Part I — Part II — Part III
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 θεου
Wright 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.’90
The 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.
82 The Climax of the Covenant, p.214 (return)
83 ‘Righteousness’, p.591 (return)
84 See ‘An Interview with N.T. Wright’ (return)
85 See, for example, The Letter to the Romans, p.464 (return)
86 Ibid. pp.401ff. (return)
87 Ibid. p.403f. (return)
88 e.g. Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21. The exceptions to the rule include such places as Romans 3:5 and 3:25-26. (return)
89 See, for example, Stuart Olyott, The Gospel as it Really Is (Welwyn: Evangelical Press, 1979) p.30; D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans — An Exposition of Chapter 1: The Gospel of God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) pp.298ff.; R.C. Sproul, The Gospel of God: Expositions of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2000) pp.73-74; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp.30-31; John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, pp.64ff.; William Hendriksen, Romans Volume I: Chapters 1-8 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), pp.61-63. [Hendriksen is one who seems to conflate the “genitive of origin” reading with the “objective genitive” reading. Calvin would not necessarily agree with reading “righteousness from God” in Romans 1:17 as can be seen from his comments on that verse (and on other verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:21)]. (return)
90 The Letter to the Romans, p.459 (return)
91 The Climax of the Covenant, pp.21ff.; The New Testament and the People of God, pp.262ff. (return)
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)
93 Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p.50 (return)