April 13, 2014


Surprised by N.T. Wright : The Bible scholar's goal is to massively revise the way we talk about the Christian faith. By many accounts, he's already succeeded. (Jason Byassee, APRIL 8, 2014, Christianity Today)

Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say Wright and others, Paul is centrally teaching about God's faithfulness to Israel.

According to the NPP (a phrase coined by Wright), Paul was not worried about where believers' souls would go after death. Christians of the late medieval period were worried about hell and felt they had to earn entry to heaven with works. This is the theology Martin Luther taught and wrote against, helping to ignite the Protestant Reformation.

But Jews of Paul's time were nowhere near so individualistic, so obsessed with the next life, so unfamiliar with grace as were the late medieval Christians. Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say the NPP scholars, Paul is centrally teaching about God's faithfulness to Israel. He is showing that Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises, and so can be trusted to fulfill his promises in history. NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God. Paul doesn't say not to do them because you'll go wrong and think you're earning salvation. He says not to do them because the Messiah has come and the world is different now. All people can worship Israel's God and should do so together without ethnic division.

In defense of the NPP, I can't remember the last time I heard Israel included in a presentation of the gospel--even a long one. It leads one to wonder: What was God doing all that time with his chosen people? Wasting time?

Since the calling of Abraham, Jews had been unique in three ways: for their monotheism (established in the Shema--"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one"--the founding prayer that faithful Jews say to this day), election (God calls a specific people), and eschatology (God will save his people on the last day). Wright shows how the resurrection of Jesus reworks each of these central Jewish beliefs.

Wright argues that Christians believed Jesus was Lord very early in church history--not centuries later, after councils had "decided" that he was so. So when Paul invokes Christ in 1 Corinthians 8--"one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live"--he is referring to the Shema, reworking it in light of Christ. Paul is altering the Bible's cornerstone prayer to include Jesus of Nazareth.

And Paul doesn't even have to argue for it. Within a generation of the Resurrection, a Christology that ranks Jesus with the jealous God of Israel is not controversial. It simply is "common coin," to use a Wrightian phrase. So, too, with the Holy Spirit. The shekinah that is God's presence in the Scripture of Israel is the "spirit" (the lowercase reflects Wright's usage throughout PFG).

Election is similarly reworked in light of the Resurrection and the spirit. The relentless drumbeat driving this volume is that Paul's teachings are deeply Jewish. According to the NPP, Paul is clinging to his Jewishness. He has not rejected one religion for a brand-new one. In fact, he believes that the law is God's good gift of grace.

But this is where things get interesting. Wright so emphasizes the good news of God's electing grace that, in a friendly parody he passed on to me in our interview, "God so loved the world that he sent it Abraham." The Pauline phrase beloved by the Reformers--"the righteousness of God"--is actually Paul's way of referring to the covenant people extended to include Gentiles as promised in Genesis 12:1-3, "the one family of Abraham," says Wright. To belong to Abraham's family is to be marked as those who will be justified on the last day. This is what it means to be saved.

It is important to stop and note how dramatically Wright has reworked things here. It means, in part, that the evangelist at summer camp who asked me, "If you died tonight, why should God let you into heaven?" was wrong when he provided the answer, "For no reason other than that Jesus died in my place."

Righteousness in Scripture does not refer to the righteous Judge passing his righteousness to the defendant. According to Wright, passages like Romans 4 (God "justifies the ungodly"); Galatians 2 ("a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ"--though Wright and other scholars now say this is better translated "by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ"); and 2 Corinthians 5:21 ("[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," ESV) are not about imputed righteousness. Instead, they are about God fulfilling his promises to Israel in Christ to remake the world through one Jew-plus-Gentile family.

Wright insists often on what he told an overflow audience at Wheaton College in 2012: "I love the doctrine of justification." But it is not everything in Paul. It appears in only a few places in his letters. It is the wheel of the car, Wright says--not the whole vehicle.

So if Paul's courtroom metaphors are not about imputed righteousness, what are they about?

They have a much narrower frame of reference, says Wright. In Jewish tradition, all people will stand before the judge on the last day, after their bodies are resurrected. For the Jews who came before Jesus, those who kept Torah will be judged faithful on that day--saved, in the truest sense. The badge of their faithfulness is observing Torah. Here, studying Jewish sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls helps to clarify the Bible's references. For those "in the Messiah," faith, ratified in baptism, is the only badge that marks out in advance our judgment on the last day. So Paul's courtroom references mean only that the judge rules the defendant is in the right, vindicated over against any accusation, and assured of resurrection on the last day.

Posted by at April 13, 2014 5:18 AM

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