NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)

We’ve been taking a look at the paper that N.T. Wright presented at the recently concluded Evangelical Theological Society annual conference (see part 1 and part 2). Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for a few minutes of the discussion time that followed Wright’s paper and the three prepared responses. I will say that from what I saw, the interaction continued to be characterized by mutual respect and warm cordiality. Throughout, I thought this was a model for how Christians should interact with one another on areas of important theological difference.

I have to say that I learned a lot from these three papers and the ensuing discussion. But, let me see if I can narrow things down to my most important take-aways.

  1. Final justification. Unquestionably, the biggest take-away for me was Wright’s clarification that he sees final justification as being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” works. Although Wright has always been clear that the works of a Christian are produced by grace through the Spirit, I have always understood him to say that final justification was based on works in a way that made it sound like final justification was not ultimately grounded in the righteousness of Christ alone. By referring to final justification as “in accordance with” works, he makes it clearer that final justification will take our works into account and will be consistent with those works, but that the final justification will ultimately be grounded in God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That clears up what has been a major stumbling block for me in Wright’s system. (In comments on Denny Burk’s blog, Wright argues that this is not a shift on his part, but a clarification of what he has always thought. If so, it would have been nice had he moved earlier to clarify what people have long identified as a major concern in his work.)
  2. Soteriological common ground. The second biggest take-away for me was a clearer understanding that all of these guys are on the same basic page soteriologically. They all agree the you enter into salvation by grace through faith and that final justification is by grace through faith in accordance with the life lived. Although there are significant differences about the specific locus of justification within that soteriological narrative, this discussion helped me understand that the differences are not about salvation itself. That makes a rather significant difference in how one understands the nature of the debate.
  3. The importance of the big picture. Wright has a well-deserved reputation for crafting a compelling “big picture” – i.e. an understanding of the entire biblical narrative the explains each particular part. And, he’s been critiqued for forcing that narrative onto particular passages – massaging and reshaping them until they fit his overall story. But, as Wright rightfully pointed out, we all read Scripture through the lens of some big picture narrative. The only difference is that he is more intentional and explicit about doing so.
  4. The role of Israel in the big picture. I’ve also come to appreciate more why Wright argues so strongly against the role of Israel in traditional Protestant narratives. One of Schreiner’s critiques is that Wright makes too much of Israel’s failure to bless the nations and instead argued that the purpose of Israel was to demonstrate the impossibility of salvation-through-Law. But, in doing so, he basically turned Israel into a universal example – they have no fundamental role of their own in the story of salvation. That seems clearly inadequate to describe the purpose that Israel is actually given in the Bible – God’s people manifesting God’s glory in God’s land as a blessing to everyone everywhere. That they failed in this task must also be considered, but that doesn’t mean that failure was their divinely intended purpose.
  5. The continued exile. I’ve never been sure why so many people argued so vehemently against Wright’s idea that intertestamental and NT data portray Israel as still being in exile even after they’d returned to the land. I’ve always liked this aspect of Wright’s narrative and have long included it in my understanding of the big picture. So, it was very nice to see both Schreiner and Thielman indicate that they were comfortable with this as well. I’d have liked to hear an explanation for why others are critical and what exactly it is that makes them more comfortable with it than others are. But, even without this explanation, it was nice to see consensus on this point. (For more on this and link to a recent paper by Wright on the subject, see this post.)

I’ve learned more than just this from these debates, but those are the issues that have been on my mind the most as I’ve reflected back on the papers. At the same time, though, I still have a few unresolved issues/questions.

  1. Justification and ecclesiology. I’m still not convinced by Wright’s arguments that justification is ultimately about “covenantalness” and ecclesiology. I now have a much clearer understanding of what he means by this, and I’m less troubled by his position. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced. It could be that I’m just too deeply steeped in a traditional understanding, but I simply can’t read Romans 1-4 and come to the same conclusions that Wright does.
  2. Union with Christ. If there’s one theme that I have often felt was insufficiently developed in Wright’s work, it would have to be the idea of union with Christ. And, I can’t say that I heard much in this debate to rectify that problem. I was very pleased to hear Wright expressed exuberant support for Vanhoozer’s recent paper on the importance of incorporation and adoption for understanding justification. Now, I’d like to see Wright make this a more integral part of his overall system.
  3. Imputation. This one sits more as an unresolved question for me. Wright has convinced me that justification is not a part of the law court metaphor that serves as the primary background for understanding justification. But, that doesn’t mean that the idea might not be emphasized elsewhere. Wright had some interesting arguments for how we should understand the idea of righteousness as gift (it’s okay to say that the forensic declaration is a gift, but we shouldn’t picture righteousness as a thing that can be gifted from one person to the next) and what it means to say that “we become the righteousness of God” (we take on Christ’s mission of declaring reconciliation to the world). But, I need to reflect on these arguments a bit more.
  4. Scripture and tradition. One of the bigger ironies in this whole discussion is that the Anglican is the one arguing for the primacy of Scripture against his largely free-church interlocutors. That’s just funny. But, at the same time, I would have liked to see a little more push back on this one. I am firmly committed to the primacy of Scripture in the church. But, I also think that Scripture is best interpreted in community, and this community must include all of those who have gone before. That doesn’t mean that new interpretations of scripture are necessarily excluded, but it does mean that we disagree with tradition carefully and with great trepidation. Although ultimately we’re all on the same page here – Scripture trumps tradition – I would have liked to see more careful, theological discussion of what a proper relationship between the two might be.

The best I can offer as a final conclusion at this point, then, is that Wright has sharpened my thinking in a number of important areas, and I’m far more comfortable with his overall way of thinking than I was before the debates. But, I remain unconvinced on a couple of critical points. However, now that I have come to see that most of the differences are intramural and do not seem to touch on what I would consider to be the core aspects of the Gospel, I’m far more comfortable with his ideas and their overall fit within evangelical Christianity.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a few other good posts on the justification debate.

  • Collin Hansen (this is the best one out there that I’ve seen – other than mine, of course)
  • Denny Burk (mostly just a comment on Wright’s “in accordance with” comment; notable for two comments from Wright on the issue)
  • Justin Taylor (outline of Schreiner’s paper)
  • Dane Ortlund (general reflections on ETS, with several comments on Wright)
  • Mike Wittmer (general reflections)

If you know of any other posts that would be good to include in this roundup, please let me know.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 21, 2010, in Salvation and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 64 Comments.

  1. Mark – Thanks for the link. In my experience resistance to the exile theme and several other features of Wright’s thinking has to do with the feeling that he is giving historical background too much emphasis. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this conflict, which is something like: Wright accuses some evangelicals of reading too much subsequent theology into the text; certain evangelicals accuse Wright of using too much historical background to interpret the text.

    • Rob, thanks for the comment. I’m just surprised that people would critique the exile theme so much since it fits so well into a broader biblical theology of exile as a consequence of sin (e.g., from the Garden, from the land, from God’s presence, etc.). So, I appreciated your summary of the discussion you attended and I’m hoping to take a look at the paper you linked to soon.

  2. Indeed, we need the reality of the Holy Church, under the authority and reality of Holy Scripture. And here the Church is always really catholic & reformed, the via-media. Does Wright’s view of justification that is primarily about ecclesiology and not soteriology fit this? And how can a sinful society..Israel, even though a covenant one, maintain the mission of God without the moral law of God, which always manifests the sinfulness of the people? For this we need the New Covenant! And this is the gift of God through justification & sanctification ‘In Christ’!

  3. Hi Marc

    Thank you for your article. A quick comment from a South African may offer illumination on the “on the basis of” vs “in accordance with” aspect of the debate.

    I have read a number of blogs over the last two years where people have asked, what is the issue here? I have also wondered exactly what the issue was because in South Africa we have to learn both American and British English in order to maintain our own in theological debates. I think a large number of us have been saying, but “on the basis of” in Britain means “in accordance with” in America (largely, I can see someone crawling out of the woodwork to spoil my point).

    I am glad it clears up a lot. This sort of debate, especially around the meaning of words, brings new meaning to the Day of Pentecost and the ability of people to speak different languages and yet be understood. The converging of pathways is a very exciting development for me and I pray they will continue to engage in this constructive manner.

    • Thanks Philip. Wright made a similar comment in his response, pointing out that “on the basis of” is a more flexible phrase than his detractors might think, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that it might be an American/English issue. That’s very interesting. I wonder if this couldn’t serve as an example of the kinds of semantic issues that led to so many debates and miscommunications in earlier theological controversies (e.g., hypostasis).

  4. Thanks for the summary and notes on the sessions. I wish I could have been there.

    • Maybe next year. With the conference being on the correct side of the country finally, maybe will be able to bring a whole ThM contingent down for the conference.

  5. The role of Israel in the big picture.

    Why is this not simply that faithful Jews would be in effect Christians.

    So, any other constructions about their importance as witness and blessing and part of a story are wrong.

    • My comment referred to the role of Israel in the OT. So, to that extent they certainly have a role to play in the big picture of the biblical narrative. What you think of Israel’s role in the NT and following is a separate question.

  6. I also was referring to OT Jews! Who would be in effect Christians (the faithful ones, that is) witnessing, blessing etc as Christians do in the NT. So there would be no big change from OT to NT in that respect. But of course OT Jews were (for Paul) paradigmatically non-Christians sinners (thus not saved people doing Torah from gratitude, as some strands of NP claim).
    Only, of course, Christians in both OT and NT also characteristically sin far too much, and it seems to me Paul implies they would manage to be better, having the Spirit, which I find theologically, and practically, problematic.

    • Okay, I can see where you’re going with that, though I would not be inclined to use the word “Christian” for both OT and NT believers. I don’t really see that you gain that much from it and it’s necessarily going to confuse people. And, while I affirm significant elements of continuity between OT and NT, I also think there are important differences that could get blurred if we’re not careful. I would also disagree strongly about Paul seeing OT Jews as only “paradigmatically non-Christian sinners.” As you can see from my post, I’m not an NPP guy, but I still wouldn’t agree that this is how the Bible portrays OT believers.

  7. I think the only difference between Abraham and present day Christians is that some (but of course not all) of us now have more propositional knowledge than he had. What is gained is that it describes the purpose that faithful Jews are actually given in the Bible – God’s people manifesting God’s glory. Faithful Jews’ role has always been just the same as that Christians have, since they were in effect Christians with a bit less propositional knowledge. That there were also lots of Torah delighting and practising Jews who were not thereby saved was Paul’s sorrow.

  8. @Davey: To say mere propositional knowledge is the difference seems a bit limited to me. In part it is Pneumatological. The Spirit of the New Covenant that will resurrect believers from the dead dwells in believers pre-eschaton which is not something Old Covenant believers experienced. Yes, for Paul, this would result in a fulfilling of the Law that Old Covenant members could not accomplish. That being said, we must not understand the fulfilling of the law to be merely, or even primarily, moral. It is mission as well which is something the Old Covenant people of God did not do well (e.g. the Book of Jonah).

    Also, it is Christological. The Messiah is to be God’s King to rule rightly a world that has been unjustly ruled through Adamic humanity. Although Christians are outwardly Adamic in that our bodies are perishing we are inwardly united with Christ via the Spirit which makes us different from Old Covenant believers who won’t experience this until the resurrection. We get to participate in the proclamation of the Kingdom in a sense the Old Covenant people of God did not.

    It is eschatological in that God has broken into the world through Christ reconciling people, including those of Israel who are faithful, to himself. Israel was/is necessary for God’s plan but the true Israelite, Christ, is the pinnacle of the plan.

  9. Good to have this brought out in the open: Why think that Abraham didn’t have the Spirit, or Old Covenant believers didn’t experience the Spirit? I think he must have had and they did, having faith and being reckoned righteous. Workings of the Spirit have always been various, and Abraham did his particular bit as Christian do their bits now. The extra propositional knowledge (the revelation of the mystery) after the Christ event changed some of the ways God’s people now go about things (as also the Spirit is stimulating different things) than Abraham and Moses et als. But, the Spirit is still blowing where it will for different people and organisations. Christ broke into the world at a point in time, but the effects were prior as well as subsequent. It’s not clear that Israel was necessary as in for example Wright’s tortuous historically developing story supported by poor exegesis (yes, why don’t more people take him on in his micro-exegesis), only that of course there be a people of God (NT Christians and OT in effect Christians), since there being a people of God was the whole object!

  10. @Davey: For Paul the very difference between Old Covenant and New Covenant Christians is the role of the New Covenant Spirit. Sure, the Spirit moved amongst particular Old Covenant personalities, but the New Covenant appears to have democratized something that was once limited to very few. It could be that Abraham is one of those, but I see no reason to suggest this.

    As regards Wright’s exegesis (another, old, boring rhetorical attack by the way) I see the Israel motif strongly in Romans where Paul shows the Jews they are inherently Adamic and that they need Messiah. If a Gentile does the Law then Jewishness means nothing. Of course, when Paul says this, we hear the prophetic promise of the New Covenant to an Israel that was as much part of the problem as it was a solution to it.

    • Brian, I think you are absolutely right that New Covenant is key here. I think we need to be careful to affirm that God’s Spirit was absolutely at work with God’s people from the very beginning. But, I also think we can do that without undermining the important shift that takes place when the Messiah came and brought the New Covenant blessings to his people.

  11. Brian: For Paul the very difference between Old Covenant and New Covenant Christians is the role of the New Covenant Spirit

    I don’t think so. I think Paul was saying that all faithful OT Jews had the Spirit, being already in the New Covenant, and that Jews in the Old Covenant were those without faith, without the Spirit, who wrongly thought that keeping the law was the point (and of course they didn’t manage to keep the law).

  12. @Davey: I see no where in Paul where such a reading makes sense. Paul’s main contrast throughout Romans is Adamic humanity and Christ humanity and in chpt. 8 this is exemplified by the New Covenant Spirit. In Galatians the OC and NC are juxtaposed using language of Law and Spirit! In Ephesians Christians are told that their inner man is already renewed by the Spirit while their outer man waits redemption and this is seen as seemingly a new thing (OC believers will have both renewed at the eschaton in my opinion).

    Paul would have read prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel as saying OC Israel had a heart of stone and that it was not going to be until the “last days” that the Spirit would be “poured out on all flesh”. Oddly enough, Christ, who resurrected from the dead in the middle of time also brought the eschatological Spirit to his people in the middle of time. Paul sees this Spirit as being given to NC members prior to the expected time. It is a down payment, a portion of inheritance, etc.

    Paul, as well as Luke, see something very significantly different between OC and NC. This is not to say that the Spirit did not move amongst OC believers, or even that some OC members, and pre-OC members, experienced the Spirit in a similar way. It is to say that it was not democratized like it is in the NC. It is to say that the life-resurrecting element was not something all covenant members were to expect before the eschaton. It is to say that the charismatic empowerment seen in Luke-Acts as common place was something that only a few like Moses, David, and some of the prophets were expected to experience.

  13. @Brian. I don’t see how anything else but what I wrote makes sense! Where Paul says Jews in the OC didn’t have the Spirit and were Adamic, he is referring to those without faith (and the OT prophets are referring to hearts of stone in the unfaithful, not the faithful). Jews in the OT who were faithful, though they were positionally in time also of the OC, were actually of the NC and did have the Spirit. That Christians are said to receive the Spirit, and it seemingly being a new thing not applicable to the ordinary faithful OT Jews, is more like it is just a particular movement of the Spirit after the Christ event (and its associated revelation of extra propositional knowledge about what God is doing), but actually old hat (similarly the Spirit being said to be poured out on all flesh). All OC believers had the Spirit in their lifetimes, they didn’t have to wait till the eschaton. How else could they have had faith except they had the Spirit? Paul saw the Spirit being given to Christians not just as a bonus before time, but as being essential or else a person is not in Christ and cannot please God. I have long been frustrated that whatever N.T. Wright thinks on these matters he has never expounded.

  14. @Davey:

    In contrast with the reading of Paul that I am presenting it seems to me that this whole thing is built on silence. Rather than seeing the prophets critiquing Israel you see them critiquing only apostate Israel. This seems to me to be a bit beyond the text where the prophets lambaste Israel as a whole. Internally the prophets do not seem to indicate that there are some who have what everyone should anticipate “in the last days”.

    While I understand the theological motivation for this, being that even Paul himself connects the Spirit with belief, there seems to me to be easier solutions. Yes, the Spirit must activate belief but that doesn’t mean the Spirit moving people to believe is essentially the same thing as the Spirit’s indwelling in NC members. We are not forced into the either-or you are presenting here: Either OC members had the Spirit like NC members or they couldn’t have had faith.

    Rather, it seems to me, and to Pauline and Lukan approaches to the subject, that there is a categorical difference between how OC and NC members experienced the Spirit. The Spirit led OC believers to faith, sure, but it did not fill them.

    For Pauline and Johannine Pneumatology the Spirit is connected to the risen Christ. It is not possible for people to receive the Spirit like it is received in the NC until Christ’s death and resurrection. John uses the imagery of Christ breathing on the disciples saying “receive the Holy Spirit”. Luke has the Spirit falling only after the ascention. Paul, in 1 Cor 15, see Jesus as the first human fully united with the Spirit so that he can give the Spirit to others. This is not something, prior to the resurrection, that John, Luke, or Paul seem to have understood to be available.

  15. @Brian. I appreciate your attempts to explain how it is you hold the views you do on these matters. But, I continue to disagree, and I am not building on silence. Your reading of the prophets admonishing all Israel seems to me a mistaken way to read such rhetoric, plus of course in their times they didn’t have the fuller picture that came later (eg they didn’t see the Gentiles coming in in the way they did, or the land of Israel only being part of the inheritance which stretched to the cosmos).

    Jesus admonished Nicodemus as a teacher of Israel for not
    understanding one had to be born of the Spirit, and I reckon Paul everywhere says and implies only those with the Spirit are saved.

    The Spirit was made available by Christ, but its availability was
    not restricted to the time after the resurrection (as other benefits were not restricted to times after).

  16. The NT writings attest various times when the Spirit was given (as you recognise), apparently depending on the theological or practical points the writers wanted to make.

    (Sorry for the extra bit, which got cut off in cutting and pasting.)

  17. @Davey: Fair enough, I don’t mind agreeing to disagree. I understand the dilemma that you are trying to address but I think you minimize a fairly unanimous proclamation that something very different has occurred post-resurrection as it relates to the Spirit and the people of God.

  18. @Brian. Thanks for the exchanges. The ‘unanimous proclamation that something very different has occurred post-resurrection’, do you mean in the writings of the NT, or might you be able to give me some indication of modern authors who say things explicitly about the something very different being that all faithful OT Jews did not have the Spirit, whereas all NT Christians do?

  19. @Davey: I am referring to the NT canonical examples cited from GofJohn, Luke-Acts, Paul.

  20. @Fr Robert. I don’t see 2 Cor. chapter 3 as going against the ideas I’ve expressed.

  21. Btw (if I may), since I have been reading Pascal’s Pensees today, let me quote this…”All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling.” I thought this an interesting insight. There is no one quite like Blaise Pascal!

  22. @Brian. Thanks, but as all texts referred to in our exchanges, these don’t seem to me to go against the ideas I’ve expressed!

  23. @Davey: While I was thinking on this I wondered to myself what passages we are talking about that relate faith to the Spirit. I know one cannot call Jesus Lord except by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.3), but where are we speaking from connecting faith to the Spirit.

    I obviously agree with you on this premise since we’ve shared it during this exchange, but I am failing to know why. From where are we getting this idea?

  24. I suppose something like because faith is saving, and to be saved you need the Spirit.

  25. @Davey: That is where I am working from as well, but why are we working from that premise? What Scriptural principles are we applying? What passages are influencing this?

  26. @Brian. Aren’t these things all over the place!

    @irishanglican. I find many of your postings hard to catch on to, partly I suppose because of their brevity. What’s ‘Pentecostal’ to do with things?
    ‘yet to save’, what do you mean?
    I’m not Arminian.
    And it’s davey, not Dave!

  27. @Davey: As I think about it that is what I have assumed, but now a single reference fails to come to memory.

  28. Brian and Davey: This has been an interesting discussion to read through. I’m sorry I wasn’t around more today to participate.

    I’d be inclined to think that need to be careful on both sides. On the one hand, I would definitely agree with Davey that God’s Spirit has been living and active from the beginning, working with God’s people, and drawing them toward relationship with him. Many Protestants have tended at times to de-emphasize the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament. (At the same time, I think we need to recognize that much of this is an argument from inference, which is a better description than saying it’s an argument from “silence” – rather than direct biblical data. For instance, many affirm that OT believers were “regenerate” – i.e. given new natures through the indwelling of the Spirit. And, there is something to the argument. But, we do need to recognize that the Bible never says this. So, the best we can do is argue from the fact that OT believers had faith, loved God, etc., and conclude from this that they were indwelt by the Spirit.)

    On the other hand, I would still want to affirm the fundamental significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection along with Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit. These are the events that surround the inauguration of the New Covenant, and they are the events (along with final consummation of the Kingdom) that comprised the hope of all faithful OT believers. And, it does not seem to me that these were merely things that OT believers hoped for other Israelites to receives, as though they already had them. To say that OT believers were already experiencing all that the New Covenant had to offer seems to be the same mistake that some make when saying that NT believers already experience all the blessings of the eschatological Kingdom. In both cases there were anticipations of the blessings, but without full realization.

  29. @Marc. Thanks for that judicious summation. I obviously go for OT believers being regenerate. That there was a special change after Jesus I put down to it being just that – a ‘special’ initiative of God’s with more explicit information and new activity, but not new in the sense of the first giving of the Spirit to enable the things Paul speaks of in Romans 8, for example.

    ‘To say that OT believers were already experiencing all that the New Covenant had to offer seems to be (a) mistake’. Well, all NT believers don’t experience everything they might! And God is initiating different activities among sections of Christendom now all the time. What, besides not having more explicit knowledge about the means and extent of salvation (eg Jesus’ death and resurrection, Gentiles included, inheritance of the cosmos) were the OT believers missing exactly? Would their lives be much different in practice?

    So, I think the ‘inuguration’ of the New Covenant was an ontological (or something like that!) inauguration, not a temporal (from that time forward) inauguration. Abraham was just as ‘ontologically’, and in his practical living, near to salvation as Christians now. Abraham was not just an example of faith for Paul because Abraham was the first of the explicit presence in the world of an identified people of God, so N.T. Wright is correct about that, but Wright goes wrong where he thinks Abraham is the beginning of NPP boundary marker story theology.

    The point of these posts from the first was to understand ‘The role of Israel in the big picture’ (especially in my case, in criticism of the NPP). I think the differences between faithful and non-faithful Jews are generally not taken into account adequately. So, I reckon from Abraham onwards the faithful Jews are the presence in the world of a people of God (in effect the presence in the world of Christians, continuing through Jesus to explicit Christians) that was the purpose of God re humanity from Adam. These believing Jews still needed the same admonitions to be better that Christians after Jesus need! But, the non-faithful Jews (however it might be some even delighted in the law and tried to keep it) were not pleasing to God. These are the Jews Paul mostly talks about (and why I referred in an earlier post to what was ‘paradigmatic’ about Jews for Paul), because he is importantly identifying trying to keep the law as not in itself salvific, indeed not as making one a member of the true people of God. The reason being, not as in NPP that it is the wrong sociological boundary marker, but because it doesn’t deal with sin, it only identifies it (eg Romans seems to me to be all about law and what it can and can’t do in relation to sin versus faith and what that can do, not about Torah versus faith in some sociological sense. I’ll also mention eg Galatians 2 doesn’t seem to me to be about sociology, either. I find N.T. Wright’s micro-exegesis here and elsewhere quite inadequate.).

    @irishanglican. ok!.

  30. I’ve been trying. but I can’t resist juming in to this very interesting conversation with at least a couple of points 🙂

    1) I think that it is a categorical mistake to say that OT saints were partakers in the regeneration in the same sense that the NT saints are, because the term is all wrapped up with Jesus and the establishment of the New Covenant in His death and ressurection. Technically, the regeneration (or new Genesis) is something that begins with Jesus (the second Adam), so, since the OT saints were alive prior to these events, they could not have participated in them, at least not in the way that the NT speaks of the events. To say that OT saints were partakers of the New Covenant is to ignore the historical narrative altogether.

    2) We could say I guess, that the nation of Israel as a whole was supposed to spark of and be the regeneration, but failed in their elect purpose. But, in using this more scriptural language, it would be totally wrong to claim that the “true believers” within Israel were regenerate, but the rest were not. This would be the equivilent of saying that that the life, death and ressurection of Jesus was unnecessary (at least for them). It is precicely because Israel failed in her calling to be God’s new creation that the door was opened for Jesus to fulfill this calling on her (and the world’s) behalf. In other words, if the OT saints were regenerate, then the death of Jesus has been nullified.

    3) In Paul, there are 2 reasons why the law cannot save. First, because the coming of Jesus has made it obsolete. Second, because it inherantly divides Jew and Gentile, those dividng markers being what becomes obsolete at the coming of “faith” of Jesus. To say that the law is not “salvific” is misleading. It is not (as Luther said) salvific in the sense that one would ever be able to earn his own salvation, but that is not what Paul is talking about 🙂 Actually, OT saints were saved by being united to God through the covenant, and had forgiveness of sins on account of God’s provision of the sacrificial system. The great thing about Christ is that He is the once for all sacrifice, making the temple system worthless.

    4) I do think that the Spirit of God was at work in the OT, but I also think that we need to be careful to maintain the narrative structure of the scriptures. Regeneration as a topic cannot fit within the reformed box because, actually, though there is a sense in which the Israelites were called to be (as a nation) the regeneration, they failed, so their regeneration became un-regeneration.

    This will probably be confusing, but like NTW, it loses something if the language is not polemical 🙂

  31. Well, it sounds like we’ve reached that point where everyone understands what the other people are saying, but we still have some pretty significant differences. I’d agree with Davey that we often downplay the everyday experiences of OT believers, suggesting that they were somehow sub-believers because they lacked the Spirit. But, I’m very much in agreement with Brian that our language should be governed by the history of God’s work with his people. So, I would not refer to OT believers as already the New Covenant or as Christians. And, I think we’ll have to continue differing on whether cross/resurrection/ascension/Pentecost had temporal implications (i.e. something changed from that point on). I think we can all agree that they had transtemporal implications (i.e. OT believers were still saved through the work of Christ), but I would not say that all of the implications worked this way.

    But, to go back to Davey’s point about the role of Israel (and, thanks for reminding us what this discussion was supposed to be about in the first place), while I think that it’s important to recognize that there were both faithful and unfaithful Israelites, I think it’s also important to remember that both were “people of God.” The whole story pivots on the fact that God remains faithful to them as his people despite their continued rejection and rebellion. So, when we’re talking about the story of God’s people in the OT, we’re not just talking about the faithful ones.

  32. @Marc Cortez

    ‘It sounds like we’ve reached that point where everyone understands what the other people are saying’

    I reckon not!

    ‘our language should be governed by the history of God’s work with his people. So, I would not refer to OT believers as already the New Covenant or as Christians’

    If you think the use of the terms linguistically might be confusing, ok, but as to the ideas about what was ‘ontologically’ the case, I think it is a spot on use of the terms New Covenant and Christians, true to the scriptures.

    ‘I would not say that all of the implications worked (from that point on).’

    Well, which didn’t?!

    ‘there were both faithful and unfaithful Israelites, I think it’s also important to remember that both were “people of God.” The whole story pivots on the fact that God remains faithful to them as his people despite their continued rejection and rebellion. So, when we’re talking about the story of God’s people in the OT, we’re not just talking about the faithful ones.

    Both were not people of God in the same sense, so we are not talking about God’s story about them in the same sense. The faithful certainly sinned, but did not reject or rebel, and the unfaithful rejected and rebelled even as they performed the works. God faithfully gave both faithful and unfaithful Jews some temporal benefits to a degree as he promised, and continued pleading to the unfaithful to repent, but that’s only what he has done always with all humanity (though granted perhaps less explicitly).

    @Brian MacArevey

    ‘1 To say that OT saints were partakers of the New Covenant is to ignore the historical narrative altogether’

    I think it is to take it seriously, giving it more than a superficial reading.

    ‘2 It is precisely because Israel failed in her calling to be God’s new creation that the door was opened for Jesus to fulfill this calling on her (and the world’s) behalf. In other words, if the OT saints were regenerate, then the death of Jesus has been nullified.’

    Jesus, not Israel, was called to effect salvation, and only he could do it. So, Israel didn’t fail in a task it was never set, and couldn’t indeed have ever been expected to have succeeded at. The OT believers were saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    ‘OT saints were saved by being united to God through the covenant, and had forgiveness of sins on account of God’s provision of the sacrificial system’

    OT Jews were saved in having faith. Forgiveness of sins could not be effected by the sacrificial system.

    ‘3 In Paul, there are 2 reasons why the law cannot save. First, because the coming of Jesus has made it obsolete. Second, because it inherantly divides Jew and Gentile, those dividng markers being what becomes obsolete at the coming of “faith” of Jesus.’

    In Paul, the law cannot save because people can’t keep it. The other things were dreamed up by NPP.

    ‘4 though there is a sense in which the Israelites were called to be (as a nation) the regeneration, they failed, so their regeneration became un-regeneration’

    Only the unregenerate Jews failed to be regenerate (unless they repented and believed)! The regenerate Jews remained regenerate. Nobody became unregenerate.

    • Dave, don’t mistake disagreement for misunderstanding. It is entirely possible for me to understand perfectly well what you’re saying, and still disagree with that. That seems to be the situation that we’re in now. And, I’m okay with that. I’m not in agreement that this is the best way to speak of OT believers (even ontologically) and would need considerable convincing otherwise. I still think there are important differences between OT and NT believers (e.g., how God is present with his people, distribution of gifts among his people, priesthood of all believers, etc.), though I do affirm more continuity than some of my baptistic brethren tend to. And, although I think you can and should distinguish between faithful and unfaithful Israel, they are both “people of God” in the OT. I don’t see any way that you speak of unfaithful Israel as not being the people of God, at least not up until the very end of the story (e.g., Hosea – and even there we have a promise that they will again be God’s people). So, I think we’re just on very different pages and will probably need to be content with that.

  33. @Mark, thanks again for that. I was actually thinking of others rather than yourself when I said I reckon not! Blog space doesn’t allow proper argumentation rather than assertion of differences. ‘how God is present with his people, distribution of gifts among his people, priesthood of all believers’ do not seem to me to distinguish OT and NT believers. Our disagreement about who ‘People of God’ identifies might be also over what Romans 11.26 comes to, where I reckon I agree with N.T. Wright that ‘all Israel’ is spiritual Israel. Ethnic Israel is now just one of the nations, no more ‘beloved’ or privileged than any other.

    • Davey

      Supercessionism is does not hermeneutically express or fulfill the covenant/covenants to my mind. If God does not keep His covenant promises to literal Israel, how do we know or see that He will keep ours as Gentiles? Rom. 9-11 / 1 Cor. 10:32

  34. I suppose we have to be careful in trying to figure out what God might have promised. Paul and other scripture writers are poor at explaining what they mean.

    • @Davey,

      Just to clarify, Paul isn’t “poor” at explaining what he means; instead he assumes that his audience knows what he means (theologically) as he speaks into ‘their’ particular situations (i.e. given the occasional nature of the “Text”).

      Also, the problem isn’t that Paul is “poor” at explaining; but most probable, that “we” are ‘poor’ at interpreting. Lets place the blame where it rightly belongs 😉 .


  35. God promised the power of salvation to everyone who believes (trusts in God in Christ), to the Jew first and also the Greek or Gentile. (Rom. 1:16)

    “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17)

    We can trust God for His covenant of grace & glory – Heb. 13:20-21…Covenant Benediction! And it is both Jew & Gentile together, but still both or each together. (Eph. 2:12-15)

  36. @Bobby. Peter says Paul is difficult. But, read Paul (and others) and look at what other commentators have made of it. There are plenty of places where it is difficult to make out what is meant, and I still feel much of it is the writers’ fault. I don’t mean that everything is, or the most important bit about God saving people! (But, for example, who but Paul, even including clever contemporaries of his, could possibly know clearly and definitively what he means in Romans 7.)

    As for the place of Israel, there is reinterpretation by Paul of what was promised Israel in the OT, and much diversity among commentators about what it comes to. It looks to me like ‘all Israel’ (Romans 11.26) is most cogently taken as spiritual Israel, and the salvation of Jews being like that of Gentiles, by conversion. Or else there are a number of different ‘all Israel’s for consideration, and even perhaps different ways of being saved. Is it every Israelite there ever was, a particular generation … and what about the difference between faithful and unfaithful Jews, what of the idea of the remnant, and ‘not all Israel are Israel’.

  37. @Davey,

    I’m not really concerned with going back and forth with you around Israel and the Church. My only point to you, and it still stands, is not that Paul communicated “poorly” (as you say — which is not what Peter said); but that you and I have problems interpreting him, as we do all of Scripture (which is what Peter said). Put the onus where it belongs, that’s my point to you!

    The Reformers had a nice little point on this called the “inner and outer clarity” of Scripture. Again, the point isn’t that Scripture communicates poorly; but instead that because of the noetic effects of the Fall, we see through a “glass dimly.” All I’m challenging you to be is a bit more careful in how you communicate; what you said about “poorly” is just plain ole’ sloppy and ‘poor’ communication on your part.

    All of your points on interpreting Paul (and the fragmentation therein) finds its referent in the interpreters; your only illustrating my point on this, it’s not Paul who communicates “poorly” its the interpreters problem. I am challenging you to communicate less ‘poorly’ in regards to how you frame Scripture . . . in other words, don’t impose your inadequacies of interpretation on the APOSTLE Paul; as if he was a poor communicator.

    I also wonder about your view of Inspiration, it seems rather weak or “Liberal,” take your pick; in all honesty that’s what really is irking me about what you said in regards to Paul’s communication.

  38. Indeed Peter said: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Pet. 3:18) To my mind both Peter and Paul speak of this simple but profound ‘unmerited favor’ (grace) that is in the “knowledge” of Christ “Himself”. Always Christ who is “grace”, “knowledge”, “Lord” and “Savior” to the everlasting day…”eternity”!

  39. @Bobby. Thanks for your concern.

    I think there are many places where it does look like Paul has not phrased his communications in a way that would be clear to even his contemporaries.

    As for inspiration. I think this comes through the human author, and God lets the author’s limitations stand.

  40. If we are left to the mere wisdom of the human author in Scripture, we are in most definite trouble! As St. Paul says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitable.” (1 Cor. 15:19) Of course here Paul’s vocus is on the Resurrection. But when we look at the NT writings themselves, we have both the human authors, but also the ‘Word & Spirit’ of God Himself! (1 Cor. 2, note verses 6-16 especially). It is here that we need ‘the Church’ also (Acts 2:42).

    We don’t want a Human Rationalism alone. That rationalistic spirit which is called ‘Liberalism’ which will always remain the deadliest of all enemies to the Faith!

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