N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective, More on Election

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.

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.