John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift— Part Sixteen

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BEN: It seems to me hard to doubt that when the term dikaiosune comes up in a context in which the subject is in part the works of the law, that this term has some moral or ethical meaning, not a forensic meaning especially when the subject of transgression also comes up in Paul’s thesis statement in Gal. 2..15-21. I thus found your paraphrase on p. 371 interesting, translating ‘righteous’ as ‘valuable’ and the Torah as arbiter of ‘worth’, instead of ‘righteousness’. Can you explain briefly why you picked these terms as an adequate translation for the dikaio— words here?

JOHN: To be ‘righteous’ is to be in accord with the social or moral order, the two often intertwined. So to be righteous can mean to be in the clear/in the right legally, but also ‘proper’ morally, or more generally in good standing. Thus I would not put a sharp distinction between ethical and forensic/legal meanings of the term: they are both aspects of being ‘in line with the proper order of things’. Now, what matters in Galatians 2 is who is ‘in the right’ in the sight of God, that is, who is in alignment with God’s order of things. As you say, the opposite is to be a sinner or transgressor (2.18) – someone who is ‘out of order’ with God. Peter and co. behave as if it is out of order with God to eat with Gentiles, or to disregard the Torah, as if the practice of the Torah (the works of the Law) were the definition of what is in accord with God’s order. Paul says, no: we know that the person in accord with God’s order is the person who has faith in Christ – the person who is aligned, if you like, with God’s new order in Christ. The question is: what counts before God? What does God consider properly ordered? I tried to express that by saying that to be considered ‘righteous’ is being considered ‘valuable’ or ‘of worth’ before God, because this is about who is ‘in the right’ and therefore who is fit for salvation.

BEN: On pp. 373-77 we have some helpful detailed discussion of key terms and phrases in Galatians. What I find interesting is that you seem to have opted for what could be a called a very traditional view of the meaning of the phrase ‘works of the Law’ as well as for the phrase ‘the faith of Christ’. Your extended discussion on the dikaio- words produced some surprises for me. On the one hand you want to argue that these words have the same semantic range and force in Paul as they do in other early Jewish literature, but on the other hand on p. 377 you admit that in some of the literature the term ‘righteous’ is applied not as some legal verdict, but as a statement about the character of a person which makes them a fit recipient of salvation etc. Granted that sometimes this language involves a social evaluation (so one would ask—righteous in the eyes of whom), but it seems to me that this cannot be the case always. For example ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans is surely not a reference to how others evaluate God or his character. It is not a legal evaluation either. It’s a moral statement, which is then backed up by a discussion of the wrath of God against wickedness in Rom. 1.18-31. In other words, it is not always the case that ‘righteous’ means ‘to be reckoned as righteous’ by some other party, but actually to be righteous. Could you expand a bit more on your views on these crucial terms? I am interested in the ‘range’ of the way the word group is used in Paul.

JOHN: A complex topic! But following on from what I said above, to be righteous is to be in accord with the proper order of things, and God’s righteousness means God’s proper ordering of things. This has, of course, moral components, but Paul’s use of the term, like the use of the equivalents in the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, means more than just ‘morally righteous’ (as if there were some external measure of righteousness to which God had to conform), but the proper ordering of creation and history. Hence God’s righteousness can mean his saving power which restores things to their proper order. Paul can speak both of the righteousness of God and the faithfulness of God (Rom 3.3-5) because they are both about God being true to the order he has created and promised in the world; and if God is ‘justified’ in his words’ (Rom 3.4) that means to be proven right or shown to act consistently with the order he has established. That order has both moral and covenantal components: moral in the judging of all that is against his order (hence wrath against sin) and covenantal in the sense of being true to his promises. Unlike NT Wright, I don’t think ‘the righteousness of God’ means ‘the covenant faithfulness of God’ but I think that faithfulness to his promises is one of the ways in which God stays true to the order of things that he has established. Another is his judgement against sin (which is disobedience to his order of things).

BEN: On p. 378 n. 73 you seem to be saying ‘people are considered and counted righteous because they have been given the gift of salvation in Christ which has changed them, and therefore the term ‘righteous’ is appropriately applied to them. If I’m understanding you, you are saying that Paul is not talking about a legal fiction here (and in any case the language of reckoning, and counting in favor of is not legal language, it’s business language, which Paul knew perfectly well) but rather an after the fact evaluation based on a real change in the person’s life. Is this what you are suggesting? Again on p. 380 you say “Christ-faith is a sign of a prior transformation”. If so, are you implying that they have been ‘made righteous’ by conversion or the new creation? Does the change not merely involve status or evaluation but also condition? What is entailed in this being a new creature in Christ beyond a new way of looking at person, or evaluating oneself?

JOHN: Paul says that someone is considered righteous (in accord with the proper order of things) by God when they have faith in Christ. I want to avoid giving the impression that it is their act of faith that someone puts them in accord with God’s order, because of course faith is only an acknowledgement of what God has done in Christ – it is trust in God’s act, not a special kind of act of our own. There is no legal fiction here (nor, of course, in the Reformation understanding of things, different from mine as that is): God reckons someone who has faith in Christ ‘in the right’ because that faith is the appropriation and recognition of the saving act of Christ; it is the expression of the new life that comes from the resurrection (‘Christ in me’). The life Paul lives in faith (2.20) is the life of Christ within, and God considers someone properly ordered (righteous) when the self has been crucified with Christ and remade in Christ, which is what faith represents. The new life in Christ is not a matter of bare status or legal evaluation: it is the reality of the life of the Spirit creating a new person. It is Christ being formed within (4.19), with all the implications that carries for a change in life-style, value-system, allegiance, and identity.

BEN: What I find a bit puzzling about the whole donnybrook over ‘pistis Christou’ is that at the end of the day, both sides recognize of course that there is both an objective and a subjective dimension to salvation— it involves both what Christ has already done on the cross and in the resurrection, and also it involves believing in and trusting that truth as well. Not one or the other but both. Both sides also agree that salvation is not offered on the basis of worthiness or merit, in the Pauline discourse. The divine initiative involves incongruous grace to use your language. What is less clear in your discussion is the whole matter of exercising one’s faith in Jesus. By this I mean ‘Christ-faith’ is not seen as a passive thing by Paul, but an active appropriation of Christ and his benefits. God in Christ doesn’t believe or trust for us. We ourselves must do it. We must unwrap the gift and use it— to use an analogy. How does faith work, in your taxonomy of things?

JOHN: I agree that it is not ultimately helpful to pit the agency of the believer against the agency of God: all we do depends on what God has done, but Paul has no difficulty speaking about what ‘we’ do in the wake of that. But faith means primarily trust – in other words, the word itself points away from ourselves to what God has done and is doing, so that faith is precisely not an achievement that ‘we’ perform, but, as I put it, a declaration of bancrupty, a reception of worth as a gift from God. ‘Unwrapping and using the gift’ sounds a bit too much to me like God makes the first move and then we, from our own resources, make the second. The ‘we’ who use the gift are the remade and recreated ‘we’ whose life is centred in and dependent on the life of the Spirit or the resurrected Christ.

BEN: It seems reasonably clear to me that Paul already in 2.15-21 is making statements on the basis of his two covenants argument he will advance more clearly in Gal. 4. By this I mean, Paul believes that Jesus fulfilled and thus brought to completion the requirements of the Mosaic covenant through his death on the cross, and that therefore, that covenant is no longer binding, even on Jewish followers of Christ like himself. It is, to use the language of 2 Cor. 3-4, a covenant on the way to becoming obsolete, a covenant of fading glory. Thus Paul is able to make radical statements like ‘we would be considered sinners like the Gentiles for eating as they do and with them, were it the case that that sort of covenantal law still applied. But in fact, it is defunct, since now we have a right relationship with God through faith in Christ (and the faithfulness of Christ) and not through continuing to do works of the Mosaic law.’ This is, on any showing, a radical argument, but no more radical than when he groups together Mt. Sinai, the present Jerusalem, the Mosaic covenant, with Hagar and slavery in Gal.4! Why do you think it is that in the New Perspective discussions, so often there is an attempt to tone down or damp down Paul’s radical theology at this point, by Dunn and others as well?

JOHN: I agree with you that the allegory in 4.21 – 5.1, far from being an adornment to the argument, actually brings to the surface much of the argument of the whole letter. (I have a PhD student, Samuel Tedder, arguing just this in his thesis.) Galatians 3-4 is dominated by the argument that the Mosaic Torah is time-limited: it started after Abraham and its period of work (as child-minder) comes to an end with Christ: you are no longer ‘under the Torah’. There is a hint of another, complementary argument, that what the Law really wanted is fulfilled as you walk in the Spirit in love (5.14) – an argument that becomes much louder and fuller in Romans. The two go together (you fulfil what the Law requires at the same time as its period of authority comes to an end), but if the second is taken on its own, it can look like an argument for continuity rather than discontinuity. Calvin, who took Paul’s talk of ‘law’ to mean God’s ordering of the cosmos (not the time-limited Mosaic covenant), could not see how there could be discontinuity in law between the beginning of time and the end, and thus the Reformed tradition has tended to downplay, or reinterpret, what Paul says about dying to the Law (2.19) or no longer being under it (5.18). Dunn (and in a different way Wright) are influenced by that Reformed tradition (hence Wright’s acclamation of Cranfield’s commentary on Romans) but to me there is no doubt that Paul thinks the Sinai/Mosaic regime of authority is over, after the Christ event, even if some of the contents of the Law turn out to be what is also affirmed by life in the Spirit and in Christ.