Wednesday, August 06, 2014

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

At the end of Part 1a, we left off at the idea that, as representative King of the Jews, Jesus Christ brought Torah to its “climax,” as one of the ways N.T. Wright refers to it, by embodying the curses pronounced by the Law upon the whole of Israel as a body of people. To continue, then, with the story of Christ and the Law that N.T. Wright helps put back together after it’s systematized fragmentation through the course of history’s other stories:

Jesus, still acting as representative and King of the Jews, took the blessings of the covenant proclaimed in Deuteronomy 27-30 – primarily life, as well as authority and rule rather than the oppression and submission that characterize a state of exile - to their completion. He did this by rising again after apparent defeat, thus substantiating his claim to Kingship, or Messiahship. Paul makes implicit reference to this idea when mentioning sharing the glory of Christ.

As part of God’s plan to establish a worldwide people of God, part of the terms of the original covenant with Abraham was that he would be a blessing to all the nations. Genesis 12: 3 …in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Genesis 18: 18 Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. Genesis 18: 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. “Because you have obeyed my voice” is a clue that Abraham was not only to be an agency of blessing to those outside the family of God, but, instead, that all nations would be taught to obey the Lord. In other words, Abraham’s obedience would be the model for all who enter into the family of God, which was to include people from all nations. See Isaiah 2: 3, which is nearly the same as Micah 4: 2.

Again, Torah, meant to serve as a temporary interlude in the covenant, was unable to fulfill this original purpose. This is because Israel, enslaved by sin, to which it is susceptible because of the flesh (Romans 7), turned the Torah into a badge of national honor rather than, in fear of God, living in obedience and receiving Torah’s blessings. Israel’s disobedience and misuse of Torah, without Christ, would be an obvious obstacle to obedience spreading to the nations.

Since our gospel has been turned into individualized pie in the sky, and because we read scripture as a set of fragmented proof texts for a systematic theology rather than as a coherent story that Paul was telling and referencing, this reading of Paul proposed by N.T. Wright is not our typical Protestant reading. And, because Wright spends quite a bit of time in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology explaining and confirming these ideas of Torah being an interlude in the covenant that gets in the way of the original promise of blessing the nations, I will therefore just here note that Paul covers them in Romans 7-11. In other words, says Wright, Romans 10 and 11 are not “about predestination and election” – at least not the way we typically think of them in our systematically theological terms whose meaning is determined by other stories in history that came along long after Pal’s mission to play a role in God’s covenant story.

Instead, Romans 9-11 are about Deuteronomy 29: 19-21. Those who think they are safe while walking in stubbornness of heart will have their "name blotted out from under heaven." My NLT translates that as "cut off from God's people." Although the whole of Romans 9-11 is really about that, I am specifically and explicitly referencing, in Romans 9, where Paul discusses who are and are not his people (23-33), all of Romans 10, and in Romans 11, where Paul discusses the analogy of the vine with branches broken off and grafted on. Also, instead of being about “predestination and election” in reference to individual conversation, Romans 9-11 is about unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians (and mission to the Jews) after Christ initiated the end of the age and paved the way for gentiles to receive the originally promised covenant blessings as part of God’s elect or chosen people who are destined to be vindicated by resurrection glory at the time of final judgment.

As stated, because Wright spends a lot of time on it in his work, I am not going to go into detail to confirm Wright’s argument that the Jews turned Torah into a document that establishes exclusive national privilege for Israel. What, though, does this idea of “turned the Torah into a badge of national honor” mean, exactly? It means that Israel, “in accordance with the flesh” (and not the “sin nature”) and because of sin, used the Torah as a charter for exclusive racial privilege, thus justifying their contempt and anger towards the “nations” who were meant to, in the end of the age, receive covenant blessings. The alternative to how Israel used Torah, then, was for it to be a means of obedience through which to bless the Gentiles. Romans 9: 1-5 is where Paul makes it most explicit that “national privilege,” as Wright refers to it, is Paul’s reference in Romans 7-11, especially when he says “my kinsmen according to the flesh”:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

In other words, this is where Paul makes it obvious that he is talking about racial issues. The end of Romans 9, and Romans 10 and 11 then confirm this as very obvious. And Romans 9: 33 makes a double reference to both the Law and to Christ: Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense. How that refers to Christ is obvious because of the second half of the verse. How it refers to the Law is less obvious to us, but the idea was stated above. Israel “stumbled over” the Law by misusing it. Further, their misuse of Torah as basically an excuse for exclusive racial privilege is precisely why they refuse(d) to see Christ for who he is. They could not see the original purpose and fulfillment of the Law (Galatians 3: 19, 2 Corinthians 3), because they were using it for something else. This was somewhat understandable, since said gentiles (other nations) were the oppressors of the Israelites.

Notably, that “something else” for which the Israelites were using Torah was not for individualized works based salvation as it is typically now presented in evangelical circles. For the ancient Jews of the time, it was specifically a racial and ancestral issue. That’s the whole reason why, for example, we find John the Baptist warning Israel’s leaders that God could make children from Abraham from the stones of the Jordan river if they keep “presume[ing] to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

Again, though, the point is, Torah was unable to fulfill its original purpose. The Torah was meant to serve as a temporary interlude in the covenant, which was originally intended to, in the end, establish a worldwide family of God. And, not only did Torah not fulfill that purpose because the Jews misused it, but Torah could not possibly have fulfilled the purpose of the covenant, because Torah, taken as an end in and of itself, would mean and lead to either a people of God composed of one race or different peoples of gods of different races. According to Wright, this is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 3: 19-20, which largely just confuses people, is misunderstood, or is poorly translated:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Firstly, this refers to the temporary “rule” of Torah over Israel. The rest, I think, needs some fleshing out, which Wright does not really provide in The Climax of the Covenant. He kind of assumes that his readers will understand what he (and what he says Paul) means, but it depends upon an ancient understanding of God or of gods. It also requires an ancient understanding of the relationship between God (or gods) and man (or men). Outside of the question of how Galatians 3: 19 and 20 say what Wright says they are saying, the question naturally arises in the modern reader’s mind as to why a people exclusively composed of one race would say something about the God of those people, which, on the opposite side of the coin, is also a question of why separate peoples must imply multiple and/or separate gods or divinities.

Basically, the answer is, because ancient people had a very different understanding of the (inter)relationship between what appears in the world and what does not, especially regarding causation. Because ancient man’s idea of how what appears in the world appears as such was not reduced to modern science’s explanations of it, ancient man’s world was bigger and less specialized, so to speak. I have spoken about this at length elsewhere, as have others who are much smarter than myself (including N.T. Wright, at less length), but the point is, what happens in the spiritual realm and what happens “here” that appears to us are indexical towards each other. Hence the importance of icons for the Byzantines and Medievals. Icons point to something bigger.

The truths of modern science, even if accepted, do not have to exclude that truth of the relationship between the divine and the apparent, although the way of thinking that leads to the truths of modern science makes it difficult to even see what such indexical pointing means. So, in the end, the point is (pun intended), separate peoples implies separate gods, because the divine and the human point to each other. Likewise, a people of God of one exclusive race – a race defined by Torah – would indexically point to and say something about the God of that people of that exclusive race. And, again, this is exactly the point of Galatians 3: 19-20. Either an exclusive race of God’s people or multiple peoples of god(s) would deny the central monotheistic truth of the Shema, quoted and echoed in verse 20: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6: 4), ritually recited three times of day by the faithful Jew of ancient Israel. This is another reason why N.T. Wright says that one worldwide people of God was part of the original end intention of the covenant.

Paul also addresses this idea in Galatians 4: 1-11, most explicitly verses 8-11:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles [often translated “powers”] of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
Notably, the context of Galatians 4 is set by the end of Galatians 3, which is about the unity of the church in Christ Jesus, composed of people of all nations and backgrounds. Where Paul makes reference to “turning back again to the weak and worthless principalities and powers of the world,” then, he is carrying on with the same point from Galatians 3: 19-20 – that God is one, and disunity, or unity based on exclusivity, both imply either multiple gods or a god that is not the God of Jesus Christ, who is ruler of all creation.

Therefore, the Torah, in and of itself - regardless even of how the flesh of Israel allowed sin to cause Israel to misuse Torah - was unable to fulfill the original purpose of the covenant of God. That purpose was to establish one worldwide people of God. Torah “implies more than one,” and part of its purpose in the first place was to distinguish Israel from her neighbors.

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