument is stronger when he comes to Romans. He looks at 3:21-26, 10:2-4, and 1:16-17, and his distinction comes into clearer focus - that is, Wright's distinction between God's own righteousness (His being true to His word and His ruling justly) and the righteousness by which we are cleared of guilt and can come before God. Romans 3:25-26 makes this point very clearly - that Paul is talking about the former, not the latter, righteousness - God's own. Jesus' death on the cross clears a shadow on God's reputation as a just judge. He had left so much sin unpunished, Israel was beginning to wonder. But now it's all clear: ALL have sinned (Israel too) and are made righteous through Jesus' sacrifice.

Wright wants to emphasize God's own righteousness, because he wants to avoid seeing our salvation as a merely forensic and legal transaction. This obscures the love of God, which drove Christ to the cross in the first place. And I agree completely, as long as we don't end up denying that to be spared God's wrath, we must have a righteousness not our own, reckoned (imputed) to our account. But absolutely, love motivates the transaction.

D.M. Lloyd-Jones makes the exact same point in a Banner of Truth booklet, "The Cross: The Vindication of God," more than 40 years ago. There's nothing new here.

So Wright's point is that Paul's phrase "righteousness of God" doesn't refer to our acceptable standing before God, but to God's own righteousness. But when he comes to Romans 1:17, I think I have a problem. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just [righteous] shall live by faith.” Wright makes a strong distinction between God's righteousness and our own. Paul talks most about the former, Wright says. But this strong distinction misses something here in 1:16-17. Vs 16, I agree, Paul is talking about God's own righteousness, but then he elaborates on it by quoting Hab 2:4, which appears to me to refer to the righteousness of God's people, not God's own righteousness. In other words, Paul uses righteousness in two different ways in these two verses, and uses one way to explain what he meant by the other way! That doesn't sound like a very strong distinction to me.

The whole point of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ was to bring holiness back to men, and that only God could do that. We are called to bear God's image, to be like Him. So, remembering obvious Creator-creature distinctions, the righteousness of God should be blurred a bit, as people begin to see Jesus through the mirror of our lives.

5 comments:

  1. I admit that I haven't done a lot of in-depth study on N. T. Wright, Norman Shepard, or the New Perspective on Paul. And right now I don't have time to dig up the stuff I have studied and annotated. But there is one basic idea that I do remember.

    One of the central ideas of the NPP is that we have misunderstood Second Temple Judaism. The NPP insists that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace, and that when Paul argues for faith versus works (e.g., Galatians), he is only referring to those works which were characteristic of Judaism - the ceremonial law, not the moral law. Supposedly, he is only arguing against the necessity of keeping the ceremonial law for our salvation. According to NPP proponents, good works are necessary to maintain our righteous standing before God.

    In other words, as proponents of the NPP like to put it, Paul wasn't asking "how are we saved?" He was asking "how are we reckoned among the covenant people of God?" The NPP proposes that we don't have to become Jews to be saved, but we must do good works to maintain our righteousness, or stay justified (they like to talk about intial justification and final justification).

    The problem I have with this proposal is a simple one. If we grant for the sake of argument that Paul was really only arguing against the necessity of becoming a Jew, and that Second Temple Judaism was correct in its understanding of salvation by grace through faith, then why did Jesus have a problem with the Pharisees?

    If the Jews in Paul's day understood the means of salvation correctly and were only confused about the necessity of becoming a Jew, then up until Christ's death and resurrection THEY WERE RIGHT. Prior to Christ sending the gospel to all the nations you did have to become a Jew!

    The necessary inference from the NPP assertion is that the Jews in Jesus' day were correct. Which means that Jesus had no reason to be mad at them.

    As far as I'm concerned, that's all I need to know to decide that the NPP is wrong. My understanding of the NPP is that it teaches "getting in by grace, but staying in by works".

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  3. I agree mostly with the New Perspective thesis of Sanders that we have misunderstood Second Temple Judaism - that it did understand grace and wasn't purely Pelagian, works righteousness. I say mostly, because I think they WERE semi-Pelagian.

    I think when Paul said "justified," he was thinking of "who can **claim to be** (and be self-assured that they are) a member of Abraham's family AND saved," besides being reckoned by God as righteous and acceptable. This is a contribution of NPP, and fits in well with "objective covenant" ideas (Doug Wilson's "Reformed is Not Enough").

    I disagree with any NPP views that we have to stay in by our own faithfulness. That was probably part of the semi-Pelagian nature of 2nd Temple Jews. I think Paul did some correcting of that, too, in the NT.

    This is where your connection to Jesus and the Pharisees is interesting. WHAT problem DID Jesus have with them, exactly? We DON'T get debates on the means of salvation from Jesus. Jesus bashed them for hypocrisy and for missing the time of God's revealing to them - for missing Who He was (John 8).

    I don't think 2nd Temple Jews had perfect theology, but I do think they were saved if they were trusting the God of Abraham to fulfill His promises. To that extent they were right (saved), in spite of being semi-Pelagian, like any Arminian today. Prior to Christ, you had to identify with the nation of Israel in some sense, and go to Jerusalem, as many God-fearers did (Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8).

    I think Jesus largely agreed with Pharisees theologically and culturally (worldview), but you're forgetting that worldview falls apart without knowing Who Jesus is (Colossians 1:15-18). The astounding thing about Jesus for me is that He agreed with them on so much, yet railed on them so hard, because they wouldn't accept He was the Messiah. THIS was the problem He had with them.

    NPP would critique an assumption I think you're holding, that understanding the means of salvation incorrectly is the major, if not the only, theological issue to which one could object. I.e., if we agree on salvation by grace alone, then we must be on the same side, right? Not if one of you denies the resurrection of Jesus, e.g.!

    But again, "getting in by grace; staying in by works" is just semi-Pelagianism to be rejected theologically. Still, NPP may be right that this was 2nd Temple Jews' position. They may interpret the NT overmuch from this position, but they do have something to add in the ecclesiology realm (defining the church), at the very least.

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  4. It's late right now and I have my son's highschool graduation party tomorrow, so I can't write too much at the moment. But for starters I'd say this ...

    If Second Temple Judaism was officially and consciously semi-Pelagian, then they didn't understand grace. They didn't have to be full-blown Pelagians to be wrong. Being a functional semi-Pelagian doesn't necessarily mean you aren't saved. But officially teaching a semi-Pelagian doctrine of salvation is still heresy.

    And the exact form of the Pharisees' problem can be described in a number of ways, such as hypocrisy. But it goes way beyond that. Hypocrisy is just another sin and we're all sinners. But Jesus called the Pharisees sons of hell (Mt. 23:15) and sons of the devil (Jn. 8:37-47). He even says plainly, "you do not hear, because you are not of God."

    They were Israelites, objectively in the covenant, but were not of God. And not only were they sons of hell, their proselytes were sons of hell, also. Doesn't that imply they weren't teaching the correct means of salvation?

    That isn't a debate over the means of salvation, but it sure sounds like Jesus is condemning their understanding of the means of salvation.

    But the NPP is built on the proposition that Second Temple Judaism correctly understood the means of salvation, and were only confused about how you identified the people of God.

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  5. I agree with your late 11:36pm post, Conrad, especially regarding semi-Pelagianism still being wrong. I misspoke saying in the same sentence that they both understood grace and were semi-Pelagian! I just meant they weren't the caricature than Martin Luther may have thought they were.

    I would only take issue with the assumption that "sons of the devil" implies incorrect teaching. You can have it all right in your head and onthe books, but still not believe it. (James says even the devils believe).

    Now, I think the Pharisees, even though they were closest to the truth of all the Jews of the time, were still trusting in their own righteousness and needed to trust in Jesus'. But Jesus rebukes them for missing Him as Messiah. Those two are connected, I think (works-righteousness and identifying the Messiah) in one's pride. Think Denethor rejecting Aragorn out of his own pride and self-effort.

    The NPP concern is not to read Luther's concern back into Paul, if it isn't there. I think it IS there, but that it is only part of what Paul was talking about when discussing justification and grace.

    Congratulations to your son on his graduation!

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