In the last post I was more concerned with the validity of Wright’s view of Election in the Hebrew Bible. It is in fact true that Israel believed themselves to be the chosen people, and all the literature of this period struggles to explain why the chosen people are not being blessed as they might expect. These attempts to define election range from a denial of Israel’s special place (Sirach, perhaps) to a radical condemnation of the status quo in Israel as corrupt and about to be judged by God (Qumran).
Wright places Paul into this discussion of what it means to be the chosen people of God. Paul redefines the people of God which leads to a redefinition of election. Wright is clear that this is a redefinition, not a repudiation of the definition of election as found in the Hebrew Bible. Paul remains within Judaism (128). What is remarkable to me is that Wright states that Paul would have been appalled with scholars who see him as breaking away from Judaism and starting a new religion. (Recall our discussion earlier about whether Paul was converted or not?) He specifically denies “supersessionism,” the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism completely and that the “people of God” are no longer Jewish. He is thinking specifically here of the fact that Paul describes the church as the true descendants of Abraham in the faith and his discussion centers on Moses and the Law. I think this opens up some eschatological questions, but he waits on those until the next chapter.
So far so good. I think Wright is correct in his observations about first century Jewish thinking on their election, and I think that he is correct that Paul re-defines many Jewish ideas and practices for the Church in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. I especially like his discussion Paul re-orienting the people of God around the idea of grace.
What could be potentially troublesome is Wright’s discussion of Gal 2:11-21, a critical text for the New Perspective on Paul, and a text that is at the heart of Pauline theology since it touches on justification and law in the context of practice – how do we behave since se have the belief that Jesus is the messiah? Wright correctly comments that the discussion in Gal 2 concerns “what does it mean to be a Jew,” then deals extremely briefly with the “faith of Christ.” This is a huge exegetical issue, but the gist of the problem concerns who “does” this faith, Jesus or us? Is this the faith which Jesus demonstrated (the “faithfulness of the messiah”) or is this faith which we have “in the messiah?” Wright says this verse ought to be understood as referring to the messiah’s faithfulness rather than our faith in Jesus which makes us saved? Most modern translations add “in” to the line to indicate that Jesus is the object of our faith (the KJV does not, but that is simply because it is brutally literal and not aware of this modern exegetical issue.) Does this phrase mean that the Messiah was faithful and therefore we are justified, or that we are justified because of what Jesus has already done on the cross? Wright states that Gal 2:15 is not a statement about how one becomes a Christian (112). This is highly controversial, but this does not mean that Wright denies justification by faith categorically, it only this text in Galatians which is under discussion.
If Wright reads Galatians correctly (and his other comments applying this understanding to Romans are correct), then there are some problems for the standard reformation view of justification – but I am not convinced they are as foundation-shattering as the more dramatic articles and books have claimed.