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.


19 comments:

Matt said...

definitely TMI

Andrew Cowan said...

I'm pretty sure that the review to which you linked discusses What St. Paul Really Said and not the new(er) Justification book. At least that's what the footnotes seem to indicate.

A. B. Caneday said...

"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."

I am putting the final touches on an essay on Romans 2 in which I conclude the same two things: (1) praise from God is another way for Paul to speak of the Gentiles' justification, like Hebrews 11 does with "commended as a righteous man" (cf. Heb. 11:4, etc.), and (2) for the Gentile to have one's "uncircumcision" (literally, "foreskin") "reckoned as circumcision," another curious Paulinism for "justification," entails the Gentile being reckoned as members of the covenant people.

N. T. Wright is onto something, even if exaggerated.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ardel, brilliant minds think alike. Send me a copy of your paper when you're done mate!

Steven Coxhead said...

The Old Testament clearly makes a distinction between the righteous and the wicked within covenanted Israel. This means that righteousness cannot merely be equated with covenant membership. Righteousness in a covenantal context means keeping one’s covenantal obligations. Under the old covenant, the righteous were a subset within Israel. Covenant righteousness in the Old Testament had to do with identifying who was responding to God appropriately in terms of Israel’s obligations under the covenant.

For Paul, the issue is: Now that Christ has come, what is the appropriate response in order to be right with God? Now that Christ has come, how is the right response defined? Is it simply a matter of keeping the law of Moses (like old covenant Israel were commanded to do), which limits righteousness to Israel; or is the right response now defined in terms of faith submission to Christ, which allows Gentiles to participate in righteousness? Paul is arguing for the latter, whereas the orthodox (non-Christian) Jews and the Christian Judaizers were arguing that the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant were still how covenant righteousness was to be defined.

This is why the vertical and horizontal dimensions are tied up together, because old covenant righteousness had an ethnic dimension built into it. Old covenant righteousness was something that only Israelites could perform. Gentiles were excluded by definition. But new covenant righteousness is different at this point. Under the new covenant, Gentiles are included.

See my posts “The Significance of Romans 1–2: When Jews Are Gentiles, and Gentiles Are Jews” and “The Significance of Paul's Diatribe in Romans 2” if interested.

Steven Coxhead said...

Just to clarify, justification in Paul has to do with positive covenant membership. Those who are positively oriented to God and his covenant share in the (perfect) covenant sacrifice which fully covers their sins.

A. B. Caneday said...

Michael,

I'll send you a copy.

Hey, your request gave me an idea. You'll have to let me know whether my essay is worthy of the new JSPL.

Emerson Fast said...

"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."

Unfortunately, in the passage before (1:18-32) and directly after (3:9-20), Paul is very adamant in his conclusion that NO ONE keeps the law. Even the "no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" seems to have just as much an eschatological bent as the positive "those who obey the law will be declared righteous" (2:13). In other words, on the day of judgment no one will be able to boast of having kept the law, neither Jew or Gentile.

To say that a Gentile is "reckoned" circumcised on account of his keeping the law (by the help of the Spirit, of course) is pure catholicism. You can find this stuff stated very lucidly in the modern catechism of the RCC. It also places a severe question mark on 3:21, which clearly states that God reckons people righteous "apart from law", even in the midst of their having sinned and fallen short of God's glory (which I highly doubt to be a state of Spirit-empowered law-keeping).

So much natural theology in this modern business of Paul-studies. In the end the real acting subjects of this gospel are us men, who have received a sort of jumpstart from "Christ" and are now on the road to mastering the commandments (as if the regulations which stood against us didn't really need to be crucified).

I take my cue from James. "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." This judgment has not changed in the new community of Christians (Jas 2:12). And since "we all stumble in many ways" (3:2), I really have a hard time buying this idea of Spirit-empowered law keeping. For inasmuch as we all stumble in many ways (which is a little more serious than the stumbling over one point as per jas.2:10), we are all currently guilty of breaking the WHOLE law.

Emerson Fast said...

I am no law-keeper, and (to use a phrase from Barth) I would rather bite off my tongue than claim the Spirit for my efforts in the matter. Maybe you boys know something I don't. Maybe you've managed to do justice to the law and have kept it without stumbling at any points. I doubt it, but if you have good on you. As for me, any righteousness that I could dare to speak of before GOD would have to be quite alien. It would have to be quite alien indeed.

A. B. Caneday said...

Emerson,

It seems to me that you are responding to a view that no one has argued either in Michael's blog entry or in the comments. Nothing that has been stated denies the concept that the righteousness imputed is an "alien righteousness."

Neither Michael nor I claim that "circumcision" (a Pauline designation for membership in the covenant people of God) is reckoned to the Gentile for "keeping the righteous requirements of the law" In other words, Paul does not say, "If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his keeping the righteous requirements of the law be reckoned for circumcision?" Paul's text does not say this. Paul's text, instead, states, "If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision?" (Rom. 2:26).

The Gentile's "keeping the righteous requirements of the law" is no less faith in action than are all the deeds for which those enumerated in Hebrews 11 are commended/praised by God.

As for other assumptions that you indicate, neither time nor space is sufficient to address them.

Happy Christmas!

Emerson Fast said...

Dear Caneday,

I am responding to the statement made by Mike Bird to the effect that,"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."

This may have been poorly worded by Mike, but I can only use his actual words as my point of reference. Mike says that God reckons (imputes) people as "circumcised" (which he subsequently explains as a heart-transformation, and all of the covenant benefits procured thereof) IF they keep the law. Perhaps the "if" here was not meant to be a statement of conditionality. It appeared to be just so, and I must ask how the sentence by Mike could logically be taken otherwise. And, in its present appearance, it is a very cut and dry statement of works-righteousness. God reckons people "spiritually circumcised" and gives them covenant blessings if they keep the law.

For Paul, righteousness is reckoned to those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, WHILE they are still in this state. The justified are not the law-keepers but the law-breakers, the wicked, the ungodly, the sinner etc...

I agree with your thoughts about "faith in action", but must immediately qualify them with my personal conviction that all actions produced by faith are still judged by the same law (ie. "speak and act as those who will be judged by the law that gives freedom") and are thus quite worthless in the sight of God (He who keeps the whole law but stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking ALL OF IT).

There is no room for boasting in the Christian faith.

Emerson Fast said...

Oh,

And merry Christmas to you as well!

A. B. Caneday said...

Emerson,

Don't you recognize that all Michael Bird is statings is what Paul already states? Once again, for clarity, Paul's text states, "If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision?" (Rom. 2:26).

And yes, it is conditional--"If a man. . . keeps. . . ."

My friend and co-author of The Race Set Before Us, Tom Schreiner, has stated the matter very well. I paraphrase: The only reason many Christians do not expunge such conditional assertions (as Rom. 2:26) from the Bible is that they are in the Bible. (They hold a lofty enough view of Scripture not to cut portions out.) Instead, what many Christians incline to do is to re-interpret these passages to fit their already hardened theological categories. Hence, many reason that Romans 2 cannot mean what it so plainly states because that would contradict what Paul argues in Romans 1:18-32 and 3:1-20.

What if the truth is that we need to adjust our theological formulations in keeping with the biblical text? This is what Michael and many others are endeavoring to do.

Merry Christmas to all!

Emerson Fast said...

Mr.Caneday,

In turn, have you not realized that I too am only stating what Paul has in fact stated? "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" comes from Paul, not me. It seems that you have chosen to abstract 2:26 from Paul's conclusion of the matter in 3:20. Well and good, but it leaves you just as vulnerable to Schreiners criticism of "theological hardness" as me. In fact more so, given that my own exegesis considers the larger context of what Paul is trying to say.

I am not trying to "expunge" the conditionality of 2:26 but to uphold it, in all of its offense. I truly do believe and am ready to inculcate that if a Gentile or a Jew truly kept the laws requirements he/she would be reckoned righteous in God's sight. However, since I take Paul with utter seriousness in his following and very express declaration that NO ONE has or is or will be declared righteous on account of law-observance, I think it is safe to conclude that Paul is not setting up the righteousness of the Law as a legitimate option for someone who actually wishes to be saved. My conclusion finds further support in 3:21. The righteousness from God by which men are reckoned righteous is "apart from law", which certainly can have nothing to do with Bird's "Spirit-empowered fulfillment of the Law which is the condition for a Jew or Gentile to be reckoned circumcised." As Paul says very clearly in 3:28, man can and is and MUST be justified apart from observing the law.

It is intriguing to me that in your first response, you skirted the issue by claiming that I was mis-interpretting you and Mike. In the second, you conceded to my point on the defense that conditionality (works-righteousness) really is a Pauline theme. I agree with you. It is a theme, held forth polemically only to be discarded in the concluding remarks of the passage.

P.S. Do you do gift openings on Christmas eve or in the morning? For on a lighter note, I wish you abundant blessings of text-critical commentaries, new testament theologies, good wine, and a hearty pair of Christmas socks. My family had the good sense to purchase Bultmann's NT Theology for me, so I will exalt my horn a little tonight ;)

Emerson Fast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emerson Fast said...

My apologies for double-posting. My internet server maliciously told me that the first did not go through.

Emerson Fast said...

One more thing! I wanted to be clear that the reason why no one will be declared righteous by law observance is not because the law cannot declare people just, but that it WILL NOT on account of the fact that "Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin." As long as iniquity remains, there is no such thing as a fulfillment of the law. Paul makes this perfectly clear, as does James.

A. B. Caneday said...

Emerson,

I'm sorry about my absence. I've not accessed my computer for several days while spending Christmas days with family.

I knew where you would take the discussion. I anticipated everything that you have written since I last posted a comment, which is why I offered the following statement: As for other assumptions that you indicate, neither time nor space is sufficient to address them.

Blogs have their proper positive functions, restricted as these may be. Hence, I do not bash blogging, since I do it myself. The limitations of the positive functions of blogging have become evident in the exchange we have had. Hence, it is quite impossible for me to make clear how full and how sweeping are the assumptions the you and I bring to this conversation, rendering it fruitless from the beginning. So, having learned by way of experience, prudence urges me to fight against my good-natured desire to sustain the conversation as amicably as possible. So, again, having learned from experience, at the risk of being judged from unwarranted and unjust assumptions concerning my motivation for doing so, the only prudent thing to do is to discontinue the exchange. I do so, not by simply remaining silent to leave you wondering, but I have returned to honor you by letting you know (1) that I am dropping out of any further discussion of these matters here and (2) why I am dropping out.

Michael Bird's and Joel Willitt's blog need not be cluttered with what would be far better served elsewhere. If you would like to continue a private correspondence with me about the issues, my e-mail account would not be difficult to locate.

Happy New Year!

Emerson Fast said...

Mr. Caneday,

I respect your wishes, although I would have you know that my purpose for posting was not a so-called "fundamentalist's heretic-hunt." I belong to the Mennonite tradition, and we have gorged ourselves on all sorts of tasty tidbits that would make the meekest Lutheran turn sour-faced. And we do our works-righteousness in ways that put all talk of "judgment according to works" to shame. I dare say we are pelagians par excellance. No sir, no matter what conclusions you bring to the table is not a matter for my personal judgment.

God bless you.