Monday, September 21, 2009

Romans Reading Reprise: Wright's Justification, Watson's Paul, etc.

I successfully crossed two books off my Romans Reading list this summer, and made progress on a few others. N.T. Wright's Justification I read in July, and thoroughly enjoyed. Wright is a big picture scholar, who talks in memorable images. His determination to find a way to keep the whole in view, and to explain all the evidence is exemplary. I found myself wanting to agree with his model because it combines a mostly sympathetic portrayal of first century Judaism with a coherent reading of Paul that makes good sense of much of the evidence. I particularly liked Wright's emphasis on the resurrection and realized eschatology, and its implications for Israel. His discussion of the role of the Spirit in connection with present and future judgement is rich and helpful (pp. 152-3, 188).

It should come as no surprise that I wasn't completely persuaded by Wright's theory of a continuing exile. As to the central issue in Wright's response to John Piper, I am not convinced that justification means covenant membership or that 'righteousness of God' is limited to God's covenant faithfulness (Wright insists that defining righteousness as covenant faithfulness is not a limitation). I don't for that reason agree with Piper, whose book I haven't read. Following Stephen Westerholm, I take 'justification' as primarily a forensic term that means 'acquittal.'

My sense is that readers familiar with Wright will find little that is new here, though perhaps he gives a little ground to his critics. Still, Justification is an excellent, succinct, readable introduction to Wright on Paul for the uninitiated, and there is much that can be learned even if one is not finally persuaded by Wright's model.

Wright has come in for the kind of personal attack that would make the reformers proud and should make their heirs ashamed, so I will limit myself to one comment on the good bishop's sometimes overblown rhetoric: Wright deconstructs the new perspective, showing that there is considerable variety in its major proponents (Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright), but he then uses the term repeatedly with himself as its chief representative. The effect is to lump representatives of the old perspective together when there is equal variety there as well. Note too that "Lutheran" does not mean Lutheran.

I found Francis Watson's, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), which has 5 chapters on Romans, much more exciting and helpful than Wright's Justification, although I am not persuaded in the end by Watson's central sociological thesis--that Paul wrote Romans to convince Jewish Christ-believers to separate completely from the synagogue and join Paul's sectarian, mostly Gentile churches. Especially helpful is Watson's distinction between dynamic and static views of grace. Pardon (or skip over) the long quote:
In this book, it is acknowledged that divine agency plays a more direct and immediate role in the Pauline 'pattern of religion' than in the Judaism Paul opposes. . . . .The difference between the two arises from the fact that membership of the Jewish community is dependent on birth, whereas membership of a Pauline community is dependent on conversion. Any religious group which proclaims the necessity of conversion is likely to emphasize the distinction between the old life and the new. . . . Such groups take a dynamic view of God's grace, and this contrasts with the more static view of grace taken by groups in which membership is determined by birth. . . . The two 'patterns of religion' are different, but we should not conclude from Paul's juxtaposition of 'grace' and 'law' that they are equal and opposite. In a certain sense, they are incommensurable. We are not to imagine them as opposite ends of a spectrum, such that we might in principle start from one end and eventually arrive at the other. Pauline antithesis represents a chasm, not the opposite ends of a continuum. . . . This emphasis on the dynamic Pauline view of grace is incompatible with the New Perspective's claim that the two 'patterns of religion' exemplify a single soteriological schema, according to which we are saved by grace but must confirm our membership in the covenant by obedience. If there is any truth in this equation, it is at too high a level of abstraction to be interesting" (15-17).
Other notes: Daniel Kirk's Unlocking Romans: Resurrection And The Justification Of God still reads like a dissertation, but the conclusion is good enough that it made me decide to go back and pick up where I left off (somewhere in Romans 4). I also perused Simon Gathercole's Where Is Boasting?and wished I had more time for Lampe. And I moved from Romans 3 to Romans 6 in Barth's commentary.


Loren Rosson III said...

I agree that Watson's book is very fine. You may enjoy my review of it.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the review, Loren. I found it a bit ironic that Watson places such theological weight on reconstructing the historical context in the appendix, when I found his own reconstruction unpersuasive in the end.