Blog Archives

NT Wright at ETS (part 1)

I’m on my way back from Atlanta and probably won’t be able to offer a full summary of N.T. Wright’s paper, along with the responses by Schreiner and Thielman, until tomorrow. Nonetheless, I thought I’d offer a couple of quick impressions to get things started.

  1. Free advice: If you ever have the opportunity to debate N.T. Wright, don’t. He’s probably smarter than  you and he’s almost certainly funnier than you.
  2. The dialog was remarkably cordial and complimentary. Even Wright and Schreiner who remain the furthest apart of the three demonstrated a high degree of respect and charity. It would be great if every theological exchange manifested the same Christian virtues.
  3. It was nice to see all three panelists affirm how much common ground they share. More clearly that I’ve seen before, all three recognized that far more unites than separates them.
  4. I’m still frustrated by a lack of clarity and consistency in how some terms are used and defined. But it seems like we’re getting closer.
  5. I would have liked to see more direct interaction with specific biblical texts. They started to get there toward the end with some interesting exchanges on 2 Cor 5, Rom 4, and Rom 10. And, I thought these exchanges were the most helpful for really getting a sense of where they differ and why it matters.

Frank Thielman on the “Righteousness of God” (ETS plenary)

Following Tom Schreiner’s critical interaction with N.T. Wright, Frank Thielman offered his own contribution to the justification discussion, “God’s Righteousness as God’s Fairness in Romans: The Oldest Perspective on Paul.” And, Thielman’s paper focused almost exclusively on the question of what the “righteousness of God” means in Romans 1:17. According to Thielman, we need to take another look at one of the oldest interpretations around – the idea that God’s “righteousness” refers to the fact that he offers salvation to everyone without impartiality.

Thielman began by arguing that “righteousness of God” (RoG through the rest of this post) is a polyvalent phrase – a phrase that is intended to be dense and not fully understood on a first hearing. Instead polyvalent phrases are loaded with meaning that the author unpacks through subsequent analysis. The rest of his argument unfolds as an attempt to defend this thesis and to contend that “impartiality” deserves an important place in the polyvalent meaning of the “righteousness of God.”

Thielman notes that RoG has historically been understood in three main ways:

  1. An attribute of God
  2. Gods saving activity
  3. the gift of God’s righteousness

Thielman spent a fair amount of time explaining the historical interpretation of RoG.

  1. The Church started out viewing RoG as an attribute of God (i.e. God’s perfect holiness as the standard against which he judges imperfect humans).
  2. A decided shift took place at the Reformation so that everyone came to see it as the gift of God’s grace to his people (despite continued disagreements as to how/why the gift is given). Luther was key here in recognizing the difficulties in seeing RoG as an attribute of God against which humans necessarily fail to measure up.
  3. Another shift happens in the 20th century with the rise of the idea that RoG refers to the saving power of God. People like Kasemann, Schlatter, and Fitzmeyer argued strongly that RoG needs to be understood against the OT background where God’s righteousness often refers to his faithful response to the needs of his people (e.g. Ps. 98:2-3; Isa 51:5).

So, as we reach the modern era, there are really only two options left for understanding RoG: a gift of God’s grace and the saving action of God, though many argue that we need to affirm both. But, Thielman argues that we need to consider again the first option as a viable aspect of RoG’s meaning for Paul.

Thielman argues that if we want to understand RoG, we need to consider how it would have been heard by the original readers of Paul’s letter. He fully acknowledges that Paul himself would have understood the phrase in its OT context. But, he also contends that Paul would have known his readers and the Greco-Roman background against which they would have heard a phrase like this. So, he argues that we need to pay close attention to this context if we are to hear this phrase properly. And, to set the stage for such a hearing, he points to two sources:

  1. Origen’s commentary on Romans is our oldest extant commentary on Paul’s epistle. So, Thielman contends that it should be an important source for understanding RoG. And, according to Thielman, Origen clearly views RoG in Romans 1:17 as referring to an attribute of God – his impartiality in dealing with humanity.  Looking at the broader context of Romans 1-3, Origen sees RoG as emphasizing that God deals with all people the same, regardless of ethnic or social background. So, according to Origen, righteousness = impartiality (at least in Romans 1:17).
  2. Thielman then provides supporting evidence for the idea that righteousness equals impartiality by showing how the two terms were used in close conjunction in the coinage of the day. Given that such coins would have been used broadly by the common person, they probably reflect the way that the average person would have thought about those terms. So, cultural data also suggests that righteousness = impartiality. And, he also argues that this should not be understood in the sense of “distributive justice” (i.e. everybody gets what they deserve, both positive and negative). Instead, he contends that the idea was primarily positive – i.e. a ruler is “righteous” in the sense that he distributes his gifts fairly to all people.

So, Thielman contends that the popular idiom of the day would have understood “righteousness” to mean the impartial or fair treatment of people. Given that this is how the average person would have naturally heard RoG, Thielman contends that this must serve as part of our interpretive matrix for understanding what Paul meant by it in Rom 1:17.

In the final part of the paper, Thielman returns to the notion that RoG is a polyvalent term. He is not trying to suggest that impartiality is the only appropriate way to understand RoG, only that it is an important part. His real argument is that RoG must be understood through from all three perspectives: an attribute of God (impartiality), a gift of God, and the saving act of God. He thinks that there is good evidence from the text supporting all three perspectives and that Paul could well have expected his readers to elicit all three meanings from this phrase. He recognizes that some will object to the notion that Paul would switch suddenly from one meaning of a term to another in the same context with little or no warning (i.e. righteousness as impartiality in 1:17 and righteousness and gift or saving action in 1:18), but he contends that Paul obviously does this very thing in Romans 3:26. And, he responds to the objection that Paul would not have tried to pack so much meaning into one, short phrase by contending that this was accepted practice in written material at the time. People expected to find polyvalent words and phrases with a depth of meaning that required careful unpacking.

So, at the end of the paper, Thielman argues that RoG in Romans 1:17 essentially means all three things. It is a complex expression that cannot be reduced to any one perspective.

From my perspective, Thielman’s paper was interesting, but not ground-breaking. It was interesting to reflect on the idea that impartiality might be essential to the definition of RoG itself. I have always seen impartiality as an important part of Rom 1-3 (how could you not?), but I had never considered it to be part of RoG’s actual meaning, viewing it instead as a description of how RoG is expressed. So, that aspect of the paper was fascinating.

The most disappointing part of the paper, though, was that I don’t think it is going to add much to the justification debate itself. Thielman’s perspective has the advantage of allowing people to see the sociological aspect of justification (God’s impartiality toward all people regardless of social and/or ethnic distinction has clear sociological implications). So, to that extent his proposal moves toward Wright’s perspective. But, his clear emphasis that justification also refers to a gift given (i.e. imputed) to us through Christ is clearly something that Wright would not affirm. And, Thielman does little to interact with this side of RoG’s meaning.

So, at the end of the paper, I was left with an interesting perspective on RoG I had not considered before, but not one that seemed to shed much new light on the nature of the justification debate itself.


Tom Schreiner on NT Wright (ETS plenary)

Last night at the Evangelical Theological Society, Tom Schreiner presented the first plenary session address with a paper titled, “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” in which Schreiner critically interacted with the position of N. T. Wright.

Like most such papers, Schreiner began with a few words of appreciation for Wright’s work. (I call this the “I’m going to say mean things about you later, but I still think you’re a nice person” part of the paper.) Specifically Schreiner noted:

  • his creative work on the historical Jesus
  • his strong emphasis on the unity of Scripture
  • the “exile” theme in Wright’s work
  • and some aspects even of his NPP and justification work (e.g. the significance of the Jew/Gentile issue in the NT, the need to keep the “big story” in mind and how easy it is to lose the thread, the clear presentation of forensic justification, and the idea that good works are necessary for justification and salvation (though he’ll go on to emphasize differences here as well).

But, the bulk of Schreiner’s paper focused on areas of concern that he has with Wright’s work. And, he started things off by arguing that he thinks Wright has a marked tendency to focus on the wrong things.  He likes the fact that Wright often tries to operate with both/and categories rather than either/or, but he thinks that Wright regularly emphasizes the wrong aspect of the both/and, making primary what is only secondary (though still important) in the NT itself. He then goes on to offer three such problematic polarities.

  1. Wright wrongly claims that justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology and not soteriology.
  2. Wright often introduces false polarity when referring to mission of Israel when saying that Israel’s fundamental problem was failure to bless the nations and not Israel’s inherent need for salvation.
  3. Wright Insists justification is a declaration of righteousness, but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

Overall, Schreiner’s paper was well presented and charitable, while still clearly identifying several points of contention in Wright’s work. I particularly appreciated several of Schreiner’s arguments.

  1. The precise definitions of “faith of Christ” and “works of law” are secondary issues in this debate. They’re both important in that they express how justification does and does not work, but neither helps us understand the nature of justification itself.
  2. I liked his argument that Galatians 2 does deal with sociological and ecclesiological issues (in agreement with Wright), but that its location in Paul’s argument is primarily soteriological. (I think that’s because Paul would not exclude ecclesiology from soteriology.)
  3. Schreiner also did a good job responding to Wright’s contention that imputation is not a part of the law court background  of the justification language. Instead, he pointed out that the reality of God’s saving work transcends the law court analogy, as God transcends all analogies, and that the good news is precisely that God does more than our human experiences would lead us to expect.
  4. I thought Schreiner could have gone further here, but he also pointed out the importance of “union with Christ” for understanding justification properly. (Maybe someone who knows Wright better than I do can tell us what Wright does with the “in Christ” idea in the NT.)

There were several other things about Schreiner’s paper that I was less happy with.

  1. Unclear use of terms. This has driven me crazy through the entire debate. How hard can it be to define a term and then use it consistently with regard to that definition? Yet, most of the people involved in the debate seem to struggle with precisely this. The clearest example in Schreiner’s paper was with the term “salvation.” He made it very clear at the beginning of the paper that salvation was a broad term that encompassed more than just entering into salvation. But, when he used the term later in the paper to critique Wright, he consistently used it in this more limited sense. For example, he argued at one point that Paul routinely uses the term “justification” in close connection to the term “salvation” and other salvific ideas. Therefore, justification is about salvation. But, unless I’m missing something, no one disagrees with that. The question is which aspect of salvation does justification relate to?
  2. It sounded like Schreiner created his own false polarity in discussing Israel’s problem in the OT. He argued that idolatry/sinfulness was the real problem as opposed to Israel’s failure to bless the nations. But, I see those as nearly inseparable in the OT. The whole story begins with God creating human persons as his image bearers who would tend creation and manifest his glorious presence everywhere. Thus, the creational purpose was for the people to glorify God by being a blessing everywhere. They are inseparable. And, this inseparability is reinforced in the fall as human rebellion (idolatry) leads to curse for creation, in the Abrahamic promise (the reiteration of God’s plan to have  people who would be a blessing everywhere), and throughout the rest of the OT. These two themes simply cannot be separated if we’re going to understand the OT narrative adequately.
  3. Similarly, I think Schreiner missteps when he says that the main point of the Israel narrative is to convey the impossibility of law-keeping. While that is certainly part of the story, I see the main theme as God’s faithfulness to his plans, purposes, and people. This is probably a both/and, but one in which I think Schreiner has placed primary emphasis on the wrong aspect.

Overall, this was an interesting contribution to the NPP debate, but one that I think still demonstrated some of the unclarity and lack of precise definition that has haunted the debate from the beginning. And, although I appreciated a number of Schreiner’s arguments, there were a few that I thought could have been nuanced in importantly different ways. But, what do I know? I’m a theologian and everybody knows that we don’t really read our Bibles anyway.


Luther’s great discovery – the sweetness of God’s justice

Today is Martin Luther’s 527th birthday (Nov 10, 1483). I don’t keep that many candles in my office, so I thought I’d recognize his birthday by posting his description of how he came to discover the true meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans. As he tells the story toward the end of his life, this was the pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Gospel and the grace of God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.

From the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545).

Flotsam and jetsam (8/28)

Some good links for your Saturday reading pleasure:

  • Sharon Baker explains why she thinks we need to seriously rethink our understanding of hell.
  • Carl Trueman wraps up his reflections on Luther’s writings against the Jews by reflecting on what we can learn from all of this today.
  • Peter Leithart discusses the shame/guilt dichotomy and summarizes Douglas Cairns’ argument that the classical external/internal framework usually used to understand shame and guilt simply does not hold up to scrutiny – unless you understand it as a political move to make the private spirituality of the Enlightenment look superior.
  • Jonathan links to some free book giveaways. You can pick up books on biblical theology, leadership, and apologetics.
  • Boyd Morrison has some good thoughts on the decision of whether to self-publish.
  • Steve Holmes discusses the New Perspective, arguing that the criticism that the Protestant tradition has prioritized justification over union with Christ is wrong. Instead, he suggests that union with Christ has been central (at least to Reformed theology) from the very beginning.
  • Fred Sanders has an outstanding reflection on the passing of Donald Bloesch. This is a must read if you want to understand who Bloesch was and why he’s important.
  • And,  if you’re a Star Trek TNG fan, you should check out this casting memo discussing actors originally considered for key roles. Wesley Snipes as Geordi? What, is there a terrorist on the Enterprise somewhere?

Flotsam and jetsam (6/13)

  • Peter Leithart posts a brief comment on “the prophethood of all believers.” He didn’t address the question of prophecy being a gift that seems limited to particular individuals in the NT, but the post was still thought provoking.
  • Tyndale House has a nice resource page of Bible study software (free and commercial) that you should keep an eye one. (HT Andreas Köstenberger)
  • Mike Bird finds both old and new perspectives in the Epistle to Diognetus. I’m not sure that he’s actually found the “missing link” between the two camps, but it was interesting to see the interweaving of soteriological and ecclesiological concerns like this.
  • Jeremy Pierce suggests that the predominance of son/slave language in the NT can be connected to the Father/Lord – i.e. we relate to the Father as Sons and to the Lord Jesus as slaves.
  • And, as of a few minutes ago, Slovenia is now on top of Group C at the World Cup.

Wright Comes out Swinging!

I’ve been interested in the debate that Wright and Piper have been engaging in over the “New Perspective” (or at least Wright’s version of it).  After reading Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I thought it was only fair to read Wright’s response called Justification. In this book Wright reminded me of Mike Tyson in the infamous Evander Holyfield fight with that whole “ear incident.”  What has been one of the most highly charged polemical books I have read in a long time, Wright simply comes out swinging.  Not because he thinks he is losing, but because for nine rounds he feels as if he has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, misquoted, and misrepresented.  I cannot blame him for coming out and defending his name, and more importantly, his orthodoxy and love for the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of saving faith sinful humanity has to go to find redemption.  The book is well written, and I would contend, the clearest presentation of what Wright has been trying to say.  That being said, I still find his argumentation unconvincing.

He begins by typecasting himself as the loyal friend who is attempting to explain to another that the sun does not revolve around the earth.  He likens adherents of the “old perspective” to those that would rather cling to tradition that to undertake a “fresh” reading of Paul that might jostle the cart of Pauline theological assumptions that have been held since the reformation.  He asserts that those who are attacking him are simply not listening to what he, or for that matter Paul, are saying.  He also likens himself to Luther and Calvin who, against the ecclesiological norm of their day, bucked the system in order to render a right reading of Scripture.  He is surprised to find so many in the reformed tradition taking him to task for the doing the very thing that their heroes did five-hundred years ago.  He goes on to say that the theological framework in which Paul has been interpreted is simply not sufficient.  There is too much emphasis placed on individual redemption and not the redemption of the world.  There is almost no talk of the Spirit’s role in many present concept of justification.  Most importantly for Wright, theologians and pastors are not reading Paul correctly because of a bias that will not fit with their preconceived notions of the law, justification, and Judaism.  He argues that if we silence what Paul actually said so that we can feel better about our theological conclusions, we are silencing Scripture and missing out on the beauty of God’s word.

He goes on to defend several of his assertions.  First, Wright corrects a misunderstanding of Judaism and the law.  He claims that the law was never the means by which people got saved.  For Wright, the Jews were never asking this question.  The more important question in the Jewish community was, “How do we know who is part of the covenant community of Abraham?”  The law provided certain boundary markers to tell who was in the covenant community.  This means that we have mischaracterized the Judaism of Paul’s day.  He also speaks of justification, as the “status” given that one is right standing with God, and a member of God’s covenant family.  Here Wright speaks of the law-court setting in which the declaration of the Judge in favor of the plaintiff only gives a status, not the actual substance of righteousness.   There is no change in the moral character of the one who is justified by God.  This is one of the main points in Wright’s argument for which he attempts to defend exegetically in the second part of his book.  The question that Wright never answers, however, is whether or not believers ever actually get righteousness, or just a status?  If we do actually get righteousness, where does it come from?  His silence may be his answer.  However, Wright never addresses this in his book, but simply says that imputation is not to be found anywhere in Paul.  Something I think he drastically overstates.    I found some of his exegesis here; especially with 2 Cor. 5:21 to be lacking.  He places 5:21 inside of the larger framework of Paul defending his authority as an apostle, and as 5:19-21 as Paul’s explanation of what he is preaching with the authority of an apostle.  This however, does not necessitate the exegetical gymnastics he does to make verse 21 speak of Paul as “embodying God’s covenant faithfulness.”  The change is unnecessary, and is stretching.  Wright also begins to unpack the role of works inside of Pauline theology.  It is at this point that I feel Wright did some of his best work.  Up until I read chapter eight it appeared that, for all his counter claims that he was not trying to “sneak works in the back door,” that that was in fact what he was doing.  In chapter eight he unpacked all of the passages where Paul joins “works” to the eschatological judgment and asks the question, “How do you explain these verses?”  He appeals to the necessity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as well as the believer’s responsibility to live a life in the power the Spirit provides.  At this point, I’m not sure that Wright is saying anything much different from the reformation, but as trying to elevate the role of Spirit-empowered works to its proper seat.   This was an area in which I was most critical of Wright, but which I feel he defended well.  I’m not completely satisfied as of yet, but have shifted.

The book is a great read.  There are still questions that I wish Wright would attempt to answer.  Although the water still isn’t as clear as I would like, some of the silt appears to be settling.  If you have read Piper’s book, this should be the next one you pick up.

Piper out, Schreiner in

You’ve probably heard by now that John Piper is taking a leave of absence from his church and all speaking/writing engagements. Unfortunately, this means that he will no longer be one of the plenary speakers at this year’s national ETS conference, the theme of which is “Justification by Faith.” That is unfortunate since N.T. Wright will be one of the other plenary speakers and it would have been fun to have both of them involved.

But, ETS has announced that Tom Schreiner will be stepping in to take Piper’s place. What do you think? Tom has written extensively on the subject, but I’m not personally familiar with most of his books. Do you think he’s a good replacement for Piper? If you were on the nominating committee, is there anyone that you would have suggested instead?