Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Justification - 4: covenant

Justification includes people within and defines the people of God.

So far what we have covered is not too controversial within a Protestant understanding of justification by faith. We must now move onto more contentious issues which would lie at the heart of the various New Perspectives on Paul, and the Wrightian view in particular.

It must be noted that most of the passages which talk about justification can be found within the letters to the Galatians and Romans. In both of these letters there are serious issues to do with Jewish-Gentile relationships. In Galatians, for example, Paul's opponents seem to be saying that in order for the Gentile Galatians to enter the covenant people and inherit the promises of Abraham they must be circumcised (the men anyway!), and submit to the 'works of the law', in other words they must become Jewish. No, argues Paul, Gentile Christians can be full members of the people of God because of Jesus, the faithful Jewish Messiah, and through faith in him.

As Longenecker says ‘The issue being debated in Galatia was not the question of more modern, individualistic forms of Christian theology: “How can I, a sinner, be saved by a just God? Is it by my works or by my faith?” Instead, the issue is one of covenant theology.’ 1.

The story of God's covenant with Abraham is massively important in Wright's understanding of justification. Wright believes that Paul, in his use of scripture, is invoking a whole narrative, the story of the covenant family of Abraham. This story is the background, especially, he argues to the third chapter of Galatians. The purpose of the covenant was always to deal with sins and bring God’s blessing to the world. The dilemma was that the people who God had chosen to be the means of this blessing were themselves part of the problem. As a nation they had incurred the Deuteronomic curse of exile, a situation which was ongoing in the 1st century, the Romans having continued the oppression of previous overlords. Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah had taken the curse onto himself thus bringing about the climax of the covenant and the end of exile. The blessing could now flow to the Gentiles.2. Following the climax of the covenant and the end of exile, according to the prophets, comes covenant renewal. Membership of the covenant people is now through inclusion in Christ, which is through faith by the Spirit. God's faithfulness to his covenant is seen as being high up on the list of meanings for 'the righteousness of God.' If all this sounds unfamiliar, it is probably because the covenant with Abraham, the story of Israel and the Jew/Gentile issues were routinely ignored in older discussions of justification.

Wright argues that justification is not a matter of how one enters the covenant community, but how you can tell someone is a member. It is not so much how one is saved (soteriology) but how the people of God are defined (ecclesiology). The dichotomy between soteriology and ecclesiology is a false one, as we shall see.

The corporate dimension of justification stresses the importance of Christian unity for Paul. It was crucial for Paul that there should be no divisions in the church along ethnic, racial or cultural lines -'there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

We have touched on many puzzles which are connected to the New Perspective debates on justification. What is meant by 'works of the law'? Is it faith in Christ or the faithfulness of Christ? What is understood by the 'righteousness of God', and our 'righteous' status within this covenantal framework? How do the law-court image and the covenant story fit together? First we must look at the fourth of our quadrant of headings for understanding justification. Justification is present and future. It is eschatological.

1. Longenecker, 1998, 106
2. Wright, 1991, 137-174. Not many scholars have followed Wright’s curse=‘extended exile’ thesis see e.g. B. Longenecker, 1998, 137-139


Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

'Eschatological' is a mighty fine word, and I'm glad to have learnt it. It sort of combines theology with scatology, and I don't think there's enough of that.

Just wondering - who do you fancy for the Cup this season?

Jon said...