N. T. Wright on Acts 1

Here is a video of Tom Wright teaching on Acts 1.  This is a great intro to the book which gives you a bit of an insight into Wright’s view on Kingdom of Heaven.

ETS Atlanta – N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright served up an amusing of a plenary address, beginning with at least three jokes delivered in his typical deadpan style. Mike Witmer has already said that he seemed “a bit snippy and defensive,” which was true, although I took it in good humor.  Of course I was not being called a Neo-Catholic, this is certainly strong invective, if the target is solidly in the Reformed tradition!

There were a number of things which need to be clarified, and I think that he was well within his rights to say that bloggers have gone a bit nuts over what me may or may not believe on any given topic.  This carried over to IBR, where he mentioned at least twice that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity and he managed to tweak Dispensationalism at least once.  I really think that he is weary of people assuming that he rejects a particular doctrine based on statements that are not really addressing that issue.  Wright has become a flashpoint for Reformation defenders, but he is not an easy target.  He is correct to call bloggers to personal responsibility, and I applaud his comments that the sorts of things that pass for scholarship on blogs ought to be held accountable.  I personally like the fact that he is aware of the sorts of things that are posted on blogs, even if he does not know what a Nintendo Wii is.

On to the substance of Wright’s talk.  Wright correctly said that the Justification debate is about “scripture and tradition.” Ever since the reformed community began to answer the New Perspective on Paul, the charge has been that people like Sanders are striking at the heart of the Reformation and destroying the doctrine of Justification by Faith.  Wright says that is simply not true.  From his perspective, he is continuing the reformation by going back to scripture for proper categories to describe theological concepts.  This of course is exactly what the reformation-stream critics of Wright claim to be doing as well, but to be honest, it is hard to say that they do in fact use scripture first and tradition second.  I went to many papers prior to Wright on the topic of justification which cited the Westminster Confession more than Paul, a serious problem if the goal is a biblical theology.

Wright attempted to deal with “justification in context,” repeating the sorts of things he said in Justification.  Justification is not about how you get saved, says Wright, but about membership in the people of God.  I really think he is correct, and probably standing on the shoulders of Albert Schweitzer again by emphasizing identification with Christ as the chief metaphor for salvation. The phrase “in Christ” is far more common in the New Testament that the metaphor of justification, and ought to be more emphasized than it is.  He stresses the context of justification as a Hebrew law court, not a modern one.

This leads to what is perhaps most controversial in Wright’s Pauline theology, a denial of the classic doctrine of imputation.  That language is simply not found in the Bible, says Wright.  Taken in context, justification is not about crediting Christ’s righteousness to the believer’s account as if Christ has a surplus of righteousness which can be doled out to whoever needs it.  Wright was adamant (even emotional) that this is a medieval construction which the Reformers did not quite get to.  If they had, they would have dispensed with it as a non-biblical way of describing salvation.

But this does not mean that the believer does not have Christ’s righteousness.  It is not imputed, but since the believer is “in Christ,” what is Christ’s is the present possession of the believer.  Our identification is so complete that we can be called righteous since at the final judgment, we will be “right with God” because we are totally “in Christ.”

This is not imputation – but not far off.  The gap between Wright and his critics is often not very great and comes down to Wright’s refusal to use categories drawn from systematic theology and confessions to interpret Paul.  Rather, he wants to use Paul to create a serious, exegetically grounded biblical theology.  This is why he faces such strong opposition, he challenges the secure doctrines of the Reformation!

ETS Atlanta – Frank Theilman

Frank Theilman focused on a single issue which is important to the Justification debate without taking on Wright or Schreiner directly.  He was wholly concerned with the phrase “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17.  This is a well known debate, but Theilman resurrected a third option for the meaning of the phrase, which he called the “oldest perspective” on the righteousness of God.

Since the Reformation, the phrase “righteousness of God” was thought to refer to God’s gift of salvation, while in the 20th century several scholars (including Dodd and Käsemann) suggested that the phrase refers to the saving activity of God.  This is the well-known objective versus subjective genitive debate which dominates most commentaries on this verse.  Theilman’s way out of this dilemma is two-fold.  First, he re-introduces the view of Origen, the earliest known commentary on the book of Romans.  According to Origen, the phrase tells us something about God’s character.  God is ultimately fair / just / righteous in his dealings with humans.  In support of this, Theilman pointed out that the other two similar phrases in the immediate context (power of God and wrath of God) tell us something about God’s character.  “Righteousness of God” is positioned between these two genitives, so it is plausible that they all should be read in the same way, as describing something about God’s character.

In support of this point, Theilman points to the contemporary usage of the δικαιοσύνη on coins minted near the time of the writing of the letter to the Romans.  The rationale for this is that the people in Rome would have understood the term consistent with their culture, not the as the Hebrew term is used in the Hebrew Bible.  The word is used on tetradrachma minted in Alexandria from the fourth year of Nero’s reign along with an image of the goddess δικαιοσύνη holding a pair of even scales and a cornucopia.  The point of the propaganda here is that Nero will distribute the produce of Alexandria fairly and impartially.  Of course, in the context of the Roman Empire, this means that people will be treated fairly with respect to their social position.  Paul’s radical idea here is that God treats people fairly without respect to their social position, so that a Greek and a Barbarian will receive equal treatment before a just, impartial (δικαιοσύνη) God.

I was particularly interested in this argument and found it persuasive, although there is no certain evidence that the people who received the letter to the Romans had these coins or knew of this sort of propaganda from the Empire.  It seems likely, but ultimately impossible to prove.  On the other hand, it is possible that Paul’s letter to Rome was intended first and foremost to the elders of the (Christian) synagogues of Rome, people who were aware of the more forensic use of righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and LXX.

Theilman’s second way out of the debate over the meaning of “righteousness of God” was initially less satisfying to me, although it is anticipated by my brief critique of his first point.  He argues that the phrase is intentionally polyvalent.  Paul is fully aware that the phrase could be taken in several different ways and he makes no effort to clarify it since he will unpack several of the ways the phrase can be used in the rest of the letter.  It does refer to God’s gift of salvation as well as God’s saving power, but also his essentially fair character in rendering justice to all impartially. In his view, words like δικαιοσύνη would not have been as precisely defined as they are in modern scholarship, and an ancient reader would have not only understood the polyvalent nature of the phrase, but expected it in a programmatic statement like Rom 1:17.

At the end of his paper, I suppose I felt a little like the people in the crowd after Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God, what is God’s.”  Both sides can find comfort and satisfaction with Theilman’s view of the righteousness of God, and both sides probably think this suggestion strengthens their case.

ETS Atlanta – Thomas Schreiner

The attendance at last night’s first Plenary session was amazing. Rarely have I seen a nearly-full room for a Plenary session.  When the conference was originally announced, John Piper was scheduled to defend the traditional view based on his book contesting N. T. Wight.  When Piper stepped down, Thomas Schreiner was asked to fill the role of critiquing Wright’s view of Justification.  Schreiner is more than capable of this, although I must say that his approach is seems almost entirely from the perspective of systematic theology rather than biblical theology.  I am fully aware that he wrote a biblical theology of Paul, but his talk last night was extremely traditional and used language from systematic theology (imputation).  In addition, he really did little work on the text of Paul itself, much of his use of scripture was classic prooftexting.  I am not sure that I would have heard anything different from Piper, except that his delivery would have been more pastoral.

Schreiner had three main points of contention with Wright.  First, Wright sees justification as a part of Ecclesiological, how you can tell who is part of the people of God, rather than primarily Soteriological (how one gets right with God).  For Schreiner, Wright has it backwards.  Justification has to be about salvation first, even if it has dimensions which might be considered social.  I think that Schreiner is correct here, but I also think he overplays Wright by claiming he has created a false dichotomy.  If this is a false dichotomy, then it seems to me all Schreiner has done is flip it and emphasized the other side.  I think a better way to get at this is to realize that justification is about salvation, community and eschatology – salvation us ultimately future.  The terminology of justification appears in at least those three categories.

Second, Schreiner thinks Wright errs when he describes the failure of Israel as a failure to bless the world (Gen 12:1-3).  Schreiner dismissed this because, in his view, Israel was never supposed to bless the whole world, that was the role of the ultimate seed of Abraham, Jesus.  I thought this dismissal was odd, given the fact that Genesis has numerous instances where the Abrahamic blessing is extended to “the nations” because of their association with Abraham.  For example, Lot is blessed and rescued from danger twice because he is part of the family of Abraham.  Hagar is rescued by God and Ishmael is blessed and becomes a great nation because he is a son of Abraham.  Laban’s association with Jacob can be considered a blessing, even though in the end there is a loss.  Ultimately in Genesis, Joseph is a blessing to the nations (Egypt and Canaan) as God uses him in Egypt.

Third, Schreiner faults Wright for not thinking that justification includes imputation of righteousness as well as a declaration of right standing before God.  Here is where I think that Schreiner and Wright are probably talking about the same sorts of things, but with different language, giving the illusion of a huge difference.  Schreiner is looking for the reformation categories from systematic theology, Wright is working with terms drawn from the Bible as a good biblical theologian.  What is the difference between “you are righteous because god has imputed Christ’s righteousness to you” (Schreiner) and “you are righteous because your status is now ‘in Christ’” (Wright).  Either way, you have Christ’s righteousness and you can be described as “saved.”  One is working with Reformation terminology, the other is consciously avoiding it.

In the end, Schreiner seems to agree with Wright more than I expected.  His critique was friendly and appreciative of the work Wright has done.  I was disappointed with the lack of exegetical nuance and complete rejection of Second Temple Period sources which make Wright’s case so compelling.  A discussion of Wright and the New Perspective which fails to take account of 4QMMT, for example, seems to be ignoring evidence which is difficult to ignore.  I would much rather read Paul in the context of the Second Temple Period than the Reformation, even if Luther and Calvin did get most this right on Soteriology.  Given my denominational affiliation, my commitment is to the Bible, not to traditional reformed formulations of doctrine.

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 2)

One of the things that has always annoyed me about N. T. Wright’s description of the Kingdom in the Gospels is that he seems to be guarding the idea of the Kingdom on two separate fronts. On the one hand, he frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” or the end of the world.  Here has in mind the typical American view of the end times as channeled through the Left Behind series.  Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. On the other hand, Wright wants to invest the Kingdom with a fair amount of radicalness in the first century.  This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as doing good and loving your neighbor popular in liberal Christianity.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s regular characterization of their positions.  For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensationalist thinking, it is in fact fantasy, a fictional “what if” story and not at all a reasonable presentation of a theology.  To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.  This is a strawman argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst.  Wright regular points out that the Jews expected a real kingdom in this world, not the end of the world whether (post-apocalyptic or eternal state).  This is exactly what Dispensationalist have always said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.  (There are many good reasons to attack dispensational theology, the popularity of the Left Behind series ought not be one of them).

On the second front, Wright is correct that protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom are bland and not at all what Jesus would have meant.  Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone.  There are far more political and social issues in the teaching of Jesus which have to be dismissed if he was just telling us to be nice to each other.  What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another?  What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught?  No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.

Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (52).  Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.