Ruminating Romans: The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification

But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice has been displayed. God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory—and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26)

“Romans has suffered for centuries,” complains N. T. Wright, “from being made to produce vital statements on questions it was not written to answer” (NIB, X:403). I suspect that this complaint can be made just about any biblical book or passage that is important to the life and theology of the Church; but it stands nonetheless. It is inevitable and proper that we put questions to the Bible that the original authors and redactors never entertained—after all, the Bible is Scripture, not artifact (and this is the critical weakness in Wright’s sola scriptura hermeneutics)—yet if we are consumed by our own questions and never seek to understand the Apostle Paul on his own historical terms, then we will remain oblivious to the real Saul/Paul who was whipped, imprisoned, and executed for the Lord he loved so much.

Since the 16th century, Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians have fiercely debated the Pauline teaching that we are justified by faith, not works. What does it mean? From Augustine to Luther to the ecumenical present, theologians have understood justification to refer to the process of how human beings are saved, both in the present and at the final judgment. “We are justified by faith alone!” “We are justified by faith informed by love!” “We are justified by faith and works!” Theologians and Churches can point to New Testament texts to support their respective positions; but Wright is convinced that we are all misinterpreting the Apostle. Paul is neither addressing the heresy of Pelagianism (Augustine) nor wrestling with the problem of legalism, merit, and the assurance of salvation (Luther) nor describing the process of redemption (Aquinas and Calvin). He is asking and answering, rather, a very different, first-century Jewish question.

If you respond that the entire epistle to the Romans is a description of how persons become Christians, and that justification is central there, I will answer … that this way of reading Romans has systematically done violence to that text for hundreds of years, and that it is time for the text itself to be heard again. Paul does indeed discuss the subject-matter which the church has referred to as “justification” [i.e., the personal appropriation of the saving action of God], but he does not use ‘justification’ language for it. … People may or not agree with Augustine, Luther or anyone else about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ; but he does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process. Instead, he speaks of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, the work of the spirit, and the entry into the common life of the people of God. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.117)

What then does Paul mean when he speaks of justification by faith? Paul’s understanding of justification, Wright proposes, simultaneously embraces three dimensions: covenant, divine judgment, and eschatology. Within the world of Second Temple Judaism, Pauline justification boils down to this question: Who belongs to the people of God?

Justification in this [Second Temple] setting, then, is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community, not least in the period of time before the eschatological event itself, when the matter will become public knowledge. … ‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church. (p. 119)

In other words, the Pauline teaching on justification is intrinsically related to God’s reconfiguration of the covenant around the crucified and risen Jesus.

Paul’s use of “righteousness” language must be understood through the metaphor of the Hebrew law court, insists Wright. Dikaiosyne and its cognates are forensic terms. The Hebrew law court consisted of three parties—judge, plaintiff, and defendant.

Please note: there is no jury, as in the English and American judicial systems. Within the Hebrew system, the judge functions as jury. He is charged to try the case according to the law, to be impartial, to carefully weigh the evidence and reach a just verdict, punishing the wrong-doer and restoring the social order. He has a special duty to defend the weak and vulnerable who are unable to defend themselves against the powerful and wealthy. When a judge faithfully discharges his responsibilities, he is deemed “righteous.”

At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will hold for either the plaintiff or defendant. One or the either is declared to be in the right. If the plaintiff wins his case, he is “righteous.” Ditto for the defendant. This verdict of righteousness does not say anything about their moral uprightness or virtue. It is a forensic status bestowed upon them as a result of the judge’s determination. “Of course,” Wright explains, “the word dikaios, ‘righteous’, in secular Greek as in English, carried moralistic overtones. Granted this, it is not hard to see how it could come to refer not just to a status held after the decision of the court, but also to the character and past behaviour of either the plaintiff or the defendant. But the key point is that, within the technical language of the law court, ‘righteous’ means, for these two persons, the status they have when the court finds in their favour. Nothing more, nothing less” (p. 98).

When this model of the courtroom is brought to bear upon the Jewish understanding of the covenant, we get this result: YHWH appears in glory as judge and creator. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the pagans who are oppressing and exploiting her. She cries out to her God, “Be faithful to your covenant promises, vindicate us in your righteousness, punish the wicked, restore your people.” Here is Israel’s eschatological hope. One day, one day soon, the divine Judge will issue his verdict. Israel will be declared righteous, and all the nations will witness her vindication.

Wright then adds a twist to this scenario:

God’s righteousness is what Israel invokes when she is in trouble, in the hope that God will vindicate her in the future. But who is this Israel who will be vindicated? Is it all Jews, or only some? Can one tell in the present who precisely will be vindicated when God finally acts in fulfilment of his righteousness, of his covenant obligations? Yes, reply many Jews of Paul’s day. The present sign of our future vindication consists in our present loyalty to the covenant obligations laid upon us by our God. Our ‘works of the law’ demonstrate in the present that, when God acts, we will be seen to be his people. Thus there arises the theology of ‘justification by works’ which Paul was at such pains to demolish. (p. 99)

Wright believes that Paul’s invocation of justification (by works or by faith) arises not only out of the question “Who will God vindicate as his covenant people when the Day of the Lord arrives” but also “What are the visible signs in the present of who these people are and will be?” For Jews, the answer was clear—those who faithfully do the works prescribed by Torah. The Apostle gives a different answer—those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:8-9 is a crucial text for Wright:

In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith.

In this passage Paul declares that in Christ he now enjoys membership in the renewed Israel. This is a status given to him not by birth or by circumcision or by his obedience to the commandments of Torah. It has been gifted to him on the basis of the faithfulness of the Messiah. Faith is the visible sign, marker, and badge that he, and all believers in the gospel, now belong to the people of God. This is what it means to be justified by faith. It is to be declared a member of God’s eschatological people in the present in anticipation of God’s restoration of the world through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

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 questions, ‘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. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 121)

And this is why St Paul’s Judaizing opponents must be judged enemies of the gospel. Despite their confession of the Lordship of Jesus, they effectively deny the good news that God is now gathering the Gentiles into his covenant people, who are identified not by the observance of Torah but by faith.

(Go to “Justification by Works”)

(I should mention that I have not read Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I decided to save my pennies for Wright’s big book: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If there is material in his book on justification of which I need to be aware, please pass it on! Thanks.)

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3 Responses to Ruminating Romans: The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    This is a very good, succinct presentation of Wright’s position, as far as I understand it. I’ve read his NIB commentary on Romans, and I just finished Justification.

    I am especially interested about the “moralistic overtones” to dikaiosyne that Wright somewhat admits and then proceeds to practically abolish. This is especially true in Justification, where Wright repeatedly contrasts “righteousness” as court room verdict to the “virtuous” or “moral” or “purity” etc associated with the old perspective (and damn near all of church history). He repeats this ad nauseum. He may be overextending his polemic in this particular book because he thinks American evangelicals (his main audience since he’s replying to Piper) are basically hapless dimwits who can’t understand him because we’re brainwashed by puritanical pietism. If you think I’m over-exaggerating, then read his opening illustration in the first chapter, where he compares his opponents to geocentrists and his own approach as heliocentrist — terms he then deploys at various points throughout the text. Seriously? His thinly veiled condescension is endemic throughout the volume.

    I am also intrigued by your first statement — which I agree — about the limitations of Wright’s biblicism. He criticizes Kasemann (in his debate with Krister Stendahl’s proto-NPP work), but it is precisely Kasemann’s grasp of Paul’s subversion of pride, works-righteousness, natural theology, legalism, etc. that makes Kasemann’s work so great. Likewise for Barth…or Luther or Calvin (despite Wright’s repeated attempts to claim Calvin for himself). Barth’s commentary on Romans is obviously null and void for someone like Wright. Paul’s concern about righteousness (in the “old school” sense) is what gives it enduring value through all generations. This is fleshed through the covenant fidelity that Wright hammers upon over and over, but in Wright’s construction we are given a covenant theology that is far less majestic, awesome, and humbling. But, more importantly, it’s just wrong. The concern for legalism or works-righteousness or whatever-you-want-to-call-it is right there with Paul, alongside the historical-covenant narrative — just as it is for the book of Hebrews, where the failure of the Mosaic law and sacrificial system is that it could not do away with sin once and for all (rather having to be repeated every year). But since Wright has radically redefined (reduced) the definition for “righteousness,” it is not hard for him to then apply it at every point throughout the rest of the NT.

    I am not saying that the Reformers or Barth got it entirely correct or grasped every angle to Paul’s argument or dealt sufficiently with Paul’s setting — but they got the main point, just as Aquinas and Bonaventure got the main point as well (albeit with a deficient christological axis in their soteriology). In fact, even with all of the differences East and West, Catholic and Protestant — I think we are all basically working with the “main point” — unless Wright is correct!

    Of course, these are just some brief thoughts of mine, which would require a great deal more work to defend. Thanks, Fr. Kimel, for the work in producing this.


  2. Dana Ames says:

    This is indeed a good, succinct presentation of Wright’s thought on this.

    I don’t think Wright is condescending toward USAmerican theologians. I think he is very frustrated with them. Those who disagree with him disagree because, using the “old perspective” definitions these terms, they see that Wright is not saying the same thing they are, and so they go to work “proving” that, which can be done quite easily… It seems clear to me that Wright is working with different definitions, and I think he lays them out pretty clearly. For some reason, his opponents are unable see that the definitions are different and are unable to examine them and work with them and actually understand what he is saying. That’s why he often complains that they don’t understand; they truly don’t. (If they did, they would be even more horrified!)

    Wright may be limited by sola scriptura, but his great strength is his ability to look at the understandings presented in the texts of the 1st century, not just scripture, think on them, make many connections, and present a coherent big picture that explains and accounts for all the details.

    Wright’s definition of faith as (ongoing) trusting loyalty would certainly include all those aspects you outlined in your previous post on faith, Fr A.

    Nice to see you in the Wrightsaid group. There are some careful thinkers there.



  3. Pingback: Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation | Orthodox Ruminations

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