Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Responding to an Interlocutor

I have greatly enjoyed this post and first wish to affirm you in your task of trying to correctly understand the reformers. The debate on the NPP touches on many different arenas of scholarship of which historical theology happens to be one of the most affected and rightly so. For when we see that certain themes of what the gospel is (such the gospel being the declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship) was already there in Luther and Calvin, then when we approach NPP proponents the issue of “see what’s wrong with them” dissolves. As a result what we are left with is: What does the Bible have to say on the matter? In other words, such clarity moves us closer to Scripture and reframes the debate. I would love to have more of your thoughts on the similarities of the reformed thinks and the NPP. Also you should read Dr. Bird’s discussion on the matter in his book The Saving Righteousness of God, 67-69.

A good friend of mine, who will possibly be starting his own blog soon (look forward to reading it, Nick), has responded to my thoughts on the NPP.  I have not read a lot of Michael Bird, but the bit that I have read has impressed me, he is a good and very active scholar.  So even though I haven't read The Saving Righteousness of God I'm including Nick's recommendation here for a good scholarly overview of some of these issues.  Nick and I have had many a debate about this topic which I have always enjoyed.  In the spirit of that friendly discourse and of academic dialogue, here are a couple segments of his lengthy (and witty/entertaining/Seinfeld informed) response and some rejoinders:

This brings me to the real issue of the matter and the pivotal objection conservative Evangelicals have against the NPP: How is a righteous God going to save or justify an ungodly and unrighteous person?

Again let’s interact with the OT picture here. However, let me first respond to another statement you have made concerning the OT and salvation:

"There is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament. Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation. From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation! The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God's chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God's people."

You’re right on the mark concerning the point that salvation was not received through one's obedience to the law (a type of hypothetical view which I firmly reject and would agree with Wright here, and it is quite lovely of you to reject such a view as well), but rather that one could never perfectly obey it. I think you must read how the narratives of the OT are showing you this theology. The point of the Law and Deuteromistic theology was not what one could achieve or who a person was, but rather that one was incapable of doing so. Yes the law along with other ritualistic and ethical markers did set the Jewish people apart, but this was not its main force and purpose. I will say that there is some elements of Deuteromistic history and theology (Deut. 28) that would say do this and be blessed, do this and be clobbered ( kind of a merit theology). However, following Paul's encouragement that we should read the OT in its entire flow we get a much different picture. How does Deuteronomy end? With Moses not getting into the land. How revolting are the last few chapters of Judges? Then we come to the kings. Saul had a lot of promise but how well did he and the nation end up? Yes, David was a man after God’s own heart; however, he comments adultery and murder and thus I wonder what kind of man he would have been like if he wasn’t a man after God’s own heart…right? Then a few centuries later the Davidic dynasty has ended with a puppet king on the throne and the majority of the people in exile. Therefore, what we see from the force and focus of the OT narrative history of Israel is not a history and theology which gives one the impression that if you’re only good enough and faithful then you’ll receive God’s blessings, and sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t, but rather much closer and accurate to the way Paul reads it: The Law multiplies transgressions and teaches us how much of a dirty rotten bunch of sinners we are, and therefore highlighting how much we are in need of grace.

In other words, the Law shows us who we are in light of who God is, and therefore our only hope of gaining blessing and avoiding cursing is not by our own merit but by the gracious and atoning work of Christ. I feel that if we are to correctly understand what the OT is saying about our inability to please God on our own, then what Christ has done for us on the cross has enabled us to do so. In other words, if there is judgment associated with sinful humanity apart from grace, then there must be some appeasement associated with Christ’s death and resurrection. We must in some way be seen in Christ (See Rom 4-6).

I feel like this is slipping back into the dispensational reading.  If the point of the law is to show us that we can't keep the law, then it seems very difficult to say that keeping the law would not result in salvation, in other words, that a hypothetical offer does exist in the law.  I don't feel like this is a reading of the OT on its own terms, it’s a reading through the lens of a particular reading of Paul (and thus you end up back in Romans in your interpretation of the Torah).

To address two themes of the Torah that are touched on here that might shed some light (or not) on this: 

First, the blessing and cursing language.  We need to keep the logic of the covenant in mind, here.  The covenant starts off with a statement recalling (from the past) God's saving work for the people (their liberation from Egypt).  Then they are given the law which they are to obey as God's Covenant People.  Then they are told that if they obey this law they will be blessed and if not they will be cursed.  The idea is that the obedience of the law pertains to the maintenance of the Covenant, not its creation.  Now with this logic in the background, we can move toward Paul.  Paul, when he speaks about human sinfulness, is generally quoting from the prophets or the Psalms and is thus reflecting the historical "working out" of the covenant that was made in the Torah.  In reality, the people did not keep the covenant, and thus they end up in exile.  And so the prophets and Psalmists make statements like "every one of them is sinful" describing their unfaithfulness and their deserving of the punishment brought on them.  Paul picks up that language to describe the human condition.  But notice, especially in Romans, the logic of Paul's own thought.  He begins by critiquing Gentile idolatry.  Then he critiques the Jews for their own idolatry (coming straight out of the prophets, but applying it to the Hellenism of his own day) and concludes that neither Jew not Gentile is in covenant with God and thus Christ must establish a new Covenant for all humanity.

Second, the idea of "earning" or "deserving" salvation.  There are repeated statements in Deuteronomy that what has been done/is being done for the people is not because they in any way deserve it because they are just a stiff-necked, obstinate people.  Seemingly, that plays right into the "traditional" reading of Paul's reading of the OT.  But it’s a proof text if we stop there because every single one of these statements continues on with "but God made a promise to your ancestors and he is fulfilling it through you."  Which clouds up the traditional reading of Paul's reading a good bit: did the ancestors deserve this?  A straightforward reading of the OT seems to suggest that they did… So were they righteous on their own account?  Well…  Genesis kinda makes it sound that way.  So if we want to uphold the traditional reading of Paul's reading, we start having to do some tricky exegesis of Genesis.  Or, my suggestion, is that we re-read Paul in light of what we read in Genesis and the rest of the Torah, this covenant model I've been outlining, and then I think we have good deal less conflict in our interpretations (but we might have to adjust our Reformed theology a little bit).

I would like to end my comments with a question for you to responsd to or write about in the future: How does God save the ungodly? This of course brings us to the issues related to the NPP and their view on what justification means (is it as you stated that you are in the covenantal people group?) and also their view of imputation. I would greatly enjoy to hear your responses to what I’ve said above, and your answers to the questions that I have asked you. Thank you for all the hard work that went into such a post.

I'm not sure how specific of an answer you are looking for or how specific of one I can give.  But in general terms, my understanding is based on a kind of narrative reading of scripture.  Humanity, meant to image God, to represent God, has in general rejected God's commands and brought a curse upon itself.  I say in general because we have stories like that of Enoch and Noah and Abraham which seem go against the pattern.  Recognizing that a Calvinist can interpret those stories in a way that fits into their schema, I think that goes against the grain of the narrative, so at least for now that tendency needs to be put to the side.

So in general, humanity has rejected God.  God sets out to redeem humanity.  My understanding is that this redemption does not just involve an imputing of grace so that we sinful people are pardoned and able to enter the heavenly court, though I think covering grace probably is part of the picture.  Full redemption, however, is something that I think involves a restoring of us to be people who are in a covenant relationship with God.  In other words, it involves a substantive change or transformation in our own character, in our present lives.  That seems to be the pattern of redemption in the OT- Its not just that Noah is saved from the flood, its that creation is restarted with Noah, a righteous man; the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai doesn't just establish that they worship God, it sets them apart as a people who are different from other people in noticeable ways; the prophets aren't just looking for forgiveness, they want the nation to come back from exile and a just, God-honoring kingdom to be established.  So redemption is a process that affects more than just our status on a divine judicial ledger, its also a process of internal transformation of who we are and how we relate to our world.  I think, which you will probably be in disagreement with, that this transformation has to take a synergistic form, that it is the result of both God working in us and of us cooperating with and reaching out to God.  Ultimately, this leads to my understanding of a very tight bond between faith and obedience, making the two terms almost synonymous (but not quite).

I'm intentionally avoiding using the term "justification."  That term I think relates to a legal metaphor for this process of which other metaphors also exist in the New Testament.  Each of these metaphors is helpful, but I want to resist the urge to exalt one over all the others (though if pressed, I do rather like the Christus Victor motif).  I'm also resisting the idea of an "order of salvation" which is so loved in the Reformed Tradition.  I think that system develops from a canon within the canon reading of Paul, which you might gather that I would be very resistant to.  I think Paul is helpful, but only if we understand him in light of the stuff that comes before him, not the other way around.  Starting from Paul and creating a somewhat artificial system that we then squeeze the rest of the Bible into is, in my view, very bad exegesis.  So for both of those reasons I'm not sure I'm really answering the question on the terms you want an answer, but that's what I got.


  1. Alex,

    You have far exceeded me in any wit or power I could ever muster. Also in this disclaimer, as a result of character limitation again I will comment in waves. The first of these waves is a point of clarification and brief response.

    Clarification: I do not believe that there is in any way a hypothetical offer existing in the Law. Allow me to digress.

    First I think you’re right in saying “that keeping the Law would not result in salvation” because no one can keep the Law. It’s important to note here that narratives show you their theology. Therefore, the OT narratives display for us how no one is unable to keep the Law and the covenants of God apart from God’s grace. Let’s revisit the time of the kings but more specifically let’s look at the giving of the Davidic Covenant. Remember the language in 2 Sam 7 is one of “you will always have a man on the throne,” but it turns out through events in Israel’s history that God jolly well expected them to live a certain way and do certain things. Again how does the history end? It ends with no one on the throne. On a side note, the Chronicler seems to be a bit more optimistic than the author of Kings did as he ends his history with the Jews coming back into the land, however, still with no king on the throne. First of all, such a covenant with the nation of Israel must have been conditional based upon who God is. Again he expects us to live and act a certain way. Also, therefore, the covenant was never hypothetical in that if the Davidic dynasty did these good for them things, and shame on you if you do these things (as I’ve stated earlier there are elements of blessing and cursing contained in the Law, but as I said it’s not its main point nor purpose), but the idea is that they could never do these good things and thus gain the promise of a king always remaining on the throne. Do certain kings please God and receive blessings from Him? Yes, of course, but I will still contend that it does not happen with out the help of the gracious God enabling them to do so. Such a view has in mind the current state of our depraved and finite state, while also keeping in mind the supremacy and sufficiency of God in Christ. The force of the Law is grace not works because we can never merit or accomplish Law keeping.

    This point I’m about to make might seem a little out of place, and that’s because it very well could be, but still it’s worth noting. Also, see how the people were so helpless in the matter of fulfilling the Law that God instituted animal sacrifices to atone, substitute, and thus function as an imputation for their sins in order for them to basically continue to live. In other words, God would have killed them if his wrath could not have been appeased. Therefore, this is exactly what Christ has done (note the point that the author of Hebrews makes concerning this issue) in that God’s wrath needed to be satisfied, and the limitation of the Jewish sacrificial system and the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ sacrifice.

    Such a point raised here must redefine how one understands the atonement, right? You see if there is a judgment that must be accounted for somewhere, then someone must address such accusations. I of course think this is exactly what Christ has done, but we can talk more about the atonement and the justification language at a later time.

    Also you stated about my message to you that “I don't feel like this is a reading of the OT on its own terms, it’s a reading through the lens of a particular reading of Paul (and thus you end up back in Romans in your interpretation of the Torah).”

    Yes I did end up in Romans with Paul and his reading, but I first addressed the OT and what the narratives were showing us on their own terms, then I moved on to Paul. I am all for reading texts in the former, but also we must keep in mind the later, that is the idea of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. This is of course based upon a Canonical-Theological approach made popular and defended quite lovely I might add by the late Brevard Childs.

  2. Next I would like to revisit the cursing and blessing aspects of the Law. Note that I do not reject its elements in the Law but wish to contend that it’s not the Law’s force. To elaborate here a bit, if it was then the narratives would have focused more on the blessing aspects of the Law. Instead what you find is a quite brief treatment of them in Lev. 26 and Deut. 28. Below I have included an outline of both passages in order to help illustrate my point.

    I. Blessing and Cursing
    a. Leviticus 26
    i. The difference in sequences of the curses.
    1. If they disobey, then God will bring terror on them (vv.14-17).
    2. If they disobey, then God will discipline them (vv.18-20).
    3. If they disobey and act with hostility, then God will punish them (21-22).
    4. If they disobey and act with hostility, then God will act with hostility toward them (23-26).
    5. If they still disobey and act with hostility, then God will act with more hostility (27-33), and then the land will be completely desolated and enemies will rule in the land and there will be chaos (34-39).
    ii. The difference in tone.
    1. As it progressive God’s attitude toward them and the punishments become harsher and greater judgment takes place.
    iii. The difference in view of forgiveness.
    1. If they humble themselves and ask for forgiveness, then God will not forget His promise and thus He will not completely or ultimately forsake them while they are under judgment (40-46).
    b. Duet. 28
    i. The difference in sequences of the curses.
    1. If they disobey, then God will curse their land (15-19).
    2. If they act wickedly, then God will bring disease, famine, enemies, and death upon them (20-35).
    3. The Lord will bring you out of the land and into another (36-37).
    4. The Lord will take and destroy what they produce (38-44).
    5. Since you disobeyed, you will be destroyed and your descendents will be affected by our disobedience (45-46).
    6. Because they didn’t serve God, they will serve their enemies and will ultimately destroy them (47-52).
    7. They will cause destruction among themselves (53-57).
    8. If they disobey, then the Lord will ultimately destroy them (58-68).
    ii. The difference in tone.
    1. As it progresses the curses become greater, and more detailed. Finally, they will be sent back to Egypt.
    iii. The difference in view of forgiveness.
    1. In these passage there seems to be no sign of hope. That is God’s reaction to their humbling, confessing, and repenting from their disobedience.

    The point of such an outline is to highlight the differences between the canonical treatments of blessing and cursing, but I feel the literary point is still valid. Namely, notice the attention giving to the results of disobeying God’s commandments. It would seem, speaking from a literary standpoint, that if one could obey God’s Law and/or commandments then the narrator would have spent more time on it and thus developed it more fully. It is also worth stating that the narratives that I first mentioned to you, such as the end of Deuteronomy, Judges, the fuller history of the Davidic dynasty, the exile, even the fall provides support for my point, and even the history of the early patriarchs in Genesis focus on human inability to obey God’s commands (also see Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 for more of Israel’s rejection and disobedience which dated all the way back to Abraham.) The point of Scripture seemed to be one of human stupidity mirrored with God’s gracious dealings. Yes people pleased God, but through a Canonical-Theological treatment of Scripture is was not without the help of God (See Paul in Rom 8:8-9).

  3. Nick,

    Thanks for the comments!

    Rather than getting into a detailed response I am going to propose what I think is the key difference in our understanding of the logic of the Old Testament Torah, here. My suspicion is that we have a fundamentally different understanding on that point which is leading to the other disagreements. If that is the case, it would be pointless to discuss the details unless we have reached a consensus on the main point.

    So here is my theory: We have linked the concept of "salvation" with two different moments in the covenant. I have linked this concept with the liberation from Egypt and thus placed it at the beginning of the covenant. I think you have linked this with the blessing and cursing language at the end of the covenant, which on my model pertains to a "working out" of the covenant that has already been established.

    Part of the difficulty here might be that the concept of "salvation" is a bit less than helpful when dealing with the OT anyway, its more an NT word/concept. But what we both seem to want to do is maintain continuity between the OT and the NT, which is why that word made its way into the dialogue. So perhaps we need to jettison that term. To try and restate things differently: my interpretation works this way- first, the people are chosen as God's covenant people and rescued from slavery in Egypt; then the covenant is established; then the law is given, placing an obligation of obedience on the people; then the blessings and cursings are given as the "working out" of the people's faithfulness to their end of the covenant that already exists. My reading of the NT would follow a similar pattern, which I think the NPP does a good job of mirroring. As best I understand it, your reading of the OT seems to follow a pattern something like this: the law is given to demonstrate that the people cannot earn God's favor; the people do not earn God's favor; a new covenant is established via Christ. My resistance to this is that I don't think it is reading the OT on its own terms, it makes the OT depend on the NT to make sense.

  4. Alex,

    This clarification is much needed and I greatly appreciate you doing do. I would like to ask one question and we can go from there. Yes the law was given after the exodus but what do you do with Paul placing Abraham under the Law? I feel that the Law always excisted, and thus the curse of the Law was always there and humanity always needed God's grace to save them from the curse. More thoughts on these is more than welcomed.

    Happy New Year my good man,


  5. Nick,

    Can you tell me what passage you are thinking of in particular? I thought of Romans 4 because it talks about Abraham and circumcision, but when I looked at it again realized it actually goes against what you are claiming. There, Paul is making the point that the blessing is given to Abraham before he is circumcised (a sign of the law), which seems to follow my model of the OT. If you can tell me what passage you are thinking of I'll offer a more substantial answer.

    Happy New Year!

  6. Yes I was referring to Rom 4 and perhaps it's not saying what I thought it said. Give me sometime to do more research on the matter and I'll get back to you soon.

  7. Alex,

    Here is my understanding of part of Rom 4, which is Paul's illustration of justification (jt) by faith. The overall theme of the passage speaks to the issue of how Abraham was jt before the Law was given. On a side note, v2 speaks to the hypothetical solution, but even Paul states that this is not the point. V3 gives us the real reason for how Abraham was justified: That is Abraham believed in God and he was declared righteous. Also, Paul gives Scriptural support (Gen 15:6). I think that the crucial illusion Paul makes here is to Gen 26:5, where the elements of the Abrahamic covenant are repeated and the author states that Abraham keep the Law, which of course had not yet been established.

    I think you're missing the point and misinterpreting vv9-10. Remember that Abraham was jt in Gen 15 without being circumcised and that he was circumcised in Gen 17. Therefore, the Law (namely circumcision) are not a requirement for jt. That's the point Paul is making; namely one is not jt by doing works of the Law since Abraham was jt before the Law was given, who actually kept part of the Law before it was ever given (Gen 26:5).

    I hope this has been helpful and cleared away any confession. Remember my point is that the Law always excited and Abraham did obeyed part of it and was jt apart from it because only the gracious work of God can declare someone just and forgive sinners by faith of course.

  8. Nick,

    For the most part, I agree with your understanding of Romans 4, though there are a couple of nuances that I take differently. First, I want to avoid a kind of "gnosticizing" tendency that I think can easily be derived from reducing faith to "belief in" God. In the translation that I predominantly use (NRSV), v3 is translated as "Abraham believed God", not "believed in" with the implication being that the faith of Abraham was in God's words to him and not simply believing that God existed (remember James- even the demons believe that and shudder). So Abraham trusts God's promises, the implication (particularly in the Genesis narrative) being that he then acts in accordance with this trust, and this faith is credited as righteousness. Paul then contrasts this to the situation of one who works and whose wages are something "due" to them. The difference is, in other words, between someone to whom the wage is an obligation and someone to whom it is a gift or a reward. Seen in that light, I think the NPP understanding is very helpful. As you have said, the point of this is that Abraham is justified prior to the law being given. So his justification is a gift, not something to which God is obligated. Interestingly, he later receives circumcision "as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith"- in other words, the law follows from his justification, his being placed in covenant with God. So against the Judaizing tendency to see the law as the basis for justification, Paul wants to argue that the law follows from justification and not the other way around. Thus, the gentiles can be part of the covenant apart from the law because this covenant is a gift, not an obligation. This ties in with the conclusion of this section of the argument in verses 11 and 12.

    I'm not sure how Genesis 26:5 ties into your analysis. I don't see an illusion to that verse in Romans 4. Further, that verse is part of the covenant with Isaac, not Abraham, and there likewise may be a source-critical issue that impacts the meaning of that verse. Your interest in arguing that the law always existed seems to hinge on the use of this verse, however (though even that may be a proof-text). Based on my analysis of Romans 4, and yours apart from this purported illusion, I don't see any reason to claim that the law pre-existed the covenant. That seems to be the main point of difference between our understandings, so I would be interested in knowing if you can substantiate that claim a bit more clearly.

  9. Alex, 

    Thank you for your further comments. After I've given it more thought I must do a form of historical revisionism or just a simple matter of clarification. However, first of all Im not for sure about you translation of the verb pisteuō, which could mean have faith in, believe or trust (See Mounce for starters then move to Wallace and TDNTT). Yes pisteuō takes it direct object in the dative case and therefore the dative here is not indicating an indirect object but the verb can still be translated "have faith in."

    Now on to the issue of clarification concerning the law. Yes the law in it's form and presentation at Sinai has not always existed, but its  underlying principal has: God expects his people to live a life that reflects his ethical character. Therefore, there are expectations for humanity which are judged according to God's law, commandments and conditional covenants (see Gen 26:5 again and the narrative treatment of the kings). 

    Now does this in any way contradict the nature and character of God if he now expects his people to live in accordance with this Sinai law? I don't think so. All that is happening here is progressive revelation of God character to his people. 

  10. Nick,

    I am going to play with the semantics of your statement a little bit because I think that through that we can illustrate the heart of the difference between the New Perspective and the "traditional" understanding on this issue.

    So taking your statement, we are going to consider two emphasis:
    (i) God expects his people to live a life that reflects his ethical character.

    (ii) God expects his people to live a life that reflects his ethical character.

    My understanding is that the "traditional" interpretation puts primacy on the first emphasis. Thus, works are understood as attempts to live a life that reflects the divine character, to measure up to the expectation. This cannot be done by human efforts, therefore, a substitution is required for us to be justified, to be marked down in the divine ledger as having met the standard.

    The emphasis of the New Perspective reading follows the second statement. The divine expectation has to do with God's people. Justification has to do with being part of God's people, not with measuring up to the standard. That then leads to a life seeking, with the help of divine grace, to live according to the divine expectations. Thus, the law cannot be a means of justification because the law is actually the result of justification.

    Now, in terms of Romans 4 and the question of Abraham's relationship to the law, I think your statement is quite helpful. Certainly God expects his people to live in accordance with his character. Abraham, called by God, putting his faith in God, is one of God's people. The Old Testament strives to show that Abraham lived in accordance with God's character. I think it is likely that the final composition of the narratives about the Patriarchs post-dates the law, and so statements like Genesis 25:6 may serve more to show how the writer was attempting to portray Abraham as righteous to a people who already had the law than to make any statement about the pre-existence of the law as it is given at Sinai, per se. But your basic point, that Abraham lives in accordance with God's character stands. My rejoinder would be that this obedience is all after his calling. It is after Abraham becomes God's chosen person that he strives to obey God. Hence, as Paul says, it is not Abraham's works that save him. Rather, his works are a response to his being "saved" (or blessed to follow the narrative more closely).

  11. Alex,

    I first would like to share with you that I have purchased and thus been listening to the lectures of the 2010 ETS annual meeting that they are quite fantastic (Might I comment on the plenary sessions being most delightful). If you come to visit sometime this summer we will surely take a day to listen to and discuss them together. I would greatly enjoy and look forward to it. Also note that I will comment to your response in waves due to character limitation (For the love man!).

    Now, I think you have clearly stated and emphasized the main quarrel I have with the NPP; namely the strict emphasis placed on the justification (jt) language only referring to God’s declaration that one is in the covenant (Therefore, one has made jt primarily ecclesiological and not soteriological). Is that what you are saying? Is that all jt means?

    Next, I will offer a brief critique of such a limitation of the jt language so that we can discuss it in greater detail when the time comes. However, I first wish to comment briefly on your two different emphases pertaining to a statement of mine. Before I delve into such matters, I need to point out that the NPP has the tendency to place primary importance on secondary matters. As you have stated, “The divine expectation has to do with God's people.” However, I feel that you are making the secondary more important than the primary; namely making the people of God more important than the ethical character of God. Do you feel that the Biblical narratives illustrate such an understanding? As you have probably figured out I think not, thus most of the questions I ask you are rhetorical in nature; however, I still desire your response. I do believe that the narratives place more emphases upon the divine expectation which refers to God’s nature and character in dealing with his covenantal people. Yes there are aspects of Wright’s understanding of jt and Law present in Scripture, but again it is simply not the force of the literature.

    I would like to give you an example from Justification. By the way, have you read it?

    Hear Wright say this:

    “He [Piper] sees it [God’s righteous] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns…to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture…is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love…for the flourishing and well-being of everything else…God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely.” (Justification, 70).

    As you can see, I believe Wright puts so much importance on the means to the end, that he makes the means the end. Namely, the free and glad praises and glories of man to God have become the end. However, I feel that such an end begs the question of why. Why does man freely and gladly praise and glorify God? Well because God is the highest conceivable being. In other words, Wright has not grounded his argumentation, for his end still points to something much greater and more important than man’s worship. How can the praises of man toward God be the end if their praises in fact point to a God who most rightly deserves the flourishing creation’s worship and is the reason and result of why creation flourishes to begin with? Is this not the true end of all creation and purpose of man? Yes the purpose and plan for creation and namely man is to honor and glorify God, but it’s because God deserves it and is the highest conceivable being. In other words, the end is still the nature and character, the divine being and aesthetic beauty of God, which man praises.

  12. Finally onto my main problem with the NPP: The meaning of the rt of God (Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge problem with their rejection of Christ’s rt being imputed, but that is another debate for a later date). First of all I find it crucial to restate that the rt of God and the jt language are related to the issue of soteriology and not solely that of ecclesiology (While there are elements of it found there in). That is the rt of God is closely associated with how God is to save, deliver, or rescue his people from their destruction. I agree with N.T. Wright’s view on the matter (Namely that the righteousness of God refers to God’s faithfulness to his covenantal promises); however, is that all it refers to? Yes the righteousness of God is his character and covenantal faithfulness, but it is also a reference to how God saves and justifies the ungodly.

    Note, I am not equating the verbs to save (sw÷zw) and to justify or vindicate (dikaiovw), but I do wish to briefly state their close relationship. The verb to save refers to one being delivered or rescued whereas the verb to justify refers to one being declared in the right before God (Whether one is acquitted or condemned, pardoned or found guilty). Therefore, the soteriological connection between the two verbs is that they refer to the eschatological condition of the individual. These verbs are necessarily soteriological terms, and then one’s ecclesiological implications follow. I find that the texts allow this most effective understanding in order then to move on to matters of ecclesiology (Which follows necessarily I might add). Such a methodology is initiated and highlighted in other arenas of systematic/biblical theology; namely everything one believes theologically stems from their beliefs concerning theology proper.

    Now for my one example in order to respond to Wright on this matter and prove that the text best accommodates my understanding. It seems that Romans 1:17 will be my weapon of choice and if you would have liked for me to have used another than perhaps another time. I have chosen it mainly because Wright has spent a great deal of time on this verse (See mainly his commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible and his book entitled Justification). I would first like to make a comment regarding Wright’s rhetoric concerning his understanding of the reference of “God’s righteousness.” Hear him for yourself pertaining to his argument for 1:17, “unless the scholars of any time had lost their moorings completely,…nobody would have supposed the ‘God’s righteousness’ was anything other than his faithfulness to the covenant, to Israel, and beyond that again to the whole creation.” (178)

    I will lastly defer to Bird’s delightful comments on the issue of rhetoric in good healthy debate, but allow me first to give my own thoughts. Such rhetoric is characteristic of what you will find throughout the book; namely Wright speaking in absolute terms. Through Wright’s claims concerning people having lost their moorings since they disagree with him, is both very unbecoming of the good former bishop and stifles genuine dialogue because it belittles his exegetical opponents. This ‘my way or the highway’ language has no place in exegetical debate. Also take notice of Bird on the topic as he addresses the rhetoric in his own camp, which is contra Wright: “The rhetoric [must] be toned down. There is little to gain [from it]…and there is no reason to think that they are the only two games playing in town.” (The Saving Righteousness of God, 67) Bird is referring to the idea of you’re either with me or against me, and that’s the only option. That mindset is of course wrong and no good debate can be fostered from it.

  13. So now let’s dive into the glorious text of 1:17.

    Wright provides support for his understanding of God’s rt being his faithfulness to the covenant with three statements: 1) Rom 1:16-17 does not define the gospel, but speaks about the effects of the gospel; 2) Both Jews and Gentiles are ones who are saved; and 3) The use of Hab 2:4 in v. 17 refers to divine judgment which is grounded in divine faithfulness (181-82). Also note that Wright wishes to claim that Rom 1:3-4 gives us a more clearer picture of the gospel; however, there is much debate and dispute about this since these verse could very well be an embedded hymn that Paul would have corrected theologically. Again, it seems that Rom 1:16-17 best explains the theme of Romans.

    I am not for sure how his first two statements contribute to his view, but he third is most clear. As a result I will spend most of my time here looking into the meaning and reference of Hab 2:4 in it original context, the LXX and that of Rom 1:17.

    I feel that Wright’s exegesis of Hab 2:4 plays a bit fast and loose with the text. As you know, he argues that Hab contends for faith among God’s people, and that 2:4 is referring to God’s faithfulness. However, where is this faithfulness mentioned in Hab 2? It might seem best for Wright to base his argument on the LXX; however, is the text saying what Wright thinks it say? Moreover, what text is Paul basing his argument on? Also, what text is Wright basing his argument on?

    As you know the issue involved here is the difference between the Hebrew text (MT), the LXX and Paul’s treatment in Romans. The MT states “The righteous [man] shall live by his faith.” As you can see the MT speaks to the faithfulness by which the righteous live, but does not necessarily refer to the divine faithfulness that Wright speaks of (if you will again allow me to end with a preposition). The MT should be in effect restating Lev. 18:5 (“the one who does them shall live by them”). In other words, it indicates what the rt of the covenant member was: It was by his faith or faithfulness that he observed the Law and lived by it. With this I could very well be stating that the idea of covenantal nomism existed, but for clarification I do not believe that that is all that has existed. Even Dunn has done some historical revisionism and thus said that that was not all that existed but was in fact there in the thinking of early Jews.

    Also the LXX differs from the MT and thus reads “The just shall live by my faith.” As I stated earlier, this text might provide Wright with the best support for his argument, but does it clearly refer to God’s faithfulness. It could mean “faith in me” (that is God), since pisteuw can take it’s direct object in the dative and be translated as trust, belief, or faith in. Therefore, I do not believe that the issue is as clear cut as Wright wishes it were, or states that it is.

    As for Paul’s citation in Rom he has left out both the third person indicator found in the MT and the first person pronoun my (mou) found in the LXX and simply states “The righteous shall live by faith” (evk pivstewV). Therefore, it seems best that Paul’s basis for his argument brings out an aspect of the gospel and something in Hab that was overlooked: Faithfulness to YHWH can only come about by faith in YHWH. One is not faithful to God unless they believe, trust, have faith in him (see the meaning of the verb pisteuw). As a result, I do not find any evidence concerning the MT, the LXX, and the Pauline text in that there is a reference to the faithfulness of God toward his covenant people. It is important to state that there is a difference in the nuance between Hab and Paul (Namely Hab is referring to the faithfulness of man, while Paul is referring to the faith of man), but neither one is speaking of God’s faithfulness.

  14. Remember that the point in all of this was to show how the “rt of God” is not always limited to God’s faithfulness to his covenant. Also remember that I am not saying that this aspect of God’s rt cannot be found in Paul, but it’s simply not as limited as Wright would wish it to be. Also, I have noticed that the Greek did not transfer over into the blog. So if you would like to have it I can email it to you.

    I hope that this has met you well, and that I have not offended you in any way. Also, note that this treatment is in no way complete but speaks more to the issue of the debate: What does Scripture say? In order to productively move forward with such a debate we must examine the witness and testimony of Scripture as it is the place where God has spoken and said something about who he is and who we are in light of who he is.

    Be blessed by friend,


  15. Nick,

    Enjoyed reading all of that, some very good points made and some interesting issues raised. The main body of your argument dives into the realm of Greek exegesis, which unfortunately is a bit outside of my area of expertise since I hardly read Greek. However, I do want to respond to what I think to be more significant issues raised in the discussion that I am more competent to discuss, issues relating to the relationship of Hebrew and Greek thought and related to questions of theological methodology.

    One of your chief points is that the NPP has changed justification from an issue of Soteriology to one of Ecclessiology. That may be an oversimplification. I think what the NPP is arguing is that these things are much more closely related in the ancient mindset than in the modern one. Even in Church history we see this- Augustine maintains that outside the Church (Ecclessiology) there can be no salvation, a sentiment that he is taking from numerous Church Fathers before him. That continues to be the official stance of Christianity until the Reformation (after which it still is the Catholic stance, but Protestant churches offer different Soteriological models that do not contain such a strong Ecclessiology). The NPP is arguing that such was the understanding of ancient Judaism as well- outside the "Law" there can be no salvation. Paul is arguing to correct this to instead read "outside the Covenant there can be no salvation" where Covenant is read "inclusion in Christ" not "inclusion in the Law" which is actually a result of the Covenant at Sinai. What the NPP wants to argue is that the distinction of Ecclessiology and Soteriology in such a way that Soteriology becomes independent of and prior to Ecclessiology is a modern distinction that is a result of the Reformation, not a distinction present in the Ancient Church or the New Testament. In light of this, merely asserting that the NPP is majoring on the minors is not a sufficient argument, you need to demonstrate that the distinction is not just a product of the Reformation.

  16. (Part 2)

    Part of this "Reformation distinction" is a particularly strong emphasis on the ethical character of God, as you have outlined. This is the famous Calvinist emphasis on God's glory. I want to be very careful what I say here. I do not want in any way to take away from the glory of God. However, what I want to suggest is that the conception of God's glory presented by many of the Reformed tradition is more Greek than Hebrew. For instance, your use of the phrase "the highest conceivable being" (HCB) to describe God is a phrase taken straight from Greek philosophy (specifically Neo-Platonism), philosophy that was being "rediscovered" by the Humanist movement that significantly influenced many of the Reformers, especially Calvin. Now, yes, I am aware of many similarities between Hebrew and Greek thought. And yes, I am aware that the Old Testament praises God as higher than any other creature and attributes many actions to God's desire for his own glory. What I want to suggest, however, is that the definition of what would constitute the HCB would be very different in Hebrew thought than in Greek. The way God is portrayed in the Old Testament simply does not mesh with the Greek idea of a completely transcendent, unmovable HCB. The God of the Old Testament has more in common with the gods of the Homeric myths (meaning how God is portrayed in anthropomorphic terms, not his ethical character) than the HCB of Neo-Platonism. This was a significant part of the struggle between Greco-Roman philosophers and early Christian apologists.

    So again, what I am not suggesting is that God is not the highest being. What I am suggesting is that what we mean by "highest conceivable being" is not always the same in every culture. The Calvinist conception of what constitutes the HCB may in fact be more indebted to Neo-Platonism than to scripture (particularly the OT), and if that is the case then this certainly colors the reading of Paul. This is why I think it is important to read the scriptures as building on one another, starting with the OT and reading Paul through that lens rather than reading the OT through the lens of our understanding of Paul.

    To discuss the Righteousness of God issue in brief: I would probably not stand by Wright in interpreting that phrase as always having to do with God's covenant faithfulness, though this is certainly a very important concept related to that phrase. In so far as I can tell, I do not seriously object to anything in your exegesis of Hab. 4 or Romans 1 here.

  17. Alex,

    This is quite the excellent follow-up in that you have give some much needed clarification as to the importance of the relationship between ecclesiology and soteriology, pertaining to one’s understanding of jt. I would first like to state that I most certainly agree with you comments there. Please note that I stated such a close correlation between the two exists, but would like to clarify that it starts with soteriology and ends with ecclesiology. That is to say that one gets their ecclesiology from their soteriology.

    Also, I would like to thank you for your comments on the notation of God being the HCB, and how such a statement relates to one’s understanding of God in the OT as related with that of the NT. I admire your commitment to unlock the NT through the key of the OT. Excellent stuff there! I do however hope that there is room in the OT for my Hellenistic or Greco-Roman understanding of God as the HCB (As you have alluded to the most basic meaning of God being the HCB in the OT and what that may look like). Don’t get me wrong here in that I wish to reread the OT in light of Paul, other NT writers, and/or Hellenistic or Greco-Roman philosophy, but I do wish to find and establish the ground work for such a NT understanding, which would in fact find its roots in the OT. Consequently, this has given me something to do and thus spend a little more time on for future studies.

    Lastly, I hope this is not the last blog where you and I will have a spirited and healthy discussion, but until then be blessed,


    P.S. Feel free to continue to follow-up with me on anything we have talked about.


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