Israel and the Gospel According to St Paul

An increasing number of biblical scholars are finding the justification by faith model (JF) unpersuasive as a comprehensive way to understand the Apostle Paul. This first came to my attention early in my seminary education (back in the dark ages) when we were assigned Krister Stendahl’s important essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” JF is grounded upon a negative assessment of Torah and the Apostle’s alleged crisis of conscience: on the road to Damascus Saul realizes that, despite his vigorous efforts to obey the Law, he stood condemned by the Law and would always be condemned by the Law. “Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). No one can obey the Law perfectly, but it is precisely this perfect obedience that is necessary if anyone is to be enjoy a right relationship with God. Like Martin Luther 1500 years later, Saul of Tarsus discovers that the only solution to this existential crisis is faith, faith in the One who justifies apart from the works of the Law.

But, Stendahl observes, the New Testament provides little evidence that Paul ever struggled with guilt in the way that JF demands. In his Epistle to the Philippians Paul even says that as a Pharisee he was blameless before the Law. Evidently he did not suffer from a tortured conscience, at least not until he met the Lord and realized that as a persecutor of Christians he was in fact persecuting the risen Messiah of Israel.

A year or so after I read Stendahl, I read E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This book changed everything. Sanders confirmed what I suspected—ancient Judaism was not the legalistic, works-righteousness religion that advocates of JF typically maintained. His scholarship opened up fresh possibilities for integrating the theological convictions of Paul into a positive understanding of Israel, Torah, and the covenantal history of salvation. Over ten years would pass, but eventually I would be introduced to the writings of N. T. Wright. Wright is perhaps the foremost presenter of what Douglas Campbell calls the salvation history model (SH) for interpreting St Paul. Wright has written extensively on the Apostle, including Paul: In Fresh Perspective, What Saint Paul Really Said, and Justification; but his major work is due to be published later this year, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

The Salvation History Model

For the exponents of SH, “Paul is basically driven by his eschatological consciousness of mission within a broader historical schema linking salvific promise within Judaism to its fulfilment in the Messiah Jesus and the subsequent efforts of the early Christians in the church, who are now the new ‘people of God'” (Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, p. 37). Unlike JF, which centers on the individual’s repudiation of works-righteousness and surrender to Christ (“and so is inevitably committed to describing Paul’s Jewish experience in negative terms,” writes Campbell), SH employs a historical narrative of promise and fulfillment (p. 37). Romans 9-11 are foundational for SH reflection.

Wright’s ecclesial and covenantal construal of justification by faith exhibits the critical concerns of salvation history model:

How then does “justification by faith” actually work? … Paul has already spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people, on the basis of their whole life. This will take place at the end, when God judges the secrets of all hearts through the Messiah. The point of justification by faith is that, as he insists in [Romans] 3.26, it takes place in the present time as opposed to on the last day. It has to do with the question, “Who now belongs to God’s people?”, and “How can you tell?” The answer is: all who believe in the gospel belong, and that is the only way you can tell—not by who their parents were, or how well they have obeyed the Torah (or any other moral code), or whether they have been circumcised. Justification, for Paul, is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God. …

The point is that the word “justification” does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul, clearly and unambiguously, uses a different word for that, the word “call.” The word “justification,” despite centuries of Christian misuse, is used by Paul to denote that which happens immediately after the “call”: “those God called, he also justified” (Romans 8.30). In other words, those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people, his elect, “the circumcision,” “the Jews,” “the Israel of God.” They are given the status dikaios, “righteous,” “within the covenant.” (Paul, pp. 121-122)

For Paul justification is thus a way to speak of the legitimacy of admitting Gentiles into the Church without requiring circumcision and other Jewish identity markers. As one might expect, Wright has received vigorous criticism on this point from JF exegetes.

According to SH, the heart of Paul’s theology lies not with justification by faith but in the way God has worked in the history of Israel (Old Testament) and the Church (New Testament) for the good and salvation of the world, culminating in the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit. Each SH practioner develops the model in his own way, of course. Wright interprets the gospel of Paul as a fourfold announcement about Jesus:

1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically, in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

2. In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 60)

Campbell is sympathetic to the SH model but also critical. Both JF and SH share a prospective structure: both begin with the past and work their way forward. JF begins with the negative experience of life under the Law and moves forward to justification; SH begins with historical Israel and moves forward to the fulfillment of promise in Christ and the Church. But the third model to be considered works the other way around.

(Go to “Becoming a New Creation with the Apostle Paul”)

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9 Responses to Israel and the Gospel According to St Paul

  1. PJ says:

    I wonder if a sort of “compromise” between Reformed theology and classical catholic-orthodox theology might look something like this: The Law is good, as it comes from God, but that its very goodness proves the abject sinfulness of man. It forces man to recognize his own corruption and his need for a savior beyond himself — a savior who cannot be merited, but only received as gift. The proper “Christian posture” is therefore one of thankful openness to the Totally Other, who grants what is not earned. The gift of Christ’s meritorious work in life and death is what is called justification — His righteousness for your unrighteousness. The gift of the Spirit is what is called sanctification — His holiness for your sinfulness. Both the merit of Christ and the holiness of the Spirit are “claimed” by the Christian — that is, made personal — through the sacraments. For instance, the meritorious life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not simply “imputed,” but truly — if mystically — received in baptism.

    “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human beingc will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”


    • matthew n. petersen says:

      I’m curiouswhat you see as compromise in that–it sounds like Luther or Calvin to me.


  2. PJ says:

    How can one look like both Calvin and Luther? They differed significantly on major matters.
    Obviously, the sacramental realism of my proposed “reconciliation” is not Calvinistic, though it may be familiar to high church Lutherans. Then there’s the fact that I said nothing of double predestination, which is the lynchpin of Calvinism.


  3. Rhonda says:

    Calvin & Luther were contemporaries although Calvin was younger. Calvin was highly influenced by Luther & some of Calvin’s thought is an extension of Luther’s, take sanctification (defined as “obedience to God & holiness”) for example. Calvin believed that Luther had not gone far enough in his proposition of justification by faith. For Calvin justification by faith alone was not enough for salvation, but rather that the new believer then had to live a righteous life in obedience to God.

    Another similarity between Calvin & Luther is the role of the church. Luther originally did not desire the wholesale overthrow of the RCC, but rather that certain abuses & corruption be addressed. Interestingly Calvin also saw an important role of the local church in leadership, authority, & discipline in regulating & training believers even though he rejected the RCC doing the same, not to mention rejecting the RCC itself.

    A third close similarity pertains to Holy Scripture. Luther used Scripture as his basis to question much of what was happening in the RCC. Calvin also staunchly defended the use of Scripture & laid the foundations for & developed methods of Bible study & exposition.

    I haven’t had time to pull out my own references on Calvin vs. Luther so check out for a start:
    Church History Blog:John Calvin and Martin Luther – some differences


  4. PJ says:

    ” For Calvin justification by faith alone was not enough for salvation, but rather that the new believer then had to live a righteous life in obedience to God. ”

    Not exactly. Calvin believed that good works were gifts of the Spirit, given to the justified for the sanctification of the believer and the edification of the Church. That is, we are not justified by doing good; we do good because we are justified. “For by grace you have been saved athrough faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

    If there’s one thing I find pleasing about Reformed theology, it is its insistence that every good thing comes as a gift from the hand of God, not as wage but as grace.


  5. Has anyone read Wright? I’d be interested in your your thoughts about his views on the Apostle Paul.


    • deathbredon says:

      I have read Wright and others in the New Paul School, and they make a persuasive case that Paul was saying that communion in the Christian church depended on a person’s faith, not the ritual aspects of Torah or “works of the law,” such as circumcision or dietary rules. Hence, for Paul, and eventually the Church, Gentiles could not be excluded from the Table solely for not observing legal externalities–“works of the law.”. Instead, a sincere profession of Christian faith as well as keeping the internal moral principles of the law (Paul never waived those!) “justifies” admission into the ecclesia (though it hardly guarantees ultimate salvation).

      I personally suspect that Luther’s conception of justification by faith alone was a reaction against the accretion of many ritual prerequisites (fasting, auricular confession, etc.) for Communion that had risen up as some sort of new “works of law,” or legalistic externalities devoid of meaningful moral content. If so, then Paul’s theory of justification, as viewed by Wright and others, analogically supports Luther’s demand for reform.


  6. Dana Ames says:

    I’ve read lots of Wright. His Jesus work particularly (the “big books” – Christian Origins series) is responsible more than anything else for my entry into Orthodoxy. I am a female, and my journey in was theological all the way… 🙂 Wright certainly takes up Sanders’ work (which I have not read… yet… except for quotes) and runs with it. He’s also closer to Orthodoxy in that I see him as much less prospective than JF; in his Resurrection work, and his discussion of how the Gospels are the older tradition than the letters, even though they were written down later, he invites people to stand with the women who were given the news of the Resurrection, along with the first disciples, in their real disorientation, and see how things are worked out from the vantage point of the Cross/Resurrection.

    One thing that has always bothered and frustrated me, as someone who has learned a foreign language to fluency (German, though very much out of practice now) is that in English we have used 2 words to translate the Greek words with only one root, dik-: “justification,” derived from the Latin stream into English (the more “legal” sensibility), and “righteousness,” derived from the Germanic, with a slightly different, perhaps more “ontologic” flavor. Since none of the English translations has been able to use one group of related words to express the one group of related words in Greek, and under the influence of Wright, I have taken to reading all the dik- words, whether translated as “righteous-” or “justi-“, as variations of the English word “faithful.” (I read the pist- words as “trusting loyalty,” also under Wright’s more direct influence; he nudges people in that direction in various of his works.)

    This is why:
    if what God is up to is to call forth a humanity that is “his people, his elect, ‘the circumcision,’ … ‘the Israel of God,'” who have been constituted because of “his cross, the decisive victory … won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves,” and who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection;
    then the door is open for humans to be declared “righteous,” “within the covenant” as they are in a synergistic relationship with and obedience to the King of All, living in that faithfulness. Finally, a faithful humanity, beginning with and deriving from the Last Adam, the Truly Human Being and Faithful Israelite, who has done what all other humans, including the elect Children of Israel, could not do…

    So, I read the dik- words as describing the Church as the faithful, covenant people, constituted by God himself, first through the Incarnation (which I am hoping Wright will address when he gets around to the volume on the origins of the early Church – he has not really said much about its implications so far, though one can sense this thrumming underneath much of vols 2 & 3) and then through the rest of the Christ Event, which Wright also recognizes as including the Ascension and the Giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. His description of the forensic, “courtroom” meaning of the dik- words as the judge declaring about people now what he sees and knows about their faithfulness at the end, to me is also much more connected to faithfulness than to pardon. I think Paul calling humans “enemies of God” is more to do with how we view God than how God views us.

    I think part of the difficulty we have talking about “justification by faith” is that that the dik- words, whether translated with the “righteous-” stem or the “justi-” stem, have been used so long in the post-Reformation sense, that we automatically assume we all know what we’re talking about when we use it. Kind of like the word “gospel” … or, as is the point of the Christian Origins series, the word “god”… I think the overall sensibility of the phrase “justification by faith” is much more coherent and integrated, not only with Paul but with the Gospels and the Jewish setting of them all, if read as “God’s declaration of the faithfulness of a unique person/community on the basis of Christ’s trusting loyalty/faithfulness and the humans’ synergistic participation in that trusting loyalty.” That’s pretty unwieldy, though 🙂

    Thanks for tackling this, Father. Sorry to be so long-winded.



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