Sunday, September 9, 2007

The magisterial authority of Rome?

Fellow blogger Bryan, a Covenant grad and now member of the Roman Catholic church, has challenged some of us Presbyterians with the notion that we cannot escape the Gnostic mentality if we refuse the magisterial authority of Rome.

While I do not agree with this concept, I am willing to listen. Bryan, are you willing to grace this blog with your thoughts?

JRC

Friday, September 7, 2007

Paedocommunion -- A Modest Proposal

No, it isn't what you readers of Jonathan Swift are thinking.

It's just this: as I've been thinking about the issue of paedocommunion in regard to Federal Vision and whatnot, I've been struck by the case of my own three-year-old daughter.

One of her recent questions: "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross for me?"

Now it strikes me that at a developmentally appropriate level of understanding, she's a believer. I honestly feel uncomfortable with the fact that she doesn't receive communion when it is served (when I help distribute it, no less!).

First question: what do the standards have to say about it?

BCO 12-5:

The church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual
government of the church, for which purpose it has power:
a. To inquire into the knowledge, principles and Christian conduct of
the church members under its care; to censure those found
delinquent; to see that parents do not neglect to present their children
for Baptism; to receive members into the communion of the Church;
to remove them for just cause; to grant letters of dismissal to other
churches, which when given to parents, shall always include the
names of their non-communing, baptized children;

BCO 57:

57-1. Believers’ children within the Visible Church, and especially those
dedicated to God in Baptism, are non-communing members under the care of
the Church. They are to be taught to love God, and to obey and serve the
Lord Jesus Christ. When they are able to understand the Gospel, they should
be earnestly reminded that they are members of the Church by birthright, and
that it is their duty and privilege personally to accept Christ, to confess Him
before men, and to seek admission to the Lord’s Supper.
57-2. The time when young persons come to understand the Gospel cannot
be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the Session, whose
office it is to judge, after careful examination, the qualifications of those who
apply for admission to sealing ordinances...

57-4. It is recommended, as edifying and proper, that baptized persons,
when admitted by the Session to the Lord’s Supper, make a public profession
of their faith in the presence of the congregation. But in all cases, there
should be a clear recognition of their previous relation to the church as
baptized members.

BCO 58:
58-2. The ignorant and scandalous are not to be admitted to the Lord's

Larger Catechism:
Q. 177. Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper differ? A. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.

So what are the underlying Scriptural arguments here? The PCA position paper outlines the primary lines of thought. On the one hand, as per the majority position, the Reformed theologians have traditionally insisted that children be capable of fulfilling Paul's command to examine oneself:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions.
1 Cor 11.17-33 NIV

The majority felt simply that young children are incapable of examining themselves.

The minority responded unsuccessfully that the parallel between Passover and Communion is strong enough to require parallel practices also. Since children were admitted to Passover, they should be admitted to Communion also. (Aside: Murray denies that children were admitted to Passover in a footnote in Christian Baptism that I don't have in front of me, stressing the 'you' in Ex. 12.26, "why do you do this?" That argument seems thin to me.)

The second majority argument, developing out of Calvin's theology of communion, was that communion is not effective ex operato, but only through faith. Thus, communion (unlike baptism) requires an active response of faith.

(It is this argument that no doubt led to Wilson's rude title of one of the articles in Credenda, "Give 'em the bread, you lumpy anabaptists!")

What to make of this in light of 1 Cor 11?

First, it will not do to argue that all kids, regardless of expressed faith or otherwise, should have communion. To so argue makes light of Paul's warning, "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." If this warning has any force as a warning, it must mean that we make some effort to fence the table from the "ignorant and scandalous"; else, we are like the man in Proverbs who sees danger and fails to warn of it. Children unable to express faith of any sort should probably not receive communion.

But second, it will not do to deny believing children access to communion for up to 10 years of their lives just so that we can verify that they really are Jacobs instead of Esaus. That's an unacceptably long time of "covenantal probation."

So here's the proposal: allow sessions, as per BCO 12-5, to develop developmentally appropriate examination questions for kids, to be asked prior to admitting them to communion. And then keeping examining them every two years, again with developmentally appropriate questions, so that they can continue to see that they are in the faith. Or not, which is a kindness as well.

As I read it, this proposal is in line with the standards, fulfills the requirements of 1 Cor 11, and also fulfills Jesus' command to let the little children come to Him in Mark 10.13-16.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Who v. whom in the courtroom of justification?

One of the striking and welcome features of Wright's theology is his insistence that Paul's Christianity was a fulfillment and realignment, rather than a rejection, of his former Pharisaism.

In particular, Wright lays out the case that Saul of Tarsus was a Shammaite Pharisee whose hope for Israel was an eschatological one, rooted in a future justification of Israel over against the pagan nations:

What happens, then, when we put the covenantal meaning of God's righteousness together with the metaphorical level drawn from the lawcourt scene? God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And, because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him: be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness! (WSPRS 98-99)

So for Wright, Saul's idea of justification, identical to the ideas expressed in other 2nd temple sources like the War Scroll, was a law-court status of "vindicated!", delivered eschatologically. The plaintiff was Israel; the defendants were the pagans; the judge was God.

But now, says Wright, Saul's world is turned upside down by his encounter with the resurrected Lord on the Damascus road. This one event immediately causes the realization that Jesus has been vindicated in the face of his enemies:

The significance of Jesus' resurrection, for Saul of Tarsus as he lay blinded and perhaps bruised on the road to Damascus, was this. The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined the YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans. (WSPRS 36)

(This quote, BTW, is my favorite Wrightism)

Wright now connects Paul's idea of justification organically to that of his former self. What remains in Paul's theology is the covenantal, law-court, and eschatological character of justification. What has changed is the realization that the Jew-and-Gentile wall is leveled, so that all are justified by participating in the Messianic victory of Jesus:

Within this context [of Romans 2-3], 'justification', as seen in 3:24-26, means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family; which of course means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant. They are given the status of being 'righteous' in the metaphorical law means that they are declared, in the present, to be what they will be seen to be in the future, namely the true people of God. (WSPRS 129)

...those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his poeple, his elect, 'the circumcision', 'the Jews', 'the Israel of God'. They are given the status dikaios, 'righteous', 'within the covenant' (Paul, 122)

This is a fascinating way of framing justification, and I am grateful to Wright for bringing out the connections between Paul's theology of justification and Saul's (who is assumed by Wright to be consistent with 2nd Temple Shammaite Pharisees).

Wright's speculations about Saul's hope for Israel rings true on many levels: what Paul himself says (cf. Rom. 11); the OT hopes for Israel found in Psalms and the prophets; the distinctions made by the Pharisees between Jews and Gentiles as 'sinners' in Galatians and the Gospels; and the little I know of non-Scriptural 2nd Temple works such as the apocrypha all converge on a picture of justification that agrees with Wright's.

But here's the thing: I don't think Wright goes far enough in understanding how Paul's picture of justification changes on the Damascus road.

Come back again to Saul's picture: Israel is in court against the pagans. God renders righteous judgment against the pagans; Israel is justified.

Now on the Damascus road, Paul realizes that Jesus is the one who is justified. But who else is in the court? Wright would have it that the pagans continue to be the other party in the complaint.

I don't think so. Rather, I think that Paul's understanding of the courtroom is entirely overturned: formerly, he had believed himself to be on the "justified" side. Now, in an instant, he realizes that he's been on the wrong side -- the "pagan" side -- and that God himself is the accuser (as well as the judge) in this courtroom.

What leads to this conclusion?

First, this is the clear polemic thrust of Romans 2 and 3, 4, and 9 - 11. Paul is anxious to communicate that Israel has imagined herself to be on God's justified side, when in fact it stands condemned by the very law she professes (Rom. 2.17-29, esp. 3.9, 3.20, 4.12-16, esp. 9.6-8 and 30-31). Israel is not what she imagines, but instead has been leveled to the status of 'condemned' along with pagans who do not keep the law.

Second, this polemic thrust derives from (Rom. 9.6-13, 25-29; 10.19-21; 11.2-5) a common theme in Israel's redemptive history: that those who thought themselves justified were in fact rejected and judged by God himself. We might think also here of Acts 28.25-28, in which the Israelites are cast off. Importantly, in prophets such as Hosea and Amos, God is both judge and plaintiff at the same time.

Third, Paul's polemic thrust is entirely consistent with Jesus' prophetic ministry to the Jews, especially the Pharisees. In the parables of the vineyard (Matt. 21.28-32, 33-46) Jesus makes the point that in the eschatological judgment, his (unrepentant) hearers will be found on the wrong side. This is all about justification -- and the Pharisees won't be justified. The same message occurs in the living parable of the fig tree (Mark 11.12 - 25, which Wright brilliantly links to the temple judgment event in JVG 413-428). And most explicitly, Jesus says this:

"Abraham is our father," they answered.

"If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does."
"We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself."
Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
John 8.39-44 NIV

Compare to John's the Baptist's warning:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Luke 3.7-9 NIV

This is eschatological language; this is court-room language; this is covenantal language. This a warning about the coming crisis of justification for those who believed themselves on the righteous side, but are not.

Fourth and finally, it is worthwhile to reconsider Paul's statement about himself:

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 1 Tim. 1.15 NASB

I had always read this verse primarily in moral terms, thinking of Saul's murderous rampage on the church and his blasphemy towards Christ. All of that is still true. But Wright has sensitized us a bit to the racial implications of this claim: who were the sinners in the mind of Saul of Tarsus and his fellow Pharisees? The Gentiles. In identifying himself as a sinner, Paul is declaring solidarity with the Gentiles. In like fashion, he levels all men to the status of Gentile sinners in Romans 3.9.

From all of this, it seems fair to conclude that more happened on the Damascus road than Wright allows. The courtroom scene changes entirely: God remains as righteous judge, but he displaces Israel as the plaintiff. Israel's status is reversed; she is moved over from the plaintiff's bench and lumped together with the Gentiles as defendants. Chief witness for the prosecution is Moses, in whom she trusted. And the chief of this sorry crew in the dock is Saul himself.

Justification now is seen in terms of Christ identifying himself with the accused, so that those accused who identify with him by faith are vindicated "in him." He acts in the courtroom both as an intercedent for the whole and also as faithful covenant Lord of Israel, herself stained with sin.

What's the prize in seeing justification in this way? It appears to provide a bridge between classic Reformed theology and Wright's version of the "New Perspective". Speaking out of the Reformed tradition, I've been very happy to read Wright's insistence that justification is covenantal, based on inclusion in Christ, and eschatological in outlook.

But I've been very uncomfortable with Wright's apparent stubborn refusal to associate justification with our moral guilt before God, to insist instead that it's all about membership status in God's people, with forgiveness as a secondary outcome of covenant membership.

Moral guilt seems to be sufficiently connected in Romans, Galatians, and Colossians to justification to merit a primary rather than secondary connection to that topic. Moral guilt seems also to be an incredibly prominent theme in the prophets with regard to "who's in and who's out" of God's people. I can't escape the notion that justification's primary referent in Paul is vindication before God, not before pagans like Caesar.

I think that bridge is found here, in Saul's sudden recognition that the courtroom is reversed, and he himself is in the dock.


WSPRS - What Saint Paul Really Said
Paul - Paul: In Fresh Perspective
JVG - Jesus and the Victory of God

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The righteousness of God in 2 Cor 5.21

Have you read the introduction?

2 Cor 5.18 – 21 is one of the five (or six) passages in which Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (Rom 1.17, Rom. 3, Rom 10.3, 2 Cor 5.21, 2 Cor 9.9; arguably in Eph. 4.24). Wright exegetes this passage in a way that supports his idea that the "righteousness of God" in Paul refers to God's covenant faithfulness, rather than a quality of righteousness that is given to men. A close reading of the passage reveals, however, that Wright's exegesis is unlikely. Whatever the "righteousness of God" might mean in 2 Cor 5.21, it is certainly a quality conferred to us in some way as a solution for the problem of sin.

Central to Wright's repackaging of the term "justification" is the insistence that Christendom has misunderstood Paul's phrase "righteousness of God" since the time of Augustine. Rather than a phrase referring to an abstract moral quality or status, either possessed by or conferred by God, Wright understands the "righteousness of God" to mean "God's covenant faithfulness." That is, God is righteous because he faithfully executes the covenant promises he has made, first to Israel and then also to the Gentiles included in the scope of the Abrahamic covenant (WSPRS, chap. 5 and 6). Wright's case for reunderstanding the "righteousness of God" is built on an exegetical survey of the passages in which this phrase is used by Paul. One of these is 2 Cor 5.18 – 21, which Wright addresses in a separate essay.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5.18 – 21 ESV

ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν ὡς τοῦ θεοῦ παρακαλοῦντος δι' ἡμῶν: δεόμεθα ὑπέρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάυητε τῳ θεῳ. τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτοῦ. 2 Cor 5.20 - 21 (BibleWorks Greek, apparently Nestle-Aland 27).

Historically, Luther focused on the first half of v. 21, that Christ became sin for us (Commentary on Gal., 3.13). Calvin on the other hand drew out the parallelism:

We may now return to the contrast drawn in this verse between righteousness and sin. How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offences but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. now in the same way we we righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God's judgment...but because we are judged in relation to Christ's righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own. (Calvin, 5.21)

Wright believes that this way of reading 2 Cor 5.21 was a mistake on the Reformers' part.

His understanding is that v. 21 is connected not to a discussion of justification but rather to a discussion of the covenantal character of Paul's ministry. It is Paul and his fellow ministers who "become the righteousness of God."

Paul is not talking about justification but his own apostolic ministry; that he has already described this in chapter 3 as the ministry of the new covenant; that the point at issue is the fact that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ, with God making his appeal through them; and that therefore the apostolic ministry, including its suffering, fear, and apparent failure, is itself an incarnation of the covenant faithfulness of God. (WSPRS 104 – 105)

The reasons he gives for rejecting Calvin's analysis are four:

(a) that once again Paul never actually says this anywhere else; (b) that here it is God’s righteousness, not Christ’s, that “we” apparently “become”; (c) that there seems to be no good reason why he suddenly inserts this statement into a discussion whose thrust is quite different, namely, a consideration of the paradoxical apostolic ministry in which Christ is portrayed in and
through the humiliating weakness of the apostle (4:7-6:13); and (d) the verse, read in this way, seems to fall off the end of the preceding argument, so much so that some commentators have suggested that the real break in the thought comes not between 5:21 and 6:1 but between 5:19 and 5:20
(BRG 3).

Wright's exegesis raises two questions. First, what is the set of people in 5.21 who "become the righteousness of God"? Second, what is the relationship of 5.21 to the surrounding context?

Wright's answer to the first is that Paul and the apostles, those involved in the ministry, are the ones who embody God's covenant faithfulness. His ground is the answer to the second question: 5.21 must refer to Paul's ministry, else "…[i]f you insist on reading 2 Corinthians 5:21 with a meaning … [like] 'imputed righteousness' – you will find, as many commentators have, that it detaches itself from the rest of the chapter and context, as though it were a little floating saying that Paul threw in here for good measure." (WSPRS 105). In other words, surrounding context forces Wright into his reading.

As far as it goes, at least two of Wright's points are sound. Certainly 2 Corinthians 5 is a continuation of the discussion of the character of Paul's ministry carried out in chapter 3 (indeed, beginning as early as 1.8), and the point at issue in chapter 5 is certainly that the apostles are the suffering ambassadors proclaiming God's gospel. None of this is subject to serious dispute, and it connects in a delightfully organic way with the entire argument of 2 Corinthians that culminates in chapters 10 - 12: that the suffering of Paul validates his ministry over against the ministry of the superapostles.[*]

However, it is important to see that there are actually two strands of dialogue going on in chapters 4 and 5 of 2 Corinthians. The first, occupying the majority of the text, is Paul's description of the character of his ministry. Wright correctly identifies this with the discussion of the covenants in chapter 3. The second strand, which surfaces in 4.5, 4.14, 5.14 - 15, 5.17, and most explicitly in 5.20, is the content of Paul's ministry, his ambassadorial appeal: "Be reconciled to God."

In weaving these two strands together, Paul reveals his motivation for his appeal. The need for reconciliation is caused because men are in the process of perishing (4.3). They are perishing because of the guilt of their sin, which will result in an unfavorable verdict on the day when they appear before the judgment seat of God to receive according to what they have done, whether good or bad (5.10). Thus, people are naturally at enmity with God. The enmity requires that ambassadors such as Paul must be sent with a message of reconciliation.

At this point, it is clear that justification is precisely in view in Paul's mind. He is thinking of the eschatological verdict that must be rendered at the final judgment, in which the verdict of "righteousness" is required in order to belong to God's people. The coming crisis of justification or lack thereof leads to the need for Paul's ministry.

Hence, Wright is correct in claiming that the overall thrust of chapter 5 is Paul's covenantal ministry; he is incorrect to assume that therefore justification is not in view. The content of Paul's ministry is entirely wrapped up in offering men the opportunity to change the eschatological verdict pronounced upon them at God's judgment.

In light of this, the flow of thought of 5.18 – 20 is clear:

  • Paul himself has been reconciled (5.18a)
  • And has therefore been given the ministry of reconciliation (5.18b)
  • Which consists of God's reconciling the world to himself, NOT counting their sins against them (5.19a),
  • And which ministry he has committed to Paul (5.19b).
  • Thus, he is an ambassador as if God were pleading through him (5.20a):
  • "Be reconciled to God" (5.20b).

Notably, 5.20b is the explicit content of Paul's reconciliation proclamation. It is the ambassador's speech itself.

Where does 5.21 fit into this context? NTW believes that 5.21 is a restatement of Paul's explanation of his ministry, and that therefore the clause "that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" means that Paul in his ministry is becoming the embodiment of the covenant faithfulness of God, offering reconciliation to the world.

Wright's reading therefore comes to this: "God sent Jesus to the cross, taking on the sin of us apostles, so that we might have a ministry that embodies the covenant faithfulness of God (which includes the offer of reconciliation just mentioned in 5.20)."

This is an unsatisfactory train of thought. The "righteousness of God" in 5.21b is in clear opposition to the sins of men in 5.21a. God's purpose in making men the righteousness of God has directly to do with reversing the problem of sin, accomplishing this by making Jesus to become sin on their behalf.
In this light, it seems clear that 5.21 is a continuation of the ambassador's speech. The punctuation should read thus:

Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: "We implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."

Paul's train of thought is made much clearer on this reading. He has a message of reconciliation: Be reconciled to God (v. 20). But that sentence is insufficiently clear on its own, and so needs a follow-on in verse 21. How can one be reconciled? Answer: You can be reconciled by becoming God's righteousness in Christ. Verses 5.20b - 5.21 are the content of Paul's ambassadorial speech.

What features demand this reading over against Wright's? First, as above, a clear parallel exists between Christ's becoming sin in order that "we" might become the righteousness of God. It is most natural for the set of people who become the righteousness of God to be the same set as those for whom Christ became sin, and whatever reading we adopt must account for the fact that becoming God's righteousness is parallel to Jesus' becoming sin.

Second, the repetition of the phrase "in Christ" in connection with the content of the reconciliation message strongly suggests that 5.21 also concerns the content of the reconciliation message:

  • Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (5.17)
  • ...that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.(5.19)
  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.(5.21) NIV

These two features appear to me to sufficiently answer the two questions, "Who are the set of people who become God's righteousness?", and "What is the relationship of the passage to its surrounding context?"

Wright's analysis, on the other hand, relies too much on the overall covenantal reading without paying attention to the features mentioned above:

In the light of this exegesis of chaps. 3-5, and this reading of 5:11-20 in particular, the thrust of 5:21 emerges into the light. It is not an aside, a soteriological statement thrown in here for good measure as though to explain how it is that people can in fact thus be reconciled. It is a climactic statement of the whole argument so far. The “earthen vessel” that Paul knows himself to be (4:7) has found the problem of his own earthiness dealt with, and has found itself filled, paradoxically, with treasure indeed: “for our sake God made Christ, who did not know sin, to be a sin-offering for us, so that in him we might become God’s covenant-faithfulness.” The “righteousness of God” in this verse is not a human status in virtue of which the one who has “become” it stands righteous” before God, as in Lutheran soteriology. It is the covenant faithfulness of the one true God, now
active through the paradoxical Christ-shaped ministry of Paul, reaching out with the offer of reconciliation to all who hear his bold preaching. What the whole passage involves, then, is the idea of the covenant ambassador, who represents the one for whom he speaks in such a full and thorough way that he actually becomes the living embodiment of his sovereign — or perhaps, in the light of 4:7-18 and
6:1-10, we should equally say the dying embodiment. Once this is grasped as the meaning of 5:21, it appears that this meaning fits very well with the graphic language of those other passages, especially 4:10-12.
(BRG 4-5)

At the same moment, Wright wants the righteousness of God to be "reaching out with a message of reconciliation" on the basis of Christ's sin offering, yet he wants the "righteousness of God" to be the quality that Paul and his ambassadorial friends embody in their ministry of suffering and dying. The set of people who become God's righteousness is confused in Wright's analysis.

Contrary to Wright's assertion, reading "the righteousness of God" as a quality that He imparts to men is not "an aside, a soteriological statement thrown in for good measure." Rather, it is the content of the ambassadorial speech, made necessary by the paradoxical nature of the gospel message. We appeal to you, be reconciled to God -- not by the natural way of changing your behavior to please him, but through the great exchange of your sin for Christ's and his righteousness for yours.

Luther and Calvin, as it turns out, were on the right track. And therefore in this instance, the "righteousness of God" is indeed a quality that God imparts to men (all for whom Christ became sin) so that they "become" it.

So what of Wright's four objections above? Clearly, (a), that Paul never mentions becoming the righteousness of God anywhere else, is a matter of considerable debate. In my view (influenced by Luther and Calvin), 5.21 is simply a rephrasing of the argument in Galatians 3, in which we become righteous not through works of the law but through faith in Christ who became a curse for us. Similarly, I find it impossible to read Romans 10.3-4 without seeing the "righteousness of God"
as a quality which the unbelieving Jews have failed to become or receive. Objection (b), that "we" are becoming God's righteousness rather than Christ's (and thus that imputation is impossible here), seems hair-splitting in light of Paul's ready switching back and forth between persons of the Trinity (cf. Romans 8.9). And objections (c) and (d), that reading "God's righteousness" in a soteriological sense causes verse 21 to become disjoint from the rest of the argument, are based on a false choice stemming from Wright's failure to discern the two threads of dialogue in chapters 4 and 5. Verse 21 as a soteriological statement is not a non-sequitur but rather joins 5.20b as a succinct statement of Paul's ambassadorial appeal.

None of this denies that "God's righteousness" includes his covenant faithfulness, or that 5.21 is integrally related to Paul's larger argument about his ministry. Rather, it simply makes the point that the set of those who become the righteousness of God is the set of those for whom Christ became sin, not Wright's more limited set of apostles, or perhaps ministers of the gospel. The immediate context demands a reading of 'becoming righteousness' that relates clearly to the reading of 'becoming sin.'

Finally, this argument does not address the question of whether the righteousness in view is one that is imputed forensically per Luther or imparted by infusion per Trent, or both or neither. The only point is to demonstrate that in this instance, at least, the "righteousness of God" is a quality imparted to us in a salvific sense.

Here I take the view, argued elsewhere, that 2 Corinthians forms a whole argument that culminates in chapters 10 - 12.


WSPRS - What Saint Paul Really Said
BRG - On Becoming the Righteousness of God
Calvin - Calvin's Commentaries, II Corinthians, ed. Torrance.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

NT Wright: A Prolegomena

This is a blog, not an academic journal. That's purposeful; I am not an NT Wright expert, and expect that some of what I have to say about or in response to him will be off-center, poorly worded, or even plain wrong. Thus, I reserve the right to edit. Also, I invite comments from others who have read or who have an interest in NTW or the New Perspective on Paul. The only boundary I ask is that the comments be constructive and not personal.

Anyone who has read some of Wright (and it seems impossible to read all of his prodigious output) is struck by the breadth and depth of his arguments. Succinctly, Wright is writing to scholars in the fields of 2nd Temple Judaism and early Christianity. His programme appears to be a scholarly road back into orthodox Christianity. That is, rather than simply refute arguments against orthodox Christianity, Wright wishes to walk us back into it using fresh, reasoned, critical arguments based on recent research. The broad themes of his work are as follows.

First, Wright argues that 1st century Judaism was extraordinarily complex, so much so that the popular picture of Jews as thoroughgoing legalists is simply wrong. Instead, we must understand that Judaism had substantially different branches with different emphases: the Pharisees (of the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Sadducees, the Essenes, the scribes all had different answers to the questions "What is our problem?" and "What is the solution to our problem?" (NTPG 167ff.)

Second, Wright argues that Paul's theology is a natural outgrowth of his Judaic upbringing. Wright locates Saul within the Shammaite school of the Pharisees on the basis of his persecuting activity (WSPRS 29-32). As such, Saul had an eschatological hope that God would vindicate ("justify") Israel over against her enemies – Rome – and solve the problems of sin and death. His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus causes him to realize that "The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time" (WSPRS 36). NTW then goes on to argue that the converted Paul genuinely sees Jesus as (a) the Lord over against false lords such as Caesar, (b) God's anointed Messiah, and (c) God himself, without ever abandoning his monotheism (WSPRS 65ff).

Third now, Wright argues that Paul's theology of righteousness and justification is bound up in his understanding of Jesus as above. According to NTW, the center of Paul's thought about justification is the covenantal understanding of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The famous "righteousness of God" (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) phrase refers to God's "covenant faithfulness" – the righteousness quality of faithfulness that God has and displays through the Gospel (WSPRS 100 – 110). Justification is therefore a participation in the victory of the Messiah by being included "in Christ." The gospel message, far from being an explanation of the mechanism of salvation, is instead a proclamation of Jesus as king and Messiah, who has broken the power of sin and death and in whom we can participate (WSPRS 60).

It is this last point that has caused consternation amongst evangelicals, or at least Presbyterians. Wright forcefully declares that Luther and Augustine have gotten us on the wrong track in our understanding of the righteousness of God and especially justification. According to Wright, Luther misunderstood "justification by faith" by decontextualizing justification from its Jewish context and turning it into a timeless system of salvation, which he opposed to a second timeless system of "legalism" that Luther identified with both Paul's Judaizing opponents and also the Roman church (WSPRS 115). Wright believes that Luther was mistaken to identify the theology of Rome with the theology of 1st century Judaism; hence, Luther was also mistaken to believe that Paul's theology addressed those concerns.

Wright's challenge of Luther is the core problem for evangelicals. The history of the evangelical movement shows an obvious concern for guarding the gospel message of justification by faith as a message of forgiveness of sins, acquired through faith apart from works. Luther's theology of justification is seen by most evangelicals as sound doctrine that has stood the test of time; indeed, justification by faith is probably one of the few unifying doctrines amongst evangelicals. Thus, Wright is pushing a red-hot button that sends evangelicals into full alert. He surely must have known this would be so, but expresses puzzlement nonetheless.

Oddly, Wright does not entirely dismiss the evangelical account of justification. Rather, he repackages it in different terms. He affirms that we receive forgiveness of sins through faith and apart from works. He denies, however, that this process is called "justification" (WSPRS 116 – 117). For Wright, justification is covenantal, forensic, and eschatological: "Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong…The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus." (WSPRS 131) Wright ultimately wants to argue that Paul's discussion of justification should be viewed through the lenses of eschatology and covenant, rather than through the lens of individuals getting saved.

So where are we? My own assessment is that there is much good in what Wright is trying to accomplish. The rediscovery of 'covenant' as one of the core motifs of Paul's thought makes my Presbyterian heart go pitter-pat. Wright is further correct to challenge what might be called "thin" presentations of the gospel that present salvation as mere forgiveness of sins, without any hint of the adoption, sanctification, or glorification we have in Christ nor any mention of our attachment to Christ's body, the church. As far as that goes, I consider Wright to be one of "the good guys." Certainly, even those positively opposed to his theology of justification give him full marks for his work in defending orthodoxy against the skeptical scholarship of Crossan, Borg, and the Jesus Seminar.

Despite the praise, I have concerns about his doctrine of justification. At some points, I think his framework is backwards; at others, I think he is simply incorrect. The concerns are great enough for me to invest time in thinking through my objections.

But all of this is subject to two qualifications:

(1) I believe the errors of Wright, if indeed they are his mistakes rather than mine, are non-heretical. Some have gone so far as to accuse him of heresy, or leading us back to Rome. This is probably wrong. For one thing, Wright's theology has much more akin to Eastern Orthodox thought than Catholic thought. For another, Wright appears to hold to the same package of thought about "salvation" that standard evangelicals do. He simply arranges the package in a different order, and insists (loudly!) on using words in non-familiar ways. To put it in Presbyterian terms, Wright would probably answer the "Kennedy questions" satisfactorily.
(2) However, his package appears to me to be sufficiently misleading that certain of his followers express Christianity in ways that I simply can't recognize. Some readers of Wright go so far as to say that "the gospel has nothing to do with individual salvation", a claim that Wright himself would seemingly reject or qualify.

Given the concerns and misunderstandings, it is worth some effort to challenge his package. Even so, the challenge presented here is a friendly challenge. Wright labors mightily to coordinate exegesis and scholarship in the service of God's kingdom. If anyone is ransacking these pages to find ammunition to attack Wright as a pernicious heretic, let me kindly request that he seek elsewhere.

With that, let us begin.


NTPG -- The New Testament and the People of God
WSPRS -- What Saint Paul Really Said

Brookside Gardens trip

On 8-18, my family and I went with our friend Dave Ward to visit Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD. They have a delightful butterfly exhibit of native Maryland, Central American, and Asian butterflies flying about in a large flower-filled space with walking paths.

I heartily recommend the exhibit and offer up some teasers:

The Emerald Swallowtail (Papilio palinurus)
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Cethosia cyane
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