Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Fifty

It is well to remind ourselves where exactly we are in this lengthy discussion. We are in the midst of dealing with Tom’s views about how Paul reworked the concept of election around Messiah and Spirit. It is in that context that he wants to place the discussion about justification and being in Christ. He is not happy with a simply equating of justification with salvation.

For Tom, salvation in the Pauline thought world falls under the category of the reworking of the doctrine of election as well. And he insists on talking about that within the context of God’s plan in and for and through Israel, with the rubric of ‘covenant’ used as the broad category under which all of this comes. Justification and incorporation and salvation then remain rooted in the promises made to Abraham and his seed. What does this mean for ethnic Israel?
“this vision does not supplant ethnic Israel in favor of the ‘church’ but rather sees ethnic Israel and its election summed up… in its Messiah and his death and resurrection, generating then an Israel which is then defined through…and in relationship to him.. as Israel’s Messiah.” (pp. 912-13). The net effect of this definition is that ethnic Israel has no future outside of Christ. Indeed, it has no existence outside of Christ.

On p. 913ff. Tom laments that justification has sometimes wrongly been used as a cipher for the whole of salvation. He is of course right about this. The term has been used both too broadly, and too loosely. He thus objects to Gorman’s suggestion that justification and reconciliation are basically synonymous.

He cites approvingly Michael Bird to the effect that when Paul uses the term Gospel, he means the story of Jesus, not justification. So for instance the summary of the Gospel in Rom. 1.1-6 and 1 Cor. 15.1-8 tell the tale of God’s Son, the Son of David who died, rose, and was declared to be the risen Lord. This is the Gospel. This message far transcended the notion of how an individual gets saved (p. 916). So in dealing with Rom. 1.16-17 he says those verses describe the effect of the Gospel, not the Gospel itself which was mentioned in Rom. 1.3-4– “The gospel is not itself how to be saved or how to be justified. The gospel is God’s good news promised long ago about the dying and rising son, the Messiah, the lord of the world” (p. 916), and when this message is announced things happen– namely the Word and the Spirit go work and people do get saved. He stresses that the Spirit is not a further gift beyond initial Christian experience or even initial Christian faith, but “is rather the life-giving energy by which someone is enabled… to believe that the one God raised Jesus and to confess that Jesus is Lord.” (p. 917).

This observation sometimes leads to doubtful exegesis. Take for instance Tom’s reading of Gal. 3.2– “Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or ‘by the message which produced faith'” This translation however is very likely wrong. Paul is contrasting two human activities— works of the law, and hearing with faith. He is not saying that the message itself produced faith. To the contrary he is talking what kind of hearing led to the receiving of the Spirit– namely hearing with a willingness to believe and receive. This kind of translation of course comes from the notion that salvation is a matter of God picking and choosing individuals and enabling them to believe and be saved. This is precisely why this discussion takes places in the context of Tom’s discussion of election. It will be seen however that: 1) the majority of the Galatians were Gentiles to whom God owed nothing, and their salvation had nothing to do with covenant faithfulness by God; 2) Paul says absolutely nothing about election in Gal. 3.1-2, indeed he discusses this matter about receiving the Spirit before he talks about Abraham; and 3) as 1 Thess. 1.5 word is one thing, power is another and so when we have the combination not merely in word, but in power and in the Spirit, Paul means something like the powerful Spirit has used the word of the Good News as the means of bringing people to Christ. It does not means ‘the message itself produced faith’. One more thing. The faith Gal. 3.1-2 is talking about is a human response to what was heard. This faith has to be exercised by the person in question. The message does not produce the faith, the message prompts the faithful response (or not). Of course it is true that no one can truly confess Jesus is Lord except by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit is not doing the confessing, and the confessor has choice about whether to respond positively to the enabling and prompting of the Spirit or not. In other words, it is not about divine fiat and divine choice simpliciter. It is about call and response, about the initiation of a personal relationship which is both freeing and involves an enabled free choice by the responder. God is not the Godfather, and he does not ‘make you an offer you can’t refuse’.

As p. 922ff. show, time and again Tom comes back to the discussion of the end of Rom.2 as a linch pin to his argumentation about Israel now being those in Christ aka the church. However the argument, and it is a hypothetical argument, Paul is having at the end of that chapter is with a Jew. Not a Christian, but a Jew. And part of the hypothetical character of the argument is saying to the Jewish teacher he is having this dialogue and diatribe with– a Jew is not one outwardly only, but inwardly as well. Not just circumcision of the body matters, but circumcision of the heart. Paul envisions the godly god-fearer, who none the less has not gotten physically circumcised and yet puts the circumcised Jew who does not keep the Law to shape. This is not because there is no value in physical circumcision as Paul goes on to say. But it has to be accompanied by the circumcision of the heart, and a God-fearer may well have the latter and put to shame the ethnic Jew. The contrast here is not between secret and obvious Jews, but between a Jew who has the outward manifestations, even in the flesh, of being a Jew, and a person who inwardly lives according to the Law, reflecting the circumcision of the heart. This is a part of a leveling argument, and it is not a contrast between Christians (who have the circumcision of the heart) and Jews (mere formalists who do not keep the Law from the heart). Paul is criticizing a Jewish teacher and referring to hypocrisy, and how, though this teacher fancies himself a teacher of Gentiles, some of those God-fearing Gentiles may already be putting him to shame. The contrast is between a hypocritical Jewish teacher, and a godly God-fearer, not Jews vs. Christians. (See Witherington Romans pp. 87-93).

On p. 925 n.426 Tom seeks to stress that while he and Jimmy Dunn have been lumped together under the banner ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ nonetheless he says he has as many disagreements as agreements with Jimmy on things.

On p. 926ff. Tom lays out a seven step sequence or narratival procession of thought which will show where he thinks justification fits (as step seven at the end of the process) into Paul’s thought world. Step one is God intends to remake his creation. Step 2 is, for this to happen human beings have to be put right. Step 3 is, God’s way of accomplishing this is the through the covenant. He notes that early Jewish literature does not talk about justification by grace through faith, basically. On p. 929 he asks the question whether Paul invented this idea, or created it out of nothing? Clearly he does not think the latter is true. In our next post we will explore why.

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