Monday, September 2, 2013

When I said in my first post on N.T. Wright’s book, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision , that the book seemed “Catholic” in its understanding of Paul and in its conclusions, I did not intend to indicate that Wright himself has stated this– which I was clear about – but that in attempting to reconsider Paul on his own terms, in light of the “new perspective” on Paul  and in opposition to the “old perspective” (understood as the traditional Lutheran/Reformed  position on Paul), Wright has moved into a fairly Catholic position.

St. Paul, St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, January 9, 2013
I spent at least a half of the last post describing what I saw as a traditional Catholic understanding of “justification” in Paul as opposed to the “old perspective.” I also mentioned in passing in the first post that I was taught both by E.P. Sanders, considered by many as the source of the “new perspective,” though I would argue many came before him, and Stephen Westerholm, a defender  of the “old perspective” from a Lutheran perspective (and one of the finest scholars or people one could meet). My point is not that I have no dog in this fight, but that I have run with the pack in a number of directions.  And when I read Wright’s work, I see the work of a scholar whose careful (re)consideration of Paul’s writing has lead him to an honest appraisal that tilts in the direction of the “new perspective,” but adds an ecclesial and theological dimension which places his work on justification in the Catholic conversation.

The first thing that one notices in reading Wright’s work on justification in Paul is that Wright does not see this as the only issue in Paul. One of the failings of much literature on Paul, going back to the Reformation, is to read all of Paul (and each of Paul’s letters) through the lens of justification. The center of Paul’s thought is Christ and depending on the situation and letter, Paul will describe what Jesus Christ has accomplished on behalf of humanity using a number of terms, such as glorification, reconciliation, transformation, redemption, salvation, new creation, and, of course, justification.

The second thing Wright achieves in his book is placing the discussion of Paul’s terminology in the midst of 1st century Judaism and not 16th century Europe. This is something that seems simple enough for historical critical scholars to do, but the wounds and pain of the break-up of western Christianity still ache and hurt deeply. These wounds emerge even in in scholarship today, often in the inability to want to give up or reconsider long-cherished positions.

The third achievement is the focus on the ecclesiological dimension of justification. Too often justification, and its close cousin salvation (though not an identical twin as Wright stresses, Justification, 11), have been seen in western Christendom as an individual and not ecclesial process (Justification, 23). One of Wright’s great achievements in this book is the understanding that the Church is the locus for Paul’s thought, precisely because the hopes which Christ has fulfilled are the hopes of the people of Israel. In Wright’s language, the Church is “the believing-in-the-Messiah people as the new reality to which ethnic Israel pointed forward but to which, outside the Messiah, they could not attain” (Justification, 143).  This is not some add-on for Wright, but the very center of his argument: God called a people through Abraham, a family of God, which was always intended to include the whole of humanity; this promise came to fruition with the coming of the Messiah and now the covenant includes all those who follow the Messiah (Justification, 94f).

The fourth achievement of the book connects justification with the Christian life and sanctification; this is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Let me cite Wright at length here:

True freedom is the gift of the Spirit, the result of grace; but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from, it isn’t simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against our wills and without our cooperation (what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, “working together with God”), but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the Spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I too am doing. If we don’t believe that, we don’t believe in the Spirit, and we don’t believe Paul’s teaching. Virtue is what happens…when the Spirit enables the Christian freely to choose, freely to develop, freely to be shaped by God, freely to become that which is pleasing to God. (Justification, 189)

Boom. If N.T Wright was a rapper, I think this is where he drops the mic and walks off the stage. The heirs of the Reformation have been afraid of attributing justification to human merit and deeds, with good reason, but in the meantime have sometimes overlooked the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the individual and in the Church (not to mention the world itself – see Romans 8:18f).

So, above I said that Wright has adopted a “fairly Catholic position,” but Wright is not naïve about the history of western Christianity – he knows Catholic history and theology - and in fairness to him, he attributes his position to open and honest exegesis of all of Paul’s letters and not repetition or rejection of Reformation or Catholic doctrines and positions. I believe him. If his reading of Paul’s letters pulls him toward a Catholic position on a number of matters, this speaks well of traditional Catholic reading of Paul. I wonder, however, if there are things Wright has discovered in Paul which Catholic theology has not stressed enough? It’s all fun and games to point out where Reformation exegesis might have missed the boat; what about Catholic exegesis of Paul?

End of Part 2

John W. Martens
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  1. John, does Wright's theme of Jesus completing the story of Israel ever bother you as bordering on supersessionistm? Could he be more sensitive to those of Jewish faith we are directed in Vatican II Nostra Aetate?

  2. Tom,

    This is such a complex issue, and I thank you for bringing it up. I do think context matters here, that is, that Paul is writing as a 1st century Jew who understands that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish covenantal hopes and understands the entrance of Gentiles into the covenant as a part of that fulfillment of Jewish hopes through and in Jesus. That is Paul. When we begin move historically away from Jesus, Paul and the 1st century, we have a new conundrum: what for (some) 1st century Jews was seen as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and the promises of God is now a movement which is seen in opposition to Judaism. It is here, especially 20 centuries later, where the Church and individual Christians have to reflect on past claims of "supersessionism" and as Notra Aetate (and Paul of course) stressed the continuing place and role of the Jewish people as God's beloved people and those who still are in covenant with God. That's a long answer to say that, yes, some of how Wright says this might seem to point in this direction, but I do think his focus is on explicating Paul in 1st century context and not the implications as they have worked themselves out (and our working themselves out) down through the centuries.