Sunday, September 8, 2013

At the end of my second post on N.T. Wright’s book, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision I asked whether “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?” I want to focus on three things in particular: the role of grace in the life of the Christian; law and freedom in the life of the Christian; and the place of Judaism in Paul’s thought. Keep in mind, my argument is not that Catholic theology does not deal with these issues, or does not deal with them properly, but that these things might not have been “stressed enough” or not fully integrated into Catholic life.

St. Paul, St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, January 9, 2013

 First, while Wright properly stresses the things that Paul says we are to “do” – deeds that is – to please God (Rom 12:1, 14:18; 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 5:10; Phil 2:12-13; Col 1:10; 1 Thess 4:1; 2 Thess 1:11, page 187-88), he argues,

This is not the logic of merit. It is the logic of love. Part of the problem with seeing everything in terms of merit…whether it be the merit we should have and can’t produce, the merit which God reckons to us, or whatever, is that even if we get the logic right we are still left with God as a distant bank manager, scrutinizing credit and debit sheets. That is not the heart of Paul’s theology, or that of any other New Testament writer, as it was not the vision of God which Jesus himself lived and taught. (188)

Elsewhere, Wright speaks of this activity as the work of the Holy Spirit, or the work of cooperating with the grace given to us, but the important part for me as a Catholic reader is the proper stress that even though we are to act, to do, to cooperate with, to be infused by, it is never about my outstanding merit but God’s working in me and through me, a gratuitous gift which I cannot earn and which, Paul stresses over and over, is freely offered. Catholics sometimes can get caught up in a tallying mentality – here is what I have done; here is how I have met all of my obligations; I can check that off of my list – and miss the profound nature of grace in all of our lives. God is not a bank manager; or, if God is a bank manager, he continues to come out from behind his desk to give you a hug and wipe out your debts. Wright’s reminder here that merit is not the center of Paul’s theology is well worth remembering. Or tally it down if you can’t remember.

Second, law and freedom in the life of the Christian is a knotty issue. Catholics argue, rightly, and canon lawyers probably too vociferously, that law is an essential aspect of life, including ecclesial life. However true this might be, it has a way of sidelining Paul’s insight on freedom from the law. Yes, Paul might have in mind specifically the Law of Moses, but even then Christians, including Paul, would not have understood “freedom from” the Law to imply that adultery, murder and theft were now reasonable actions for Christians. Freedom in a spiritual sense must mean not only freedom from (spiritual) slavery, which it does in Paul’s letters (see Galatians 2-4 and Romans 7 for examples), but more importantly freedom for the life of God. Sin, and all of the false goods which sin offers, seems like human freedom, but in fact it destroys human flourishing. Wright says, “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…but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility” (189).This insight of Paul cannot be lost, but it can be buried under lists upon necessary list of things we must do, should do and are obligated to do. We must always rediscover anew Paul’s discernment that the life in Christ is the life of freedom not a “Must Do” list. Wright’s powerful writing on this score makes this essential Pauline insight stand at the fore of Christian living.

Finally,  Wright’s focus on Paul’s understanding that Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with the Jews and that the followers of Jesus, Jew and Gentile, are in the Church as the extension of that covenant made with Abraham is important for assessing the proper place of Judaism in Paul’s thought. For many centuries prior to the 20th  century, Catholic theology, and Christian theology in general, saw the Law as something which the Jews had failed to uphold, missing Paul’s thought that this was a part of God’s plan (Galatians 2-3) and that the Jews were never forsaken by God and never would be (Romans 9-11). Wright is not the first scholar in the “new perspective” (or prior to that nomenclature) to have this awareness, but I do feel that his contextualizing of Paul’s language in the covenantal story of salvation of the Jewish people is thoroughgoing and necessary. The Catholic Church had come to this conclusion in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, yet the extent to which this has permeated thinking about the relationship of Israel and the Church among Catholics is not clear to me. Wright’s constant use of the phrase “God’s-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” to speak of the covenant is initially annoying, but it not only keeps proper focus on Israel and the Jewish people in the plan of salvation, but minimizes any temptation to triumphalism on the part of the Church. It’s about God acting on our behalf, that is, on behalf of the whole world. It sounds so much like grace, I don’t think I can tell the difference.


End of Part 3

John W. Martens

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  1. You may be interested in the video of blogger/scholar Michael Bird interviewing NT Wright (
    They are discussing Wright's next book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God