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

Tom, on p. 984, makes much of Phil. 3.2 ‘we are the circumcision’. He is right that this is a statement about who is part of the new covenant community, namely all Jews and Gentiles who confess Christ and have been indwelt by the Spirit, and worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. It will be noted that what Paul is talking about with this metaphor (for his audience is not all Jews, and indeed Paul warns against the Judaizers whom he calls polemically ‘the mutilators of the flesh’) is those who have experienced the circumcision of the heart, whether Jew or Gentile. Tom takes the statement ‘we are the circumcision’ to be basically equivalent to ‘we are Israel’, but in fact Paul never makes that equation. He is talking about new covenant membership, membership in the ekklesia tou Theou, which he specifically avoids calling Israel. Notice how clearly he distinguishes this spiritual circumcision from being part of Israel. Only two verses later (Phil. 3.4), when Paul trots out his own distinctly Jewish pedigree he says he (and not most of his audience) was circumcised on the 8th day and is ‘of the people of Israel’ which most definitely cannot be equated with the church here any more than the phrase ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’ means either a Christian or even a Jewish Christian. Nope. Paul distinguishes what he says in 3.2 from what he claims about his old identity in 3.4.

There is a further problem with this whole line of argument as well. Tom makes much of the fact that Paul is talking about covenant membership and NOT salvation here. Wrong. He is talking about both, as is clear from his remarks in the previous chapter where he exhorts ‘work our your salvation….’ Obviously, salvation is another what of talking about the circumcision of the heart and thus about how inclusion happens in the new covenant. One gets into the new elect group by the work of grace/ the Spirit, and through faith in Jesus. Definitely not by joining Israel as defined in Phil. 3.4. So Tom is right that election is now redefined around Christ, who, be it noted, is not called by Paul the true Israelite, any more than Christians are called that. All persons who worship by the Spirit of God are those who are in ekklesia, in Christ. Is then the coming of Messiah and Spirit the entire fulfillment of Israel’s hope (p. 985)? The problem with inaugurated eschatology, is that sometimes it is expressed in ways that make it sound like over-realized eschatology. And I would say this is one of the problems with Tom’s emphases in this tome. He does not deny final eschatology at all, but he places the stress entirely elsewhere, and in doing so, neglects the strong stress in the NT on future eschatology. But we will see what happens in the next chapter where he is slated to address this, and perhaps correct the imbalance seen heretofore.

I would stress that the coming of Christ and the Spirit is only the beginning of said fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Not the replacement of the hope but the beginning of the fulfillment, which is not completed until Christ returns, turns away the impiety of Jacob, Israel is saved, the dead are raised, and so on.

On p. 985 we begin to fully see why Tom has said what he has about inaugurated eschatology: “it is impossible to imagine [Paul], or any second Temple Jew, in a comparable position, supposing that this Messiah could have his followers while ‘Israel’ could carry on as though nothing had happened. That indeed would be the route to the true ‘supercessionism’ the idea that Jesus had started a new movement discontinuous with Israel’s history from Abraham to the present.”

The problem with this pronouncement is, what Paul actually says is that Jews who have rejected Jesus have been temporarily broken off from the people of God, but can be grafted back in by grace through faith in Jesus, just as Gentiles were grafted into the people of God that way. In other words, God is not finished with ethnic Israel yet, and will not be before Christ returns. As Paul says, the full number of the Gentiles must first come into the people of God, and then these broken off Jewish branches can be reintegrated into the people of God (see my Romans commentary). The future of Israel then and now is in Christ. But in the mean time, there still is an Israel which still carries on without its Messiah, still Torah-centric, having rejected him. This grieves Paul no end, but Paul’s answer to the question– Has God then reneged on his promises made to Israel(before the coming of Christ), has God then turned his back on his first chosen people, is an emphatic NO! Romans 9-11 must be given their due, and a wrong reading of that linch pin text at the end of Romans 2 (especially 2.29) leads one in the wrong direction on this matter. If Paul were pressed to answer the question ‘who is true and faithful Israel now’, he would say it was Jewish Christians, not all Christians. They are the root that maintains the continuity between the old and the new people of God which is Jew and Gentile united in Christ. In Paul’s view this is not about supercessionism, its about completionism or fulfillment.

Notice how on p. 987 Tom insists on translating the word righteousness in Phil. 3.4-11 with the phrase covenant faithfulness. Leaving aside that Paul’s Gentile audience would be unlikely to decode that paragraph in that way (righteousness in the Gentile world having either to do with moral character and so, a virtue– the just person, the righteous people, or to do with forensic righteousness in a law court). But this will not do. Paul is contrasting a form of righteousness that has to do with law-keeping of Torah with a form that does not. The proof that he is not talking about ‘covenant faithfulness’ by the righteousness language here is precisely what he says about himself— when it comes to a righteousness or righteous status that comes from law-keeping ‘I was blameless’. It is the ‘I’, Paul himself, not all Christians, only a Pharisaic Jew like Paul, that is under discussion at that point. Paul says that sort of righteousness is attained by keeping the law and avoiding breaking it, and so the law could not accuse him of being to blame for something. This had nothing to do with whether Paul was in the covenant or out of it. It had to do with whether he was a good Jew or not when it came to his conduct! It is simply impossible to read Phil. 3.4ff. the way Tom wants to read it. It will not do. By contrast there is the righteousness which comes through the faithfulness of Christ, a reference to the death of Jesus. This righteousness is from God, and here Paul is most definitely referring not merely to one’s new status of right standing with God, though that is included, but as he goes on to say ‘knowing the power of his resurrection’ working in Paul at that very moment, producing in him a more Christ like character, so he will be like ‘The Righteous One’ Jesus. Interestingly, Paul sees his sufferings for Christ or even with Christ as part of what is conforming him to the righteous image of Christ. Tom tries to avoid this whole like of approach by suggesting (p. 989) that ‘righteousness that comes from the law’ and ‘blamelessness’ is not about keeping the Law, or amassing merit etc. by good behavior. He wants it to be about demonstrating through Torah praxis one’s covenant membership. Obviously it involves the latter, but one cannot dismiss the element of Torah piety, Torah zeal that involves a certain code of conduct, certain kinds of righteous and moral behavior. One cannot simply divide the moral portions of the law from the ritual law, or the covenant keeping parts of the law from its’ moral elements and efforts. Blameless is a legal judgment in regard to keeping the Law. It is not the equivalent of saying ‘you are a Jew’, or ‘you are in the covenant. It is is a way of saying you are a Torah-true Jew. Here Boeckmuehl is much nearer the mark, and Dunn as well.

I am with Tom in stressing that the phrase ‘a righteousness which comes from God’ does indeed mean ‘from God’. It is a reference to a righteousness which the believer has been given. I would not say it refers however only to right standing with God, or being set right by God because it has to do not with just a one time act of God, but a quality or property that now characterizes US. The righteousness that comes from God both sets us right, and makes us righteous like Christ, its about being conformed to his image. It is not simply equivalent to ‘you’re in the covenant’ though that is of course implied as well. In fact in n. 616 on p. 991 Tom makes the very good point against Schreiner that saying that divine righteousness is a gift definitely doesn’t place it within the forensic category. Rightly Tom asks— what is forensic about a gift. Forensic has to do with a legal declaration, or giving some one their just due. This is why I would prefer to say that Paul is talking about our being set right with God through the death and res. of Jesus, and our being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ the righteous one. Tom is also right to link the discussion in Phil. 3 with what is said in Phil. 1.6– ‘He who has begun a good work in you will complete it by the day of Jesus. Exactly. This is not a reference to final justification but rather to ongoing renovation of character, mind, heart, will etc.

Tom is right on p. 988 that faith is described as a kind of knowing, in this case knowing God, or at least a means of knowing God and that too is an ongoing proposition as Paul grows in grace (and in the knowledge of God).


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