N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (6)

Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent.  (Phil, Spec. Laws 1.303)

I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations (Pseudo-Philo, Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f).

The two quotes at the head of this blog are typical of statements in the Second Temple period concerning the election of the Jewish people.  As Wright correctly observes, the idea of Israel’s election is “everywhere apparent in the Old Testament” (109), and I would add, almost every present in the literature of the  Second Temple period.  Israel was specially called by God out of all of the nations of the world.  They are given the privilege of receiving God’s Law and the responsibility of being God’s light to the entire world.  It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist.  They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God.  Monotheism alone requires exclusivism.  But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least ought not be snobbery).  Election ought to have been a solemn honor which produces humility rather than

Wright is developing ideas which first found expression in W. D. Davis Sanders (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism).  Sanders’ work was so influential that the position he created quickly became known as the “new perspective” on Paul.  Sanders’ major point is that scholarship has misunderstood the Judaism of the first century.  It was not a “works for salvation” religion as is often stated, but rather the works of the law are a proper response to God’s election to salvation.  Like Wright, Sanders is adamant that the proto-Pelagianism that is often associated with the Pharisees of the first century is a mis-reading of the data because of the imposed Lutheran / Augustinian “justification by faith” grid.  By actually reading the data from the first century, one finds that there were no Jews who thought the earned their salvation by keeping the Torah.

The important elements of first century Judaism were what “got you in” and what “kept you in” (this catch-phrase has almost become a mantra in Pauline studies.)  For Sanders, Jews believed that election of God “got them into” the covenant (i.e. salvation) and that good works were required to keep you in the covenant – but they were not saved by works of the law at all.   For this reason Sanders describes the Jews of the first century as believing in “covenantal nomism.” Both the election of God into the Covenant and the keeping of the  Law are important. Paul the Jewish rabbi found salvation outside of Judaism, and because of this he was forced to re-think his religion.

Why is this re-thinking of election so controversial?  For many post-reformation theological systems, “salvation by faith” in Pauline theology requires that the Jew, the Pharisee, is the mirror opposite of Paul, and therefore a “salvation by works” theology.  Paul’s argument only works if the Jews are trying to earn their salvation like Pelagius or the medieval church attacked by Luther.  Sanders (and Dunn, Wright and others) challenge that assumption and shake the foundations of justification by faith.  If this “new perspective” is correct, does that necessarily that the classic reformation faith is based upon a fiction?  Possibly, but it may not be as bad as some of Wright’s detractors make it out to be.

 

14 thoughts on “N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (6)

  1. I felt that Wright drove home some good points in this chapter, by redefining justification, he did not remove from the fact that people are saved by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Wright simply said that Paul holds that theology true using instead the word ‘called.’ Wright wants to point out that Paul used the word ‘justification’ instead to mean “How I am declared to me a member of God’s people” (Wright 122). His goal in this section is to show those opposed to the new perspective, that redefining justification in the context of the Second Temple period, does not redefine the Gospel. Instead, what the new perspective attempts to highlight is the law’s place INSIDE OF Israel’s covenant with God. There is not a transition from good works to faith, but there is a transition from an old covenant to a new covenant.

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    • Gotta second Zach on this one. With Wright redefining terms there is a new realization of the presuppositions that I’d always read into the Bible. Mainly, that the the Pharisees were legalistic hypocrites. Though this can still be considered true, there is a fuller sense of the matter as the reader considers the heart that the Pharisees must have had as they tried to tackle the difficult task of not to going against God in any way. It reminds me of the Christians who have a self imposed hermitage as they try to push their response to the Gospel so far that they try to become sinless in themselves and no longer have affective ministry in the world. This response makes it difficult to “be the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14-16) if we can no longer be seen in the world.

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      • Haha! PJ…I feel like you would second anyone who worked on redefining the terms…lol. 🙂 Just Kidding!

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  2. Continuing with Zach’s point of the Jews seeing the law INSIDE of the covenant, I believe Polhill sheds greater light. He established that circumcision confirmed the exclusiveness of the covenant in which Israel participated; however it did not stop there. “Not the external circumcision of the foreskin but the internal circumcision of the heart is what counts with God…God seeks the circumcised heart of humility (Deut. 10:16) and repentance (Jer. 4:4).” (286). The deeper outworking of the covenant (or rather what would be redefined as the new covenant for Israel) was supposed to be present within Israel. It was an obedience that kept them within the covenant, yet God’s true desire was for their hearts, not just outward actions that meant nothing. “For Sanders, Jews believed that election of God “got them into” the covenant (i.e. salvation) and that good works were required to keep you in the covenant – but they were not saved by works of the law at all.” What must be understood with regards to the law was that it was not the basis or the object of salvation, but rather the content of their faith (how they worked out their belief in God).

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  3. It seems that even in light of this “new perspective”, the reformers were not entirely wrong, but perhaps depended far too heavily upon a single term. Wright, perhaps, is arguing against this emphasis on justification. Justification is something of the ‘present time’, an outward symbolism of membership or identity to the covenant. Justification is the way in which we can see that someone does in fact belong to God. In other words, as Reformers seem to have placed ‘justification’ at the forefront of Salvation, the ‘word’ justification, according to Wright, denotes that which happens AFTER the “call” of God.

    The reason that I say the problem is perhaps with the emphasis of justification as seen in the formation faith, is that Wright does in fact say that by this new perspective is not meant “that it has nothing to do with sinners being saved from sin and death by the love and grace of God” (121). But, “the word justification does not denote the process whereby…a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry, and sin to faith, true worship, and renewal of life” (121).

    It is an interesting tension between two meanings of the term, however, Wright really does excellent by redefining the term within the context of the entire scope of salvation history. Who is ultimately right, this new perspective or the reformers faith? Neither seem to be entirely wrong, but this new perspective may have slightly better credibility and is certainly worth wrestling over.

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  4. But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least ought not be snobbery). Election ought to have been a solemn honor which produces humility rather than [pride]. – PLong

    Though this can still be considered true, there is a fuller sense of the matter as the reader considers the heart that the Pharisees must have had as they tried to tackle the difficult task of not to going against God in any way. – PJ

    Combining these two thoughts, it seems interesting to me that the cardinal sin that we so frequently hear about is Pride. The ‘exclusivism’ that PLong talks about seems to have led to pride as opposed to humility. As we read through the Gospels, we get a sense of where the Pharisee’s hearts were as they sought to follow God’s laws. Instead of being humbled by the thought of being chosen by God, they were full of pride with their accomplishments of keeping the law.

    It was not a “works for salvation” religion as is often stated, but rather the works of the law are a proper response to God’s election to salvation. – PLong

    Now going off of this point, I would like to make the point that I have often heard the statement, ‘Worship is a response to God.’ I don’t have a problem with the statement that the Law should have been a proper response to God’s election. The problem that I have is putting that into the context of 1st Century Judaism. From all the teaching and learning that I have had from Sunday school to college, I have never seen anything in the Bible that begins to even hint that the Pharisees were properly responding to God in their pursuit of the Law. In the same thought, the statement was made that the Pharisees were concerned about what got them in and what kept them in. If in fact the works of the Law were what ‘kept them in’ doesn’t that imply that without the works of the Law, they were no longer in, in which case there is still a sense of salvation by works? If by failing to do the works, you are no longer in, whether or not you were elected in the first place, your works were your ultimate means of salvation.

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    • I would also like to add Romans 9.31-32 to this discussion. “but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works…

      If “[Judaism] was not a “works for salvation” religion as is often stated,” they why would Paul make such a clear statement to the contrary?

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  5. The argument that Wright and the others are trying to present that works was not the key to salvation for the Jews. This is the same argument and assumption that I was making in my last post. I did not understand what argument Wright was making when I read the chapter because I never understand what I am reading when it comes to Wright; there is a mental block I can not grasp his righting. This brings me joy that I now understand one thing Wright has argued.

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  6. It is hard to argue the point that Jews were chosen by their willingness to follow the law. If that was the case, I don’t think Israel would have been chosen at all simply because they hard a very hard time doing it. Hence multiple exiles for the very reason they didn’t follow the law. The issue Caleb and Zach are addressing is directly related to this.

    “What must be understood with regards to the law was that it was not the basis or the object of salvation, but rather the content of their faith (how they worked out their belief in God).” — Caleb

    Great statement Caleb and I really like the way you put it. It is not the law in which they became a member of God’s people but how they showed their faith. An analogy that crossed my mind is that of the work-place. It is not by hardwork on the job that results in someone getting hired. They are first hired and then do the work as an act of obedience to those in authority, as an act of thanks for the opportunity. The employer isn’t going to like it if the people he hires simply do what they are told and nothing else, but when they are thankful for the opportunity they work above and beyond to show it. Much the same way Israel was placed in the covenant by God’s choice and he desired them not just to do the work to keep the covenant alive or to keep the “job” but to circumcise their hearts as well. The act of following the Law was to be a chance for Israel to praise God for choosing them, not simply doing the minimum to stay in the covenant.

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  7. Perhaps it is because I tend to avoid theological books like that plague, I did not realize that the idea of the Israelites being elected for no reason but a promise was a relativity new idea. When reading Romans 9-11 it seems that is the thrust of the arguement. The promise came through Abraham, and if it was a works based program it would no longer be a promise. It also seems that the promise has been extended some what to Gentiles, based on grace through faith.

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  8. I think that it’s interesting that the Pharisees are such a difficult piece in this whole equation of election. I do agree with Casey and Plong that it seems that those are the elect would consider it a privilege and an honor, but it seems that every time it turns into pride. Consider this passage:

    Romans 9:11-21 [ESV]
    “thought they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad-in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call- she was told, the older will serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    “what shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s party BY NO MEANS! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and i will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

    And here’s the kicker:

    “You will say to me then, Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?”

    What can our response possibly be after that? God chooses whom He chooses, for His glory. It seems that the deciding factor must be what brings the MOST glory to God.

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  9. The quote from Caleb made me think of this quote in Wright….”‘works of Torah’ here is not about the works some might think you have to perform in order to become a member of God’s people, but the works you have to perform to demonstrate that you are a member of God’s people” (112).

    Also Casey’s analogy of the work-place makes a lot of sense. A person is hired before they work hard for employer, and then when they are hired they work out of gratitude and obedience to authority. The Jews did not to anything to merit their election, it was, “…purely a matter of God’s love” (109).

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  10. ” Election ought to have been a solemn honor which produces humility rather than [pride]”
    “Like Wright, Sanders is adamant that the proto-Pelagianism that is often associated with the Pharisees of the first century is a mis-reading of the data because of the imposed Lutheran / Augustinian “justification by faith” grid. By actually reading the data from the first century, one finds that there were no Jews who thought the earned their salvation by keeping the Torah.”

    I find it interesting that P Long, Casey, and Moses have all specifically mentioned pride in association with the Pharisees of the first century. Is this a “mis-reading of the data because of [an] imposed” Augustinian grid? Augustine’s theology of sin was, simply, that it has its root in pride. If that was Augustine’s view of sin, but it wasn’t the view of sin held by Jews of the first century does that mean that it is inadmissable to apply it to them?

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