Ruminating Romans: Is Justification Forensic?

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)

N. T. Wright’s construal of the Pauline teaching on justification by faith hinges on one key claim: namely, that when the Apostle employs the “righteousness” words, say in Romans 3, that his usage is ruled by the metaphor of the Hebrew law court. To be declared “righteous” by the court is to be vindicated by the court in reference to the specific charges that have been brought by the plaintiff against the defendant. It is not a declaration of ethical uprightness but of legal status:

For the plaintiff or defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.

How does this work out? Let us take the plaintiff first. If and when the court upholds the plaintiff’s accusation, he or she is ‘righteous’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; it simply means that in this case the court has vindicated him or her in the charge they have brought.

It is the same with the defendant. If and when the court upholds the defendant, acquitting him or her of the charge, he or she is ‘righteous’. This again, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; simply that he or she has, in this case, been vindicated against the accuser; in other words, acquitted. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 98)

This forensic interpretation of δικαιοσύνη, δικαιόω, and δίκαιος has long been popular in Protestant exegesis of Romans and Galatians, and an increasing number of Catholic exegetes have followed suit. Thus, for example, Joseph Fitzmyer: “When Paul speaks of Christ Jesus justifying the sinner, he means that because of the Christ-event the sinner stands before God’s tribunal and hears a verdict of ‘not guilty.’ … The sinner is pronounced dikaios (Rom. 5:7) and stands before God’s tribunal as “righteous, acquitted” (“Justification by Faith in Pauline Thought,” in Rereading Paul Together, p. 84). I confess that I am not 100% convinced that the law court is semantically determinative for Paul. Is the meaning of the dikai- words so defined by legal usage that when the original auditors heard them they immediately thought of the mechanics of the juridical setting? Chris VanLandingham has raised questions about the interpretation of these terms in his book Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. After surveying how the words are used in the Septuagint and intertestamental literature, he offers this conclusion:

None of the δικαι- group of terms is intrinsically forensic. The verb, however, is always forensic in classical Greek, but with the meaning “treat justly” or “give justice to” and most often with the sense of “condemn” or “punish.” Since Paul never uses the verb in this sense, one is forced to look elsewhere for a sense in which Paul used the verb. Still, a survey of Jewish and Christian usage of this verb yields thirteen different meanings, a few of which may be possible in Paul: to be righteous, to be proven righteous, to be acquitted, to be made righteous/pure/free, or less likely, to have been made to appear righteous. … With much of the scholarly attention focused on the verb, it is important to note distinctions among the various senses since these distinctions are important for understanding Paul. In general, he believes that the person of faith moves from being a sinner to being righteous (Roman 5), indeed, even “to be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Significantly, δικαιόω alone can mean “to make righteous,” since there are five occasions where the term means this (Ps 72:13; Luke 18:14; Jas 2:21, 24, 25). Δικαιόω is neither intrinsically eschatological nor intrinsically forensic, especially since it only sometimes has the sense in Jewish and Christian literature that it does in classical Greek literature. Even when used in a judicial context, the various possible nuances or definitions of the term within that context make inconsequential the notion that δικαιόω is forensic. (pp. 271-272)

I lack the competence to adjudicate this dispute. I have not read reviews of VanLandingham’s book nor have I read any scholarly research that has been done on this topic since the book’s publication. But VanLandingham’s analysis does put a question mark besides the lexical claim that “to justify” must mean “to acquit” or “to confer a legal status.” VanLandingham also quotes a passage from J. A. Zeisler which is important for us: “Moreover, even if the legal background is pressed, the legal system in question was less concerned to pronounce innocent or guilty than to put wrongs right and to restore people to their proper place, no more and no less, in the covenant community” (p. 255). We immediately recall J. Louis Martyn’s preference for the English rendering “rectify” to translate δικαιόω. He does not believe that the courtroom is determinative, at least not completely, for the interpretation of Pauline righteousness. “The subject Paul addresses,” he comments, “is that of God’s making right what has gone wrong.”

Douglas Campbell makes a helpful distinction here. Campbell agrees with the classical forensic construal of δικαιόω, but points out that

judicial verdicts are both indicative and performative. They usually comment on a given state of affairs, recognizing something about those—that is, that someone is “in the right” or not—and so function indicatively, but in so doing they also effect a further state of affairs, and so function performatively. A person pronounced “in the right” by a human court may receive damages or be exonerated or perhaps be set free from prison. Thus, things happen as a direct result of this action and are in fact enacted by this verbal act. And in an eschatological setting, these enacted consequences are especially important. In pronouncing his verdict, God actualizes either heaven or hell for those who have just been judged! To pronounce someone “righteous,” or “in the right,” in the final judgment qualifies and effects eternal life for that person—or the converse—as in fact Romans 2 clearly suggests. (The Deliverance of God, p. 659)

If Hebrew justice is restorative, rather than just declarative, then the verdict, especially if it is the verdict of God, will be performative, reparative, rectifying, liberative. It will seek to redress the damage and harm that has been suffered and to restore the righteous to their previous state of wholeness. Justice is hardly served if it is reduced to mere announcement of legal status.

As noted above, Fitzmyer agrees with most exegetes that δικαιόω has its home in a forensic setting. But he then goes on to ask,

Does the Pauline verb dikaioō mean “to declare righteous” or “to make righteous”? One might expect that dikaioō, being a verb belonging to the —oō class of contract verbs, would have the causative or factitive meaning typical of such verbs: deloō (make clear), douloō (enslave), nekroō (mortify). Thus it would mean “to make righteous.” Normally in the Septuagint, however, dikaioō has a declarative, forensic meaning: “declare righteous.” At times, the declarative sense seems to be, indeed, the meaning in Paul’s letters (Rom 2.13; 3.4, 20; 8:33). Some of these cases are quotations of or allusions to the Greek Old Testament, but others are simply ambiguous. The effective sense of the verb seems to be supported by Romans 5:10 …: “through the obedience of one [man] the many will be made [or constituted] righteous.” Those who so argue often quote the Old Testament idea of God’s effective or performative word in Isaiah 55:10-11. Moreover, if Kasemann’s idea about dikaiosynê theou connoting God’s “power” is correct, it might be invoked to support this effective sense of justification. (pp. 84-85; Byrne and Matera follow Fitzmyer here)

This effective or transformative sense of δικαιόω is supported by both Eastern and Latin patristic readings of Paul. St John Chrysostom, commenting on Rom 3:24-25, declares: “What is declaring of righteousness? Like the declaring of His riches, not only for Him to be rich Himself, but also to make others rich, or of life, not only that He is Himself living, but also that He makes the dead to live; and of His power, not only that He is Himself powerful, but also that He makes the feeble powerful. So also is the declaring of His righteousness not only that He is Himself righteous, but that He does also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous” (Hom. Rom. 7). All who come to Christ in faith are rectified through his regenerative power.

The transformative reading of δικαιόω was powerfully stated in the 19th century by (then) Anglican John Henry Newman:

God’s word, I say, effects what it announces. This is its characteristic all through Scripture. He “calleth those things which be not, as though they are,” and they are forthwith. Thus in the beginning He said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Word and deed went together in creation; and so again “in the regeneration,” “The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.” So again in His miracles, He called Lazarus from the grave, and the dead arose; He said, “Be thou cleansed,” and the leprosy departed; He rebuked the wind and the waves, and they were still; He commanded the evil spirits, and they fled away; He said to St. Peter and St. Andrew, St. John, St. James, and St. Matthew, “Follow Me,” and they arose, for “His word was with power;” and so again in the Sacraments His word is the consecrating principle. As He “blessed” the loaves and fishes, and they multiplied, so He “blessed and brake,” and the bread became His Body. Further, His voice is the instrument of destruction as well as of creation. As He “upholds all things by the word of His power,” so “at the Voice of the Archangel, and at the trump of God,” the visible world will dissolve; and as His “Voice” formerly “shook the earth,” so once more “the Lord shall roar out of Zion, and utter His Voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shall shake.” [Joel iii. 16.]

It would seem, then, in all cases, that God’s word is the instrument of His deed. When, then, He solemnly utters the command, “Let the soul be just,” it becomes inwardly just;… On the whole then, from what has been said, it appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous. That it is a declaration, has been made evident from its including, as all allow, an amnesty for the past; for past sins are removable only by an imputation of righteousness. And that it involves an actual creation in righteousness has been argued from the analogy of Almighty God’s doings in Scripture, in which we find His words were represented as effective. And its direct statements most abundantly establish both conclusions; the former, from its use of the word justification; the latter, from its use of the word just or righteous; showing, that in matter of fact, he who is justified becomes just, that he who is declared righteous is thereby actually made righteous. (Lectures on Justification)

Newman’s reading of God’s justifying deed has proven influential in 20th century ecumenical discussions. N. T. Wright, however, rejects this performative or transformative construal of justification. Such a construal is just beside the point. He is convinced that a close reading of Paul within his first century Jewish worldview leads one to the conclusion that Paul’s righteousness language can only be understood properly within the courtroom metaphor: when God declares someone justified, he confers upon them a legal status within the covenantal life of Israel. According to Wright’s reading of Paul, justification addresses the question “Who constitutes the people of God?” The Apostle’s answer—those Jews and Gentiles who have converted to Christ Jesus the Messiah by faith. Wright’s interpretation escapes the criticism frequently advanced against Protestant construals of imputation, as there is no legal fiction involved: Christian believers truly do belong to Israel. Hence his repeated insistence that justification is subsequent to conversion:

My proposal has been, and still is, that Paul uses vindication language, that is, the dikaioō word group, when he is describing not the moment when, or the process by which, someone comes from idolatry, sin, and death to God, Christ, and life but, rather, the verdict that God pronounces subsequent upon this event. The word dikaioō is, after all, a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for making something happen or changing the way something is. (Nor do we need to get around this, as many have done, by saying that when God declares something to be the case, God brings it into being; that is not the point here. … When we talk of God’s vindication of someone, we are talking about God’s declaration, which appears as a double thing thing to us but, I suspect, a single thing to Paul: the declaration (a) that someone is in the right (his or her sins have been forgiven through the death of Jesus) and (b) that this person is a member of the true covenant family, the family that God originally promised to Abraham and has now created through Christ and the Spirit–the single family that consists equally of believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (“New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 258)

I confess that Wright’s presentation leaves me feeling that he has reduced justification in Christ to something much less theologically interesting and substantive. If he is correct, then the Apostle’s teaching on justification has little relevance to the Church today, given that it is a polemical device that directly addresses what was a burning question in the first century Church but is no longer–namely, whether Gentiles may be included in the people of God without submitting to Torah. Michael Gorman has recently protested Wright’s minimalist reading: “It is misguided, however, to find the sole or even primary meaning of justification to be the welcoming of Gentiles qua Gentiles into the covenant community. Their inclusion is a necessary dimension of a proper understanding of justification, but it is not the totality” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 54 n. 41). Gorman believes that in Galatians and Romans Paul has redefined the meaning of δικαιόω in light of the concrete experience of Christian faith. If we want to know how Paul understands our righteousing in Christ, we must read Romans 5-7 back into Romans 3:21-26. To be incorporated into the Church is to simultaneously die with Christ and rise with him into new and eternal life. Ecclesiology and soteriology cannot be separated.

It’s difficult to know where to draw the line between a purely historical reading of Paul and a theological and canonical reading. Yet I do want to advance a point that I believe is often overlooked in Pauline exegesis. Wright has correctly insisted that we must do the hard work of trying to identify the worldview and Jewish metanarrative, the “big story,” that shaped and informed the Apostle’s understanding. How else can we read Paul within his historical context? But Paul was not just a Jew. He was a Jewish-Christian. He belonged to communities that baptized converts and united Jews and Gentiles in the sacrificial meal of the risen Lord’s body and blood. Although we have limited information about the liturgies, rituals, prayers, and ascetical practices of the first century churches, I propose that we cannot accurately exegete the Epistles of Paul without at least attempting to read them in light of the sacramental and ascetical experience of the Church. Hence when I read the verse “But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24), I immediately interpret “justification” in terms of the totality of Paul’s soteriology. I immediately think of baptism and Holy Eucharist. I find it implausible to think that Paul restricted his employment of δικαιόω to forensic declaration of covenant membership, as if baptismal induction into the new covenant community had not also effected a change in the legal status of believers but also of their spiritual condition, identity, and relationship with God. To be justified is to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. To be justified is to be co-crucified with Christ and raised into the life of the kingdom. To be justified is to be reborn and regenerated in the Holy Spirit. To be justified is to partake of the Lord at his heavenly banquet. To be justified is to be adopted as sons in the Son and thus given the privilege of addressing God as Father through the Son in the Spirit. To be justified is to be deified. And all of this has happened and happens “apart from Torah.”

Am I guilty of reading back into the first century the theological and sacramental convictions of the patristic Church? Perhaps. But that’s my metanarrative and I’m sticking to it.

(Go to “Faithing in the Faith of Christ”)

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20 Responses to Ruminating Romans: Is Justification Forensic?

  1. Alvin,

    Thanks for this helpful post. I have argued in multiple places now that Protestants (and others) need to lose their fear of justification as an effective, transformative divine declaration–a “deliverdict,” as the PCA theologian Peter Leithart calls it. This applies to conservatives as well as NPP people like my good friend Tom Wright. Vanlandingham is right, but I would go a step further. Modern linguistics tells us that a word’s sense is conveyed in large measure by its context–how it is actually used, not its etymology. I contend that Paul reinterprets justification in light of the life-giving death and resurrection of Jesus as the restoration of right covenantal relations with God and others through co-crucifixion with the Messiah. It is justification by co-crucifixion and, paradoxically, because it is a transformative declaration and act of God, it is, as Paul says at the end of Romans 4, in fact a resurrection from death to life.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dr Gorman, I am delighted you have visited my blog and left your comment. Welcome and thank you.

      Ironically, I first learned of a transformative understanding of justification from the Reformed theologian, Thomas F. Torrance. In his book Space, Time and Resurrection TFT argues that a purely forensic construal of justification leaves out the resurrection of Christ.

      I imagine that Wright would respond that Torrance is projecting later theological concerns back into the biblical text.

      May I ask you how biblical scholars have assessed VanLandingham’s research. Has it changed anything? Should it change anything? Does it impact Wright’s thesis on justification one way or the other? Thanks!


  2. Mark says:

    Hello Father;

    You wrote, “It’s difficult to know where to draw the line between a purely historical reading of Paul and a theological and canonical reading.”
    and then, “Am I guilty of reading back into the first century the theological and sacramental convictions of the patristic Church? Perhaps. But that’s my meta-narrative and I’m sticking to it. ”

    I think this is a very good conclusion. (I also really appreciated your little argument in between these sentences, about Paul’s liturgical Christian life as part of the influence at work that we must consider.)
    However my main kudos is for your final conclusion: that we do in fact read back into “the first century the theological and sacramental convictions of the patristic Church”. At least I would say we do this unabashedly and intentionally as Orthodox when we are reading the Scriptures as Scripture.
    the Scriptures of the “First” Testament are read through the lens of Christ- looking for Christ in everything in order that the Scripture become a means of communion for the Christian. What good are they to us spiritually except in this capacity? They become healing to us only in this manner of reading; thus exposing our own passions and unveiling our own idolatry as we see it mirrored in the Scriptures themselves, wherever the Face of Christ is not clear. Met. George of Mt. Lebanon refers to this as a “kinoetic” reading of Scripture: Christ is sometimes buried deep under the “fleshliness” of the words; only after our encounter with the resurrected and glorified Jesus are we able to really see Him there too.
    It seems fitting then, that we should read all Scripture of the Second Testament with a similar hermeneutic. For of course we are not “people of the book”. We are people of the Body and Spirit of the Lord; it is right to see Him.
    In fact I think to study scripture with any other intention- other than to encounter Christ and commune with him, receiving the healing we need for our own passions- is dangerous. It can be done, but I am learning that as Orthodox we must always place the Scriptures back within the life of the Church, the beloved community, and hear them together with all the Saints and the witness of the Holy Spirit, if we are really to understand them as Scripture to us. I cannot remember which Father said it, that Scripture is only Scripture in the understanding.

    -Mark Basil


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark Basil, thanks for the good comment. I agree with you on reading Scripture as Scripture within the community of the saints. But I don’t think I can agree with you that we must therefore avoid searching for the historical or literal sense of the Scriptures, which in today’s world means reading it historically-critically. I really do want to know, and I think the Church needs to know, what St Paul really said and meant by, say, “justification by faith,” and not just what St Augustine or Elder Cleopas or the local parish priest thinks he meant. I think that’s important, and I think that the Church Fathers also thought it was important. And I say this without in any way depreciating typological, theological, and ascetical readings of the Bible. What I don’t know how to do is how to “negotiate” all these readings when they appear to conflict. I imagine that’s the job of the Spirit.


      • Mark says:

        Thanks for your response Father.
        I do wonder about this desire to read the scriptures historically-critically. On the one hand its a matter of history- and so as someone might take an interest in the family history, say, of his spouse, so too if we love Jesus I can understand an interest in anything and everything about him. (I suppose one important difference is we can talk directly to our spouse and let her word critique anything we think we might deduce, from the historical insight/study/discovery.)
        On the other hand I do think it can be a dangerous distraction and temptation. On the worst end there is the Jesus Seminar of course– who lavishly presume to know far more than we orthodox would allow. (Back in the day, I was really into N.T. Wright’s “counter arguments” (tomes really!)… but then Luke T. Johnson had quite a poignant critique of this whole project, germane to this very question we are asking I think. Have you read his, “The Real Jesus”?). But even among orthodox Christians, I wonder how easily we substitute real communing with God (in prayer, mindfulness to the salvific work of our hands (ala God’s strong medicine when our Ancestors first turned away), goodness to our neighbour, etc.), for energy spent on things deceptively close to this (knowledge about God versus of God)? I remember when I first read “The Orthodox Way,” arriving at the chapter on prayer I believe. The chapter opened with a saying from a desert father along the lines that, prayer is the most difficult action of the Christian because right up to our dying breath we will be resisted in it. For a moment I felt energized and excited to read on in this chapter, then had the (rare) insight to realize in so doing, I was of course avoiding prayer! In that moment I put the book down immediately and began to pray.

        I have many times read saints and mystics who recommend only a small portion of study relative to our prayer life (for us in the world I would say we must have the proper semantic breadth for this word “prayer”- to include any act given to God with intention as our offering).
        I find myself right in the midst of wondering, lately, how much of my supposed “thirst for knowledge”, that I seek to satisfy in reading and thinking, is really part of “the more excellent way” that St Paul recommends to us.
        I have no argument with intellectual growth, development, study, or acquisition of knowledge. For some peole this is their job; I understand. I do wonder what this serves in us though, especially when it’s our chosen leisure (or when I spend a large part of my time in it). For example, when I think of many intelligent Christians within say Calvinist tradition who study the scriptures heavily only to further confirm their self-confidence and justify their theological position (and win debates with cogent arguments drawing on extensive knowledge beds), I wonder what does this study serve? (I am not picking on Calvinists. Plenty Orthodox do the same thing to justify their narrow positions. I might easily be accused of the same!)
        My point is, this way of relating to Scripture can potentially serve to only further distance ourselves from the revelation of the Word of God. And it seems a deceptive action; I have very dear loved ones who think of their theology and study as their (almost only) means of devotion and praise. While I can share an interest in historical-critical “insights”, I do worry about getting drawn in to this way of relating to the Scriptures. It seems not to be rooted in a life of prayer. Can the Scriptures be genuinely understood this way? If historical-critical methods can really get us somewhere worth going (not just satisfy a desire who knows whence from), then what is the need for personal humility, purity, ascesis, obedience, prayer?
        And I wonder also- why is this historical-critical reading such a late development? Why did it grow out of a Protestant way, not an Orthodox way?
        And also I wonder, what do we hope to learn by approaching the First Testament in this manner, with our new historical tools and abilities? Was Jesus’s reading of the Scriptures impoverished for his lack of historical-critical tools and insights? And how of course, did Jesus and the writers of the Second testament, use the writings of the First Testament? Is there any evidence of an interest in the historical-critical meaning of the text?

        All my questions are sincere. I have no answers, only wonderings. I would be very grateful to discuss this with you in some depth father– even privately (to not be a big distraction).
        man or they at gmail dot com. (all one word).

        -Mark Basil


        • john burnett says:

          Mark Basil, we need historical-critical studies because we need to know what the Bible is talking about, in its *own* words and within its *own* framework. Otherwise, we *cannot but* turn it into a mirror of our own concerns, obsessions, ideas, dogmas, and fantasies. We *cannot but* do that, because we *do not* live in the world it came out of, nor do we understand its presuppositions. The history of interpretation— nay, indeed! of christianity itself!— is filled with example after example of exactly that. In fact, historical-critical studies emerged *as a result* of that need to ask what, exactly, the texts are actually saying and how are they saying it and why.

          I challenge you to a little experiment— one so simple and basic that it hardly qualifies as ‘historical-critical’, although it ought to be mandatory for every high school catechism class: Read Acts and Hebrews and any letter of Paul, substituting the word ‘Messiah’ for ‘Christ’ each time you come to it. After all, that’s what the writers thought they were talking about when they wrote those books. Then see if you haven’t begun to understand the New Testament in a whole new light.

          Don’t concern about the Jesus Seminar. Scholarship is scholarship. By necessity it has to ask every possible question. But remember what happened after the fishermen dragged the net ashore: “They sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad” (Mt 13.48). Like the net, the Seminar made a splash, but I don’t think anyone takes very seriously any more what it dragged in. In fact I don’t think, in that particular case, they ever did.


      • Mark says:

        Hi John;
        I will think carefully about your reply, and I will engage the experiment you suggest (esp. b/c with a quick thought I cant think of what you’re trying to suggest by it!)
        would you do me the courtesy in return, of answering my questions at the end of my comment about Jesus’s use, reading, etc. of the scriptures and the n.t. writers’ use?
        of course much time passed between the initial oral stories, then writings, of the o.t. … more time even than what has passed between us and the n.t.!
        so, could the n.t. writers have misunderstood the ot scriptures? Or was it enough for them to have known the risen Christ, to have a true understanding of the o.t.?
        Thank you for your comment;


        • john burnett says:

          Mark Basil, you ask,

          ‘Was Jesus’s reading of the Scriptures impoverished for his lack of historical-critical tools and insights?’

          No, because he was actually *doing* the NT stuff, no? And as far as the OT goes, he belonged to what was largely the same culture, with the same cultural understandings, with an encyclopedic understanding of the text in its own language, so he didn’t need to recover them.

          Jesus read Israel’s scriptures within the context of Israel. That was largely a ‘literary’ endeavor (or anyway oral, in the sense that the Greeks learned Homer orally, not from books), and his understanding was grounded in and informed by his first-century Israel context, which was in obvious substantial continuity with the origins of the scriptures. We modern Americans, Germans, Greeks, Italians, baGanda, Chinese, and Zulu have to do a lot more work.

          But I will say that it seems that historical-critical studies have moved, in the past 30 years, towards seeing the books of the bible (and sets of books like the Torah, Samuel-Kings, Chronicles, etc) and the Bible itself in terms of literary wholes rather than in the fragments into which they had been resolved by earlier generations of scholars. That work of analysis, from text-criticism on up through historical, form, source, sociological and a host of other methods, was necessary and is still somewhat ongoing, but it seems to have reached either a point of diminishing returns, or led us to a point of synthesis, or rather of re-integration, and the field has changed markedly. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur speaks of a ‘second naiveté’ with which a scholar can now return to the texts and read them again as if for the first time, but with enormously enhanced understanding and ever-deeper wonder. That is the goal of critical studies. Perhaps people resist critical studies because scholars have not always made the goal clear, or perhaps weren’t even able, yet, to make it clear, but that is in fact the goal.

          Jesus and the writers of the scriptures were so many light-years ahead of us in understanding the scriptures that we’ll never catch up. You can hardly cite a single word of any book in the Bible that is not consciously connected with not just one or two but maybe three or four other passages. This is something we had hardly even begun to appreciate until the invention of the computer; today in less than 1 second i can list every single one of all 64040 occurrences of the word “the” in the King James Version. (I just did it so i could get that number for you: yes there are 64040 occurrences and yes it took one second.) You have no idea how this has changed our appreciation of the texts we’re looking at. Now in one second i can find out exactly how many times and where the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text use any term; i can sift the results through another term, and show you a score of places that are so obviously in the back of the writer’s mind that you wonder why we didn’t see it before. But the point is, the writers didn’t have our computers. They did this through memory, and our computers are playing catch-up. That’s why we need historical studies, literary studies, philological studies, form criticiam, and all the rest– just to play catch up.

          I’m afraid the call to ‘just look for Christ’ in the Old Testament is a recipe for laziness and, if not delusion, then for mediocrity and boredom. Like, how many times do i need to hear that “exodus is a type of baptism” before i get it? But when Paul talks about either exodus *or* baptism, he’s doing a lot more than making facile comparisons. Work your way inch by inch through Wright’s 400 page commentary on Romans, and you’ll be awed at the depth and complexity of the Apostle’s thought— how much he packs in to a single discussion, and how much he assumes you just ‘naturally’ know, which you didn’t know at all and still for the most part don’t!

          Without historical critical studies, when we just ‘look for christ in the OT’, we can’t help looking for an idea of christ that we already have in our minds. Thus we never really encounter christ; we encounter only our favorite christ. We Orthodox think we get some kind of a special deal because we can encounter what we imagine is the fathers’ favorite christ, but without critical work even *that* ends up being our favorite idea of the fathers’ favorite ideas, not the fathers’ ideas themselves. Of course at some point, we have to put aside all the commentaries and just read the Text, but all the commentaries are there to help us be able, finally, to do that with a certain *purity*.

          Case in point: As i was saying elsewhere today, even within Orthodoxy— even *within* our important and dogmatically correct formulations— our common notions of salvation can and do get along perfectly well without Abraham… which only shows how little our common notions of salvation have to do with what God was/is actually doing. God didn’t proclaim the availability of salvation through faith in a vision of an abstract ‘law’ plus penal substitutionary atonement, or an abstract ‘theosis’ or what have you. He said to *Abraham*, “in *thee* shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12.3). ‘Finding Christ in the OT’ is not a matter simply of learning to identify ‘types’. It is a matter of identifying *what God has been doing with his creation*, and then seeing how *we* fit in to that story… which is the story of a people, “Israel” (and see Ga 6.15-16), whose origin was *Abraham*.

          “could the n.t. writers have misunderstood the ot scriptures?”

          —I would not say ‘misunderstood’. For the most part, their understanding of the OT seems to have come to them naturally, out of a deeply literary reading (or hearing). I can’t argue that in every instance every aspect of the text, as uncovered critically, was important to them. On the other hand, i’m tempted to say that if we find our interpretation is at odds with something that has been discovered cricially, there’s quite likely something fishy about it. I’ll have to think ab out that some more, to see if i’m willing to commit to it. But I can say for sure that it has taken us many centuries to figure out that when Mt 1.23 quotes Isa 7.14 (the verse about the ‘virgin’), he’s not just proof-texting a “prediction” about Jesus, *or even* “proving” the virgin birth, but commenting on the *whole* of Isa 7-9. *Matthew*, of course, seems to have been perfectly aware of what he was up to. After all, he was up to it! *But* he was responding to a whole culture of appropriating Isa 7-9 in various ways that were deeply in touch with what Isaiah of Jerusalem was talking about when he wrote his many-layered book in the first place. For us, just to separate those layers, see what Isaiah (the book) is about, and then see what Matthew is saying about Isaiah’s book, we can’t avoid doing a lot of homework.

          More of a problem than the writers’ understanding of their predecessors’ texts is our tendency to misunderstand how the writers *used* their predecessors’ work. This is as true for NT use of the OT, as it is for the OT use of the OT, for the whole Bible is nothing, if not one giant echo chamber. Again, to cite one example, on the surface, everything looks just fine when you read Mt 2.15: “out of Egypt i brought my son”. No problem, right? Somewhere the OT ‘predicted’ Jesus’ flight to Egypt. And that probably ‘proves’ something, right? Just don’t read the quoted verse— which turns out to be Ho 11.1— in context. You’ll see that it can’t possibly have anything to do with Jesus. So what on earth is Matthew even talking about? Was he just having a bad day finding proof-texts, and somehow too lazy to go back and fix it? (Such has been proposed!) How can Jesus possibly have “fulfilled was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” Matthew is quoting??

          Well, to paraphrase my sister when we were just kids, “That’s for Matthew to know and you to find out!”


      • Mark says:

        Hello John;
        thank you for your extensive response. You have got me thinking.
        On the one hand I am appreciating the critical work that needs to be done in order to enter into a deeper understanding of the “echo chamber” of the Scriptures, and the rich and textured meaning of the texts. I understand that we are vastly removed from the cultural, linguistic, literary, and perhaps to some degree spiritual context of the writers and initial readers of the two Testaments.
        Where this seems most useful and plausible as a worthy pursuit for me, is as a form of repentance on our part. I can see needing to do this work in humility as a way of admitting before God that we have done a great violence to the golden chain of his Tradition; first and perhaps most notoriously in an extinction of “Hebrew Christians” at the hands of gentiles within the Church.
        Since this was a great violence, it requires repentance. Something was lost and I understand the work we must do now if we wish to better understand the beauty of God’s revelation as it is given to us in the Scriptures.
        I can also see that in abandoning the traditional relationship with the scriptures- as you said n.t. writers were bathed in the Scriptures through an entire religious culture of reading, hearing, memorizing, praying, worshiping- we have once again lost something very precious. This loss requires repentance again, and I can see that we will naturally miss so much of what is there without now a great deal of hard work.

        However it seems to me there are some troubling implications to some of what you have said. First, it seems a very strange thing to me that modern developments in study and technology (especially powerful computers) should play so important a role in our re-learning the Scriptures.
        you said, Now in one second i can find out exactly how many times and where the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text use any term; i can sift the results through another term, and show you a score of places that are so obviously in the back of the writer’s mind that you wonder why we didn’t see it before. But the point is, the writers didn’t have our computers. They did this through memory, and our computers are playing catch-up. That’s why we need historical studies, literary studies, philological studies, form criticiam, and all the rest– just to play catch up.

        I think you make a very important point here indeed. Is it the same thing to encounter something we call the “meaning” of the scriptures in the manner you suggest today (through these branches of study open to a select few scholars within an academic context, and with the aid of powerful computers), and equate this in any genuine way with the “meaning” these connections had to a people who were so bathed and immersed in the Scripture?
        I am indeed awed by the Scriptural awareness of the n.t. writers. However this was attained naturally from within a religious culture of reading, hearing, memorizing, praying, worshiping the (ot) Scriptures. This is an ascesis. This is a hebrew way of life that brought the Scriptures into the families, communities, and personal lives of a worshiping People.
        So one of my questions is, how do we presume the “meaning” of the Scriptures is not also only known through a similar lived experience? And to attain to some sort of ‘understanding’ of, say, the connections between words and phrases across the Scriptural landscape by doing a word search, seems a radically different way of ‘knowing’ these connections than the context in which the n.t. writers knew these connections. Perhaps this sort of knowing, and the meaning it yields, cannot so easily be plucked from the religious/spiritual/praying/worshiping/memorizing culture in which these connections were made.
        So this leads me to wonder if we would do better to return our families, church communities, etc., to a way of life that so bathes its faithful ones in the Scriptures. Would this not then yield the fruit in due season? When the tree has matured through the hard work, and the fruit is indeed ripe and good to eat?
        Something very much troubles me about the radically different methodologies of “knowing” that are at work here– between scholars in our modern context, and a 14-year-old-mother-of-God, or some fishermen, in a first-century Hebrew context.
        Do you think there is anything to this? It just seems so tempting to think that we can arrive at the same meaning without acquiring it through the overwhelming spiritual discipline of the worshiping community that produced it.

        Another concern I have is that this “way” of getting to know the scriptures seems to really distance me from God! Suddenly God must be heavily mediated through an elite school of biblical scholars!
        Very few of us are able to enter into that circle. And furthermore that community knows no eccleisial boundaries: its an arena of intellect and study, not membership in Christ’s Body the Church, or holiness.
        I wonder John, what do you make of the (I think it was Tertulian’s) claim “The Bible is the Church’s book“? And yet, when we look at the field of biblical studies, how many of the Orthodox- and let alone our Bishops- are numbered among them?
        So this does give me pause.
        I am one of the last to claim truth is only known to the Orthodox. We certainly have much to learn from others- again as a matter of collective humility and repentance. There are many flowers with pollen and nectar worth gathering. But it remains one of my questions about biblical studies: does one really only need the right education to understand what the Bible says?
        This is problematic- if the Church is the pillar and ground of Truth, and if we only know the Scriptures through encounter with the Risen Christ. (here I am very tempted to site Jesus’s own rebuke of some scholars of his day- the Sadducees… ah what the heck I’ll do it 😉
        Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.
        Given that Jesus was speaking to experts in the Scriptures, there is evidently a certain “knowing” of the scriptures that comes from somewhere more or other than familiarity. It is this sense that interests me most: the Scriptures are in the understanding.

        Now, you mentioned the concern that without critical studies I am just importing my own preferred christ into the text, “Thus we never really encounter christ; we encounter only our favorite christ.”
        This is perhaps the major religious problem of our modern times. And you have persuaded me of the usefulness of critical studies. It has a place. I think a very narrow place, though. And a far less exalted place than it has among Christians today. And I do not believe it is the primary defense we have against your concern here- that we encounter the christ of our imagining.
        To encounter Christ as he is, I believe we must humble ourselves and struggle to love all. This is of course prayer and ascesis. Simple living; reading the Scriptures for the purpose of communing with the Living God who makes Himself known to us.

        John, I dont know.
        On the one hand you have persuaded me that there is so much richness in the Scriptures that I simply miss for lack of extensive study and familiarly with modern historical-critical findings.
        On the other hand, well, I have all of the concerns listed above and more (they’re hazy I know; it’s just bouncing around inside me really).
        And then I think, what is the purpose of the Scriptures anyway? Ultimately of course they are not an end in themselves but a means. They are given to us for what purpose? To commune with the living God. Is this not the only aim of the Christian life? As St Isaac said, we have been given this life for repentance. Can I not repent without a complete understanding of all the nuances of the Scriptures that extensive (only) extensive historical-critical study would yield?
        St Seraphim of Sarov said, we are to acquire the Holy Spirit; this is the aim of the Christian life. Can He be acquired through humbling myself, seeking to make my passions exposed to the healing of God’s word in the Scriptures in my impoverished understanding, and coming to know Christ not through vast study but through trying to enter more fully into the “washing of the word” that the n.t. writers had? A way of life that bathes in the scriptures, and a community of the faithful to pray the scriptures with?

        Christ gives us the beatitude: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
        My efforts to allow God to purify my heart, are these not more valuable to my knowledge of God than any study? (I mean no false dichotomy; but neither would you argue that the heart is purified by historical-critical studies).

        Blessed Sophrony wrote in his life of St Silouan that, even if all the Scriptures were lost, nothing essential would be lost! He said that the meaning of the Scriptures are alive in our living Holy Elders- and these elders would simply write them again… not word for word as Sophrony says, but with their spiritual meaning fully intact.
        Nothing lost.
        It is this transfigured heart that the Scriptures and everything else in the Christian life is meant to accomplish, no? And God is not “limited” by the Scriptures? He is made known through the Person Jesus Christ, whom I take into my body and commune with. And I am saved through my participation in his death, and being raised in his Life.

        I wonder what you make of St Mary of Egypt?
        She knew the Scritpures without even any text to read! Her humility, repentance, ascesis, and participation in the Divine Life wrote the Holy Scriptures on her heart! What was she lacking for her unfamiliarity with any biblical scholarship or even texts?!

        And what of our monastics- especially our hermits? Those who hide away from the world. Will they lack something for their disconnect with modern studies? St Seraphim of Sarov read the N.T. every week; did he understand it rightly?
        The Scriptures are not an end in themselves, and they should not become a barrier to that knowledge of God that surpasses understanding. I fear they become this when they are given to us as only accessible through the educated elite.
        Yet- as you have persuaded me- there is so much richness to the Scriptures that has been lost to us. Uncovering this is surely a service and a good! I hope it can be done, and received, by way of repentance (how did the New Israel lose it? God forgive us!). And I believe it is best to attempt to re-enter the life of discipline, prayer, and worship that made the ancient Hebrews so conversant with the Scriptures to begin with! There is a place for historical-critical studies, but is very restricted and I think needs to be looked at far more, well, critically! And carefully; from a posture of care.

        There seem some troubling implications if we make too much of historical-critical studies. Yet you have persuaded me that we can make too little of this field too and its insights (I think I have in recent years. Thank you for your correction.). It is one more tool; one more way of living in God’s world. One more area of study that is worth the time and effort for those so interested. God can be glorified in it.
        I guess I feel there is the one thing needful, and if we seek this pearl of great price then, yes, we may find some use and value for modern findings and of historical-critical insights. But these will be sifted and purified by merciful hearts (the most faithful exegete of God’s word).

        Thank you for your engagement.
        feel free to email me if you think there’s more I should hear. man or they at gmail dot com. (all one word).

        -Mark Basil


  3. Pingback: Justification once Again… « Cross Talk ~ crux probat omnia

  4. aussiemef says:

    I would love to hear John Burnett respond to your writings as he is an Orthodox priest who has brought so much insight to the Wrightsaid group. He is a scholar with much knowledge and wit and I would like to hear his take on your blog.


    • Dana Ames says:

      Aussie, you and John were probably posting at the same time. He may not have seen what you wrote. He is actually not a priest, but is indeed a scholar with much knowledge and wit. So here below, you have that for which you asked.



  5. john burnett says:

    “when God declares someone justified, he confers upon them a legal status within the covenantal life of Israel.”

    the operative words there are ‘within the covenantal life of israel’, not ‘confers upon them a legal status’.

    Most of our problems with saint paul and with all biblical justification statements seems to stem from the fact that, for us, ‘justice’ (and all its cognates) belong to systems of abstractions which we call ‘ethics’ and ‘law’. And especially today, after Kant, Calvin, Luther, Anselm, and Augustine, we’re trying to figure out how ‘justification’ can possibly be made to fit our idea of an ethical individual, that is, someone who either matches the ‘ethical imperative’ inscribed either in the ‘natural law’, or the laws of a ‘just’ society, in which ‘God’s law the bible’ is (rather squeamishly) held to be an example.

    As far as i’m aware, though, there’s no word for ‘ethics’ in hebrew, there’s no word for ‘nature’— and still less is there a word for ‘natural law’— and these concepts are simply not found in the old or new testaments. So why do we keep trying to show that Rm and Ga, or Gn 15.6, or Lk 18.14 prove how ethical uprightness were imputed to paul or abraham or the publican? Why do we even ask that question?

    We keep asking it because the abstraction called ‘ethics’ is the framework of our legal and philosophical and hence(!) theological thinking, and seeing things in terms of this framework gets a huge boost from the fact that we translate both ‘torah’ and its greek translation ‘nomos’ as ‘law’ instead of, well, ‘Torah’. Nomos thus becomes ‘nomism’, the principle of ‘legalism’, and we imagine that Paul is both against ‘legalism’ and for ‘justice’. Abstract ethics, and the idea of law based on it, thus become the framework within which we try to think of ‘justification’, and this bedevils us fearfully. In fact, despite their vastly greater knowledge of the (LXX) biblical text, it already bedeviled the fathers almost as much as it bedevils us— although it wasn’t perhaps the heated topic for them that it became during the reformation— because they too had lost sight of the torah-shaped framework that completely defines the meaning of nomos/Torah in the LXX and hence(!) in Paul.

    When Augustine treated of ‘justification in christ’, he went astray for a couple of reasons related mainly, i gather, to his issue with pelagius, among other things. But beneath his errors regarding the philosophico-theological treatment of sin, freedom, synergy, and so forth, he was trying to think about ‘justification’ within a framework of Roman law, and ‘christ’ within the framework of Hellenic-Roman metaphysics that was primarily interested in the relation of the divine and the human in the incarnate Word. The same was true of the other fathers as well, so that even where they got the anthropological questions right, they were still thinking within a context of Roman-Hellenic thought, and not within terms of *Israel*, its *Torah*, and its *Messiah*.

    We simply do not find in the fathers the awareness that has come upon us as a result of Hebrew studies, of the foundational importance to the bible of ‘covenant’ as such. This is not to denigrate the fathers’ accomplishments. It’s only to say that every age has a unique discovery and a unique contribution to make, and that today, we’re finding we have to go back *behind* Nicea (not to say Chalcedon) and re-think, from the ground up, what the Bible is saying, when it talks about what God was doing with Israel and in her Messiah. Perhaps we’re just not ready for Nicea yet!

    you have noted how wright says that in the bible, ‘the word [righteous] is not basically to do with morality or behavior, but rather with status in the eyes of the court— even though, once someone had been vindicated, the word “righteous” would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behavior that had occasioned this status.’ He adds a footnote, not to be overlooked: ‘A good example of this can be seen in Genesis 38:26, when Judah acknowledges that his daughter-in-law Tamar is in the right and he is in the wrong. This states a legal position; only secondarily, and by implication, does it comment on the morality of their respective behavior.’ (Romans, p 399).

    The point is, however, not that Judah was ‘wrong’ and Tamar ‘right’ in any *abstract* legal sense, but that Judah was forced to acknowledge that Tamar had acted as the *covenant* required, i.e., ‘within the covenantal life of israel’, as you put it above. We go completely astray if we attempt to evaluate either Judah or Tamar in terms of some ethical ideal of ‘right and wrong’. Tamar was deliberately committing *prostitution* and *incest*, for God’s sake, and her father in law was deliberately visiting one whom he thought to be a *prostitute*! What ‘ethics’ could possibly justify either of them??! But biblical ‘morality’ is *entirely* defined by the covenant context, *without remainder*.

    Western thought, with its whole augustinian-anselmian and then lutheran-calvinist fantasy of ‘imputation’ and ‘simul justus et peccator’ and all that, is wildly afield of the bible’s vision or interest, and in fact grievously insults and blasphemes both God and man. And not suprisingly, it has given rise at best to a monotonous recycling of attempts to prove, over and over again, in one way or another, the lie that God himself is subject to an abstract ethic of ‘justice’ that requires him to punish sins, and punish them infinitely, that human beings are (pardon me) shit, punishing whom could not possibly ‘satisfy’ his ‘wrath’, that God in his mercy (pretends to) cover the steaming pile of dung that we are with the pure white snow of his ‘grace’, which ‘grace’ is neither more nor less than a fictional imputation of Jesus’ ethical uprightness, which Jesus proved by his ‘absolute obedience’ under conditions of abuse that would absolutely merit the electric chair for any father on earth who ever tortured and murdered his son like that. And this is the ‘justice’ in terms of which we are supposedly to be ‘justified’!

    Well, fortunately, that constellation of ideas seems to be falling on harder times these days. It still has defenders, of course— John Piper and his ilk— but biblical studies has made it all too clear that their defense is based on ideological commitments that have nothing to do with what the scriptures are actually talking about.

    But abstract ethics of any kind are the deeper problem, and the battle has to be fought there, against the framework in which ‘righteousness’ equates to ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’. Covenant membership motivates action, of course, and perhaps even ‘morals’ in the sense of principles of action— but the bible would rather speak here of ‘wisdom’, ‘understanding’, and ‘righteousness’ (ṣedakah)— for which, in any case, the principle, the basis, the matter to be understood and wisely enacted, is always neither more nor less than the *covenant* of faithfulness (emeth), and not some rational-ethical ‘imperative’.

    I’m afraid that when we say things like ‘the goal of Hebrew justice is restorative, rather than just retributive’ (above), we’re still talking as if there’s something called ‘justice’— now to be recognized in a ‘hebrew’ localization— that has the abstract aim, ‘restoration’, instead of the abstract aim, ‘retribution’— or vice versa, if you take the contrary. And then we try to figure out how paul or abraham or the publican fit in to or demonstrate this ‘ethic’ of ‘justice’, whether of ‘restorative’ or ‘retributive’. But again: it’s the abstract *framework* in which these terms operate that’s the problem, not the terms themselves. We should say rather that the goal of both restoration *and* retribution (for both are found in the bible) is the *covenant* and *only* the covenant. Whether restoring the world (tikkun olam) or visiting wrath (harun apo) upon his enemies, God is *always* acting to establish his covenant, even when he says he’s going to establish ‘justice’! And if we’re going to talk about how all the ‘dik-‘ words of St Paul presuppose a lawcourt setting, the lawcourt is always a *covenant* lawcourt, in which the finding of ‘dikaios!’ refers strictly to whether the plaintiff or defendant is properly recognized as demonstrating covenant membership or not by his actions. Somewhere Wright says you could often translate ‘dikaios’ as ‘covenant member’, and not lose much of its meaning.

    So Paul is saying that what God sought and accepted in Abraham as demonstrating his covenant membership (‘righteousness’) was *trust*— i.e., ‘faith/fulness’— not Torah works; and that he seeks the same thing in us. Faith/trust was a sign: when he saw it, God recognized that Abraham was ‘in’— that he was willing to go along with the program of ‘walking beside me’— and that was the basis for God’s declaration (Gn 15.6) that Abraham was, in fact, ‘in’— that he had shown he was ‘in’ the intended covenant relationship.

    In tangent, let me just add that i am completely convinced of Wright’s assessment of the difference between the very similar arguments of Galatians and Romans. The galatians are thinking they must adopt the works of Torah if they want to be in the covenant. Paul is at pains to show them that they do not have to— that faith in the Messiah, not Torah works, is what God is looking for— or more specifically, faith/trust in what God had accomplished through the faith(fulness) “of” Jesus the Messiah. The Romans, on the other hand, had the opposite problem: they were only too ready to dismiss the Jews and their Torah altogether, and Paul is at pains to show them that the Jews and their Torah were the olive tree onto which their wild faith in the Messiah has been grafted. In both cases, faith precedes Torah works, just as Abraham preceded Sinai.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, John, for your lengthy and substantive comment. Given that Bishop Wright is not going to join us on this blog, you may be the next best thing. 🙂


  6. Rhonda says:

    My long journey to Orthodoxy included 2 years as a proselyte under Judaism. I was very surprised to learn during that time that Judaism with its adherence to the Mosaic Law, actually more properly stated the Mosaic Covenant, was far, far less legalistic that most of the Protestant ideologies I had encountered. They focused on the covenantal aspect rather than the legal aspect of the law. Like Orthodoxy, one was also encouraged to pray, to fast, to read the Scriptures & those revered rabbis that wrote about them over the millennia. At no time did I ever hear of any Jewish equivalent to penal substitutionary atonement or forensic justification regards the ancient sacrifices. Their purpose was to train God’s people that sin came with consequences, both to self & to others, just as the purpose of the law was to train God’s people in holiness. I also heard that the ultimate fulfilling of the law was summed up in 1) loving God & 2) loving one’s neighbor…I experienced then as well as now great irony that most Protestantism is far more legalistic than the Judaism from which came our Lord & Savior. That 2 years “outside” of Christ actually served to restore my faith in Christ that had been virtually destroyed by Protestantism.


    • Karen says:


      I recently reread Fr. James Bernstein’s account of his journey to Orthodoxy from a Jewish background in Surprised by Christ, and he had much the same observations to make about the parallels he found between the Orthodox Jewish reading of the OT and the Orthodox Christian one vs. Reformed and Evangelical Protestant interpretations of the OT sacrificial system.


  7. Dana Ames says:

    “…Paul’s righteousness language can only be understood properly within the courtroom metaphor…”

    Actually, Wright does not say this is the “only” metaphor. He does say this one needs to be in the mix in order to properly understand, because such usage existed, and points to something in and from the larger Jewish context. From “The New Testament and the People of God”:

    “Salvation, then, was a matter of a new world, the renewal of creation. Within this, Israel’s god would call some from within the nation to be a new Israel, the spearhead of the divine purpose. Within this again, this renewed people were to be the holy, pure, renewed human beings, living in a covenant fidelity which would answer to the covenant faithfulness of the creator god, and which would end in the renewal, i.e. resurrection, of human bodies themselves. When this god acted, those who belonged, by his grace alone, to this group, would be rescued, and thereby vindicated as the true people of god that they had claimed to be all along. Those who died in advance of that day would be raised in order to share it. It is thus, within the context of the entire future hope of Israel, and in particular within the context of the promise of resurrection, that we can understand the essentially simple lines of second temple Jewish soteriology. The doctrines of justification and salvation belong within the story we have seen all along to characterize the fundamental Jewish worldview.” p.337-338

    “The basic Jewish answer to the question, How is the creator dealing with evil within his creation? was of course that he had called Israel… Israel’s purpose had come to its head in Jesus’ work, which itself had led up to its appropriate, though highly paradoxical, culmination in his death and resurrection. Those who now belonged to Jesus’ people were not identical with ethnic Israel, since israel’s history had reached its intended fulfilment; they claimed to be the continuation of Israel in a new situation… They were thrust out by that claim, and that reading [of Israel’s scriptures], to fulfil Israel’s vocation on behalf of the world… Putting the two basic questions together, we arrive at the following framework of early Christian theology. The fundamental theological position is a view of creator and creation, of evil within creation and the rescue of creation from that evil, of hope fulfilled and hope to come, of a people who are both rescued and rescuers. Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology grow naturally and Jewishly from this basis.

    In particular, the Jewish doctrines of salvation and justification are reflected across early Christianity, even where those terms are not necessarily used. The church appropriated for itself the Jewish belief that the creator god would rescue his people at the last, and interpreted that rescue in therms of a great lawcourt scene. This is the doctrine of the ‘righteousness of God’, the dikaiosune theou, which is best seen in terms of the divine covenant faithfulness, and which comes to major expression in Paul’s letter to Rome. The major underlying difference between the Christian and the Jewish views at this point was that the early Christians believed that the verdict had already been announced in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Israel’s god had at last acted decisively, to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness, to deliver his people from their sins, and to usher in the inaugurated new covenant. As a result, the question of present justification could be, as it were, worked at from both ends. To the Jewish formulation (‘how can we tell, in the present, who will be justified in the future?’) the Christians added a second question: how can we tell, in the present, who is implicitly included in the death and resurrection of Jesus? This gave a different form to the Jewish question, which set the context for a different answer: those whom the covenant god will rescue at the last, who are deemed to be included within the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, are circumscribed not by race, geography or ancestral code, but by Jesus, and hence by faith. The doctrine of present justification (the language is largely Pauline, but the reality is everywhere in early Christianity) was hammered out between those two poles, future and past, as a matter of the self-definition of the church. ” p. 457-458

    This connects justification and Pascha. The whole renewal of the world thing is also expressed in Margaret Barker’s work re the symbolism of the temple services, to which so much in Orthodox liturgy points; did you see the link I gave in a previous comment to her article/s on John’s web site? This accounts for the more “cosmic” view of redemption in the east. This is something other than conceptual and moralistic. This goes back behind the western formulations, and as John noted above, behind Nicea, much more toward the sensibilities of the Apostolic Fathers… As Wright has noted, Luther’s questions were not Paul’s questions.

    Ad fontes, Father; in this case, Wright’s Christian Origins series (the “big books”). Gotta have the big picture first – the whole Jewish picture comprised of story, symbols, praxis and worldview – to see how the “theological details” fit into it, rather than vice-versa. The big books are the necessary backdrop against which to read everything else, including the commentary on Romans.



  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    After reading Tom Wright’s article “New Perspectives in Paul,” I have revised the above article.


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