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

Tom is right to stress that the notion of pistis Christou is not a comment on Jesus’ faith in God, his religious awareness or even his trust of God as opposed to his own good works, or anything of that sort. No, it has to do with the faithfulness of Christ to fulfill God’s purpose for him, including dying on the cross. On p. 841 he has once more explained his understanding of the righteousness of God as having to do with: 1) the divine character rather than a status of righteousness imputed or given to humans; 2) he takes this righteousness of God to entail or focus on his faithfulness to the covenant, and 3) more specifically to the covenant promises,to bless the nations through Israel, and 4) to bless and be faithful to the whole of creation.

On p. 842 however we get things a little muddled by saying that Christ is simply being faithful to the task which Israel has been unfaithful in. Tom asks why faithfulness is the term Paul uses to even talk about Jesus’ willing death on the cross. He assumes it is called this because it is the antonym of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the task. However there are two problems with this deduction: 1) Paul also calls Jesus’ death on the cross an act of Christ’s obedience in Phil. 2.5-11. God never required Israel to die on a cross for the sins of the world. That was no part of their mission of being a light to the nations. And 2) one thus suspects that Paul uses the term faithful as a synonym for obedient. Christ was faithful to obey God’s demand that he offer himself on the cross. In other words, this faithfulness and obedience has to do with Christ’s relationship with God, not with his running with the ball that Israel dropped. Perhaps nearer the mark is Tom’s observation on p. 843 that ‘obedience’ and faithfulness are more likely to reflect the contrast between Adam and Christ, rather than Israel and Christ. But Adam is nowhere to be found in Phil.2.5-11 (see previous blog posts). Adam is found in the rhetorical comparison by contrast in Rom. 5.12-21, and it should be noted that neither Adam nor Israel were called upon to save the world, but they were both called upon to obey God and be faithful. In short the language of obedience and faithfulness is characteristic of any and all God talk when it comes to referring to how humans should related to God. It does not echo a particular paragon or pariah to which Christ could be compared or contrasted. Abraham, it will be remembered, not Adam and not Israel, is the exemplar of faith for Paul. The phrase the obedience of faith in Rom. 1.5 and 16.26 is raised in the context of this discussion by Tom.

Tom suggests on p. 843 that ‘sin’ which is barely mentioned directly as the term hamartia’s absence shows, is probably a summary term for idolatry and immorality as described in Rom. 1.18-26. Not surprisingly, when it comes to the crucial Rom.. 3.21-26, Tom says you have to look to the end of the paragraph to see where Paul is going, and according to him that end should be rendered “that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus”.

Equally unsurprising is how Tom sees this important paragraph as alluding to the Exodus Sinai events, as well as to the offering of sacrifices in the Tabernacle. But a closer look at the paragraph suggests that while God had previously passed over sin (a possible allusion to the passover event in Egypt) he could not do that forever but rather had to deal with it through the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus himself. The emphasis here, clearly enough is on what was now the case because of Jesus’ death, and the passover allusion has to do not with Jesus’ death, but with what came before. The death of Jesus himself provides the real redemption, the real atonement, as the text suggests. Tom is right that hilasterion here refers to the place where in the Tabernacle atonement was made and hence mutatis mutandis to the propitiatory atonement itself. Not satisfied with this, Tom goes on to suggest that Paul has in mind the somewhat atoning deaths of Jewish martyrs here (see the Macc. literature), but actually this idea is nowhere in sight here. The focus is not on Israel atoning for the world’s sin, either in the Maccabean literature or here. This suggestion comes once more from the mistaken notion that Christ=Israel here and elsewhere, and therefore we are entitled to read this text in light of such martyr literature. Israel, to stress once more, was not called upon the die for the sins of the world, just to be the light of the world. Nearer to the point is possible Is. 53 background here. I would stress however again, that the suffering servant of Is. 52-53 is in this case not Israel writ large, but rather the representative, the messianic figure from Israel. It is not all Israel that is said to suffer and die, but her representative.

p. 846 presents us with a key thesis summary of this whole book– “The covenantal perspective on election and its redefinition through Jesus the Messiah provides the larger category within which ‘juridical’ and ‘participationist’ categories can be held together in proper Pauline relation.” Faith then (see p. 847) becomes the one and only badge or boundary mark that sets apart the people of God in Christ. The covenantal charter is grounded in faith itself, not works of the Mosaic Law. One is reckoned to be among that saved group by faith and thereby declared forgiven, justified etc. Tom wants to put the matter this way: “Monotheism undergirds not only election, but also the christologically redefined election: that God will justify circumcision on the basis of pistis, and uncircumcision through pistis. Same badge, different routes: Jews already covenant members need to be freshly ratified, while gentiles, coming in from outside, need to make their entrance.” (p. 848). The problem is, Paul says that Jews need to re-enter too by grace through faith as well, precisely the Mosaic covenant is over and done with through the death of Jesus. Jews are not simply being given a further merit badge called faith in Christ to a sash they were already wearing. No, they are being asked to join the new covenant just as Gentiles are a covenant not linked to the Mosaic one but rather to the Abrahamic one, not least because, Abraham was not a Jew, and therefore both Jews and Gentiles can claim their heritage through being heirs of Abraham. The one covenant in many iterations or renewals or multiple ratifications does not conjure with the real nature of ancient covenanting as Paul and other NT writers saw it.

On p. 848 we see again the problem with too closely equating covenant faithfulness with the righteousness of God. In Abraham’s case circumcision is a seal of the preexisting righteousness of faith. This is precisely the point Paul will make in Gal. 4. The subsequent covenanting and especially the subsequent law covenanting with Moses do not come before the ‘he was reckoned righteous’ story in Gen. 12. Righteousness is connected with Abraham’s pre-existing faith, just as God’s righteousness, while certain expressed through God’s covenants with his people, is an essential element of his character prior to making any covenant arrangements. Thus when we see the phrase the righteousness of God, or even the righteousness of Abraham, we cannot simply subsume these things under the heading of keeping the covenant or covenant faithfulness. That dog just won’t hunt. Proper distinctions need to be maintained.

On pp. 849-850, Tom stresses that the big issue in Rom. 4 is not how then shall we be justified, but rather who are the children of Abraham (answer everyone who by faith is credited with righteousness and becomes such children). An interesting point of comparison between Abraham and Christians arises on p. 850– Abraham trusted God to provide new life, offspring for him in the form of Isaac, and this was counted as righteousness just as Christians are credited with righteousness for believing that God the life-giver raised Jesus himself from the dead. Footnote to this ‘counted as righteousness’ is what is being said here, not ‘counted as right standing’. It is an open question which Paul is emphasizing in Rom. 4. Is this really an argument about justification, to put it in the old way, or is it about our faith counting as righteousness?

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