Continuing my series on NT Wright’s latest book, Justification, I promised to address the issue of Covenant. Wright chooses (starting at p. 71) Calvin over Luther, doing Luther a disservice, in my opinion. The difference between the 2, as Wright paints it, is that Luther saw Moses “as the bad guy” (ridiculous, of course, as Moses was just the messenger) while Calvin pictured the Torah as “the way of life for a people already redeemed.”
While Wright is, I think, at least partially correct in seeing the Mosaic Law within the context of the prior Abrahamic Covenant, I think he is a big myopic to cast Israel as having been already “redeemed” at that point. The Exodus is obviously metaphorical (I don’t mean to imply it didn’t happen) of a greater redemption, but I don’t think Israel’s escape from Egypt qualifies them as having been already redeemed. In fact, I can see no justification (again, pun intended) for this claim, and Wright provides none. One of the big critiques of this book is that Wright doesn’t support many of his claims, he just expects people to except them at face value.
The clear fact is – and Paul is clear on this – that there was no real redemption at that point. There was the covenant promise, which was and is being fulfilled in Christ. I would agree with Wright that the Law was more or less a “covenant charter” – but not given to a “people already redeemed.” They had been saved from one master, but were in no manner “redeemed” in the Pauline sense.
Wright also got a bit under my skin on page 112 with his comment about Luther’s “wonderful and deeply flawed commentary on Galatians.” Wright disappoints over and over in this book with these off the cuff comments, casting mild insults upon any who don’t have his viewpoint. I don’t think that Luther imagined that Paul was fighting off the Roman church – though he was perceptive enough to identify both Rome and the Anabaptists as having fallen into the same error as the Circumcizers, turning from grace to works of men.
Here, Wright starts to reveal his – in my opinion – greatest error: He sees justification mainly in terms of breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile. For Wright, the primary Pauline issue is community. At this, I still have to shake my head in surprise; to me this is as far off as liberation theology. Talking about Paul, Wright states (page 115):
He is talking about ethnic identity, and about the practices that go with that. And he is about to show that in the gospel this ethnic identity is dismantled, so that a new identity may be constructed …
So when Paul says that “we are not justified by works of the law” he is talking about being part of God’s one people. He admits that “justified” is a lawcourt term, but he states (p 116) “But Paul is not talking about lawcourt, he is at a dinner table.”
I think Wright may have forgotten what the Letter to Galatians is all about. Paul is not talking about dinner here, he is talking about circumcision! This is not about fellowship, this is about giving in to demands of the Torah as opposed to the Gospel (remember the Gospel?). So sin is not the problem here, it is fellowship. He goes on (p 117) to say that Paul’s reference to “Gentile sinners” was a cultural reference, not referring to any real moral issues. Thus, Luther’s “simul lustus et peccator” (simultaneously saint and sinner) is way off base.
Unless, of course, one is to simply read Galatians and take it on its face.
For Wright, righteousness “denotes the status enjoyed by God’s true family.” Justification, then, “denotes the verdict of God himself as to who really is a member of his people.”
Wright doesn’t totally deny that the problem of the law is an issue, however he relegates this to a “subtheme.” I will conclude with this section from page 123:
But the problem is not simply that the law condemns (though it does), shows up sin (though it does) or indeed encourages people into self-righteous “legalism” … The problem is that the law gets in the way of the promise to Abraham, …by threatening to divide the promised single family into two.