on 5 May 2015
This book, published in 1997, presents Professor (and later Bishop) N.T. Wright's views on Paul in a shorter version than his recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright tries to correct some of the misunderstandings about Paul's standpoint and message. After discussing Paul's background as a zealot and his conversion, Wright examines the question of what the gospel is. It's not, he says, the message that Christ takes our sins, and we take his righteousness, or even "justification by faith", but the message that Jesus is the King of the World, that he rose from the dead, and that all should submit to him. At times Wright overstates his case, for instance arguing (p. 54) that Galatians 3 & 4 (Abrahams's faith, the Law, Hagar, etc.) is at heart a theology about the kingship of the Messiah! (NT Wright is usually right, but sometimes he IS NT Wright!)
Another example of dubious interpretation is Wright's insistence (p. 66) that when Paul writes "there is one God – the Father, from whom are all things and we unto him – and one Lord – Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him", he is "quoting" the Shema, giving clear proof that he believed in Trinitarian doctrine hundreds of years before the great Church Fathers. Two pages later, Wright misquotes Isaiah 45:23 to reinforce his view. He denounces any translation of the obscure word "harpagmon" in Philippians 2:6 other than "something to be exploited".
Wright discusses the term "the righteousness of God" which is used about eight times by Paul. He says it means God's faithfulness to save his chosen people despite their perversity (p. 96). But he also says it means that God judges fairly (p. 97), which to my mind doesn't agree with the former. And despite Wright's efforts to convince us, neither meaning seems to fit Romans 3:5 ("If our unrighteousness serves to establish God's righteousness, is God unjust to punish?"), or Romans 10:3 which says that Paul's fellow Israelites, "being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not submit to God's righteousness." He claims that when Paul says "God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel, from faith to faith, as it is written: The righteous shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17), he does NOT mean that "the gospel reveals justification by faith as the true scheme of salvation, as opposed to Jewish self-help moralism". But Wright's explanation of the passage (p. 126) using his understanding of "the righteousness of God" doesn't mention faith or the quote from Habakkuk.
Wright interprets the righteousness of God in Romans 3:21-22 ("But now, apart from the law, God's righteousness has been revealed, witnessed by the law and the prophets. It is the righteousness of God, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, for all who believe.") as God's faithfulness to the covenant, through the "faithfulness of Jesus", although he translates the same phrase in verse 26 as "faith in Jesus" (p. 106).
Wright rejects the popular "evangelical" understanding of "the righteousness of God" as a righteousness conferred on believers by God (p. 100). He dismisses Philippians 3:9, where Paul says he desires the righteousness that is FROM God, since this is not "the righteousness OF God". Wright does not seem to be totally disagreeing with the general Protestant understanding of Paul, but rather, he thinks his interpretation of "the righteousness of God" makes Paul make more sense. I'm not convinced. He does disagree (p. 123) with the concept of "the imputed righteousness of Christ", which some people support with I Corinthians 1:30.
Concerning the word "righteous" applied to a person (rather than to God), Wright says (p. 98) that the Jewish meaning of righteous (and thus more or less Paul's meaning) is that the person is declared the winner in a court case, whether or not that person is moral, or even deserving of winning the case!
Wright considers it very important to understand that when Paul talks of justification, he does not mean how people enter into a relationship with God, but rather (citing an obscure scroll from Qumran, p. 119) a matter of how one can tell who belongs to the true Israel. Even if Wright is correct, it's hard to see what practical difference it makes whether justification has to do with how one gets into a proper relationship with God or rather what the signs are that someone is in such a relationship. He does say (p. 125) that this resolves the problem of whether believing is itself a surrogate "work" or a substitute form of moral righteousness. "Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something someone 'performs' as a kind of initiation test." He says someone who believes and confesses that Jesus is Lord is "thereby marked out as being within the true covenant family". But isn't that the same as thereby becoming a member of that family?
What does have practical implications is the fact, which Wright points out, that in Galatians Paul is arguing against getting circumcised, not against "earning salvation by doing good deeds", or against religious ritual. The polemic is against the Torah (the "works of the law" such as sabbath, food laws, and circumcision), not against "self-help moralism or against the more subtle snare of 'legalism', as some have suggested". Likewise in Philippians 3, Paul does not refuse "a moralistic or self-help righteousness, but the status of orthodox Jewish covenant membership." According to Wright, when Paul asks the Galatians why they want to enslave themselves again to weak and poor elements, observing special days and so on (Gal. 4:9-10), he is implying that what they are doing is equivalent to going back to idolatry! (P. 84 & p. 137)
In discussing the first passage in Romans where Paul uses the verb "justify" (Chapter 2), Wright says it has baffled commentators – Paul here apparently approves the concept of justification by works! ("It is not the hearers of the law who will be righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.") Wright's explanation is that on the last day, God will vindicate "those in whose hearts and lives God will have written his law". God performs this in Christ and by the Spirit. Paul then goes on to say, according to Wright, that these people will not be the Jews per se, but anyone who believes in Jesus. "Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life." (P. 129)
Wright says that the boasting which is excluded (Rom. 3:27) is not boasting of one's good morality, but boasting of being a Jew.
He says that Abraham's faith was not something he "did" in order to win the right to be within the people of God, but the "badge" showing that he was a member (p. 130). In a later chapter (p. 160) he says, "Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God's family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more nor less." To my mind, that is not what "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" means. Nor am I convinced that it's what Paul thought it meant.
Wright then discusses "Paul's vision of renewed humanity". He stresses that Paul did not see holiness "as an optional extra, but as something which necessarily characterizes all those who are renewed in Christ" (p. 143). "One of Paul's key phrases is 'the obedience of faith'. Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together." (P. 160) When Paul talks about himself as being unable to do right in Romans 7, he is really talking about his past life as a Pharisee, and is using the first person ("I") as a device, when he actually means religious Jews. When the condition of Israel's Adamic humanness has been dealt with through Christ's death and resurrection, and an individual identifies with these events in baptism, then the Law of the Spirit of life sets that person free from the Law of Sin and Death (p. 144).
How does all this apply to us today? Wright gives examples of how preaching the gospel, that is, preaching the lordship of Christ, means confronting and denouncing the powers that rule the world today, such as excessive governmental power, Mammon, and sexual "freedom". On the latter, people have rejected the error of thinking sexuality must be ignored or repressed, but they have gone on "to capitulate to Aphrodite altogether". This leads to "a semi- or crypto-paganism in which whatever Aphrodite demands, or even suggests, must at once be obeyed, and indeed must be insisted upon as a matter of basic human rights. Such an argument could only hold any force in a world where 'the gospel' has been shrunk to an invitation to personal religious experience, rather than the summons to follow a crucified and risen Messiah."
As one application of his conception of justification as a sort of membership based on believing the story about Jesus, Wright quotes fellow Anglican Richard Hooker who wrote, "One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith", but by believing in Jesus. This may be true, but I'm not sure that Paul would agree. He had little indulgence for those believers who were trying to get the Galatians to obey the Mosaic Law. He told the Galatian believers that if they got circumcised, Christ would profit them nothing. "Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace." (Gal. 5)
Perhaps a better title for this book would be What Saint Paul Really Should Have Said.
Extra note, on last chapter: At the end of the book, Wright discusses the question of the relation between Jesus, Paul, and the origin of Christianity. He says "It will not do to point out that Jesus talked about repentance and the coming kingdom, while Paul talked about justification by faith. It misses the p;oint even to show (though this can be done quite easily) that these two, when set in context and translated into terms of one another, belong extremely closely together." But he doesn't do so. He merely refers to another book, <i>Paul, Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianiy</i> by David Wenham. Instead, he points out that Jesus and Paul had very different roles to play, and maintains that Paul was implementing the next phase of the programme started by Jesus. He does admit that Jesus and Paul had "radically different" perspectives.