Wednesday, December 02, 2009

new perspective

the current evangelical debate on justification rages on. some are excited by a new paradigm they believe better explains the gospel message and mission, as well as the bible texts which articulate them. others are drawing the battle lines, ready, they believe, to contend for the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. and as is often the case in the church, there are large numbers who are either blissfully ignorant or somewhat confused as to what all the hubbub is about.

though i am not always happy with the tenor of some in the debate, this is a discussion that christians must engage. at stake is the core of the gospel message: what makes the good news about Jesus good news? and what does that tell us about God's intentions toward humanity and all creation -- and our purpose and mission as those who believe in him?

trevin wax, a pastor in tennessee, has contributed a couple of articles to evangelical bulwark christianity today to try to clarify the issues. he selects noted pastor and author john piper to represent the 'traditional' position and anglican bishop and new testament scholar n.t. wright to represent the 'new perspective.' links to the articles are on his blog (find it here). i found the articles somewhat helpful (especially the one with the chart comparing the two views side-by-side), but thought that the following comments in response to his blog post were even better -- especially the ones summarizing the 'new perspective,' some of its implications for christian discipleship, and some possible problems, even for those who are mostly persuaded. i've edited them a bit and included them below. are you thinking about these things?
Nice articles, but I think you’re missing the point – or rather the Bishop’s (Wright's) point. He is not just saying that Piper et al are looking at the Doctrine of Justification through 16th century eyes, but that they are basically yanking it out of Paul’s overall argument in his epistles. The Bishop is saying, first, look at the Doctrine through 1st century eyes –Paul’s – but ALSO in the larger context so we get:

Piper–Doctrine of Justifaction–How I get saved–Anthropology Wright–Doctrine of Justification–Gods saving Purpose for the WORLD–Theology(mich)

Piper has called the bishop onto the mat over clarity: what does it mean to be saved, how am I saved? How do we apply redemption in your system? Does justification mean how this is applied? If so, it becomes of supreme importance... It seems the bishop has been very muddy in how his system applies justification to our personal life... are we to buy all without questions and real answers? Piper, keep him on the mat. We are learning more of his real views… (john holmes)

I think I’m with Wright on this one. For too long Western Christianity has tried to interpret first century Jewish issues with a post-enlightenment, neatly packaged Greek philosophy. While I certainly appreciate Piper’s call to a truly holy life, I believe that his interpretation of Justification is more a product of medieval piety and the views it produced. As Christians, I believe we really need to examine the lenses through which we unwittingly read the Bible. The Jews never believed that they could earn their salvation. God has always been and always will be a God of Grace. The purpose of the law was to set Israel apart from foreign nations and their 'gods' so that the name and character of YHWH could be known (and obeyed, etc... all of these stem from an understanding of the reality of YHWH). It was not meant to grind their moral confidence to dust or provide a means of earning salvation. Because of the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant as Israel's representative (and therefore the mediator between God and man), those who were once not included in the covenant can now receive the full benefits of it (forgiveness of sins, resurrection at the last day, eternal life, etc) and among God’s chosen people. This is Justification: those who were originally excluded from the people of God (and those who were but were not faithful) can now partake in the redemptive plan of God as his chosen people because of Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant. Thus the law is no longer what separates the people of God from the nations -- faith in Christ as the Messiah and climax of history does. does Justification apply to our lives personally? Well, as a person who is now included in the people of God (assuming you have submitted your self to the Messiah as his disciple), you now share in the redemptive plan of God. Just as God was to use Israel to make his name and character known to the nations, thereby blessing them, so you too are to be used by God to make his name and character known to the nations. Through YOU the world will know the God who lavishes grace and mercy on his people, who longs to see creation restored through the faithful stewardship of his people and who will accept nothing less than all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Through you, having been justified as one of his people, the world will come to know the it has longed for. Practicals? Feed the poor because God has always identified with and cared for them. Love the foreigner because God has chosen to love you (even though odds are you aren’t from chosen Israel). Hold your community to account, challenging (gracefully of course) sin and always being prepared "in season and out of season" to confess Christ as the Messiah. Live in peace with your fellow man, Serve ONE king (not your own nationalistic agenda) and as Wright as put it, "like an angled mirror,” reflect the image of God to the world. These are the things that describe a person who has been justified by the faithfulness of Christ." (steve d)

The best point that Piper makes is that righteousness language in Paul seems to be more directly tied to moral performance than covenantal credentials (note the way that Paul lays out the charge “No one is righteous” in Rom 3:10-18). Piper, however, is only one of a number of voices protesting Wright’s proposals. Wright’s (and Sanders’s) work on Judaism has come under serious criticism. The Justification and Variegated Nomism series, Simon Gathercole’s Where Is Boasting?, and Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith all display the shortcomings of Sanders’s paradigm of covenantal nomism (on which Wright’s proposals depend) through hefty interaction with Jewish sources...

Wright understands “righteousness” language as a reference to “covenant membership,” he understands “justification” to be a verdict in the trial asking the question “who are the true members of God’s covenant people?” and he understands “works of the law” as what Jews thought of as the demonstration of their covenant membership and “faith” as what Paul asserted was the true sign of covenant membership. Thus, the question of whether an Israelite fulfilled the Torah in a way that would redeem from sins is a different question than that of justification.

Wright does, however, think that the point of the nation of Israel was that it was to redeem the world, which the Messiah did through his fidelity to God’s covenant plan, but he links this more with Jesus’ death than with Jesus’ obedience to the law.

The primary question is the meaning of “righteousness” language. Wright has asserted that this language means “covenant membership” when applied to humans; Piper claims that it refers to one’s absolute moral standing before God. What I find less than compelling about Wright’s view is that the terms in which the charges are laid out in Romans 3:10-18 seem to make more sense under Piper’s definition than Wright’s. The charge “No one is righteous” is laid out in terms of moral failure, and verse 20 summarizes the point with an allusion to Psalm 143:2, which says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” This latter text appears to me to be addressing the trial of one’s ultimate moral standing before God, not a trial determining whether or not one is a member of God’s covenant people. Was the Psalmist really asserting that no one would pass judgment in the trial determining if they were a member of God’s covenant people? That would be the implication if Wright’s view of “righteousness” language is correct. I find it more likely that the point of this verse, and Paul’s argument in Romans 3, is that all are sinners and thus cannot pass God’s judgment on their own. The covenantal interpretation of “righteousness” language proposed by Wright just feels forced at this point, and he sometimes makes telling awkward statements that seem to contradict his view of what justification is. For instance, on p. 112 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Wright states regarding Galatians, “the point of ‘works of Torah’ here is not about the works some people might think you have to perform to become a member of God’s people, but the works you have to perform to demonstrate that you are a member of God’s people. These works, Paul says, simply miss the point, as Psalm 143.2 had indicated, partly because no one ever performs them adequately, and partly because…works of Torah would simply create a family which was at best an extension of ethnic Judaism.” In this quotation, Wright claims that no one can perform works of the law “adequately,” but adequately for what? The previous sentence claims that their function was to demonstrate one’s membership within God’s people. Is that what no one can perform them adequately to do? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Rather, it seems that for Paul, no one can perform the works of the law adequately to attain the blessing promised in the law contingent upon obedience. The program of Leviticus 18:5 (”The one who does these things will live by them”) fails (cf. Gal 3:10-14; and the neglected Rom 7:7-11). The point, I think, is that the Sinai covenant was not a covenant that a sinner could obey sufficiently to attain ultimate moral right standing with God (this sort of combines the two elements that you contrasted in the final sentence of your comment). I think that Wright’s exposition omits this point, and could use some revising. His definition of “righteousness” in terms of “covenant membership” just doesn’t seem to square with the significant ways in which Paul brings this language into contact with moral obedience and the condemnation of immoral action (Rom 1:18-32, which 3:9-20 is simply reasserting with respect to Jews). Thus, although I love Wright’s work and consider his books to be some of the most influential on my thinking, I am not persuaded on this point. (andrew cowan)