Saturday, August 07, 2004

N.T. Wright on Justification and Imputation Part VIII 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII
Through Torah comes Knowledge of Sin A second reason why Paul opposes the Judaizers’ employment of the Torah as a charter of national privilege is to be found in the fact that, when appealed to, the Torah merely served to remind those who possessed it of their own sin. Marking oneself out by possession of the Torah is futile; the Torah merely ‘accents, and indeed accentuates, the Adamic condition, the sinful and death-bound position, of those who embrace it.’226 It cannot grant life and the Spirit and, consequently, is powerless to alleviate the plight of sinful Israel, only serving to make it worse by placing them under a curse. Whilst the Jews might think that the Torah marks them out as different from the Gentiles, in fact it reveals them to be quite the same.227 Paul denies that any flesh can be justified by the εργα νομου, not only because the εργα νομου serve to draw a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but also because the Torah which the Jews possess can never be the basis for justification as it merely serves to further condemn them. The Jews who rest in their having been given the Torah as the basis of their justification at the Great Assize will find that appealing to the Torah will be like ‘calling a defense witness who endorses what the prosecution has been saying all along.’228 The Torah is thwarted in its desire to bring life, because Israel is still ‘in Adam’.
The Torah, unable to do what it would have wished because of sin and the flesh, cannot but stand over against, and accuse, the very people whose covenant membership it appeared to mark out.229
This leads to a problem: the promises that God made to Abraham were entrusted to Israel as the agents of promise. However, the Torah held a curse out over Israel and this curse had come true. The Torah itself seemed to stand in the way of any fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham of a worldwide family. Just as the Torah served to ‘shut out’ the Gentiles, it also served to ‘shut up’ the Jews.230 How could the promises made to Abraham ever be fulfilled when the curse of the Torah hung over Israel?231 For Wright the answer is found in the cross of Jesus the Messiah. The Torah has served to draw sin on to Israel and place Israel under a curse. On the cross, as the representative Messiah, Jesus ‘is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.’232 The (Israel-specific) curse of the Torah out of the way and the power of sin (the force that took control of the world and human beings as a result of Adam’s trespass233) broken where it had formerly been concentrated under the Torah, the life that the Torah had always intended to give can now be given. The blessing of Abraham can arrive at its destination. The Torah no longer ‘shuts up’ the Jew and it no longer ‘shuts out’ the Gentile. Relativization of the Torah Within his treatment of it in his epistles, Paul both relativizes and reaffirms the Torah.234 On the one hand, the Torah plays a temporary role in its marking out of Israel as distinct from the Gentiles. If taken absolutely, the Torah would lead to the nullification of the promise made to Abraham, because it would perpetuate the Jew/Gentile distinction, leading to a ‘plurality of families’ and not one worldwide family characterized by faith.235 The Torah marked out Israel from the nations in order to
…collect sin into one place, to allow it to show its true colours, so that it may then (though not by the Torah itself) be dealt its decisive death blow.236
Wright argues that the role of the Torah in demarcating ethnic Israel was like that of establishing a quarantine.237 Israel was to be the solution to the disease of sin afflicting the human race and the problem of death in the cosmos. The problem was that those who were intended to be the ‘doctors’ were infected with the disease themselves. The Torah served the purpose of establishing a temporary quarantine until the medicine could be applied. Once the disease had been dealt with by the work of the Messiah the need for the quarantine was removed. Whilst Israel was under the quarantine of Torah, the Torah, ‘so far from delivering its possessors from the entail of Adam’s sin, actually appears to exacerbate it for them’ — the Torah came in so that the trespass would multiply (Romans 5:20).238 The Jews who appealed to their possession of the gift of the Torah and their practice of the εργα νομου as a basis for justification forgot that, far from isolating Israel from the entail of Adam’s sin, the purpose of the Torah was to allow the entail of Adam’s sin to achieve its fullest expression in Israel itself, so that, once concentrated in one place, it might then be decisively dealt with.239 The Torah is not therefore against God’s promises. Rather, it is one of the necessary steps towards their fulfillment. The problem was not ultimately with the Torah, but with the sin and flesh of those who were under it. Of course, once the problem of sin, the flesh and the resulting curse of the Torah has been decisively dealt with by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, retaining the ‘quarantine regulation’ of the Torah is both unnecessary and impermissible. This retention of the ‘quarantine regulation’ of the Torah within the Church, where the problem has been dealt with, is part of the error of the Judaizers. To return to the Torah, in the manner that the Judaizers did, is an attempt to turn back the hands of the clock of redemptive history once the hour has struck, to go on living as if in darkness even though the sun has risen, to cling to the old way of life that has been declared dead by the cross of Christ.240 Besides all of this, those who adopt this approach fail to realize that the Torah was never capable of giving the life to which it pointed and merely served to exacerbate the ‘sinful and death-bound position’ of those who embraced it.241 In all of this we can observe Paul’s ‘relativization’ of the Torah. Reaffirmation of the Torah Whilst, on the one hand, Torah serves only a temporary role, on the other hand the Torah is reaffirmed by the work of Christ. The apostle Paul makes plain that Torah is not to blame for the death that came to those who were under it. Alongside this vindication of the Torah, Paul speaks of the fulfillment of the Torah in the people of God, by Christ and the Spirit. That which the Torah was itself unable to achieve is achieved by Christ and the Spirit.242 Far from a bald rejection of the Torah as outmoded, Paul speaks of the Torah, not as having been abolished, but as having been fulfilled. The new covenant people of God, those who have been justified by faith apart from the εργα νομου, actually fulfill the Torah.243 Indeed, for Wright, the Torah in some sense still serves as the ‘covenant boundary-marker’ under the new covenant, demarcating the true people of God.244 Every time that God’s Spirit works to bring life to a person, the purpose of the Torah is thereby fulfilled. In some manner the Torah is even implicated in its own fulfillment. Wright writes in his treatment of Romans 8:2:—
It would have been easy to write “for the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free,” but Paul seldom settles for the easy option. He has spent a whole chapter arguing that, despite appearances (and despite many commentators!), the Torah remains God’s law, holy and just and good, and that it is not guilty of causing the death that comes to those who embrace it. Now he takes a step further: When God acts in Christ and by the Spirit the Torah is somehow involved as well, somehow present and active. Speaking of Torah, after all, was a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking of God’s saving action.245
Challenging the Powers We have already seen two reasons for Paul’s opposition to the Judaizers’ use of the Torah as a charter of national privilege. To these we must add a third: by asserting the necessity of such practices as circumcision, the Judaizers were presenting the Jewish Torah as a power that Gentile Christians must submit themselves to, in addition to their submission to Jesus Christ Himself. To Paul, such a position was tantamount to idolatry. The Powers Paul speaks of the existence of a variety of ‘powers’ and ‘authorities’ under the old world order (or ‘present age’). The power structures of the ‘present age’ can take a number of different forms. They can be political or economic earthly authorities, for example. In Paul’s theology, all of these powers receive their authority as a trust from God. There is a demonic dimension to these powers in Paul’s understanding: ‘Anything to which human beings offer the allegiance proper only to God is capable of assuming, and exerting, a sinister borrowed power.’246 Paul never sees a sharp distinction between the earthly powers and the supernatural demonic powers.247 These demonic powers operated ‘through the oppressive systems that enslaved or tyrannized human beings.’248 In Jewish thought there were different guardian angels or deities which looked after the various nations. In a calculated move, Paul casts the Jewish Torah in the role of a guardian angel or tribal deity alongside those that ruled over the other nations; it looked after Israel and kept her separate from the nations, taking its place among the other local presiding ‘deities’ of the various areas and races of the world.249 In Paul’s theology, the Torah (as it operated in the Mosaic economy) was something that had become just such an oppressive system, particularly as it was hijacked by Sin. It was from the Torah that Sin gained its greatest power in the old world order.250 The Torah had kept Israel in a ‘state of virtual slavery’.251 Christ and the Powers Hebrews for EveryoneIn the old world order these angels and ‘deities’ held authority over the world and the human race. However, in the new world order brought in by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the place of man relative to the angels is changed. Jesus Christ has become superior to the angels and He is the representative man.252 All of those ‘in’ Him will one day share fully in this role and must in the present consider themselves in the light of this fact.253 One of the implications of the fact that Christ has a position over that of the angels is that He is also superior to the Torah that they brought to Israel.254 On the cross of Calvary, Jesus the Messiah was crucified by the highest religion and the best government that the world had ever seen, angry at His challenge to their authority.255 However, by the cross He triumphed over these powers and all of the other powers that held humanity under their sway. By crucifying their rightful sovereign, the powers exposed themselves for what they really were and signed their own death warrants.256 Christ has achieved the victory over all the powers and authorities. This victory has now to be implemented, and this implementation will be achieved ‘through the work, and proclamation, of the church.’257
The reconciling mission of the church in the world therefore includes the task of proclaiming to the present ‘power structures’ that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, and summoning them to climb down from his throne and take up their proper responsibilities in looking after his world. Having been defeated as rebels, they now can be reconciled as subjects. They do not own the world. They do not hold the keys of death and hell. They (the Law included), being essentially of ‘this age’, do not hold final authority over those who belong already to the ‘age to come’.258
Just as Christ came out from under the dominion of these authorities in His death, so all of those who belong to Him experience the same liberation (a liberation that is particularly associated with Baptism). By dying with Christ we are released from our previous states of bondage.259 The place of Christ in relation to the powers is very important. Wright writes:—
All power structures, ancient or modern, whether political, economic or racial, have the potential to become rivals to Christ, beckoning his followers to submit themselves to them in order to find a fuller security. The invitation is as blasphemous as it is unnecessary. Christ brooks no rivals. His people need no-one but him.260
Justification and the Powers Wright observes:—
The Pauline doctrine of justification by faith strikes against all attempts to demarcate membership in the people of God by anything other than faith in Jesus Christ; particularly, of course, it rules out any claim to status before God based on race, class or gender.261
By teaching the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul ruled out any place for the powers in our justification. To define covenant membership by anything other than allegiance to Christ is an idolatrous assault upon Christ’s authority.262 The gospel confronts the principalities and powers with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and tells them that their time is up. The Church is created by the message of the gospel; the doctrine of justification serves to continually remind the Church that it must live in a manner that is consistent with this message. Paul for Everyone: 1 CorinthiansLiving consistently with this message necessitates a refusal to permit the powers (whatever form that they might take) to hijack the Church by offering a higher status to those who will submit to them. In the Church, Paul taught, the only status that really matters is the one received as a free gift by all of those who are ‘in Christ’.263 Any attempt to establish a claim on God’s grace is an attempt to subtly reintroduce the powers. This is one of the reasons why the error of Peter at Antioch and the teaching of the Judaizers in Galatia posed such a serious threat to the heart of Paul’s gospel. After claiming that the common Protestant reading of Galatians ‘emasculates the letter’, Wright claims that, in Galatians, Paul
…is attacking the attempt to confine grace to one race. The all-important issue is: ‘Must I become a Jew in order to belong to the true people of God?’ And this reflects the deepest question of all: what does it mean to worship the true God? In Galatians 4.1-11 he shows that the true God — the God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit — has broken the rule of the ‘powers’. And he demonstrates that if the Galatians, or anyone else, allow the power structures of the world to remain intact, as they will do if they continue to uphold the Jew/Gentile division within the church, they are embracing a non-gospel. In such a message, there is no real good news: the cross has not won the victory over the powers. They still rule supreme.264
By claiming that Gentile converts to the Christian faith had to submit to circumcision and the Torah to truly enter into some supposed ‘inner circle’ of the people of God, the Judaizers were granting the Jewish Torah an enduring authority alongside the authority of Jesus Christ. As Paul recognized: ‘concede the Torah its permanent validity, and any Gentiles who come to believe in Jesus will have no reason to abandon their ethnic loyalties.’265 If Gentile Christians have to come under the Torah, the powers are in some sense still in charge and Christ isn’t really Lord of all. Jesus came to ‘break the stranglehold that the powers have on the world’;266 bring the Church back under the powers and you eviscerate the gospel. Paul for Everyone: The Prison LettersIn the context of his teaching about the defeat of the powers, Paul warns the Colossians against submitting to the regulations of the Jewish Torah.267 Once you are a member of Christ, you do not need to be ‘completed’ by any other system; you are already complete in Christ and nothing can go over Him to impose its authority upon you.268 Any attempt to domesticate the gospel — the declaration of the lordship of Jesus Christ — by bringing the Church under the dominion of the powers (whatever form they take) should be ruthlessly exposed and rejected. All other allegiances are relativized by allegiance to Christ, which sets all members of the Church on an equal footing, irrespective of any social, cultural, familial, ethnic or national status they might possess in the eyes of the world. Wright is adamant on this point:—
Let there be no mistake. To proclaim the Lordship of Jesus in all the world can never be a matter of merely inviting people to embrace a personal salvation which leaves the power structures of the world untouched. If it is reduced to that, then in the name of the whole New Testament we must say that the Jesus of whom such a message speaks is not Jesus of Nazareth, but an idol who has usurped his name and distorted his message.269
Monotheism and the Powers On a number of occasions Paul affirms monotheism as the basis of an attack upon the powers. Paul assumes that, if there really is one God — as the Jews affirmed — there must ultimately be one people of God. A ‘single united family’ of God is the corollary of monotheism.270 If justification were by the ‘works of the Torah’, God would become aligned with the various national deities of the other nations; He would merely be the God of the Jews, rather than the God of Jews and Gentiles alike.271 If there were a number of ‘peoples’, rather than ultimately just one people of God, ‘the whole theological scheme would lapse back into some sort of paganism, with each tribe or race possessing its own national deities.’272 If the people of God are not one worldwide people, then the powers have won — there are many gods rather than one God after all. The fact that God is one, however, as the Jews’ most basic confession declares, rules out any appeal to the Torah (conceived of as a ‘national badge’) as the basis of justification. Paul ‘uses the Shema to relativize the Torah which it summarizes.’273 The Torah was incapable of bringing about the one family that God promised to Abraham; it merely perpetuated the existence of the many families and left the many powers and authorities still in control. Consequently, the Torah merely had a temporary role and ‘cannot therefore be the final and permanent expression of the will of the One God.’274 The Torah acted as a guardian for Israel until God’s promises arrived at their fruition. The Torah cannot have the last word; it too has to bow to Jesus Christ. In Jewish thought, Wisdom was seen to be ‘God’s agent in the creation and preservation of the world’ a power supreme over all the nations and their ‘gods’.275 The Jews were convinced that God had given them His Wisdom in the form of the Torah or in God’s personal presence in the Temple.276 However, the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as God’s true Wisdom; the divine Wisdom is identified with Him, rather than with the Torah.277 Rather than looking to the Torah for protection and victory over the principalities and powers, it is Christ to whom the people of God must look. That which Israel believed about herself and the Torah that was given to her has actually been accomplished in the Person of Jesus Christ. All things were created for Him; He is the agent of God in the world and the one who is supreme over all the powers. Judaism and Paganism Paul warns those who wish to be circumcised in Galatia that they are, in effect, returning to paganism, albeit in a far more subtle form. In Galatians 4:1-11 he argues that, by being circumcised, the Galatians will be returning to the realm where the principalities and powers hold sway, to the realm of slavery.278 To become a Christian was to escape from the dominion of the various enslaving powers or ‘gods’ and to find freedom in knowing the one true God. Now that the purpose for which the Torah had been given to Israel by God had been completed, to return to it once more would be an act of treason. It was pledging allegiance to the temporary steward even though the rightful King had returned. By treating it as if it were some form of independent power, the Judaizers were granting the Torah divine status and becoming just like the paganism they so vehemently tried to reject.279
From Paul’s Christian point of view, those Jews who do not embrace Jesus as their Messiah are thereby embracing instead an identity marked out by blood and soil, by ancestry and territory, in other words, by the “flesh”. They are therefore subject to the same critique as paganism.280
For Paul all that Judaism has to offer to the Christian is ‘just another local and, one might say, tribal religion, composed like any other of allegiances, rules and regulations which function at a purely worldly level.’281 Summary We have now observed the three key reasons for Paul’s opposition to the Judaizer’s use of the Torah. He opposed the use of the Torah as a charter of national privilege because it: (1) compromised his understanding of the impartiality of God and construed the Torah in a manner that would preclude the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham of one worldwide family; (2) failed to recognize the role of the Torah, most especially the fact that Torah highlighted sin and undercut any ethnic boast; and (3) emasculated the message of Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers by bringing people within the Church under their control. We have also observed the manner in which Paul both relativized and reaffirmed the Torah. Within the next post I hope to explore Wright’s understanding of faith, particularly in its relationship to the εργα νομου. Endnotes

226 The Letter to the Romans, p.586 (return)

227 Ibid. p.461 (return)

228 Ibid. p.460 (return)

229 The Climax of the Covenant, p.198 (return)

230 Colossians and Philemon, p.113 (return)

231 The Climax of the Covenant, pp.142-143 (return)

232 Ibid. p.152 (return)

233 The Letter to the Romans, p.578 (return)

234 The Climax of the Covenant, p.143 (return)

235 Ibid. p.166 (return)

236 Ibid. p.202 (return)

237 See Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.37 (return)

238 The Letter to the Romans, p.530 (return)

239 Ibid. (return)

240 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.82 (return)

241 The Letter to the Romans, pp.586-587 (return)

242 The Climax of the Covenant, p.216 (return)

243 e.g. The Letter to the Romans, pp.449, 480-481, 576ff., 656-657, 725; The Climax of the Covenant, pp.208ff. (return)

244 The Climax of the Covenant, p.214 (return)

245 The Letter to the Romans, p.577 (return)

246 Colossians and Philemon, p.72 (return)

247 Ibid. (return)

248 Ibid. (return)

249 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.45; The Climax of the Covenant, p.170 (return)

250 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.227 (return)

251 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.49 (return)

252 Tom Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2003), pp.14ff. (return)

253 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp.64, 142-143 (return)

254 Hebrews for Everyone, pp.6-7 (return)

255 Colossians and Philemon, p.116; Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.25 (return)

256 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.26 (return)

257 Colossians and Philemon, p.118 (return)

258 Ibid. (return)

259 Ibid. p.125 (return)

260 Ibid. p.104 (return)

261 What St Paul Really Said, p.160 (return)

262 Ibid. (return)

263 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp.15-19 (return)

264 Tom Wright, New Tasks for a Renewed Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), p.167 (return)

265 The Climax of the Covenant, p.165 (return)

266 N.T. Wright, ‘A New World’ (return)

267 Colossians and Philemon, p.118 (return)

268 Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters, pp.167-168 (return)

269 New Tasks for a Renewed Church, p.168 (return)

270 The Climax of the Covenant, p.170 (return)

271 The Letter to the Romans, p.482 (return)

272 The Climax of the Covenant, p.170 (return)

273 Ibid. p.171 (return)

274 Ibid. p.170 (return)

275 Colossians and Philemon, p.67 (return)

276 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.18; The Climax of the Covenant, p.118 (return)

277 The Climax of the Covenant, pp.66ff. (return)

278 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, pp.48-49 (return)

279 Ibid. (return)

280 ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’ (return)

281 Colossians and Philemon, p.102 (return)

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