Flotsam and jetsam (11/26)
- Justin Taylor has an excellent guest post from Andrew Cowan on What NT Wright really said.
In my judgment, however, the claim that Wright has changed his view on justification is misguided and results from the misreading of Wright that has been rampant in the Reformed world for quite some time.
- John Byron offers a good thought on celebrity-ism and the academy.
What are we doing? Our scholarship has become, in some ways, a celebrity sport. We stand in awe of speakers who are introduced as the author of twenty books, over one hundred articles and three video series. Bart Ehrman and NT Wright appear on the Colbert report, and while I admit I found their performance entertaining, I wonder why it is that these people are held up as the representatives of scholarship in our field?
- Richard Beck reflects on The Thomas Kincade Effect, or the problem of kitsch in Christian art.
it is worth wondering if Christians (or anyone for that matter) might be attracted to artwork that portrays a world “without the Fall,” a sweet, shiny, untroubled and Disneyesque existence.
- And, Bob Cargill’s SBL paper is now available, “Instruction, Research, and the Future of Online Educational Technologies”. HT
Why NT Wright is like Hootie and the Blowfish
Fred Sander has a fun post today on why NT Wright is like Hootie and the Blowfish:
I was driving cross-country in the summer of 1995, at a time when the music of Hootie and the Blowfish was inescapable. My wife and I listened to the radio from Kentucky to California, and the soundtrack assigned to us by American pop music was song after song from the multiplatinum album Cracked Rear View. Now, I happened to like the band’s acoustic-stadium sound, and Darius Rucker’s über-masculine vocals. But it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not, I was getting it from both speakers no matter what. Hootie’s dominance was unquestioned: At best, DJs could manage to alternate one song by somebody else in between songs from Hootie. Change the channel, more Hootie. At one point (somewhere in New Mexico?), a DJ shouted, “This is Hootie’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it!”
The theological Hootie of our age is NT Wright. He’s everywhere. Multiplatinum, hit singles, the whole package. I happen to like his work, but it doesn’t matter if you like it; you’re getting it from both speakers anyway. This is NT Wright’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it.
He goes on to offer some thoughts from the recent discussions about Wright’s view of justification, but I really just enjoyed the idea that Wright was like that band on the radio that everyone keeps playing over and over. If you want to modernize the analogy, he’s the Lady Gaga of the theology world. (Now, close your eyes and try not to picture NT Wright dressed like Lady Gaga.)
Has NT Wright changed his Mind?
The blogosphere is alive and well, with more posts on NT Wright than any sane person could possibly want to keep track of. Probably the most interesting is the continued discussion of whether NT Wright has changed his mind on final justification. Denny Burk argues that Wright’s recent statements regarding final justification being “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of” final justification constitutes a fundamental shift in perspective. But, Wright himself has stated that this is not the case and that his he has always meant that final justification was “in accordance with” the whole life lived. And, Brian LePort agrees, arguing that although isolated statements could be taken otherwise, this has always been Wright’s basic position. For comparison. Blake White offers a roundup of different perspectives on Wright’s “change of mind” regarding Wright’s statements. Personally, I’m willing to take Wright at face value and see this as a clarification rather than a fundamental change, though it’s a clarification that it would have been nice to have a while ago given that this has been a clear bone of contention for many.
And, if you haven’t read enough about this discussion yet, Brian offers the best roundup of links that I’ve seen yet on ETS and the justification debate.
Okay, I think I’ve said just about everything I’m going to say about the recently concluded ETS conference. I attended a couple of other papers that weren’t worth commenting on, but overall this was the best ETS I’ve attended in terms of the papers I attended. I either got lucky or I’m getting better at selecting papers, but there were only a couple that were real busts.
So, to wrap things up, here’s a roundup of my comments on ETS. If you’re looking for some more, Trevin Wax offers a nice roundup of his own.
- Tom Schreiner on NT Wright
- Frank Thielman on the “righteousness of God”
- NT Wright at ETS (part 1)
- NT Wright at ETS (part 2)
- NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)
- Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology
- What is theological interpretation of Scripture
- The sexual human: sexualizing the imago Dei
- Aquinas on the victory view of the atonement
- Calvin on the Church as the “Mother” of believers
Other Random Thoughts
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism
During the interaction with N.T. Wright at the last ETS plenary session, Tom Schreiner casually tossed out the all-too-common assertion that synergism is semi-Pelagian. Implicit behind the claim seems to be the idea that anything other than pure monergism is borderline heresy – it’s not quite rampant heresy (Pelagianism), but it’s really close (semi-Pelagianism).
There are both historical and theological reasons for rejecting this claim. Historically, we should at least recognize that semi-Pelagianism was a movement that arose after the time of Pelagius, primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange (529). So, historically speaking, if you call someone a semi-Pelagian, you actually are calling him/her a heretic – not just a near-heretic.
Theologically, it is not true that synergists are necessarily semi-Pelagian. Here it is important that we define our terms. I understand the terms as follows
Pelagian: any system in which the human person is capable of achieving salvation entirely on his/her own with no divine assistance other than common grace (i.e. the grace necessary for any being to exist).
Semi-Pelagian: any system in which the process of salvation is initiated by the human person apart from any grace other than common grace, but in which the process of salvation is synergistically completed by the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
Synergism: any system that affirms some kind of cooperative interaction between the divine and the human in the process of salvation
Based on these definitions, we can draw the following conclusions:
- Pelagians are not synergists since salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
- Semi-Pelagians are synergists since the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
- Synergists are not Pelagians and are not necessarily semi-Pelagian since it is entirely possible for one to affirm the cooperative interaction of both divine and human while still affirming that the process of salvation begins entirely with God’s salvific (not common) grace.
So, using these (admittedly cursory) definitions, we can say that a number of very prominent soteriologies are synergistic but not semi-Pelagian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Wesleyan, etc.). When theologians make blanket statements to the effect that all synergists are semi-Pelagian, they (hopefully unwittingly) question the orthodoxy of vast swaths of Christianity, including nearly all of the Church Fathers.
So, please take this as a plea to all monergists – please stop making the claim that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.
NT Wright at ETS (part 2)
N.T. Wright presented the third plenary paper at the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” And, he started things off by commenting on the title of the paper. He noted that some might assume this was a reference to the fact that the debate seems to be going on and on. But, the real purpose of the title was to say two things about justification. First, as an allusion to Hebrews 13:8, it points to the fact that justification is rooted in Jesus Christ, who is himself the same yesterday, today, and forever. Everything that we can say about God’s people, we say in virtue of who we are in relationship to him. And, second, the title refers to the “triple tense” of justification: we have been justified, we are currently being assured of our justification, and we will be justified in the eschaton. Wright argued that although we often speak of the three tenses of salvation, we rarely apply that same thinking to justification where it is equally important.
Wright moved from there into what he called his “preliminary remarks.” But, for preliminary remarks, they were pretty substantive.
- We badly need a new ethic of blogging. Wright expressed dismay over the state of Christian blogging and the lack of charity commonly exhibited in the blogosphere. (I think we can all attest to that unfortunate truth.) And, he called on people to blog on what he actually says and not on what they’ve decided in advance that he must actually think. Seems fair.
- Wright thinks some of his Protestant critics sound rather Catholic in their appeal to tradition. He expressed surprise that some people from Southern Seminary and Tyndale College have accused him of “biblicism” for his rejection of various traditional theological formulations. (Indeed, he commented that he’s not even sure what the term could possibly mean coming as a criticism from such quarters.) And, he pointed out that many of his critics sound like the Catholic theologians of Luther’s day—criticizing him for rejecting long-held teachings of the Church and questioning his appeal to the Bible as having authority over all traditions.
- Wright argued that the doctrine of Scripture is grounded in the unrepeatable nature of the revelatory events. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not simply illustrations of universal truths, but are unrepeatable historical events. Thus, the text has to be understood in that unrepeatable context. We can’t simply take our own questions and situations as normative, forcing the text to speak to them on our terms. Unless we are willing to understand the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of these writings, we will inevitably “demythologize” them.
- Finally, he responded to accusations that he focuses too much on minute word studies or on big-picture narratives. He commented that it’s rather ironic, then, that he’s critiqued both for focusing too much on details and too much on the big picture. But, he argued that both are clearly needed. We can’t neglect the details of the text if we are to take the text seriously. And, we all bring a big-picture narrative to the text. It’s not a question of whether you do so, but whether your narrative matches the one given in the text itself. (As a side note, he made it very clear in this section that he sees his position as related to but decidedly different from that of E.P. Sanders and is obviously tired of being lumped in one pot with him.)
With these “preliminaries” out of the way, Wright launched into the issue of justification.
- The relationship of justification and soteriology. I’m going to try and say this more clearly than I think Wright did. In a number of places, Wright suggests that justification is not about soteriology. That is actually an overstatement of his own position. As he made clear in the course of his presentation and subsequent discussion, justification does occur within a broader soteriological framework. So, justification does have to do with salvation. But, Wright’s concern is to emphasize that justification has nothing to do with entering into salvation. And, he wants to make clear that, according to him, when Paul is talking about justification, salvific issues are background rather than foreground issues.
- The nature of justification. With this in mind, Wright goes on to state clearly his own position that justification is about declaring who is and who isn’t a member of God’s covenant people. Wright spent considerable time on the law court background of justification language, arguing again that this metaphor is central to Paul’s theology of justification and refers to a forensic declaration that a person has a given status (i.e. member of the covenant community). And, he points specifically to Philippians 3 as a clear example where Paul rejects works of the Law as markers of covenantal identity, affirming instead the sufficiency of faith and grace for determining who is one of God’s people.
- The Reformed background of NPP. Wright reiterated the claim that his view of justification and the Law stands in direct continuity with that of Calvin. I forget where he first made this claim, but he again stated that if Calvin’s view of the had become dominant in Protestantism rather than the Lutheran view, a new perspective on Paul would not have been necessary.
- The importance of not “demythologizing” the text. Wright referred to this idea several times. By this he means that the traditional Protestant reading of certain texts tends to downplay the historical particulars of the situation, focusing instead on their transcendent, universally applicable, and often abstract truths. Wright certainly favors considering how these texts apply to us. But he wants to make sure that we’ve taken the historical realities of the text seriously first. So, he rejects any attempt to turn Abraham in Romans 4 or Galatians 3 into a mere example of faith. Instead, he contends that we need to see Abraham himself as central to Paul’s argument. Similarly, he thinks that we too quickly move past the sociological implications of Galatians 2 to what we think are the universal soteriological principles. Such moves are what Wright calls “demythologization” – ignoring the historical particularities in favor of abstract universalizations.
- The main point of justification. Wright concluded this section with a brief comment on the idea that justification language is always bound up with Israel and Messiah. There simply is no way to understand what Paul means by justification without this context.
Wright’s second main section dealt with the language of justification. Or, more specifically, with the question of what “reckoned as righteous” meant for Paul.
- The covenantal background of the reckoning. Probably the most interesting move in this section was Wright’s argument that “reckoned as righteous” refers to the gift of covenant community. Wright argued that both Psalm 106:31 and Genesis 15:6 connect the reckoning to reward of covenant community. Thus, Paul’s reference to Abraham being reckoned righteous apart from works does not refer to an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (more on this later), but to the fact that Abraham was blessed with covenant community because of his faith-response to God’s covenantal faithfulness (i.e. God’s “righteousness”).
- The definition of “righteousness”. Wright also made clear that he understands “righteousnesss” to refer to “covenantalness.” That is, whenever righteousness is used, it refers to the covenantal relations in some way. When used of God, it refers to his covenantal faithfulness; when used of humans it refers to status within the covenant.
- The law court analogy. Wright returned to the law court analogy here to explain that the ancient law courts always involve one person against another person (as opposed to modern law courts which are often state vs. person) in front of a judge who makes the final declaration. So, when God declares a person “righteous,” he is simply declaring a verdict in their favor. There is no “transfer” of righteousness (i.e. imputation) as though righteousness were a thing that could be passed from one person to another. So, the idea is that all humans are in the dock before God, but God has made covenantal promises to his people. So, the question is, how is God to work this out without abandoning his covenantal promises or declaring an unjust verdict? And, of course, the answer is given in the Messiah as the one who fulfills the purpose of humanity and renews the covenant people.
Wright then moved to an exegesis of particular passages. Unfortunately, by this point in the paper, he was running pretty short on time. So, he could only offer a few cursory comments.
- The exegetical basis of the argument. Wright started by arguing strongly that the debate should be driven by exegesis rather than tradition. And, he suggested that his critics need to spend more time on exegetical arguments, explaining how they read key passages and why his own readings are inadequate.
- 2. Romans 4:4-8. Wright started to get into this passage, but ended up cutting himself off short. Basically he argued that the “reward” needs to be understood in the context of Genesis 15:1, where the reward is covenant family. And, the “ungodly” (as in Galatians 3) are the people who have not yet been included in the covenantal family. So, Romans 4 is essentially the same as Genesis 15—God promises that he will create a covenantal family that will encompass all the nations of the earth through grace and faith.
Finally, Wright moved to a section on theological synthesis.
- Final justification. In one of the more helpful parts of the paper, Wright made it clear that he does not think final justification comes “on the basis of” works, but “in accordance with” works. This is the first time that I’ve heard Wright clearly articulate that final justification is not grounded in works. He does think that the final declaration of “justified” will be given with reference to works (cf. Rom. 2; 2 Cor 5; Rom. 14), but clearly states that Christ alone is the ground of final justification and that we will not earn or merit it.
- Assurance of justification. Wright was also very clear that his position should not cause anxiety about current justification. Justification is grounded in the work of Christ and applied through the work of the Spirit. So, I trust in both Jesus and the Spirit for the assurance of my own justification. As Wright states, you only get to Romans 8:39 by working through 8:1-30. God’s people have assurance now through the Spirit. Thus, future justification does not endanger present justification by faith in any way. According to Wright, “The verdict of the present is firm and secure….The pardon is free and firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it….Following that final verdict we will be more happy but not more secure.”
- Incorporation in Christ. I wish he had discussed this more, but he concluded this section by saying that he was fully in agreement with Kevin Vanhoozer that incorporation into Christ and adoption into God’s family are critical motifs with the potential for drawing together the various proposals. (The paper that he’s referring to is the one that Vanhoozer presented at the Wheaton conference. You can listen to it here.)
Wright concluded the paper with a powerful proclamation of the Gospel. He is obviously frustrated that people think that his approach undermines the Gospel. To the contrary, he contends that his approach fully affirms the Gospel of Jesus and the necessity of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption for salvation.
This post is already way too long as it is. So, I’ll wait until after I’ve summarized the responses before offering some evaluative comments of my own.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- An attribute of God
- Gods saving activity
- the gift of God’s righteousness
Thielman spent a fair amount of time explaining the historical interpretation of RoG.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- 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.
- Wright wrongly claims that justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology and not soteriology.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.