Random musings on life, the universe and nothing in particular...
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
I'm really sorry about this, but I will not be able to post my next post on Wright for the next few days. I am going to Ireland first thing tomorrow morning and will not be back until later on in the week. I had hoped to have it posted this evening, but I would be hard pressed to sort out the HTML of the footnotes and still get to bed at a decent time. God-willing it will be posted on Saturday.
Some Thoughts on Original Sin and Infant Salvation
The more that I look at them, the more unpersuasive I find many of the arguments that all infants dying in infancy are saved. This is not to say that I deny that all infants dying in infancy go to heaven; it is merely to say that, in the majority of cases, I am at best agnostic.
People like Charles Spurgeon use Ezekiel 16:21, 2 Samuel 12:23 and other such verses in a very general manner, as if they applied to all infants in the same way. Indeed, many today frame the question of infant salvation in a manner that presupposes that all infants fit into exactly the same category. I find this quite impermissible as the Bible clearly draws a distinction between the infant seed of believers and the infant seed of unbelievers — the children of believers are holy; the children of unbelievers are unclean (1 Corinthians 7:14). God does discriminate between different infants, and not arbitrarily. Given the individualism of Western society today we may find this distasteful, but I think that the Bible is quite clear on this subject.
I have come across a number of people who seem to hold to the notion that infants are born in some sort of ‘neutral’ state — it is only as they commit actual sin that they receive condemnation. This, of course, is Pelagianism; any argument from ‘innocence’ is impermissible. One of the deepest problems with this position, despite its clear unorthodoxy, is that it has little idea of Sin (with a capital ‘S’) and seems to think merely in terms of individual sins, each with their attendant demerit.
Often accompanying this position is a particular view of hell, which I find quite unhelpful. According to this position, hell is merited as the punishment for discrete sins. Hell is eternal, either because sin continues in hell forever (which I am inclined to deny) or because sin against an infinite God demands an infinite punishment. In opposition to such notions the Bible seems to suggest that people go to hell primarily because of what they are and only secondarily because of what they do. People go to hell because they are goats and not just because they act like goats (Matthew 25:31f.).
Many evangelicals have little idea of ‘Sin’ apart from its manifestation in the form of individual ‘sins’. Passages like Romans 6 seem to stand opposed to such notions; Sin is more like a realm in which we all find ourselves. We do not sin ourselves into this realm, but we are born under the power of Sin and, consequently, sinning is natural for us. This realm and all who remain in it are destined for final and eternal alienation from God. God, however, is delaying the final destruction so that more might repent and be delivered from this realm.
This, in my mind, is the proper way to understand original sin. Adam’s sin created the realm of Sin. This realm is under God’s condemnation and will finally be eternally destroyed with all who are part of it. All of those who live within this realm have their very being determined by the character of the realm itself. As their existence is formed from this realm, in addition to being condemned as occupants of the realm, they are also polluted and corrupt themselves as they grow out of this realm.
People, therefore, go to hell because they belong to the doomed realm of Sin and not merely because they have committed individual sins. [As an aside, it seems to me that there are many who believe that Adam’s sin is imputed as one among many individual, discrete sins and fail to see that the importance of Adam’s sin is that it constituted the world as the realm of Sin and Death.] The fact that they have committed particular sins will certainly result in greater punishment, but it is not the ultimate reason for their fate. The judgment of hell is not only appropriate to those who have attained to a certain ‘age of accountability’.
The Goodness of God
According to my position, Sin is primarily a matrix (established by the original rebellion of Adam) in which people’s existence is formed and in which their lives are lived, and only secondarily the actual committing of discrete sins by those who belong to this realm. Starting with such a conception, I do not find the arguments for universal infant salvation on the basis of the goodness of God that convincing.
God certainly does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) and is good to all of His creation. Nevertheless, this does not seem to imply that all infants will be saved. Even though God does not delight in the death of the wicked, He has certainly commanded many such deaths. Many contend that a good God would never condemn the infant soul. It seems to me that the optimistic anthropology that many deny as the basis for belief in infant salvation is often subtly reintroduced at this point — surely God would not have to ‘hold His nose’ when saving such an infant? I believe that we should be wary of anything that suggests that God’s mercy should necessarily be displayed in any particular case apart from clear warrant from Scripture — something which I have yet to see in this instance. God’s mercy is free and should not be presumed upon.
If we see the children of the ungodly in the same manner as God sees them, I think that we might have a different idea. The infant and unborn children of the ungodly are compared to little serpents in Scripture (Psalm 58:3-5). They are also said to be ‘unclean’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). They are naturally seed for the serpent and I fail to see why there is anything in God’s nature that demands that He do anything but destroy them, as someone might crush the eggs of any dangerous serpent. Of course, we are all naturally seed for the serpent prior to God’s grace. I am not trying to deny God’s mercy; rather, I am denying that there is any self-evident reason why God should show mercy to the children of the ungodly, even though it is certainly true that He takes no pleasure in their destruction. One might even argue that, by destroying them early, God is in fact showing mercy of a kind. Their judgment would be even greater were they given time to mature in their sinfulness.
It would be quite consistent with God’s historical manner of dealing with the wicked were He to destroy the infants of the ungodly eternally. In Psalm 37:28 He promises that the offspring of the wicked will be cut off. In Deuteronomy 20:16-17 He commands His people to slay even the infants of the peoples of the land. In 1 Samuel 15:3 He commands Saul to kill all the infants and nursing children of the Amalekites. We are speaking about the God who inspired the words of Psalm 137:8-9 and brought about the historical judgments spoken of in such passages as Isaiah 13:11-16. Almost all of the great paradigms for final judgment that we see in Scripture seem to include the destruction of the infants of the ungodly with their parents (see verses like Exodus 20:5 also). This, I believe, is because God does not operate in an individualistic fashion. I see no reason to suppose that God will operate according to a different pattern on the final day.
It also is the case because God does not operate in an arbitrary fashion. God usually uses means. In particular God usually saves people through covenant. God is certainly able to work beyond His ordinary means, but He does not usually do so. Infants of unbelievers are outside of God’s ordinary means and, consequently, whilst we should not categorically deny that they can be saved, I believe that it is dangerous to hold out that much hope for them.
The Infants of Believers
When it comes to the infants of believers, there is no reason to doubt their salvation and the greatest possible reason to affirm it. The Canons of Dordt declare:—
Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; I Cor. 7:14).
The Canons do not base this confidence upon God’s general goodness to His creatures, but upon His most sure Word of covenant promise. The reasons that they give are not extended to infants in general, but only to the infants of the godly.
Infants of believers are certainly born into the realm of Sin. However, God claims them as His own in covenant. In Baptism they are brought from out of the realm of Sin and Death, into the realm of Grace and Life. The unbaptized infant children of believers will certainly be saved, but they still belong to the realm of Sin in a manner that the baptized infant does not. This can, I believe, be illuminated somewhat by the difference between believers in the old and new covenants.
Under the old covenant Israel was still ‘in Adam’ and, in a clear sense, under condemnation. The Torah acted like a prism through which the sin of the whole world became focused in Israel itself (and finally upon the Messiah, who would deal with it once and for all). Nevertheless, the Israelites were promised eschatological liberation and lived in hope of this coming deliverance. Their salvation was an anticipated one to a degree that ours is not. They were like the resistance movement living within an occupied country, under hostile government, with only the promise of future deliverance to go by. Those who have been baptized into Christ, however, are more like those who operate in hostile territory, but who return on each Lord’s Day to eat at the table of their King, under whom they are free men. They are no longer in exile. The unbaptized infants of believers have the promise of future deliverance, but they do not know present deliverance in the same manner as those who have been baptized do. Needless to say, the infants of the ungodly have neither the promise of personal future deliverance nor the knowledge of present deliverance.
Baptism delivers infants from the world that is under the rule of Satan and brings them into the Church that is under the rule of Christ. They will still operate within the world, but they will no longer belong to the world in the same manner. In this manner I believe that we can see Baptism as incredibly important without making final salvation absolutely dependent upon it.
A failure to grasp the nature of the realm of the Church and the realm of Sin seems to lead to many of the misunderstandings on this question. One does not become a member of either of these realms as a result of some merely voluntary decision or action. We are always part of one or the other realm, whether we choose to be or not. To be part of the realm of Sin is to live in great danger, even if one has been given a promise of personal future deliverance. The Bible clearly teaches that we must leave the realm of Sin (just as Christ Himself left it — Romans 6:10) and that we do so in the Red Sea crossing of Baptism. Infant Baptism is based, in part, upon the fact that the infants of believers already belong to God by promise. Consequently, these infants are to be delivered from the realm of Sin into which they were born through the waters of Baptism. There is also a pressing need for this deliverance, which should, among many other things, discourage us from delaying Baptism.
Any other ground for belief in infant salvation apart from the covenant promise to believing parents and the blessing of Baptism is a decidedly shaky one, in my humble opinion. Whilst I will not affirm that there are infants dying in infancy who will perish eternally, I am very cautious about denying it. To my mind, the fact that God would be totally consistent in sending the infants of the ungodly to hell is the greatest part of the tragedy of abortion. Those who would establish a shaky argument for the salvation of all of those who die in infancy hide this fact from us.
These are just some initial thoughts on the subject. I would appreciate hearing other people’s comments and opinions.
Hopefully my next post on Wright will be ready early next week.
Wright speaks of the importance of grasping the ‘tenses’ of justification.136 Once we have grasped these and related them to our earlier discussion on righteousness language we will be nearer to the stage when we can properly appreciate the nature of Wright’s proposal on the subject of imputation.137Future
In order to understand justification it is probably best to begin with the future. The apostle Paul believed that the day would come when God would judge the whole world and right all wrongs. Whilst some would be found guilty, others would be ‘justified’ or ‘vindicated’. This ‘justification’, although it carries ‘overtones of the lawcourt’, also relates to the covenant; when God justifies people on this last day He declares them to be members of His true humanity — His covenant people.
The Event of Future Justification
The final verdict would take the form of an event — resurrection. Within the belief system of Israel, the metaphor of resurrection functioned as a means of ‘denoting the return from exile and connoting the renewal of the covenant and of all creation.’138 Even when used with the more literal sense of the raising of physical bodies, the language of resurrection never escapes from these other spheres of meaning.139 For Wright, forgiveness, return from exile, renewal of creation and the revelation of δικαιοσυνη θεου are merely different ways of talking about essentially the same phenomena.140 Thus, our earlier discussion of δικαιοσυνη θεου is integrated into Wright’s understanding of justification. The apocalyptic revelation of the δικαιοσυνη θεου would take place when God restored the fortunes of His oppressed people in exile, righting all wrongs, marking them out as His own and vindicating them in the process.
This final ‘showdown’ was understood through the lens of the law-court, as the law-court was seen to be the setting in which sin and evil was usually dealt with.141 This great Assize would finally separate between the righteous and the wicked, between God’s faithful people and evildoers. God’s people would be declared to be forgiven and to truly be members of God’s covenant people and the wicked would be judged and punished.
Within our society we are prone to think of forgiveness of sins in individualistic terms. Wright contends that this is not the manner in which the subject is viewed within the NT. For the NT writers and their Jewish contemporaries, forgiveness of sins was not understood primarily in terms of personal piety (the sense of forgiveness), nor in terms of ‘abstract theology’ (the fact of forgiveness), but was another way of speaking of about the return from exile.142 For the first-century Jew the private blessing of forgiveness could never be detached from the forgiveness of the nation as a whole. Individuals certainly did have the knowledge and experience of forgiveness, but it was never a privatized blessing. The individual did not consider his state before God apart from his membership within the larger group.143 Consequently, as long as Israel remained under pagan rule and the Temple and its worship were not properly restored, ‘forgiveness of sins’ was still awaited in the future.144
‘If Israel’s god was to deliver his people from exile, it could only be because he had somehow dealt with the problem which had caused her to go there in the first place, namely her sin.’145 The return of Israel from exile would therefore mean forgiveness of sins, and vice versa.146 Return from exile apart from forgiveness of sins was an impossibility; forgiveness of sins without return from exile would be uncertain and doubtful. Return from exile would be the only sure sign of forgiveness. The justification of individuals was to be understood within the broader justification of the people as a whole. Justification was to take the concrete form of deliverance and liberation.147Justification and Covenant Membership
It would be in this eschatological justification that the identity of the true new covenant people of God — the family promised to Abraham — would be made publicly known. God’s declaration of the forgiveness of His people’s sins by delivering them from exile would serve to reveal who God’s people really were. The declaration of the forgiveness of the sins of individual men, women and children would involve their being declared to be members of this people. If we avoid looking at the declaration of the forgiveness of sins in an individualistic manner we will be better able to see the inseparable connection between justification and covenant membership.
Wright believes that the question of the identity of the true children of Abraham cannot be separated from the question of the forgiveness of individuals’ sins. God’s aim in calling Abraham was always that of dealing with the whole sin problem in the world. The family promised to Abraham was to be the family in and through whom God’s purposes for fallen humanity would finally be fulfilled and the sin of Adam undone. Biblically, therefore, it is impossible to drive any sort of a wedge between covenant membership and forgiveness of sins. ‘God’s declaration of forgiveness and his declaration of covenant membership are not ultimately two different things.’148 Only if we move away from the broad canvas that Scripture provides us with and start to think of forgiveness in individualistic categories will we lose sight of the fact. The forgiveness of the sins of individuals finds it place within the larger picture of God’s setting the fallen world to rights; it is always as part of God’s broader work of creating a world-wide covenant family that His forgiving of the sins of individuals is to be understood.
To support his position, Wright draws attention to the manner in which Paul’s treatments of justification have the question of the identity of the covenant family at their very heart. In Romans 3:21-31, Paul makes clear that he sees the whole issue of covenant membership as one that is inseparable from the question of justification.149 Verse 29, far from being a ‘strange shift’ in Paul’s argument, makes perfect sense when we realize that justification has to do with the identity of the covenant people of God and not merely with the declaration that individual sinners are forgiven. Wright observes: ‘God’s declaring that sinners are now in a right relation to himself and God’s declaring that believing Jews and believing Gentiles belong in the same family are inextricably bound up with one another.’150 Wright believes that Romans 4, with its treatment of Abraham, merely serves to reinforce his point: integral to the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification is the question of membership in the covenant family promised to Abraham.
Wright presents Galatians 2:11-21 as further evidence for his position.151 In this passage the point of justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’, but rather the question of table-fellowship. In the book of Galatians, justification is principally concerned with the manner in which we define the true people of God — the true seed of Abraham — rather than the mechanism whereby an individual becomes a Christian. The fact that the underlying question of Galatians 3 and 4 is the identity of the true children of Abraham is adduced by Wright as further proof of the position that justification is a matter of covenant membership.152
Wright does not highlight the covenantal nature of justification in order to marginalize the issue of the forgiveness of sins. He writes:—
I freely grant that some of those who have highlighted the importance of the Jew-plus-Gentile point in Paul have used it as a way of saying that Paul is therefore not after all interested in God’s dealing with sins and putting sinners in a right relationship to himself. But just because people draw false inferences one way, that is no reason why we should draw them the other way.153
Wright believes that, once we have understood the role that Paul believed that the covenant played in God’s plans for the world, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles that so occupies Paul in his epistles ‘can never be an incidental side-issue.’154Future Judgment according to Works
The future judgment that Paul envisages is a judgment according to works ‘on the basis of the total life.’155 These works are not works done in order to ‘earn’ this final salvation; they are works that serve to ‘evidence’ the true people of God.156 It will be those who perform the Law and not those who merely possess the Law who will be justified by the final Assize.157 Whilst the apostle Paul does not employ some ‘merit-measuring’ scheme in his discussion of the final judgment, as many of his Jewish contemporaries do, he still retains the position that it is our works that will be in view at the final judgment.158 Paul is ‘clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day.’159 The reward that he would receive on that day would not be some ‘arbitrary gift’, but would be ‘a glory and honour within God’s new world which corresponds to the kind of work that has been done.’160PastThe apostle Paul taught the revelation of God’s ‘world-righting covenant faithfulness’161 (δικαιοσυνη θεου) — the event that the Jews awaited at the end of history — had taken place in the middle of history through ‘the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah’.162 Jesus is the Messiah in whom Israel’s identity and destiny is summed up163 and He has ‘completed the role marked out for Israel … for the benefit of all, Jew and Gentile alike.’164 What the Torah could not achieve, Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection. In Christ’s death the sins of Adam and Israel and their entail were decisively dealt with, for it is only as sin is dealt with that God can be in covenant with human beings.165
The proof that God has truly dealt with sin in the death of Christ166 and renewed the covenant is seen in the resurrection.
The resurrection unveils to the surprised world, Israel included, that this was after all the age-old saving plan of the creator God. In particular it declares, as in a lawcourt, that God has vindicated Jesus. Jesus is shown to be in the right. His life and death were the true faithfulness for which God had created Israel in the first place. Thus, if faithful Jesus is demonstrated to be Messiah by the resurrection, the resurrection also declares in principle that all those who belong to Jesus, all those who respond in faith to God’s faithfulness revealed in him, are themselves part of the true covenant family promised to Abraham. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus can at this level be seen as the declaration of justification.167
The resurrection of Jesus was the bringing forward into the present of the general resurrection that the Jews (and Christians) still awaited in the future. According to Wright, the resurrection of Christ was not some ‘isolated freak occurrence’, but was ‘in embryo, “the resurrection of the dead”, of all the dead.’168 The resurrection both demonstrated that Jesus was truly the Messiah and that the long-awaited ‘age to come’ had already dawned in Him.169Present
Present justification is a verdict issued on the basis of ‘the representative death and resurrection of Jesus’ in the past and correctly anticipates the future verdict that will occur at the final judgment on the basis of the whole life lived.170 Whilst this verdict is issued on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, it is the believer’s own faith that ‘precipitates God’s announcement of the verdict in the present time.’171 Of course, the believer’s own faith is always based upon Christ’s own death and resurrection.
Present justification possesses the same three characteristics that are possessed by future and past justification, namely it is an event, viewed through the lens of the law-court, which marks people out as covenant members.172The Event of Baptism
Wright maintains that—
The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11).173
Wright does not conceive of Baptism as simply ‘an outward expression of a believer’s faith’ (or a mere ‘act of obedience’) as it is understood to be by many evangelicals174 For Wright Baptism is ‘the sacrament of God’s free grace;’ Baptism is essentially God’s work, not ours.175 It is in Baptism that we become part of the people of God.176 When Paul speaks about our being ‘in’ Christ—
This is not simply a spiritual state resulting from, or consisting in, a certain type of inner experience. For Paul, it is a matter of belonging to a particular community, the new royal family, the Messiah’s people; and this family is entered through baptism.177
Baptism is the washing of the new birth and is ‘intimately connected’ with the gift of Holy Spirit.178 Wright does not understand Baptism to be a ‘miscellaneous cleansing rite’ or a ‘generalized sign of initiation’.179 He contends that we should understand the meaning of Baptism in terms of the ‘new exodus’ motif: Baptism is the Red Sea for the Christian, through which we leave the old realm of slavery and enter into the new realm of freedom.180
It is within Baptism that we die to the ‘old man’ with Christ and are raised to new life.181 In Baptism ‘the whole person leaves the Adam-world for good, leaves it by death, a final one-way journey.’182 The old solidarity with Adam is replaced with a new solidarity with Christ; that which is true of Christ becomes true of us.183 In particular, this means that the justification of Christ in His death and resurrection become ours.184 It is by Baptism in the present that we are included within Christ’s justification in the past. The justification of Baptism anticipates the vindication of the last day.185The Law-Court
The freedom from the realm of sin that results from Baptism ‘comes through God’s judicial decision,’ a decision ‘embodied’ in the rite of Baptism itself.186 Here we see the presence of the law-court metaphor. In the present justification is
…God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous’.187
It is not incorrect to say that God’s decision makes us ‘righteous’, since within the law-court metaphor ‘righteous’ refers to status rather than character.188The Covenant
Justification ‘constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham … the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal.’189 Here we see the covenantal nature of justification once more: in justification we are declared to be members of the forgiven family of God. As justification establishes the Church as the ‘renewed Israel’, ‘qualitatively distinct from Jew and Greek alike’ the question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the Church becomes very important.190 This issue, Wright maintains, is central in the Pauline epistles. I will be exploring this issue in far greater depth in the next post.
At this point it may be helpful to quickly identify two important characteristics of the Church in Wright’s theology. Firstly, the Church as the family of God is ‘outward and visible’ and not merely an ‘invisible family known to God alone.’191 Consequently, one becomes a member of the people of God in an ‘outward and visible’ manner, i.e. by Baptism. The outward and visible Church is the ‘sphere in which the Messiah saves’ us; to be expelled from this sphere is to be placed back in the sphere over which Satan himself has ‘unfettered power.’192 The ‘outward and visible’ character of the Church helps to account for the stress that the apostle Paul placed upon ‘outward and visible’ table-fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in such passages as Galatians 2.
Secondly, the fact that the Church is not a voluntaristic community follows from the fact that the Church is an outward and visible community. As Oliver O’Donovan (a long-term friend of Wright) has observed, a voluntary community ‘usually connotes an association into which people contract optionally, i.e. not only without anyone forcing them to, but without any pressing need driving them to.’193 The significance attached by Wright to the outward and visible Church as the ‘sphere’ of Christ’s salvation makes clear that he resists such a notion.
Furthermore, as Baptism is not so much our act as God’s judicial decision and deliverance of us from bondage in the old Adamic realm to freedom ‘in Christ’, it is God’s decision and not ours that lies at the foundation of the ‘outward and visible’ Church’s existence. Wright’s high ecclesiology stands opposed to the ‘gathered church’ ecclesiology espoused by many evangelicals.194 Baptism has an objective force, even for those who reject it and are ‘in danger of losing all.’195 Baptism plays a similar role ‘within the establishment of the Christian covenant people’ to that which ‘circumcision played within the Jewish family.’196 The comparison that Wright draws between Baptism and circumcision is, I believe, at least part of the rationale for his commitment to the practices of paedobaptism and child communion.197
I have devoted some attention to Wright’s view of Baptism (and will be returning to it again at a later point), believing that it serves to concretize his position on justification in a manner that will help us to better appreciate the nature of his proposal. In particular, it may help us to relieve some of the tension that we have previously observed in Wright’s thought on the question of whether justification is about entry or not. In some sense or other every subject for Baptism already belongs within the community of faith (whether by personal faith in the case of a catechumen or, in the case of an infant, by being the child of believing parents). The community of faith is formed, in Wright’s theology, by the ‘call’ of the gospel —God’s sovereign summons which ‘evokes the obedience of faith.’198 The gospel call serves to reverse the judgment of exile experienced by Israel and to constitute Gentiles as the people of God.199 Nevertheless, in Baptism those who have been called enter into the Church in a deeper sense.
This ‘deeper sense’ is probably best understood in terms of eschatology. In Baptism the vindication of the last day is brought forward in time and the baptized individual has in some sense passed through final judgment in a manner in which the catechumen has yet to. The catechumen will yet be vindicated (whether in Baptism or in the final judgment itself), but the baptized individual has already tasted of this future reality. It is through Baptism that we enter into the eschatological life of the Church. Believers and their children who are yet to be baptized are certainly part of the Church, but they are not yet participants in the ‘age to come’ in the manner that the baptized and communing members of the Church are.
Within my next post I will move on to study Wright’s understanding of the relationship between faith and the works of the Law. Hopefully it will serve to further illuminate Wright’s understanding of present justification.
176 Wright disagrees with those who treat the Pauline references to Baptism as ‘simply a metaphor whose reference is the ‘spiritual’ event of becoming a Christian.’ [N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986) p.106f.] Wright conceives of no sharp separation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit Baptism’ in the Pauline corpus [e.g. Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), pp.161-162]. (return)
185 Wright also seems to believe that the Lord’s Supper is also in some sense an anticipation of final judgment in the present [Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp.150-151]. For a more rigorous treatment of the Lord’s Supper as an anticipation of final judgment and vindication see Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (London: Epworth Press, 1978) pp.80ff. (return)
N.T. Wright Lectures
Regent Radio are broadcasting some old Wright lectures at the moment. Each lecture is broadcast a few times in the same day, so don't worry if you miss it the first time. Look at the schedule for the day and then visit the same page at any time between the hours in which the particular lecture that you want to listen to is listed. The player will remain open to play the whole lecture, whether you open at at the start of the time, or towards the end. From what I have heard so far, Wright's series is one that is well worth following.
My next, much-delayed, post on Wright should be posted either tonight or tomorrow.
My little brother is showing off... It is somewhat annoying that Peter has a better grasp of HTML than I do. It is also somewhat annoying that he finished his school term yesterday. He will now be plaguing me for the use of my computer for the rest of the summer.
This morning I cycled into Hanley (the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent) with Peter. As usual (this is at least the fourth time this 'summer') the heavens opened and we were both drenched to the bone. I am beginning to think that my bicycle has some sort of occult rain-summoning power.
In other news we have someone else moving into our house this evening, a guy from India (I couldn't spell his name even if I tried). Mark is in France at the moment, Jonathan in the West Indies. Richard is down south and will not be staying with us next term (though I expect that we will still see quite a bit of him). I have been quite exhausted this last week and am hoping to regain some energy over the next few days, although I have quite a few things that I need to do.
This last week I heard an example of the extremes that the parochialism that exists within Stoke-on-Trent will extend to. I thought that I would share it with you all. Apparently a 70 year old man who had lived in Abbey Hulton for the whole of his life visited Hanley for the first time. He had never ridden an escalator in his life before. Abbey Hulton is only about 2 miles away from Hanley.
I realize that Wright is an intelligent man, and that he undoubtedly reads a great deal of (mostly liberal) literature about the Bible. However, I do not believe he is expert with the text of the Bible itself, or for that matter, overly concerned about what it actually teaches. And this is a charitable assessment of the situation -- the other option is that he knows full well he is mishandling the text and is therefore being deliberately dishonest with what the Bible teaches. Would Wright do such a thing?
It should be noted that the context of Wright's view of Paul's teachings is made clear when the reader considers that Wright disavows not only inerrancy but even denies Pauline authorship to all of the canonical epistles historically attributed to St. Paul by the historic Christian faith.
These inciteful (sorry, insightful) observations are brought to you courtesy of Semper Reformanda Festung.
I am sorry about the delay in my next posting on Wright. It should be up within the next few days. I have been quite exhausted this last week and did not have the energy or willpower to finish my next post, let alone go through the torturous process of sorting out the footnotes.
I finally got around to reading this book today and am thoroughly enjoying it. Very thought-provoking; it may not be the easiest read, but it is certainly very rewarding. It had been on my reading list for a while but it took the stimulus of reading the entry on René Girard's work in The Postmodern God to actually get me to sit down and read it.
‘Justification’ is … the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham.94
Within such a definition, Wright believes that he can escape many of the dichotomies created in past definitions (e.g. between ‘forensic’ and ‘incorporative’).95 This definition brings together both the law-court and the covenant aspects that he has outlined in his treatment of righteousness language.
Justification and the Gospel
Wright believes that it is important that we do not confuse justification with the gospel. One is not saved by believing in justification by faith; one is saved by believing in Jesus.96
For Paul, ‘the gospel’ creates the church; ‘justification’ defines it. The gospel announcement carries its own power to save people, and to dethrone the idols to which they had been bound. ‘The gospel’ itself is neither a system of thought, nor a set of techniques for making people Christians; it is the personal announcement of the person of Jesus. That is why it creates the church, the people who believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. ‘Justification’ is then the doctrine which declares that whoever believes the gospel, and wherever and whenever they believe it, those people are truly members of his family, no matter where they came from, what colour their skin may be, whatever else might distinguish them from each other. The gospel itself creates the church; justification continually reminds the church that it is the people created by the gospel and the gospel alone, and that it must live on that basis.97
The gospel is not a ‘system of salvation’, nor is it even the declaration that ‘there now is a way of salvation open to all;’98 rather the gospel is encapsulated in the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, and its basic elements are delineated in such passages as Romans 1:3-4.99 In Paul’s understanding the gospel carries power; the gospel is not a ‘take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation’, but is a ‘royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance’ that is made effective by the working of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the appropriate response of faith. 100 The gospel is not so much about God’s power saving people as it is God’s power saving people.101
Wright certainly does not believe that the existence of a way of salvation open to all or the truth of justification by faith can be separated from the gospel, but he contends that the word ‘gospel’ as it is used by Paul carries a far more specific meaning than modern popular Christianity has tended to ascribe to it. For Wright it is imperative that we recognize the sense in which Paul employs his terminology. Modern misunderstandings of the word ‘gospel’ open themselves up to the danger of individualistic and ahistorical understandings of salvation.102 We can easily lose sight of the big picture of cosmic redemption when we see the gospel as essentially a message about how individuals can get to heaven when they die.
Those who use the word ‘gospel’ in a manner that differs from that of Paul risk becoming locked into misreadings of the epistles.103 Many, reading about the false gospel faced by Paul in Galatians, instantly jump to the conclusion that Paul was dealing with a compromised ordo salutis and fail to properly grasp the nature of the error that was really being addressed. The danger is then that the error faced by Paul will fail to register on their radar screens as a false gospel. The problem at Galatia was not that of crass Pelagianism, but had to do with the character of the Church formed by Jesus Christ. Paul sought to argue that, if the Church was divided into Jew and Gentile parties, the gospel itself was compromised, not least because people were returning to the old world order established by the Torah and its dichotomies even though these had been done away with by the death of Christ.104 They were in principle denying the necessity of the work of Christ and compromising His authority by seeking to domesticate the gospel to the authority of the Torah. They were trying to import the old covenant order into the new covenant order.
By claiming that evangelicals have generally misunderstood what Paul means when he speaks of the ‘gospel’, Wright should not be understood as rejecting what evangelicals usually mean by the word ‘gospel’. He writes:—
In the present case, I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote these things.105
For Wright, the doctrine of justification by faith is a ‘second-order’ doctrine and does not belong to the essential content of the gospel message, but it inseparably bound up with it.106 Justification is not adiaphorous; practical denials of justification by faith, such as those that took place in Antioch and Galatia, strike at the very heart of the gospel.107 Justification by faith is never an unimportant side-issue for Paul. However, we should be careful not to confuse what we usually mean by ‘justification by faith’ with what Paul meant by the doctrine.
Justification and Salvation
Wright is emphatic: justification ‘doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in.’108 When Paul speaks of how people ‘get in’, he uses the term ‘call’, not the term ‘justification’.109 It is important, therefore, that we do not confuse justification with salvation. ‘[J]ustification is not the means whereby it becomes possible to declare someone in the right. It is simply that declaration itself.’110 Salvation and justification are, of course, integrally related, but they should not be confused. When Paul deals with the question of how individuals enter into a personal relationship with God ‘it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen.’111 Wright contends that ‘popular Protestantism has often more or less elided the distinction between justification and regeneration.’112
What Wright seems to be ruling out is any definition of justification as: ‘to alter the condition so that man can be considered righteous.’113 Justification for Wright is not the means whereby God makes it possible to declare us forgiven; it is God’s declaration that we are forgiven. Although in some places Wright argues for a ‘constitutive’ sense of justification — vindication in the law-court ‘makes’ someone righteous114 — he clearly rules out the constitutive sense that many Reformed and evangelical theologians have argued for.115
One of the advantages of this position, in Wright’s estimation, is its preclusion of any position that would make faith a condition for grace or a ‘substitute’ for works (understood in the traditional sense of the word).116 Faith is not ‘a meritorious spiritual act’ but ‘the badge of covenant membership given by God in sheer grace.’117 Wright is adamant:—
Faith, even in this active sense [of ‘faithfulness’], is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in.118
By his definition of justification Wright believes that he can protect the priority of God’s grace in salvation. Were justification concerned with the mechanics of how it becomes possible for God to declare us forgiven, there would always be the danger of presenting faith as ‘the one thing which God requires as a condition of grace.’119 We will take up some these issues again when we move to a study of Wright’s doctrine of faith.
It is crucially important that we grasp that Wright is not arguing that the essential content of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong. For the time being at least, we must consider this to be an open question.120 Wright is, however, questioning the assumed exegetical foundation of the Protestant doctrine of justification. When the apostle Paul deals with the doctrine of justification the question that is being addressed is not the question of the mechanics (whether those mechanics are described in terms of imputation, impartation or something else) whereby God may declare an individual to be righteous; rather, it is the question of how one defines the true people of God.121The Complicated Nature of the Distinction
The distinction between justification and salvation is more sharply defined in some places in Wright than it is in others. On occasions, justification and salvation may even refer to the same event.122 However, the important thing to observe is that the connotations of the words ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’ are different. ‘Salvation’ views the event from the perspective of ‘rescue from a terrible fate’; ‘justification’ views the event from the perspective of God’s declaration that a person or group of people is ‘righteous’. Although justification on such an occasion is ‘constitutive’ as the authoritative declaration of God as the judge of the cosmic law-court, it is not constitutive in the sense of ‘altering the condition’ of the person or group of people so that they ‘can be considered righteous.’ The only constitutive power that Wright is willing to attribute to justification is that which is proper to the declaration itself. The constitutive nature of justification spoken of by many Reformed and evangelical theologians is one that Wright rejects. Justification itself should never be confused with that which makes justification possible.
I believe that there are suggestions in Wright’s works that the distinction between the idea of justification as ‘how people get into the family of God’ and justification as the ‘declaration that people are in the family of God’ fails to adequately capture exactly what he is trying to get at.123 This distinction has also served to confuse not a few of his readers. Wright occasionally makes statements that appear to reject the distinction, for example:—
The fact that this deeply personal notion [of reconciliation] is offered in explanation of, rather than in addition to, the mention of justification in the first half of v.9 [of Romans 5] indicates that the meaning and effect of justification is to bring humans into the forgiven, reconciled family of God [emphasis added].124
The fact that Wright can make a statement like this suggests to me that his denial that justification is about ‘how people get in’ needs to be carefully balanced out by other elements of his thought. I will be discussing in greater depth the apparent tension that exists in Wright’s theology on this issue at a later point in my treatment. At present, we should merely be alerted to its existence.
Justification and Assurance
Justification does not address the question of why God is just in justifying us, but addresses the question of the identity of God’s people. The doctrine of justification by faith teaches us that the true people of God are marked out in the present by faith alone.125 Consequently, what the doctrine of justification by faith does — among other things — is give us assurance in the present that we are forgiven sinners as we hold on to Christ. As Wright explains, any church that ‘does not grasp it and teach it is heading for trouble.’126 He writes:—
Because Catholics, like many Protestants, have traditionally used the language of justification to describe the much wider realities of regeneration and sanctification, they have usually simply ignored the reality of which the word actually speaks, namely, the assurance in the present that my sins are forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I have a sure and certain hope because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And where that assurance is lacking, other elements come in to usurp its place, and all the things in Roman theology to which true Protestantism rightly objects grow from this root. This, I suggest, is the way forward in the current debate: not by broadening the term ‘justification’ so that it refers to the whole range of doctrine from atonement to final redemption, but by using it with its precise and Pauline meaning. The tragedy of the situation is that there must have been countless Christians down the years in all churches who really did believe in Jesus Christ as their risen Lord, but who failed in this life to enjoy the assurance of salvation which was theirs for the taking, because they were never told that believers are declared ‘righteous’ in the present because of the death of God’s son. ‘Legal’ categories, which some want to do away with today, are not sterile or irrelevant—they are the key to Christian assurance.127
Justification vs. Individualism
Wright brings forward the book of Galatians as evidence for the fact that Paul understands justification primarily as referring to the question of how the people of God are defined, rather than the question of how someone becomes a member of the people of God.128 Wright argues that by interpreting justification by faith as the ‘mechanism’129 by which someone becomes a Christian, both Protestants and Catholics have habitually misread Paul. By understanding justification in this manner the whole question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, which looms large in Paul’s thinking, is terribly obscured. However, if we understand ‘justification’ in terms of membership — the question of ‘who is in’ — Paul’s treatment of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is no longer relegated to the status of a digression.
Some might believe that Wright’s distinctions are far too fine. Nonetheless, they do seem to have a marked effect upon exegesis. If you believe that justification is primarily concerned with the mechanism by which God alters a man’s condition so that he may be viewed as righteous, justification will always take its starting point with individuals abstracted from each other. Wright observes that this understanding has always been in danger of ‘sustaining some sort of individualism.’130 This doctrine of justification may explain the existence of a group of saved individuals, but it fails to account for the fact that these individuals are constituted as a single family. The fact that believers constitute a single family, however, seems to lie at the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification.
If you hold that justification is involved with the question of who is ‘in’, rather than the question of how people come to be ‘in’, your starting point will be with the nature of the ‘family’ itself; the individual is never detached, but is always viewed as a member of the ‘family’. The difference may still seem slight, but it should be appreciated that, if justification is essentially about how people get ‘in’, the issue of union between Jews and Gentiles that Paul addresses in various places becomes at best an ‘implication’ of justification, rather than something that lies at the very heart of the doctrine.
Justification and Ecumenism
As Wright observes, in his approach justification isn’t so much ‘about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.’131 Wright believes that, if we have properly followed his approach, the doctrine of justification will be seen to be nothing other than ‘the great ecumenical doctrine.’132 The doctrine of justification is the doctrine that teaches that all those who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, irrespective of their cultural or racial differences. Wright argues that Protestants and Catholics have tended to turn the doctrine of justification ‘into its opposite,’ by ‘supposing that it described the system by which people attained salvation.’133 As a result the doctrine has served to sow the seeds of division, rather than as the impulse towards ecumenism.
Wright strongly advocates shared Eucharistic fellowship between Catholics and Protestants. He argues that it will be in the context of such a practice of the gospel (i.e. overcoming divisions that exist between members of the family of those who believe in Jesus) that we will become better equipped to proclaim the gospel and grow towards a greater unity.134 Such Eucharistic fellowship should provide the context for the discussion of the differences that exist between different denominations and should not merely be ‘the goal at the end of a long process of unity negotiations.’135
We have established some of the bare bones of Wright’s doctrine of justification. Hopefully in coming posts we will be able to add some flesh to the skeletal outline that we have observed so far. Needless to say there will be a degree of repetition. Nevertheless, I trust that this repetition will serve the purpose of highlighting some of the relationships that exist within Wright’s understanding of justification. It is important that we have a clear sense of the broader anatomy of Wright’s understanding of the gospel, salvation and justification before we come to discuss the vexed question of imputation. I trust that these earlier posts will have provided us with the tools to unravel some of the knotty questions that await us at that stage.
In terms of the place of justification within Paul’s thought, I have already indicated that it cannot be put right at the centre, since that place is already taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship. But this does not mean that justification becomes a secondary, still less an inessential, matter. Let it not be assumed that I am agreeing with Wrede or Schweitzer. Rather, when we understand exactly what Paul did mean by ‘justification’, we will come to see that it is organically and integrally linked to what he meant by ‘the gospel’. It cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it.
115 See, for example, John Murray, Redemption — Accomplished and Applied (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), pp.122ff. Murray writes: ‘Justification is therefore a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight [p.124].’ It would not surprise me were Wright to have Berkhof or Murray in mind. Wright is clearly acquainted with Berkhof [The New Testament and the People of God, p.132, 486]. It is also quite likely that Wright has read Murray in the past (or at the very least encountered Murray’s particular view second-hand); Redemption — Accomplished and Applied is especially recommended as a follow-up book at the end of The Grace of God in the Gospel (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), of which Wright was one of the four authors. Both Murray and Berkhof are examples of Reformed authors who present justification as a constitutive act of God in a manner that Wright opposes. Later on I will return to some of these issues to determine whether Wright is fair in the manner that he represents the evangelical and Reformed positions. (return)
123 Essentially the distinction that Wright is endeavouring to maintain, in my reading, is that which exists between justification and that which justification presupposes, i.e. the change in man’s condition that makes it possible for God to declare man ‘righteous’ and still be righteous Himself. Wright’s explanation for how God is righteous in justification will be examined at a later point. (return)
131What St Paul Really Said, p.119. It is clear from a wider reading of Wright that he does not here intend to draw some sharp division between soteriology and ecclesiology and perceives such a division to be unhelpful [New Perspectives on Paul, p.1]. For Wright soteriology and ecclesiology interpenetrate each other. (return)
Today is the 495th anniversary of John Calvin's birth. Please take the opportunity to thank God for the extraordinary way in which he used this man in His service and for the upbuilding of His Church. I am sure that there are countless people like myself who would not be where they are today were it not for the influence of Calvin's writings.
The Covenant Law
By closely relating the Law and the covenant, Wright is able to develop the forensic dimension of Paul’s theology in a manner that grounds it in the theology of the OT. The law-court is not, for Wright, some generic court of law; rather, it is the Hebrew law-court, a court that functions in a particular manner. Nor is the Law some abstract moral standard; the Law is the covenant document given to Israel. As he grounds his understanding of righteousness and the Law in the covenant made with Israel, Wright’s treatment differs markedly from many common treatments of the forensic dimension of the language of Paul.
Wright’s claim that ‘righteousness’ denotes ‘covenant membership’ is a position that few evangelical or Reformed Christians share. For Wright it follows from, among other things, the fact that the Torah was always the covenant document and boundary-marker.82 To be declared righteous in the eyes of the Law is to be declared to be a full member of the covenant, just as receiving the sign of the covenant is receiving the sign of righteousness.
It is important that we appreciate the determinative effect that the relationship Wright establishes between the Law and the covenant has upon his theology and exegesis. One could argue that Wright’s departure from many of the common readings of Paul stems from this one point more than any other. By understanding the Law to be the covenant document, Wright is led to restructure the whole forensic dimension of Paul’s thought. The law-court takes a fundamentally different shape if we believe with Wright that the law in terms of which the court operates is the Torah given to Israel and not some detached absolute ethical norm.
The roles of the different parties within the law-court metaphor take a far more nuanced form in Wright’s framework:—
Though sometimes God himself is seen as Israel’s adversary at law, the more frequently encountered picture is of God as judge or king, with Israel as either plaintiff (pleading her cause against her enemies) or defendant (on trial for failure to keep the covenant). God’s righteousness is then invoked as the reason why he can be expected to deliver his people: he is committed by covenant to do so. When this is apparently called into question (in the exile, and later in the Maccabean revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70), the writers of these periods reply that God is righteous in judging his sinful people; that he is righteous in waiting before judging their enemies, granting time for repentance; and that he will show himself righteous in restoring the fortunes of his people, in renewing the covenant (Dn. 9; Ezr. 9; etc.).83
The whole problem that Romans is seeking to address will be conceived of very differently if we follow Wright’s approach. The general question of how a sinner gets right with a holy God is not the question that Paul is primarily seeking to answer. As Wright observes, we all too easily assume that the questions that we deem to be the most important are the questions that first century Jews or Christians would have considered the most important.84 The questions that Paul is addressing, in Wright’s reading of him, are far bigger than any question of how to get to heaven when you die, or how an individual can become right with a holy God. Replacing the questions that Paul is addressing with our own will result in the loss of much of what Paul was trying to say. However, Wright maintains that if we start with the questions facing Paul we will find our own smaller questions answered too.85
So, in the light of the covenant law-court, what are some of the chief questions that Paul sought to answer? First, how can Israel be affirmed and vindicated while she is marked out as sinful by the covenant document? Second, how can the Gentiles enter into the blessing of Abraham when the Torah, the Jewish covenant document, excludes them? Third, how can God fulfill His purposes for the whole creation when His chosen people have failed to carry out the divine commission? Fourth, how can God keep His covenant promises and vindicate a sinful Israel? Will not God’s faithful keeping of the covenant end up at odds with His impartial judging of the whole world? This leads into the next observation.
The Eschatological Dimension
Wright’s view of ‘righteousness’ has a far clearer eschatological dimension than that presented by many evangelicals. Due to, among other things, his recognition of the covenantal sense of δικαιοσυνη θεου, the tension that exists within God’s own righteousness is quite pronounced in Wright’s reading of Romans. How this tension has been satisfactorily resolved is the principal issue that Paul is seeking to address in the book.86 For Wright, Romans is a far more ‘theocentric’ book than it is for many evangelicals. The principal question that is being addressed is not that of how a sinner can find a gracious God;87 rather, Paul is seeking to explore the manner in which God has revealed His own covenant faithfulness and restorative justice in the Person of Jesus Christ. The tension that exists within God’s righteousness can only be resolved in a redemptive historical solution.
One might say that the book of Romans is more about the justification of God than the justification of man. The justification of God cannot take the shape of some detached philosophical argument, but must be an account of redemptive historical deliverance, of covenant fulfillment and the ushering in of a new creation.
The Interpretation of δικαιοσυνη θεουWright understands δικαιοσυνη θεου in a manner that differs from that of many evangelicals, who understand it in most of the key places where it is mentioned88 as a human status bestowed by God (“genitive of origin”) or as a human status that meets God’s standard (“objective genitive”).89 Whilst Wright holds that the righteousness of God is God’s own righteousness, due to its sense of ‘covenant faithfulness’ and ‘restorative justice’, that righteousness is not seen as the threatening righteousness that many Protestants since the Reformation have supposed it to be (‘distributive justice’). Ultimately God’s righteousness is something that the people of God trust in and depend upon for their salvation and forgiveness. Wright’s opposition to an understanding of δικαιοσυνη θεου as the righteousness of either God or Christ imputed to the believer is one of the key areas in which his approach worries many evangelicals. We will be returning to this issue later.
We should also notice that, given Wright’s interpretation of δικαιοσυνη θεου, justice and mercy can never be polarized as ‘those who are not righteous themselves may nevertheless cast themselves on God’s righteousness to find deliverance.’90The Redemptive Historical Setting
Wright’s understanding of righteousness language is powerfully moulded by the OT narrative. ‘Righteousness’ is never something that should be considered as some mere abstract concept; it is only properly understood when seen against the larger backdrop of God’s redemptive purposes for Israel and the world. God’s righteousness is not some general distributive justice or ‘salvation creating power’, but is specifically faithfulness to the covenant made with Israel.
For Wright God’s purposes for Israel are inextricable intertwined with God’s purposes for creation as a whole. For many Reformed and evangelical Christians the place of Israel has become an embarrassment, particularly in its relationship to the Church. Many have become quite adept at jumping directly from Adam to Christ as if nothing else happened in between. Wright, on the other hand, attempts to present God’s plans for Israel and God’s plans for the world as a seamless garment. Israel is set apart as God’s new true humanity, inheriting the role of Adam and Eve, and the giving of the Torah is paralleled to the creation itself.91
Understanding δικαιοσυνη θεου as ‘covenant faithfulness’ whilst retaining, and weaving in, the sense of cosmic restorative justice enables Wright to more closely relate a number of themes that have often been detached from each other. For example, Wright writes:—
The central biblical discussions of righteousness … principally concern membership in the covenant and the behaviour appropriate to that membership. Since, however, these passages depend on a theology in which God is creator and judge of all the earth, and in which God’s people are to reflect God’s own character, it is not illegitimate to extrapolate from them to the ‘justice’ which God desires and designs, for his world. The church is to be not only an example of God’s intended new humanity, but the means by which the eventual plan, including the establishment of world-wide justice, is to be put into effect.92
The accent that Wright places upon restorative justice results in a more ‘dynamic’ and ‘performative’ concept of ‘righteousness’ than most evangelicals hold to. Restorative justice can never be abstract and detached in the manner that righteousness conceived of as an absolute ethical norm is. Belief in the δικαιοσυνη θεου as a concrete and involved restorative justice will challenge us to see the narrative of redemptive history to be far more essential than it has been seen to be by many evangelicals and liberals. The greater part of both evangelicals and liberals have been guilty, to some degree or other, of ‘denarrativizing’93 the Gospel; the Gospel is thought of, not so much as the eschatological message of the coming of the kingdom of God through the ministry and in the Person of Jesus the Messiah, as a timeless message about love, truth or how a sinner can get right with God. Whatever narratival or historical elements are retained are relegated to a place of secondary importance or are interpreted in a manner that tends to detach them from any redemptive historical context.
Now we have seen something of Wright’s use of righteousness language we can proceed to examine his understanding of justification more closely.
92‘Righteousness’, p.592. The relationship between the covenant faithfulness and cosmic restorative justice in Wright’s reading of δικαιοσυνη θεου will also come to the surface in his treatment of 2 Corinthians 5:21, a passage that we will be examining later. (return)