Sunday, April 04, 2010

The What and Why of N. T. Wright's Justification

I have been reading N. T. Wright's Justification for awhile now and I just completed the section on Galatians and Philippians. It is hard to understand the distinction Wright is making and why he feels so determined to make it. Even more amazing is why is Piper and crew so vehemently opposed to Wright's way of thinking. I think the point is the underlying worldview between the two positions. So, I will attempt to articulate Wrights point and show how this relates to his worldview "perspective".

Where Wright absolutely shines above all other exegetes is his ability to incorporate the entire book into one cohesive argument. Wright includes all the puzzle pieces in discussing the entire picture of the book of Galatians.
Galatians opens with Paul discussing his dispute with Peter. The book is actually about this practical pastoral problem. When the agitators from James (i.e. Jerusalem) came to Galatia, Peter ate in a kind of separate but equal "for-Jews-only" table. The book is about table unity and what constitutes a person's acceptance and identity as "on of God's people". Most interpreters simply skip over this context and instead answer a different question than the one Paul is answering. Isn't the book about how we as individuals stand before God at the judgment? Isn't righteousness the moral quality needed to be accepted into heaven? Here is the subtle difference. The question is actually better stated "What are the cultural markers that define the people of God?" Now here is the point. The reason we formulate the question in an ecclesiological fashion is because God's ultimate purpose is to build a racially diverse and radically beautiful community here on earth. Salvation is manifested in the context not of a future heaven only but in the context of a present church.

This understanding of the big picture of a very practical and present transformed community is the theological foundation to understand Wrights actual distinction. For this reason, Wright emphasizes the covenant with Abraham to make a great nation and inherit the earth and that every nation will be blessed. If this Paul's vision and emphasis, we must incorporate this emphasis in our reading of Paul. The reformers on the other hand were reading Paul to find the answer to a different question that was facing them in their historical context namely the question of purgatory and indulgences. But this question is not the Paul's question. The question then is how is God fulfilling the covenant of Abraham and making this one community out of both Jews and Gentiles and how does this answer in the Messiah answer Peter's hypocrisy in eating at a separate table and faking that he is a Torah follower.

In this context of community building, we must attach meaning to the term "justification". In this context, the first meaning of justification is being accounted as a full member of the community. The sole marker of being a member of the new eschatological community is "faith in the faithfulness of the Messiah". Through this faith in the work of the faithful Israelite, Jesus the Messiah, we are justified that is we accepted in Him as a member of the community. Therefore, to be declared righteous is to be declared a member of the community. Righteousness is a status and not an account of virtue that is great enough to earn heaven.
Here is a way to understand the distinction by looking at a few illustrations.

The Example of Islam, Pharisees, the Qumran Community, and Understanding First Century Judaism
While reading Wright, it dawned on me, "This is exactly the point of Islam!!" Wright makes the point and I am convinced he is correct that first century Judaism never saw perfect attention to the law as necessary to being acceptable before God. Instead the search was for what are the key markers in Torah to constituting being a faithful Israelite. The key is that posing these markers is then reckoned as righteousness. The question is what are the key markers of a member of the people of God. When we see that this is the theology of Paul and first century Jews, then we understand Paul. For the Pharisee the keys were obviously food regulations and sabbath regulations on top of the obvious circumcision and the calendar. For Muslims this is obvious too. The answer to the Muslim is the five pillars. These are the markers of the true people of God. For the Taliban, the signs are a rigorous punishing of the infidel who refuses the markers. This zeal is the marker. For the Christian the marker is faith in the Christ. This is the only marker and this marker is transcends the Law, Torah, and therefore is the great foundation for ethnic unity. This understanding of the quest for definitions of what constitutes community membership is key to understanding Paul and ALL of his books. This the question being answered in Romans, Philippians, and so clearly Ephesians.

The key then to Wright's exegesis is twofold. First, we must make sure we understand Paul and Paul's entire argument and not bring our own perspective to the text. Secondly, we must maintain the worldview of salvation as the membership in the beautiful community here on earth with an eye to this membership being affirmed in the future.

It is this understanding that informs our understanding of the terms "righteous" and "justification".

Here is another key to understanding Paul's emphasis. Christianity becomes more about the moral beauty of the community than our own personal piety. Most western Christians owner story is the story of maintenance of their personal standing with God through confession and repentance. Of course this is important BUT it is not the most important. God's bigger picture, bigger than your personal virtue, is the righteous functioning of the church community. It is the manifestation of the kingdom in the community that we are to emphasize. This perspective, if you will, transforms our priorities and our approach to the faith in a profound way. Sin is now understandably more about love and the one another commands than smoking and drinking and naughty words. The proper perspective on the centrality of community in this life and the purposes of God to build a community to His glory is more important than our journey to heaven. Here is the key to understanding the "what" and "why" of Paul and the New Testament and therefore putting Paul in proper "perspective".

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