Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Forty Two

As is mostly well known by now, in the pistis Christou debate, Tom Wright stands with Richard Hays in suggesting that this phrase should be seen as a subjective genitive clause– talking about a pistis which Christ himself has or exercises. On pp. 836ff. he pauses to well on Rom. 3.22, in light of Rom. 3.2. Let me add quickly that on this issue, I think Hays got it right in the first place. I actually read his doctoral dissertation while he was writing it on Galatians in the late 70s, early 80s and this issue, and I thought then and I think now this is fresh, and accurate way to read the text. Rom. 3.22 is indeed talking about how God ‘set us right’ through the faithfulness of Christ (even unto death on the cross), which we receive the benefit of by trusting and believing in it. His faithfulness is the basis for our faith response, the basis for our right standing with God.

We must linger for a moment however on the exegesis of Rom. 2.25-29, for Tom wants us to accept that Paul is in fact calling anyone, Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, ‘the circumcision’, a sign that he sees the church as true Israel. There is however a problem with this whole line of approach. In the first place this is part of Paul’s diatribe and dialogue with a Jewish teacher. He is rebuking, even shaming, a Jewish teacher in good rhetorical fashion and what does he say: he says that the one who keeps the law, even if he is uncircumcised will be regarded/reckoned ‘as though’ he is circumcised (logisthesetai), but when a Jew who is circumcised breaks the law, his circumcision becomes uncircumcision. Notice that this is a statement using the business language of reckoning, just as the discussion in Rom. 4 about Abraham involves such language.

Paul is certainly not directly calling a Gentile a Jew here. Nor is he suggesting circumcision has ceased to have value for a Jew. What he is saying is that the inward condition must match the outward covenant sign— circumcision, when we are talking about a Jew. He is prepared in this shaming exercise to go so far as to call a law-keeping Gentile a ‘crypto-Jew’ or ‘secret/hidden/concealed Jew’. Notice he does not simply call him a Jew, nor does he say that because he keeps the Law as a Christian he’s a true Israelite. The point is not to comment on the spiritual status of Gentiles as though they were Israelites. The point is to pursue a leveling argument meant to bring the boasting Jewish teacher back to earth. He is arguing for equality at the foot of the cross for Jew and Gentile in this larger argument. Isotes is the issue, not are Gentiles actually appropriately called Israelites simpliciter if they keep the Law?

So then does Paul agree with the boasting Jew’s assessment of the solution to the problem– namely that people like him need to go on being the light of the world? Tom’s answer here is yes. Paul does agree with him. But how exactly would that deflate his boasting? How exactly would that be a leveling argument that brings him back to level ground? No, it is after the deflating of the Jewish boast that Paul then turns around and despite what he just said yes, in fact there is still much advantage to being a genuine Jewish person after all, they have been entrusted with the word (or oracles) of God (ta logia tou theou). Notice that Paul says only some Jews have been unfaithful, not presumably all Jews. Tom stresses that the argument here is not focusing on the sin of Jews, but rather their unfaithfulness to share the logia tou Theou with the world of Gentiles. Here he seems to be on to something. The real bone of contention is that Jewish teachers like the one Paul is arguing with have not in fact been the light to the world as they should have been. They have kept the oracles of God to themselves. They have failed their divine mission. It will be Israel’s representative the Messiah, whose faithfulness which will fulfill the mission of Israel to be the light of the world. Fair enough. This doesn’t make Christ Israel, it makes him Israel’s representative, her messiah.

I will say at this juncture that it needs to be added that while Paul does see Christ as God’s elect one, doing the job Israel should have done, it will be noted that election in the case of Christ has absolutely nothing to do with his own personal salvation. Christ himself does not need to be saved, or as Tom puts it on p. 839, does not need to be justified by faith. The issue here is not Christ’s faith or salvation, it is his faithfulness to fulfill the divine calling. Exactly so. But this should have warned us clear that too facile an association of the Biblical notions of election and the Biblical notions salvation are a mistake. The equation actually goes like this— Christ is the elect one, and if we are ‘in Christ’ we are among the elect (by grace and through faith, not by election) and thus we are destined in advance to be conformed to Christ’s image (see Rom. 8). Until that process is completed, salvation is not fully completed, but election happens immediately when we become ‘in Christ’, God’s chosen one, his elect one. This corporate notion of election, militates against the whole idea that God was in the business of choosing certain persons to be saved, to be in Christ from before the foundations of the world (no, the only person God picked before the foundations of the world was a person who existed then and could be picked then— Christ himself. This is what Ephes. 1 is all about). If Christ is the Elect One of God (and we only become among the elect by grace and through faith), Christ who himself did not need to be saved, then election is one thing, and salvation is another, both in the OT and the NT. This explains the connundrum as to how Paul can talk about individual Israel’s whom God foreknew would be among the elect group Israel in Rom.9-11, and yet then ended up not being saved. It also explains how he can talk about genuine Jewish olive branches being lopped off the tree, at least temporarily to make room for wild olive branches namely Gentiles, and then turn around and say but God can lop the Gentile branches off too, if they become unfaithful. Apparently being part of the elect group is not a guarantee of personal salvation, come what may, do what you will. No, faithfulness is required post conversion.

Was it really Israel’s job to save the world? Did God promise to save the world through Israel as Tom suggests? Not quite. They were called to bear witness to the light, to share the logia tou Theou’. They were in this sense to be a light to the nations. This frankly is only propadeutic to saving the nations, a task only God can do, and does do in this case through his Son, the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah is not taking on a task at which Israel miserably failed. In fact, they did a fair job of sharing God’s light with the world, as is attested in Paul’s own day by the numerous proselytes and God fearers. Only God saves, and they never saw it as any part of their mission to do God’s work for him. They were to be like John the Baptist, point away from themselves to the One who comes after them baptizing with the Spirit and fire. These distinctions are missed out by Tom when he blends all these different ideas together. Besides, as Paul allows, some Jews were not unfaithful to being the light of the world, as he admits in Romans 2-3. Only some were unfaithful. But all were sinners in one sense or another. The sin problem was one thing, the faithfulness problem another. The Messiah comes and deals with both, not because he becomes Israel (indeed Israel itself will be needing some saving thereafter), but because he is the seed of Abraham, the savior of the world. Jesus faithfully shares the logia tou theou, the Good News of the coming Kingdom and so sheds the light, but he also dies on the cross, and so saves sinners. These are two tasks, not one and the same task.

Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright--- Part Two
Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright-- Part Three
Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright--- Part One
Wisdom for the Fall

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