NT Wright on Abraham’s Faith

Here are a couple of critical observations on NT Wright’s understanding of Abraham’s faith. I’m reflecting on Wright’s Romans commentary, and I offer these criticisms (to say it yet again) as one who thinks that much of what Wright writes is right.

1) Wright’s conception of faith as a “badge” has always seemed a bit odd to me. But it becomes more odd when he discusses the relationship between circumcision and Abraham’s faith, and draws out the analogy between baptism and faith. Of Abraham’s circumcision, Wright says, “Faith is the indication of covenant membership, and circumcision was supposed to be a pointer to that status and, apparently, to that mode of indication” ( Romans , p. 494). So, faith is already for Abraham the indicator of covenant membership. He says that, mutatis mutandis, this applies to the relationship of baptism and faith: “There may be a hint here, also, that Paul is thinking of baptism as the Christian version of circumcision ?Ea pointer to the covenant status people have in Christ, by the Spirit, and whose badge is Christian faith” (p. 495).

Yet, at other times, Wright implies, as I read him, that faith is the badge that replaces circumcision in the New Israel. In What Saint Paul Really Said , Wright says that “justification apart form the works of the law” means that the righteous are not marked out by the Jewish “badges” of covenant membership: “The badges of membership by which some Jews had sought to demarcate themselves in the present time, ahead of the eschatological verdict, were focused upon the works of the law — the works, that is, which markes them out as covenant-keepers, as true Israle. The ‘works of the law’ – sabbath, food-laws, circumcision – thus enabled them to attain a measure in the present of what is to come in the future” (p. 132). For Paul, however “covenant membership was defined by the gospel itself, that is, by Jesus Christ. The badge of membership, the thing because of which one can tell in the present who is within the eschatological covenant people, was of course faith, the confession that Jesus is Lord and the believe that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9) . . . . [Faith] is not something one does in order to gain admittance into the covenant people. It is the badge that proclaims that one is already a member” (p. 132).

But there seems to be some tension between this statement of the operation of faith and the statements from the Romans commentary. In the Romans commentary, circumcision is a “pointer” to the badge of faith, but the real defining mark of Israel since the time of Abraham was faith. In What Saint Paul Really Said , Wright seems to be saying that there has been a CHANGE in the badges – from “works of Torah” to faith. Perhaps Wright intends to say that the use of “works of Torah” as “badges” of covenant membership was ALWAYS mistaken, that they were always to function as pointers to faith. In my reading, the point is ambiguous.

2) Ironically, in a passage where Wright is seeking to establish his continuity with Protestant views of justification he raises questions about whether he holds a Protestant view of justification. Abraham’s faith, Wright argues, is not meritorious but a “response to grace . . . the grace that had called him in the first place.” He did not earn special favor by faith; rather, “precisely this sort of faith, evoked by sheer grace, is evidence of that redemption and renewal of humanity as a result of which there appears evidence of a human life back on track, turned from idolatry to the worship of the true God, from disbelief to faith and from corruption to fruitfulness. Faith is the sign of life; life is the gift of God. Justification is God’s declaration that where this sign of life appears, the person in whom it appears is within the covenant” ( Romans , p. 501).

He is still talking about Abraham, and, as I’ve suggested in several earlier posts, this description fits Abraham ?Ewho was a worshiper of God long before he was declared just. And Wright is surely not suggesting any kind of justification by human merit of any sort. But Wright appears to be more Augustinian or even Thomistic than historically Protestant here (at least, “Protestant” as many in my own tradition define it): Justification is a declaration concerning a person in whom renewal has already begun, rather than a declaration that precedes any renewal. Further, at this point Wright seems to be turning back to treating Abraham as an “example” rather than the basis of an argument about “who God is and who God’s people are” (p. 495). What, after all, are we to say about Isaac, who receives circumcision ?Ea sign of righteousness ?Eprior to any beginning of renewal or evidence of faith? Surely, on Wright’s definition, Isaac would, from the beginning, have been considered “righteous” in Wright’s terminology, that is, would have been regarded and reckoned as being “within the covenant.” For Isaac, justification (again using Wright’s definition) would not have been a declaration in response to the appearance of “signs of life.”

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