Tag Archives: N. T. Wright

Orienting to the New Perspective

This week I had a student send me a message asking about some reading to orient him on the New Perspective on Paul. I thought this might be of general interest, so here is what I suggested:

First, get hold of James Dunn’s The New Perspective on Paul book. The first 100 pages is an essay on the past, present, and future of the “New Perspective,” including some rather direct interactions with some of those who have misrepresented it. This essay is pure gold. The book also contains the original “New Perspective on Paul” essay that gave name to this strand of Pauline scholarship.

Then, continuing the orientation, I suggest reading N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective. This is important as the most recent articulation of Pauline theology by the primary torch-bearer of the New Perspective movement.

Third, you have to read some E. P. Sanders. Ideally one begins with Paul and Palestinian Judaism, but for non-scholars that might be a bit much. So I recommended instead Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, which is more directly focused on exegesis of Paul from Sanders’ position.

SBL Precursor: Wright & Bird at IBR

SBL = Society of Biblical Literature. I’m at the annual meeting in Atlanta. (If blogging gets scarce, you may want to check out my Twitter feed or Facebook status.)

Each hear a number of other societies use the opportunity of having this group gathered to put on their own meetings. Institute for Biblical Research is one of those. And last night its meeting featured N. T. Wright and Michael Bird. Wright lectured on the cross and the kingdom, and Bird responded.

Wright’s talk was nothing you haven’t heard before if you’re a Wright fan, but it was nicely put together.

He discussed opposite errors.

There is the conservative error of a cross without a kingdom. Mike Bird, in responding, told of how he picked up an N. T. Wright book once upon a time and it hammered home to him that he knew why Jesus died, but had no idea why he lived! That was my experience as well.

On the liberal side, there is a kingdom without a cross: a theology of the reign of God in which Jesus the social revolutionary meets an unfortunate end that cut his program short just as it was getting off the ground.

Wright explored some texts in John in a gesture toward holding these together.

As usual, Wright took a couple of shots at the Creedal tradition of the church, which jumps straight from the virgin birth to the suffering under Pontius Pilate. I think his complaint is apt–we do not confess anything about the life of Jesus when we confess our faith together as a church. Others were less amused.

The call to keep cross and kingdom both in view is apt–and not just for holding together Mark 1-13 with the passion narrative in Mark 14-15. When teaching Mark last year, the larger question presented itself: how does Mark 1-8, the depiction of Jesus the wonder-working Son of Man, fit with Mark 9-16, the depiction of Jesus as the cruciform Son of Man?

To ask the question of how cross and kingdom fit together is to set ourselves on a journey of reimagining our atonement theology, our Kingdom of God theology, and our understanding of the Gospels themselves.

The Righteousness of God (4 of 4)

Sorry to keep you in suspended animation on the Piper v. Wright thing. I promised 4 posts, ended up splitting post 3 into two, and never came back around to part 4. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3a, Part 3b).

I promised that part 4 would be some sort of summary, like “Why nobody cares about this in NT scholarship.” Let’s see what I can do on that front.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “What do you mean nobody cares? Isn’t a Piper vs. Wright debate the main event at the Evangelical Theological Society in November.” To which I would say, “Yes, and that’s just my point.” Maybe you’ll see what I mean by the end.

Several years ago, fall of 2007, I was part of planning a conference on Paul for Emergent-like people. As the New Testament scholars sat around chatting with more church and theology oriented people, we were talking through what we wanted to cover, how we wanted to approach Paul. Just batting around ideas, someone said, “What is the angle? New Perspective?” To this, one of the Paul scholars said, “No, I think we’re pretty much post-New Perspective now.”

Three years ago, New Testament scholarship had already moved on. And that doesn’t mean that 2007 was the year we decided to leave it behind. It means that Sanders had broached the issues in the late 70s, Jimmy Dunn had codified them in an early 80s lecture followed by his late 80s Romans commentary; Wright had written Climax of the Covenant that worked through some of the key texts, and so by the end of the 90s scholars had worked through the issues taken what they were going to take left what they were going to leave and moved on.

Enter the church (bless its heart) 15-30 years later, all excited and agitated over these new developments.

In some ways this makes sense. People outside the academy are often unaware of the programmatic nature of an argument being advanced in a 1,000+ page commentary, for example. But when Wright publishes a 120 page book on Paul in his accessible prose, and directly challenging many long-held ideas about justification, imputation, righteousness, and the like, then it is much easier for the ideas to spread broadly.

So what has the academy done with all this while the church was doing productive things like feeding the hungry and preaching the good news?

First, I think it is fair to say that in the academy in general Sanders’ view on Judaism is assumed. What I mean is this: people approach early Judaism assuming that it was not crassly legalistic, and therefore approach Paul as though he is trying to describe Christianity in contrast to what a modern religious scholar would call an accurate, Torah-centric Judaism, not in contrast to some degraded legalistic version that had lost its moorings.

I would also say, in general, that people see Judaism as an ethnic description; that is to say, it is a way to describe a people that includes their religious practices, but that also carries a host of other, at times equally important, connotations.

I’ve been talking with some folks recently about why religious studies scholars have started calling “Jews” “Judeans.” They’re telling me that the point is that Ioudaioi carries a host of “ethnic” connotations not limited to religious beliefs and practices. This ethnic move was the direction Dunn advocated when he started talking about “works of the Law” as ethnic boundary markers.

With respect to Paul himself, the New Perspective helped clear the ground of theological readings that were insufficiently attuned to the eschatological (or what Martyn calls “apocalyptic”) interpretations.

Once Judaism is not described as a gross degradation from pure OT biblical religion, one has to come up with another reason for Paul’s stark contrasts between “the Law” and “Christ”, between, “works of law” and “faith in Christ,” between “grace in Christ” and “works of Torah.” This has pushed New Testament scholars to see that Paul is only able to say what he says about the Old because of a new conviction about the New that was not possible before he met the resurrected Jesus.

So even though very few scholars want to get on board, wholesale, with Wright’s Paul program, the “New Perspective” debate as such is not a hot topic because some of the basic assumptions that separate the anti-NP people from Wright do not separate all that many people in the North American and British New Testament academy once you bracket out those conservative Evangelicals who seem to be arguing against the NP mostly to preserve traditional theological articulations.

The Righteousness of God (3b of 4)

This is where attempting to dissociate “righteousness” from God’s work on behalf of God’s people starts to fall apart. It’s not that there is a quality of God that needs to be lived up to. Romans 3 tells us that God reveals his righteousness when he makes a way to vindicate/acquit people who affiliate with Jesus.

It’s not just that God has to live up to a standard. It’s that the standard to which God desires to live up is the one in which people are vindicated before him. When we talk about righteousness, we are talking about God’s ability to vindicate people who are not worthy of vindication.

And here’s where the surprise comes into the Jewish story: the act that God judged worthy of vindication was Jesus’ death on the cross. And, acquittal looks like being associated with that death so as to be joined to that resurrection-vindication.

In all this:

  1. I think that Wright, Piper, and the Reformed tradition generally agree that God is being seen as a judge who acts justly in the vindication of humanity. The “courtroom” idea is common to all of them.
  2. Wright insists, and the Reformed Tradition should have room for, the idea that the standards of the courtroom are the stipulations of the covenant that God established with Israel. Wright does not think “relationship” is all that helpful a term unless paired with the notion of covenant membership.
  3. Wright, Piper, and the Reformed tradition more generally all agree that the death of Jesus makes God able to do what he could not do based on mere humanity: justify just sinners.
  4. By making the basis of justification a “righteousness” of God or of Christ that is a character trait, the Reformed tradition has had to further talk about the idea of “imputation” so that the “stuff” of God or Christ could be transferred to us in order for us to be justified.
  5. By making righteousness an appropriate response to the covenant, Wright has set God’s righteousness as something that does not get “imputed,” but rather “revealed” in the self-giving death of Jesus that enables God to vindicate.
  6. By making righteousness an appropriate response to the covenant, Wright makes Jesus’ obedience in death the act that God sees as righteous so that Jesus can be vindicated and, in turn, those who are in Christ can be vindicated also.
  7. By making the faith that reveals God’s righteousness our own rather than Christ’s, the traditional Reformed perspective is developing the mechanism by which the righteous “stuff” that is Jesus’ or God’s can be transferred (imputed) to believers. Wright’s Christ-faith interpretation functions within a different framework, within which no such mechanism is needed.
  8. The Reformed tradition (and Lutheranism as well) have a strong means of connection with Wright on the centrality of Christ’s death as the justifying principle without reference to imputation. It’s called “union with Christ”. If someone is in Christ, they are baptized into his death–which is the action that God is pleased to receive as the faithful act of obedience that finds vindication. If someone is in Christ they are baptized into his resurrection and participate now in that vindication, are little righteous ones who live by faith.

The Righteousness of God (part 3a of 4)

Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that the fracas over the righteousness of God could not be separated from another favorite perennial NT question: the meaning of pistis, and the pistis Christou debate in particular.

Romans 1:17 reads: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed by faith unto faith as it is written, ‘But the one who is righteous by faith will live.”

Somehow, the good news reveals God’s righteousness “by faith”, as it is written, “But the one who is righteous ‘by faith’ will live.”

The ideas are brought together again at the end of Romans 3:

But now, without law, the righteousness of God has been made manifest (being witnessed by the law and the prophets), the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ (or, through faith in Jesus Christ) unto all who exercise faith. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being righteoused freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement through faith, by his blood, in order to show forth his righteousness, because in his forbearance he passed over the previously committed sins, to show forth his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.

That is one mean sentence! Notice again that the way in which God’s righteous is made known is through faith: either the faith of Jesus in going to the cross or our faith in Jesus (3:22), depending on how you interpret the Greek, it is made manifest through faith and goes out unto the faith of all who believe. The pattern from Romans 1:17 is repeated: from faith unto faith.

But whose faith is it? Christ’s faith in going to death on the cross or our faith in Christ?

Later in the paragraph we’re told: it’s God’s putting forward of Jesus as a sacrifice in his blood that is the act of faith by which God’s righteousness is made known. So when we’re told that the righteousness of God is witnessed to by the law and prophets, it seems that the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus is the event which they foreshadow.

Thus, when we read in the very first scripture citation in the book of Romans, “the righteous one ‘by faith’ will live”, we do well to read this as a reference to the faithful Christ who was raised because of his fidelity.

This then brings us back to the question of what, exactly, this faithful death of Jesus has to do with the righteousness of God. How does the death of Jesus reveal the righteousness of God?

The passage in Romans 3 tells us that this death of Jesus reveals God’s righteousness because it enables him to justly justify his people.

So what?

Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you.

The Righteousness of God (2 of 4)

It’s time to pick up on yesterday’ post on the Righteousness of God. The current debate between Piper and Wright is tied to how we understand this concept. Is “righteousness” tied to covenant (Wright) or is it more an atemporal idea, tied simply to God (Piper).

Piper is adamant that righteousness is not connected to anything in history. He says, “The essence of the righteousness of God is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name.” This connection to God’s name is seen as an alternative to Wright’s construal that ties it more specifically to the people of Israel and God’s covenant with them.

Appeal is made to numerous passages in support of this position. Psalm 145 says that the Lord is righteous in all his ways–not just his covenant relationship with Israel (p. 64). This means that God’s allegiance to his own glory is more basic than covenant keeping. Piper will further connect this to passages in which God speaks of the importance of glorifying God’s name.

Piper suggests that expounding righteousness as “covenant faithfulness” puts too much historical specificity into the word that has a much more general meaning.

Wright turns the tables on him.

“I am not aware of any other scholar, old perspective, new perspective, Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, anyone, who thinks that tsedaqah elohim [=righteousness of God] in Hebrew or dikaiosune theou [=righteousness of God] in Greek actually means “God’s concern for God’s own glory.”

Wright goes on to suggest that righteousness means conforming to a norm, and God’s righteousness is God’s conforming to the norm God himself has established. Wright invokes the ultimate New Perspective poster child </sarcasm> J. I. Packer to illustrate this position (64-65).

Both Piper and Wright actually agree that “righteousness” in and of itself, its lexical definition, is not going to solve this conundrum. The question is, what sort of biblical / theological framework helps us understand what it means for God to do what is right.

The challenge that faces both exegetes as they turn to Paul is that the larger frameworks are often what must come into play when the specific term “righteousness” or “righteousness of God” appears.

Thus, Piper will turn to Rom 3:23 and say, “All sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and there show how God’s own glory must be to make up for the deficit of glory-rendering due his name. So God will manifest his righteousness in the death of Jesus, condemning him representatively for all who failed to glorify him.

Alternatively, Wright will ask us to take stock of how all of chs. 3-4 or Romans (and reaching back into ch. 2 at points) are about how God will fulfill the promise to Abraham to make one world-wide family. Within this covenant promise, God has to overcome Israel’s own faithlessness to be a missionary people, and provide an alternate means for the blessing of Abraham to come to the nations.

That, in fact, is the covenant that Wright sees controlling so much of Paul’s “righteousness of God” language: God promised Abraham in Genesis 15 that he would be the father of many nations. And this obligation upon God is fulfilled when “Christ becomes a servant, on behalf of the truth of God, to confirm the promises given to the fathers and for the gentiles to glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15).

Romans does couch the problem of humanity as a failure to glorify God. And, it recounts the righteousness of God as the divine provision to make up for this lack.

As I read these two dueling theologies, it suggests itself repeatedly that Piper’s concerns about God’s glory, and the preservation of the name of God, are met precisely through God’s meeting God’s covenantal obligations to Israel, as Wright proposes.

Romans begins with Paul saying that the gospel he proclaims was prepromised by God in the scriptures concerning God’s son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, appointed son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead by the Holy Spirit, and this gospel is what Paul is entrusted to take to the gentiles so they will obey with faith.

These verses present a cluster of themes that Paul takes up in the so-called thesis statement later on: the gospel is for Jew first but also for the Greek; it concerns the faithful son who now lives having been raised from the dead, and it is the story in which God’s righteousness is revealed (Rom 1:16-17).

What, then, is this righteousness? In the context of Romans 1 we have already been told: God’s fidelity to bring about what was promised beforehand in the prophets.

Although I sometimes fear that Wright makes too much of “covenant” as a category for making sense of Paul, nonetheless he is correct that what is “right” for God to do is, in the biblical story to which God has bound Godself, nothing less than fulfilling the promises made in scripture. This is how the letter begins (1:1ff; and this is how its argument is drawn to its conclusion (Rom 15:7ff.).

The Righteousness of God (1 of 4)

A couple of times over the past month or so I’ve been asked in one way or another to weigh in on what is becoming the Piper v. Wright showdown, what before that was the Presbyterian v. Wright showdown, what before that was a vigorous conversation in New Testament scholarship. Since I discovered just yesterday that Piper has been selected as the “leading exegete” to represent North America at the Lausanne Conference in South Africa, I figured now was the time.

Here’s how I dissect the different positions on offer by Piper and Wright: Piper’s understanding of righteousness and justification flows from an understanding of the cosmos in which the law of God (an essentially timeless entity, but with some historical representations such as the Decalogue) regulates humanity’s standing before God. Wright’s understanding of righteousness and justification flows from an understanding of the cosmos in which the in-time story of Israel, and God’s covenants with this particular people, regulates humanity’s standing before God.

It may be that Piper will at times express his understanding in terms of “covenant,” akin to what we find in classic covenant theology that developed at the time of the Reformation. But even then it is viewed as an instrument to regulate the essentially transhistorical law of God.

The difference in the kind of covenant theology that Wright has on offer is that it is tied to specific stipulations and promises for particular people in particular times and places.

This difference between an essentially timeless law of God and a historicized development of a covenantal relationship gives rise to their different understandings of righteousness, justification, and faith.

When trying to understand the connotations of “righteousness” in the Bible, we need to remember that the connotations about which people differ in these debates will not be found in a dictionary or lexicon entry. “Righteousness” essentially means the characteristic of someone who does what is right or just.

But the whole source of difference between Wright and Piper is this: What, exactly, is the “right” thing that God must do in order to be righteous? Or, what is it for us to be a person who can be judged as “right”?

In other words, this is not a debate about the lexicon, it’s a debate about the theological framework within which the word righteousness gets used, and what it therefore connotes.

We don’t use the word “righteousness” all that much in normal language, so let me illustrate with a word that we’re more comfortable with: faithfulness.

Faithfulness will always mean loyally performing what we are bound to do on the basis of some relationship. But this also means there there will be an inherent level of relational relativism. In fact, being “faithful” can mean the exact opposite course of action depending on which relationship I’m talking about. For example, what it means for me to be a “faithful” husband will entail performance of certain actions that my role as “faithful” professor will entail abstaining from. To take the obvious example of sex, being a faithful and righteous husband entails engaging, being a faithful and righteous professor requires abstaining.

The move in Piper’s Reformed theology is to say that the entire world is under the same law, will be judged by the same law, and requires fulfillment of that law in order to be justified. This transhistorical narrative places all of us on the same footing, and sees God as simply the judge who judges based on our failure to attain to the standard.

Wright’s biblical theology suggests instead that righteousness is more closely tied to the specific relationship God has with Israel. Israel is required to perform certain actions, to fill certain roles, and God has bound himself to respond in certain ways. The work of Jesus is about a surprising fulfillment of Israel’s calling to obedience (in the cross), and God’s fulfillment of his covenant obligations comes in vindicating those who faithfully join themselves to this crucified and risen king.

Tomorrow we’ll work out a bit of the exegetical basis for making the decision one way or the other. Then Thursday I’ll see if I can’t work through a few of conundrums Wright hopes to solve with his revision of the story; specifically, how does the life of Jesus fit into the story? And I’m sure that by Friday we’ll have had enough chaotic back and forth that some further triumphant declaration of some sort will be in order (maybe something like: Why New Testament scholars don’t care about this debate). Stay tuned!

Chapter Problems in JVG?

Has anyone else had a problem such as the following in Jesus and the Victory of God?

Today I was reading along and told that I could find more of what I was interested in should I be so kind to turn to ch. 13. Chapter 13 was not so helpful, and I began to wonder whether the chapter number had been misassigned.

Later, I was reading along and he said that the notion of Jesus as Coming King would be addressed in ch. 12. But then I noticed that ch. 13 is entitled, “The Return of the King.”

It got me to thinking that maybe somewhere along the line there were a couple chapters flip-flopped or else perhaps an extra chapter was added that messed up the enumeration. Then it got me to thinking that if anyone else had experienced similar difficulties then we probably both have spent way too much time with this particular book. Anybody want to own up to it?

I’m sure that many of my scholar friends have had their own problems with JVG: exegetical, theological, editorial, and otherwise. Feel free to talk about that here as well. Whatever. It’s your blog.

Mouw on Atonement and Wright

Rich Mouw has a blog post on atonement, touching both on the question of N. T. Wright’s atonement theology in particular and the need for substitution more generally. Here’s the opening salvo:

I am no expert on N. T. Wright’s theology, but I know enough to reject those charges of his critics that he is weak on “the substitutionary atonement.”  Here is the clincher for me, from one of his meditations in The Crown and the Fire: “Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us.”

(Note to self: I love Fuller.)

The article goes on to talk about the importance of substitution–not as the end-all, be-all of atonement theory, but as one important part of what happened on the cross.

One question I continue to wrestle with is the extent to which “Jesus died for me” entails substitution in general and penal substitution in particular. When working through the New Testament texts in class, I often step back and ask: does this passage really say that Jesus took the penalty, or are we bringing that with us? And if Jesus is in some sense substitute, what sense is that, exactly?

There are lots of good questions being asked, and lots of proposals being made. In part, I think that coming out with a robust biblical and theological answer will depend on keeping in view a full-orbed vision of both sin and redemption. We cannot allow the reality of  sin as guilt be entirely eclipsed by sin as power. We cannot discount a narrative in which God hopes to use the discipline and punishment of exile to recreate a new and faithful people. We cannot discount stories of Jesus in which he forgives sin without sacrifice.

Somehow we have to be able to hold all of these things and myriad others at the same time. We have to be able to say Jesus lived for me. It was necessary for Jesus to live for me. Jesus died for me. It was necessary for Jesus to die for me. Jesus was raised for me. It was necessary for Jesus to be raised for me.

If we can pin that together with “He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found,” I think we’ll be well on our way.