Galatians 3:7-9 – Credited as Righteous

The audience of the letter of Galatians are Gentiles who have responded to God by believing in Jesus as savior. Paul says that they are justified, right with God as a result of that faith. This experience is not unlike that of Abraham, who believed God and “it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:7-9). In the second part of Galatians. Paul turns to a biblical argument, focusing on the phrase “credited as righteousness” in story of Abraham in Genesis 15.

Abraham BelievedIn this story, Abraham believed in the word of God as revealed to him and God considered him “right with God” as a result. At this point in history, Abraham must be considered a Gentile, at least by the rules imposed by the Agitators in the Galatian churches. He was uncircumcised and food traditions and Sabbath laws have not been given yet. But because he believed in the God who called him out of his father’s land, he became a “converted pagan,” just like they Gentile believers in Paul’s churches. Abraham is therefore the perfect model for Paul to use since he was justified before the Law: he was justified by faith not by the act of circumcision.

How did “scripture foresee that God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (Gal 3:8)? The Abrahamic covenant states that the whole world would be blessed by the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). How the nations would be blesses is left unstated, but we know from Galatians that it is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that nations are able to participate in the blessing of Abraham’s covenant.

It is quite possible that there were many Jews living at the time of Paul who would have disagreed at this point, but most would have agreed that God would do something to bring the Gentiles into his future kingdom. The only disagreement was on the percentage of the nations who would respond when the Messiah comes. For some, the nations would come streaming to Zion (Isa 25:6-8), but for others, very few Gentiles would enter the Kingdom. A book like 4 Ezra, for example, doubts if many of the Jews will enter the Kingdom!

But it is highly unlikely that any of the existing Jewish groups as we know them would have expected God to justify the Gentiles by faith, apart from the works of the Law.  This is the contribution of Paul: the Gentiles can be right with God without converting to Judaism or keeping the Law or by practicing the boundary markers of Judaism.

The fact that Gentiles would be blessed by the seed of Abraham should not therefore be a surprise to the Jewish church. What is a shock to the Jewish Christians is that Gentiles are to be justified apart from the Law. This was unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham therefore becomes the model for the Gentiles since he too was a Gentile, saved by faith in God and not works of the Law.

Basics of the New Perspective: Justification

Justification is one issue which has invigorated critics of the New Perspective, sometimes to new heights of rhetorical which would make Luther himself proud.  (For example, The Trinity Review opines:  “Are Evangelicals so enthralled by Bishops and Brits that they are blind to the realities of the situation?” “Wright fabricates his theology.”) N. T. Wright has been at the forefront of this discussion with is Justification, answering John Piper’s pre-emptive strike on Wright’s views.

First some perspective.  When Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of his major burdens was to show that the traditional (Lutheran) view of Paul was a distortion.  Luther read Paul and the Pharisees in the light of his own struggle against Rome.  Sanders amassed the evidence which showed that Judaism was a religion of grace and was not proto-Pelegian.  Jews in the first century did not think that they earned their salvation, rather they were “right with God” because they were the elect of God.

The problem with Sanders is that he destroyed the assumptions of a stream of theology without providing any real replacement for it.  His goal was not to create a new “theology of Paul” but to correct a misunderstanding of Paul.   It was James Dunn and N. T. Wright who have built on the foundation of Sanders and attempted to describe a Pauline Theology which attempts to read Paul in the world of Second Temple period Judaism.  I personally think that Dunn’s chapter on Justification in his Pauline Theology (334-389) should be required reading for anyone who wants to study Paul. However, Wright’s Justification takes priority because it has brought the discussion of the New Perspective’s view of justification to the general public.

Wright is clear about his method.   In Justification he proposes to study the vocabulary of justification in the context of the first century (90).  This is more difficult that it appears because of the massive theological weight various streams of Reformation systematic theology has placed on the word.  He does not want to create a new term, rather, he wants to define justification using a historical-grammatical method.

Briefly put, for Wright, justification is a statement about the status of the believer.  When one is “justified” in a legal sense (with a Second Temple Period context) they are given the status of “in the right” on that particular legal situation.  It does not matter if they are really “in the right.” the judge has found in their favor and they obtain that status before the court.

Wright states that the word does not mean “declare righteous” nor does the term mean that the person is righteous with respect to their character (91).  The real problem for Wright is the “imputation of righteousness” as  theological extension of justification.  Reformed streams of theology says that God “imputes Christ’s righteous” to the believer.  In the same way that Adam’s sin is counted against all those “in Adam,” all those “in Christ” have Christ’s righteousness counted for them.   Wright finds no evidence for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.  It is a theological construct built on the foundation of Reformation theology, not the Bible and ought to be abandoned.

In summary, Wright believes that Justification is a statement about the status of the person who has been vindicated in the court (92).  The term cannot be used to describe the whole of the salvation process, it is but one metaphor of many which Paul uses to describe salvation.  James Dunn makes this point as well in his Pauline Theology (328-33).  Dunn observes that there are many metaphors for salvation in Paul, although he highlights justification by faith, participation in Christ, and the gift of the Spirit as the primary statements of Paul’s view of salvation.

The Protestant Reformation elevated the legal metaphor found in some of Paul’s writings to the status of primary metaphor and loaded onto that metaphor the whole of Paul’s salvation theology.  The New Perspective attempts to temper this by using the language of justification more biblically.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 2.2

The second plank in Wright’s method is establishing the proper context for reading the letters of Paul.   What he means here is that Paul needs to be read in the context of the first century, both as a Jew and as a Hellenistic Jew.  As he described in Fresh Perspective, Paul is a man with a foot in three worlds who is creating a fourth: He is re-interpreting the Jewish Scripture, speaking and thinking in Greek, communicating to a Roman world, and providing the foundation for Christianity.  As such, the “background to Paul” should be the Hebrew Bible, Judaism as described in  first century sources, and the literature of the Greco-Roman world.  To me, this seems obvious, and I spend a great deal of time academically studying what is loosely described as “backgrounds” to the New Testament.

What could possibly compete for this context?  As Wright explains it, many commentaries (and translations) place Paul in the context of the Reformation and Reformation doctrine.  This develops out of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which savaged New Testament scholars for reading Paul as Luther, battling proto-Pelagians.  Sanders’ point was simply, “read Paul against the background of real Second Temple period Judaism, not Luther and Reformation theology.”  Perhaps where Sanders went wrong is intensity of his attack.  When scholarship shifts into polemic, it is usually on shaky ground.

Following Sanders then, Wright is correct in that Paul should not be read as Luther, but on the other hand there is at least a fair chance that Luther got quite a bit in Paul correct.  I am not willing to say that the doctrine of justification which developed out of the reformation is wrong, but I am willing to say that it is not the central idea within Paul’s theology.  Like James Dunn in his Pauline Theology, I think that justification is an important metaphor for salvation which Paul does in fact use, but it is not the primary foundation for all of Paul’s theology.

But context is not to be done for context’s sake.  The reason we study Second Temple period Judaism, or Greco-Roman culture, or “Proper evangelicals are rooted in Scripture, and above all in the Jesus Christ to whom Scripture witnesses, and nowhere else” (51).  In my copy of Justification, I have the whole sentence underlined, and three underlines under nowhere else. I am very interested in Second Temple period literature and have genuinely enjoyed reading books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I see so much in them that is useful for my understanding of the Gospels and Paul, but this literature are not the goal.  The goal of all this background” study must always be a proper understanding of Jesus and Paul.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 2.1

In the “Rules of Engagement,” Wright lays out his methodology for studying Paul.   Of primary importance for understanding Paul is the Hebrew Bible. I have often said that you cannot really understand the New Testament without a thorough knowledge of the Old.  I do not mean that the Hebrew Bible is just a “background” to the Gospels or Paul, but that it is foundational to the New.

A second element of Wright’s methodology is what books “count” as Pauline.  As anyone who has taken a Pauline Lit class knows, books like Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals are usually set aside as deutero-Pauline.  They are assumed to be written a generation after Paul, even if they come from people who were Pauline in their theology.  In short, they do not “count” toward determine what Paul thought.  Romans and Galatians are read first, the Ephesians and Colossians “fall short” because they do not focus on justification in quite the same way the real Pauline books do.

Wright proposes a thought experiment: Start with Ephesians and Colossians and then read Romans and Galatians.  What one finds, Wright states, is a “(very Jewish) cosmic soteriology” in which God has a plan to rescue Jew and Gentile through the person of Christ and to unite them into a church which can be described as “Christ’s body.”  If Luther had started here, Wright thinks, the New Perspective on Paul would have started with the Reformation!  (He jokes that the New Perspective actually started with Ephesians, which I find humorous since I know people who think Dispensationalism started with Ephesians as well!)

What this is all about is the “center” of Paul’s theology.  This is an old problem and something  of a “chicken and egg” type question.  If you select the central first, Pauline doctrine, you will then find a “canon-within-the-canon;” if you select the “most important book” first, that limits the doctrines that might be thought of as central.  For Luther (and the Reformation), the central doctrine is justification by faith; Romans and Galatians become the“canon-within-the-canon.”  Ephesians and Colossians are simply not that important to the central theme anymore.

What would we get as a “central theme” if we start with Ephesians and Colossians?  Wright does not really answer that question other than to say that there is a “cosmic plan of God” to fix what is wrong with the world.  I suggest that it is time to reconsider reconciliation as a central theme, as suggested by Ralph Martin some time ago.  Reconciliation is broad enough to include the idea of justification.  In addition, it would draw Corinthians into the discussion.

As always, a frustration I have in reading Wright is that I want a bit more detail that he can give in a book this size.  That cannot be a legitimate criticism of the book, give the target audience.  This is a popular work answering only a specific critic, not a full-blown theology of Paul.

N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 1.2

The second metaphor is a bit more of a challenge for me.  Pauline theology, says Wright, is like a jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces which must be fitted into the puzzle, but it is easier to leave some of them in the box.  In fact, my theology works best if I use a subset of the pieces to construct my theology and leave the rest of the pieces in the box.  I suspect that most people do not do this out of dishonesty (“that cannot be true so I’ll ignore it”), but rather because it is very difficult to hold all of the elements of Pauline theology together in such a way that satisfies systematic theologians.  (A possible exception to this is the scholar that limits the Pauline canon to certain books, putting “later Pauline theology” in a category which is of decidedly lesser authority.  Wright, in my view, does not do this – he respects the whole of canonical Paul, although in practice the Pastorals are not a major factor).

There are two “pieces of the puzzle” often left in the box.  The first is Paul’s use of the Hebrew Bible.  Looking to the work of Richard Hays, Wright accepts the idea that if Paul cites a text (or even alludes to it), he wants to evoke the whole passage.  This is a semi-controversial, since in other writers in the New Testament it is often argue that the writer does not “respect the context.”  (I will just mention the heated discussion between Greg Beale and Steve Moiyse on the use of the Hebrew Bible in Revelation).  I will state for the record that I am on Wright’s side in this argument, although it is less of a controversial position in Pauline studies. If Paul alludes to Gen 15, it seems to me that he has the whole of Gen 15 in mind.  (The “plot” of Gen 15 is a better way to put this, since obviously Paul did not have modern chapter divisions in mind! )

The second piece of the puzzle usually left in the box is Paul’s use of the narrative of Israel’s history, or perhaps said differently, Israel’s meta-narrative, or the “history of salvation” from the Hebrew Bible.  One of Wright’s contributions to Pauline studies is the an emphasis on the story of Israel in Paul’s theology, but it is not a contribution which is unprecedented.  While I suspect that he would be loathe to hear it, dispensationalists (in their more scholarly forms, Bock, Blaising, Saucy, Dewitt) have always emphasized the grand outline of salvation history, although the culmination is not in Jesus’ death on the cross, but in the establishment of a real kingdom in the future.  This pre-millennial approach is quite different than Wright, but there are some sympathetic notes.

I heartily agree with Wright that these two elements biblical theology are often ignored in scholarship on Paul, although this is more of a result of specialization rather than a conscious decision of a scholar to ignore the larger issues of allusions in the New Testament or narrative theology.  I do think there are clear examples of scholars who flat out ignore data in order to maintain their position (the conclusion to Variegated Nomism comes to mind), but I think that for the most part few scholars chose to put pieces of evidence “back in the box” to consciously avoid a particular conclusion.