Friday, July 04, 2008

Mark Seifrid on N.T. Wright's "Moral Idealism"

Mark Seifrid is one of my favourite evangelical Pauline scholars and I have enjoyed meeting him and talking with him in person. This evening I read his article: The Narrative of Scripture and Justification by Faith: A Fresh Response to N.T. WrightConcordia Theological Journal 72:1 (January 2008): 19-44.

Seifrid has two major elements to his critique of Wright. First, he argues that Wright engages in a form of idealism in so far as he idealizes the virtue of faithfulness, salvation as the enhancement of the human condition, notions of representation, and the role of the covenant and Israel in biblical history. This creates more dilemmas than it solves. Second, Seifrid sets a thematic (synchronic) reading of the Old Testament (God-Man-Christ-Response by Faith) over against a diachronic redemptive-historical approach (Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration). [1]

There is some interesting material here. Seifrid points out that a failure of the salvation-historical approach was its inability of the assigned narrative to address human beings in the here and now. Consequently, Wright has to resort to a moral idealism in order to address this gap according to Seifrid (p. 22). A larger problem looming for the narrative approach is that it attempts to reduce Scripture to a single unified vision of God and God's dealings with the World. Seifrid states: "It is worth reminding ourselves that just as Scripture has not been given to us as a dogmatic outline, neither has it been given to us as a single unified story. It is a collection of narratives that not only complement one another but also overlap and stand in tension with one another. There are two accounts of creation in Genesis, two accounts of the Davidic monarch, and four Gospels. The Psalms tell and retell the story of Israel in ways that are sometimes remarkably different from one another" (p. 24). In which  case, our connection to the biblical story is not punctiliar (p. 23). Seifrid objects that: "In Wright's work, the drive for a unified interpretation leads to an idealism that overruns the irreducibly different ways in which God speaks to us in and through the Scriptures" (p. 26). He also points out that Paul's use of diatheke is often raised in the context of discontinuity (e.g. Gal 4, Rom 9, 2 Cor 3) (pp. 27-28) and the story of Abraham can be used to highlight the distinction between promise and law. Seifrid also exposes a conundrum in Wright's work concerning the role of Torah and Israel in biblical history. Did God give Torah in order to enable Israel to be a light to the nations or to highlight sin and point to the coming of the Messiah (pp. 31-32)? Also, did God intend for Israel to be the recipients of salvation or the means of salvation. If the latter, then did God intend for Israel to die for the sins of the world? If Israel had been faithful to God, would it have fulfilled this role? (p. 34).

A few flags can be raised. First, one objection I have here is that when I read Ezekiel 16 and Acts 7, I get the feeling that we are dealing with a single story-line. Different tellings of one story do not negate the unity and continuity of an overarching narrative. The phrase "according to the Scriptures" implies a connection between the story of Jesus and the church with the story of Israel and Abraham. Second, there are indeed continuities and discontinuities between the old and new covenants, but I suggest that a mere reading of the Last Supper (esp. Luke's version) highlights the continuity between the two epochs regardless of what one thinks of a "new" covenant or a "renewed" covenant. Third, Seifrid is quite right about the Law vs. Promise contrast in Galatians 3, but I would point out that as well that in Paul's reference to the Abrahamic narrative God also gave the gospel in advance to Abraham and that in Romans 4 Abraham is the prototype of the Gentile Christian, that is continuity. Third, on the role of Israel and Torah in biblical history, I think Seifrid raises some good questions for the narrative approach. There is indeed an underlying tension: does Israel subjugate and destroy the nations or draw them to Zion to worship God? I need to think more on this, but this may represent the tension within the biblical story-line of Israel being separate from the nations but also a light to the nations (cf. Isa. 42.6; 49.6), but I doubt whether it necessarily equates to competing visions of Israel's vocation. Moreover, if Jesus is the embodiment or representative of Adam and Israel (implied by the temptation stories) then, in a sense, Israel does die for the sins of the world!

Seifrid takes Wright to task on justification and argues that Wright's articulation of faith ultimately means losing assurance and down plays individual judgment in favour of the corporate reality provided by the concept of covenant (pp. 36-40. In contrast, Seifrid understands the righteousness of God as "an event in which God establishes saving justice in the rebellious and corrupt world which he nevertheless rules" (p. 41). There is a strong theocentric element to Seifrid's exegesis and one that emphasizes the justification of God against his enemies and the punitive justice of God against human sin and rebellion. Furthermore, Seifrid understands the "faith of Christ" not as Christ's faithfulness but as the faith that flows from Christ and has the crucified and risen Christ as its source (see Seifrid's forthcoming essay in the book The Faith of Jesus Christ) (p. 43). Seifrid also includes four theses on justification at the very end of the essay which are worth reading and meditating on (p. 44). On this justification section, there is alot I agree with here. I certainly do not think that one can reduce God's righteousness to his covenant faithfulness, but it seems to me that it is at least one aspect of it. I do not think that one can eliminate either the spheres of covenant and creation as coordinates in which God's righteousness is worked out. I would also sharply contest Seifrid's inference that "the reason that the inclusion of Gentiles figures so regularly in connection with Paul's teaching on justification is that their participation in the people of God was a visible and bodily expression of the justification of the ungodly, an event which cannot be reduced to a moral vision" (p. 44). That reduces the historical context of Paul's letters to illustrative examples of atemporal theological concepts being proved. While righteousness by faith and the sola gratia principle of Pauline soteriology precedes debates about the status of Gentiles in the early church, the concrete setting in which Paul articulated, shaped, and construed justification was in the context of legitimizing the identity of his Gentile converts in mixed Jesus-believing gatherings. The Jew-Gentile question is constitutive of justification by faith and not mere illustrative of an abstract theological principle.

This essay is stimulating but I would draw attention to two major areas that I would question. First, I ask whether a charge of "moral idealism", in the platonic sense that Seifrid urges, is a suitable critique of Wright's position. Undoubtedly Wright makes much of corporate models, ideas of representation, and becoming more human through Christ, but these are biblical concepts which are perhaps over used and sometimes foistered ad nauseum, but I have reservations about a charge of moral idealism. Second, if Wright is guilty of moral idealism, then I suggest that Seifrid is on the verge of an existential Lutheranism! Seifrid states: "In the gospel, God reveals himself to us beyond all other encounters with him as our loving, forgiving, and saving Creator" (p. 25) and "The unity of the story-line of Scripture - which remains for us in the form of promise - is found solely in Jesus the Christ and his story in all its particularity (Luke 24:25-27, 44-49)" (p. 25-26). This sounds to me more like Bultmann than Paul! I have to ask, if God is knowable beyond all other encounters with him, do we need the story of Israel at all in order to understand Jesus? Does Seifrid reduce the story of Israel to a promise of salvation, if so, does he really need Israel at all for the scheme to work? 

This is a stimulating article and my mind wonders what would happen if Seifrid combined his thesis with a Kasemannesque apocalyptic approach to Paul's theology. But that's enough for tonight.

[1] I owe that thought to a comment by Jared at Between Two Worlds


Joel Willitts said...


Thanks for the heads up on this article. Very interesting subject and your reflections on it are useful.

I have never been all that enamored with Seifrid to be honest; I have found him extremely difficult to read. Perhaps my dislike of his work was the result of a experience I had. I remember an ETS Pauline section a decade ago where he and Hafemann went at it over justification. He accused Scott of denying the reformation. I was a Hafemannophile at the time and was offended by that.

I will read this with interest.

Jared said...

Thanks for giving credit for the observation. It think your critique of Dr. Seifrid is spot on, but his Lutheran framework (particularly the law/promise contrast) is still more helpful than most think these days.