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.
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.
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).