Tuesday, August 05, 2014

N.T. Wright Helping To Put the Story of the Law Back Together: Failure of Torah - Part 1a

26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ ...15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…. 25 “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies… 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth… you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you… 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually… 36 “The LORD will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known…. 47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart…48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you… 64 “And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone… - from Deuteronomy 27 and 28

Recently, I noted in a conversation with an old friend on Facebook that the typical protestant evangelical idea of faith vs. works was wearing thin on me because of my in depth study of N.T. Wright. My friend messaged me that he was curious to hear what Wright said in that regard. The following, then, was not my answer as it was given, exactly, because there was conversation involved, but this was the gist of it, with significantly more detail. I should add, as well, that, more generally than in my conversation with this specific friend, Wright – in particular and especially his book The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology - has helped me sort through a number of questions. First, however, N.T. Wright has helped me put together in my mind a story and picture of scripture that makes much more sense to me than any understanding I had previously concerning Christ, the Law, and their relationship. Initially, I will try to summarize how that picture has come together for me. I will then address how that synthesis can help shine light on the contemporary evangelical church.

N.T. Wright basically says that, if we base our emphasis on what Paul was really saying, then the emphasis we tend to place on "works vs. faith" is misplaced. Taking his cue from the scriptural story of the covenant, N.T. Wright says that Paul - in Galatians 3: 10-22, for example, is not saying that “works based morality” leads to death. Although that idea, as we evangelicals tend to understand it, has a place in what Paul is saying, if that is the beginning and end of what we say, then it is a highly generalized and decontexualized version of what is Paul says. Instead, as part of the story of the covenant, Paul is saying that faith was the original basis of the covenant with Abraham and a world wide people of God was the primary end goal of said covenant. Torah, both by misuse by the Jews and according to its original giving, was unable to live up to the promises and purpose of the original covenant.

Romans 4: 13 is, as far as I know, where this idea of the establishment of a world wide people of God is most explicit in Paul: For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. There is an important aspect of this verse that I had never noticed before Wright pointed it out, which is what it does not say. It does not refer to Abraham and his offspring as heir of “the land”, or of the land referred to as Canaan at the time when the promise was given to Abraham. Instead, Paul refers to Abraham and his offspring as inheriting – ruling – the whole world. In other words the people of God is a world wide people of God. This shift from canaan to the whole earth was a shift from old covenant to new. There were clues to this original intention of forming a worldwide people of God in the old covenant, as well. For example, see Gen 17: 4: Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations…

According to Wright, Torah was like an interlude that could not fulfill that original purpose of the covenant. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 3: 11. The basis for seeing the truth of this inability of the Torah to fulfill the covenant is the observable public fact of the ongoing political exile of the Jews by the Romans, despite having returned to the land promised. This ongoing state of exile is an exile of the Jews as a collective people rather than as any individually sinning Jew. An individual Jew could go to the Temple and perform an atoning sacrifice for an individual sin if need be. Exile, however, is the publically observable fact of the curse spoken by Torah upon the collective people to whom Torah was given (Galatians 3: 10, 21). In addition, this state of ongoing exile was not thought of as territorial but as political. Very few Jews of the time would have disagreed with what Wright is saying was part of Paul’s background idea here, which is that Israel was still under exile as long as they were ruled by the likes of Pilate and Herod. The small group of Jews who would have disagreed with this idea was the Essenes, an esoteric group who shunned any and all political power in the first place.

Deuteronomy 27-30 is the primary place to which Paul is referring when he makes reference to the "curse pronounced by the Torah” there in Galatians 3: 10 and 13. The “pronouncing” is made explicit in Deut. 27: 12-15:

12 “When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice:

15 “‘Cursed be the man who…And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’

The specific curses are then “pronounced” throughout various places in Deuteronomy 27-30. Obedience means and leads to blessing, and disobedience means and leads to curses. The primary curses, specifically stated there and quoted at the beginning of this blog post, are exile and death.

Jesus took those curses - that exile at the hands of the oppressors - to its climax. In other words, Jesus took the curses proclaimed by Torah (or “the Torah”) to their (“its”) fulfillment. He took them to their “end”, their “completion,” you could say. Using the covenantal story as your cue, you could also say Jesus took the curses of the law to their “climax”, hence the title of N.T. Wright’s book on the topic. The Greek word used there is “telos”. According to Strong’s biblical Concordance, this word telos means:
properly, consummation (the end-goal, purpose), such as closure with all its results.

[This root (tel-) means "reaching the end (aim)." It is well-illustrated with the old pirate's telescope, unfolding (extending out) one stage at a time to function at full-strength (capacity effectiveness).]

This, according to Wright, is precisely what Paul means by the “end of the Law” in Romans 10: 4: For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. And, this reading of the word “end” should be figured into other places where Paul refers to the “end” of the law, as well, such as through the second half of Galatians 3 and into Galatians 4, or even Romans 4: 13: For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

So how, exactly, did Jesus take the law to its “climax”? He did this by, as King and, thus representative, of the Jews, dying as a shamed criminal in the eyes of and according to the law of the Romans, the oppressors of the Jews. This is an idea that is not explicitly stated by Paul but is supported by a number of points. For one, this idea of a redemptive Messiah serving as a representative (and thus redeemer and vindicator) of his people, the Jews, was, as a matter of historical fact, a common conception of the Messiah at the time (point taken more from What St. Paul Really Said, as well as The Challenge of Jesus, both by N.T. Wright). Secondly, this was just how people thought in ancient times. There are still traces of this today in how we identify ourselves with – as examples - political candidates or parties, or even with brands of clothing and accessories.

The scriptures also have a couple of samples where this kind of thinking shows itself. One of those examples is when some Israelites, as David makes his way back to Jerusalem after Absolom’s uprising, leave David, saying they don’t want to identify themselves with him.

So, in other words, because this shameful and public death at the hands of the oppressors of the Jews was inflicted upon the man who represented Israel as their King, the curses pronounced upon Israel in Deuteronomy – curses of, primarily, death and (not only territorial) exile - reached their full potential, power, concentration, and most perfect and complete expression there at the Cross. The Romans and their act of crucifixion of the representative of the Jews embodied the Torah’s “curses” of exile and death and, thus, served as agents of the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan withinin history. Paul does make implicit reference to this idea when mentioning sharing in the suffering of Christ or in teaching about a number of forms of sacrificial and self-giving love.

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