Friday, November 12, 2010

Justification: Atonement and Covenant Faithfulness

This is a preliminary article. I have been reading N.T. Wright's book, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. I need to wade a little deeper and read several more books, but before I get really gung-ho and start writing papers in the little spare time I have, here are my thoughts.

N.T. Wright: N.T. Wright is angling at something that has gone wrong within Protestant, Evangelical theology; succinctly, that most Evangelical Christians today assume that relationship with God is their own personal relationship based on Christ's bloody atonement on their individual behalf in order to remove their sins which barred communion. This atonement acts as the hinge pin by which sin is removed and Grace is imputed or attributed. N.T. Wright believes that this basic message is a caricature of all that Paul was saying and empties the Pauline Epistles (and if the Gospels are read through a Pauline lens, them too) of Jewish covenant understanding. he believes that the problem started with the theology of Martin Luther.

John Piper: John Piper, along with many scholars, have attempted to take Wright to task. They believe that he is moving Protestants back to the Roman Catholic penitential system and a form of works-righteousness. John Piper (and I have yet to read his book, The Future of Justification, to develop this) has basically argued that Wright's implications would cause Christians to rely on their own work, rather than on the work of Christ, for atonement. John Piper's confessional response is supportive of not only John Calvin, but the Augustinian and Lutheran theological corpus.

Martin Luther: Martin Luther is where Wright believes things went wrong. He presents the idea that Luther supplied medieval law court imagery to the consideration of justification, but adds that Luther was using the Latin Vulgate which translates the LXX and NT Greek on these passages in such a way that would lead to such imagery. He also seems to imply that Luther's anti-semitism was another factor that led him away from translating in a more Jewish way.

My initial view: Wright is right that making salvation all about the atonement is mistaken. It oversimplifies the Christian life and leads to a myopic sin-consciousness. The Gospel is, indeed, more than that Jesus came to die as a propitiatory sacrifice on our behalf. the Gospel is the good news of a covenant relationship extended to Gentiles and renewed for Jews, bringing both groups together as one Jewish family under the headship of the slain and risen Messiah, Jesus. Jesus' atoning death on the cross is essential to that mission, but it is one part.

I think John Piper may have missed the thrust of Wright's thesis; that when Paul is talking about righteousness, he is not talking in law court terminology so much as he is talking about covenant faithfulness. This does not mean that sin and atonement are not in Paul's mind, but they are only one aspect.

Wright is wrong, I think, in locating the problem with Luther. Luther may have developed the theology in a more complete way, but the Catholic Church and Augustine started down that path. I think that in order to get closer to the mind of Paul, we must wipe much of the last two thousand years' theology off the table and look specifically at what was said in Scripture as well as understanding the sources of Paul's day, especially Jewish ones. Rethinking Paul's viewpoint doesn't mean Luther is completely wrong, but it will emphasize different points and allow us to see the importance of covenant fulfillment without Catholic or feudalistic coloring.

I think that the argument over Justification is a good one to be having, and I hope that we will be able to put more energy into understanding Paul at a fundamental level without the worry of destroying Christianity. After all, we are not Lutherans or Reformed, or Protestant or Catholics first, we are Christians. We should seek to know the Good news of right relationship with God well and what it means to be righteous within that relationship.

I will probably blog on this subject again before my "final" conclusions on the matter. Also, this year's Evangelical Theological Society's topic is Justification, so I recommend attending in Atlanta next week or finding ways to get ahold of papers from the sessions. Happy reading.

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