Monday, December 13, 2010
Righteousness and Covenant Membership (Again)
Pauline studies is like the mafia, every time you think you're out they drag you back in. I would much rather be writing about Gospels. Any how, I cannot resist one thought. Over at Table Talk, Charles Hill has a review N.T. Wright's Justification. I think Hill is right that "righteousness" in Paul is not reducible to covenant membership. Paul did not need the word of the cross to know that God is the God of Gentiles too (though whether Wright actually reduces righteousness to that and nothing more than that is perhaps another question, elsewhere his definition appears broader, but I take the point as a valid criticism based on what I've also read Wright write). But then again, as I've consistently argued, one's status before God and one's identity in the people of God are indelibly connected. Reformed theologians should be the first to agree with this: God justifies the elect! Paul's primary contention in Galatians and Romans is not to refute a works righteousness merit theology, but Paul is arguing that one does not have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Paul is certainly critiquing the view that one's status before God is determined by law keeping, but the law in question is also bound up with the election of the Jewish nation, their constitution, charter, covenant, and conduct - so it's also ethnographic and corporate. So I don't see how one can, or why one would want to, play off righteousness as a status with righteousness as something about group identity (and that applies to pro- or anti-NPP). Overall, Hill's discussion of the context of Romans 1-3 is correct, except for one thing. Hill writes:
"From Romans 2:25 Paul starts putting Jew and Gentile on the same level. Circumcision and being a Jew are spiritual things. Being a literal Jew had advantages so long as the advantages were used rightly. But the Jews were not faithful. (Nor can they accuse God, whose holy prerogative it is to judge mankind.)"
I grimaced when I read that "circumcision" and "being a Jew" were "spiritual things". It's partly true given 2.28-29, but not in 2.25-26. Cause I'm not circumcised (whoops, that's probably TMI for most of you), but I have been in the gym showers with men who are circumcised and their circumcision looks pretty real to me. And I've met a few Jewish people in my time and their Jewishness seems ethnic, cultural, and religious to me and not something that exists purely on a spiritual plain (note, I'm being facetious as ever, and I don't imagine that this is the sum of Hill's exposition of these verses). The words "Jew" and "circumcision" were prestige terms that one could claim, boast about, and appeal to as the grounds for one's status before God and membership in a community. What is interesting in Romans 2:25-29 (forgetting the controversy around 2.13-16 for now) is that this is where we find Paul's first reference to imputation! Paul there states clearly that the circumcised can have their circumcision came to naught if they fail to keep the law. Conversely, the uncircumcised can be reckoned (logisthesetai) as circumcised if they do keep the law (2.26). In fact, by the power of the Spirit that is exactly what these Gentile persons do and that is why I and others like Tom Schreiner think the Gentiles in Rom 2.25-29 are Christian Gentiles. These Gentiles have a circumcision of the heart (yes, a spiritual circumcision) that is better than a physical circumcision, importantly, this circumcision of the heart promised in the Torah gives everything that physical circumcision does and more. These Gentiles also receive praise from God (and I wonder if praise here might actually be almost salvific/forensic, i.e., acceptance, regard, and embrace by God). But if circumcision is a designation of the identity as a Jew and the benefits and privileges that go with it, then, the first thing imputed to Gentiles in Romans is membership in the covenant people.
To recap, I've argued elsewhere (e.g., SROG) that righteousness cannot be limited to covenant membership. However, I find it impossible to read Romans and Galatians without identifying Paul's language of righteousness with the ethnic, corporate, and ecclesial issues of the identity of the people of God beside the matter of the basis of their acceptance before God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is why a number of commentators as diverse as Peter O'Brien and Francis Watson and myself argue that justification has horizontal and vertical dimensions.