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 court...it 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

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