Wednesday, August 06, 2014

N.T. Wright Helping To Put the Story of the Law Back Together Part 2: Vindication of Torah

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. – Romans 7: 4

To recap, then, where I left off at the last blog post. Torah was an interlude in the original purpose and giving of the covenant (2 Corinthians 3: 11). If Torah could not possibly give life in the first place, and if Torah pronounces the curses of exile and death upon its disobedient recipients who misused Torah (one of their primary disobedient acts), then how could the original promise and purpose of the covenant be fulfilled? How could the blessings of the promise reach the nations? How could one people of the one God be formed? The somewhat obvious answer to Christian ears, of course, is Christ’s death on the cross. N.T. Wright, however, reframes the meaning of it in a way that we are not used to. Christ – representative King of God’s people - took the particular curses of death and exile (and inter-related oppression by Gentiles) pronounced by the law unto himself, by becoming them. In Galatians 3: 13-14, “us” refers to the Jews to whom the Law was given. Thus, it relates to those Jews who were, otherwise, if without Christ, bound to the curses of their Torah:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

And - because Christ was still acting as representative King of those Jews who would have otherwise still been under the curses of death, exile, and oppression pronounced by Torah when he overcame them by rising after dying at the hands of Israel’s oppressors - the blessings of the original covenant could spread to the Gentiles without the curses of the Torah getting in the way. He became the “vessel of wrath” as well as of mercy and blessing (Romans 9: 22-23). Thus, one of the primary end goals of the original covenant with Abraham - a world wide people of the one true God - could happen. It became the glory of the church (Romans 9: 23, as well as 2 Corinthians 3)!

Part of the Jewish misuse of the Torah was to identify it as the mark of the people of God. Paul’s point is that, instead, the mark of this people of God is faith, and not Torah, since Torah can't possibly be the mark. In light of the oppressive and hypocritical rule of Herod and Pilate, Torah obviously leads to curses of exile and death, – a situation understood by publicly observable and obvious fact. According to Wright, Torah also leads to the concentration of the sin of Adam onto Israel in the form of “national/racial righteousness” (and it’s consequences, which we might describe as political). Taken in and of itself, this concentration of sin upon Israel makes a world wide family of God impossible, but in Christ, it allows the fulfillment of Torah and resulting blessings for Jews and Gentiles alike.

This idea of faith rather than Torah being the mark of God’s one worldwide people is the point of Galatians 3: 23-29:

23 Now before faith came, we [the Jews] were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

This phrase “justified by faith” in the context of faith being the mark of the people of God raises an additional idea that N.T. Wright discusses in numerous places, including in The Climax of the Covenant. According to Wright, any time Paul uses the root of the Greek word for “justification,” he is referring to “membership in the covenant people of God.” As Deuteronomy 29: 10-13 says, You are standing today all of you before the LORD your God…that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Needless to say, this is not the way we normally think of “justification,” which is usually defined for us by a fragmented, systematic theology that is not the coherent story that Paul was telling and from which Paul drew. That fragmented, systematic theology emphasizes individualized substitutionary atonement as dying and going to heaven while the earth goes up in flames rather than inherited resurrection promise that comes with the call of the Spirit to join in the glory of the one people of the one God who will vindicate that people when, in the end, all things are made right.

Here is how another webpage – “Justice and ‘dike’ in Ancient Greek” - describes the extra-scriptural Greek use of the word “dike” – which we translate as “justice”:

“Translations of Ancient Greek sources, especially those by Plato, usually translate the Greek word δίκη (dike) as ‘justice’. It is important to note when reading Plato and other Ancient Greek sources that the modern English word ‘justice’ has a history full of meanings and connotations that did not exist in ancient Greece.

Instead, the Ancient Greek word dike means something like behaving in accordance with nature, or how your group normally behaves. The word does not have moral implications — it does not speak of how things should be or act, but rather how they normally are and how they usually act. This is evident from a number of ancient Greek sources, including Homer and Hippocrates.

The transition towards dike as ‘justice’ did exist in ancient times. For instance, the Greek goddess Dike was the goddess of justice, and she was equated with the Roman goddess Justitia — the Latin word iustus came from the Old Latin ious, which seems to have been a religious term meaning ‘sacred way’, again related to the correct way.

This translation of dike as ‘justice’ in a modern sense does not fit with Plato’s text. Scholars believe that Plato did mean to describe justice in its original sense, and so when Plato uses the word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne), he simply means acting in the way that one normally does in one’s situation. The Scottish scholar W. K. C. Guthrie describes this as ‘‘minding your own business’, doing the thing, or following the way, which is properly your own, and not mixing yourself up in the ways of other people and trying to do their jobs for them.’

The confusion between the Ancient Greek word dike and its translation as ‘justice’ has led to some significant confusion and difference of interpretation among scholars and students reading Plato’s Republic and other works that use the term.”

A full reading of that webpage requires background knowledge of Plato’s Republic. Plato’s point was that “justice” in the Greek city-state meant that, as examples, soldiers practiced courage, slaves practiced temperance, and that philosophers, acting as rulers of the city-state, practiced wisdom. So, staying within the proper order of things, citizens were to do what was “properly their own”, not trying to get things out of order and do what is not theirs to do.

Applying that information to the question of the appropriateness of Wright’s translation of “dike” in the New Testament – which is “another work that uses the term” where there is “some significant confusion” - as “membership in the covenant people of God,” then, you find that one of Paul’s central concerns or ideas was that the people of God are to “do the thing, or follow the way, which is properly [their] own.” This would obviously fit within Paul’s thought. “The kingdom of God does not belong to…The kingdom of God will not be inherited by those who…” So, what “justified (dike) by faith” means is that faith, is how one comes to “do the things, or follow the way, which is properly” God’s!
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
In addition, regarding dike ”not having moral implications,” Wright, in reacting to our over-emphasis on the moral thrust and imperative of the gospel we tend to present as evangelicals, states in numerous places that the gospel a set of facts. These facts – of Christ’s death, resurrection, resulting Kingship and sending of the Spirit that builds up the glorious body of the church - are not uninterpreted, since uninterpreted facts do not exist, Wright says. He notes that the “separation of ‘ought’ and ‘is’ as being a historical development that came long after Paul (as in, like 1,600 plus years later). We now, after that separation, specifically in terms of how we think of the definition of our gospel, tend to ignore the “is” and place heavy emphasis on the “ought.” In other words, we don’t simply state the fact that Chris is king of all so much at yell “Turn or burn!” at people.

Regarding the meaning of “justice” being “the correct way,” early Christians, before non-Christians began referring to them as “Christians” in the first place, referred to their way of life as “the way.”

What Wright says Paul means by “justified by faith,” then, is that faith is what defines Jew or Gentile, slave or free man as a member of the covenant people or family of the one God. Faith is what reveals the glory of God to the world, how the church does the will of God. Basically, faith in the King who died and was raised is how one acts in the way that properly belongs to the people of God who are represented by that king. And, faith in action is modeled after that King’s death and resurrection (what Christ DID, his “deeds”). The “Judaizers” wanted to continue to make Torah the mark of the family of God, but, as discussed above, Paul took this to be impossible.

As discussed in Romans, as well, Wright, mainly in discussing Romans 8-11, says that Paul also takes the idea of Torah being the mark of the people of God to be counter to God’s original plan that had been set out from the beginning. In other words, God had intended from the beginning for Torah to be, in a sense, the means (with and through Christ) by which the original covenant purpose of God would be fulfilled. And, it is the terms of the Torah that define the curses Christ is to overcome and the blessings Christ is to allow to be opened to the Jews and to spread to the whole world. If Torah is the mark of the people of God, though, then it no longer defines the Jews in the service of revealing the glory of God to the world, but, instead, Torah is in the service of Israel’s self righteousness (pun intended).

Now, practically speaking, what does “Torah being the mark of the people of God” mean? How does Torah, as opposed to faith, work itself out as being what would potentially define the covenant people of God? How would Torah, as opposed to faith, be what would “justify” someone (or someone’s actions)? The difference works itself out, practically speaking, in whether Peter is willing to sit down and eat with the Gentiles, in, as examples, whether the church is going to demand that Gentiles be circumcised, and in whether or not Peter will be allowed to eat foods forbidden by Torah. The difference works itself out in laws about diet, circumcision, Sabbath, and the Temple.

Under Torah, no meat sacrificed to idols in pagan temples. Under Torah, no sitting down at a table of fellowship with ceremonially unclean pagans where meat sacrificed to idols is probably being eaten. Under Torah, one must bear the mark of circumcision to be “justified,” to be part of the “in crowd,” so to speak. Under Torah, one’s sins are atoned for by making a Temple sacrifice. These are precisely the “works of Torah” to which Paul refers in saying that we are “not saved by works of Torah.” In other words, then, for Paul “works” does not mean “deeds” in a general sense of any human being’s “good deeds” that will (or will not) get him into heaven, as the later parts of our history have taught us. Rather, “works” of Torah are the specifically Jewish “works” that distinguish him as Jewish and that Gentiles of the church felt forced to submit to by the “Judahizers,” who Paul wished would mutilate themselves.

And, of course we are not “saved by” – not part of God’s people and thus vindicated and saved from wrath in judgment by the death and resurrection of the King who represents us - by what we do, as opposed to what God does. As N.T. Wright notes, the ancient Israelite who was not Christian probably wouldn’t have had a problem with the idea that salvation is by what God does rather than what we do, either. Whether it is us or God doing the deed, then, although clearly important, is not the crux of the issue that Paul is addressing. At least, it is not the issue or question to which Paul refers when he says we are “not saved by works of Torah.”

Paul’s point, rather, was that we are not saved by those particular “works of the Torah” that affirm Torah as that which is to be used to distinguish in from out, God’s people from Gentiles, membership from non-membership. In other words, Paul and the Judaizers were fighting over the parts of Torah that are meant, in the first place, to do precisely what Paul is saying Torah cannot do, which is to define the people of God! Circumcision, Dietary laws, and Temple worship are precisely what make a Jew a Jew. Paul is saying that those distinguishing features will not “work” (pun intended) as identifiers as the people of God, despite the Jews being the chosen people of God’s special covenant.

By faith, however:

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. – Romans 7: 4

The vindication of Torah continues in the bountiful harvest of the glory of the church and will later be discussed more specifically and fully through Romans 8: 1-11.

In Christ, who vindicated Torah, all of those things that distinguished the Jews as God’s people are transfigured as part of his recreation of all things. Israel’s leaders are replaced by the symbolic number of twelve of Israel’s sinners, tax collectors, and fishermen who were previously not good enough to be chosen as disciples by other rabbis. The Eucharist (“communion”) becomes the new diet of the believer, rather than the one defined by Torah for the Jews. Christ and his body, the church, becomes the glorious shekinah, the presence of God that descended upon the Temple when Solomon dedicated it. Where Priests, previously, in the Temple, performed an atoning sacrifice for sin, Christ, the lamb of God, died on the cross. And, as Paul notes, circumcision becomes one of the heart, which is what defines a “true Jew” (Romans 2: 28-29), whose “heart of stone” has been turned to a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 26: 36). These are recreations that Wright discusses more in The Challenge of Jesus and in What Paul Really Said than in The Climax of the Covenant.

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