Monday, December 1, 2008

All I Want for Christmas is for Tom Wright to Finish the Fourth Volume in Christian Origins and the Question of God... (part 2)

By Jeff Bruce

In light of the comment made by Chris in the meta of last week's post, this whole series seems a tad trivial. We will have to wait until at least 2010 to read Wright's definitive work on Paul. Yet, while my series may not convince Tom to pen his Paul book in the next 23 days, it will provide - I hope - some exegetical grist for your theological mill...or something like that. With that, here's my second question for N.T.

Question 2. Why do you describe Paul's problem primarily in terms of ecclesiology? Wright consistently identifies the problem Paul addresses as ecclesiological in nature [see What St. Paul Really Said, 113-133; Paul in Fresh Perspective, 159-160]. He correctly posits that the Jew/Gentile conflict was an important issue within Paul’s churches; but was it the basic problem besetting these believers? Paul states that the meta-issue for humanity (Jew and Gentile alike) is God’s wrath against sin. Everyone fails to give God the glory he is due (Rom 3:23), and therefore all are liable to judgment. Nowhere is this clearer than in Romans 5, where Paul casts justification against the backdrop of humanity's two representative heads; Adam and Christ. Humanity-in-Adam is characterized by condemnation, while humanity-in-Christ experiences justification (5:16, 18). If one sees the ecclesiological schisms within the house churches as Paul’s primary concern, then justification will provide the answer to this sort of problem (i.e. it will be an ecclesiological solution). However, if Paul’s concern - albeit entailing ecclesiological elements - is more universal in scope (e.g. the plight of rebellious Adamic humanity), then justification will provide the answer to a more cosmic and soteriological problem. I do not think Wright is entirely off course in this regard. Rather, I question whether the explanatory force of his analysis has sufficient breadth to account for all the facets of Paul's teaching.

Take "works of the law" as a case in point. Paul denies that justification is by works of the law (Gal 2:16; Rom 3:20). The phrase certainly has something to do with possession of the law. The Jews were estranging Gentiles in the house churches through boasting in their covenantal distictives; particulary those distinctives which marked them out from the Gentiles. Therefore, there is an ecclesiogical problem. However, works of the law can denote not just possession of the law, but performance as well (cf. Rom 3:20; 4:5). Therefore, Paul also envisages the problem as soteriological. Paul denies justification via works of the law not just because the churches are in a tight spot, but because humanity-in-Adam does not have the requisite ability to obey God's commands. Because Wright starts off with the wrong problem (or at least, a reductionistic understanding thereof), he misdiagnoses the meaning of the solution. Justification is Paul’s answer to the human dilemma, not merely the Jew/Gentile dilemma.


azk said...

Great posts. I remember back in 1992 and first reading NTPG and being told that JVG would be out the following year. Well, it came out in 1996, only to discover that the resurrection had to wait...until 2003. "Remember the endurance of Job."

I think Wright has a point in saying that Paul's concerns are ecclesiological because righteousness of God language appears in communities (Galatia, Rome) where membership in God's people is at issue. When Paul addresses cosmic concerns, he writes letters like Ephesians and Colossians.

I promise to write Santa a letter. And even though I believe I've been nice rather than naughty, I'm not holding out any hope for things progressing faster.

Jeffrey Bruce said...

Thanks azk,

I certainly think Paul addresses ecclesiological problems in his letters, and Wright has done much to draw our attention to these issues. It seems Paul also uses these problems as a springboard to address underlying anthropological/soteriological issues which heavily influence his teaching on justification. This is what I would like Wright to discuss in greater detail.

Great point about historical precedent and the books in this series. I guess I shouldn't be surprised if this one doesn't come out for quite some time.