Monday, April 19, 2010
What Saint Paul Really Said 7
Good News for Israel
This year as I focus my reading on the Apostle Paul I am seeking to understand better the writings of N.T. Wright. So I am doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of his book, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Realy Founder of Christianity? (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997). Today we are looking at chapter the first part of chapter 6. Tomorrow we will look briefly at his exegesis of particular passages
Wright starts off the chapter by reminding us that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, teaching them the good news of the God of Israel, and he believed that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, God was fulfilling his covenant plan. God was doing was he promised he would and this picture was redrawn around Jesus and the Spirit. This starts of his discussion of the key phrase in Paul "the righteousness of God".
In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) the term 'righteousness of God' means God being faithful to his covenant promises. "God's 'righteousness', especially in Isaiah 40-55, is that aspect of God's character because of which he saves Israel, despite Israel's perversity and lostness; Israel can trust those promises. God's righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel's salvation on the other" (p. 96). [Just as a side note, if you hear the term 'covenant faithfulness' and think that Wright is way off the mark I would encourage you to read Isaiah 40-55 in one sitting (or maybe listen to it on audio).]
Wright sees the term as forensic and from the law court. When 'righteousness' is seen in this light it cannot be the case that it means the same thing for the judge as it does for the defendant and accuser."For the plaintiff or defendant to be 'righteous' in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court" (p. 98). Wright claims that for the judge to declare someone righteous doesn't necessarily mean they are morally upright; rather, it means that the court has found in their favor. This is where Wright denies that 'the righteousness of God' has to do with imputation but this is not the main point of his argument.
Law-court language and covenantal language go together. Israel pleads to God to rescue her from exile, to vindicate or acquit her. They ask him to be faithful to his covenant. So, for Wright, 'the righteousness of God' is saying something about God. "God's righteousness remains, so to speak, God's own property. It is the reason for his acting to vindicate his people. It is not the status he bestows upon them in so doing" (p. 99).
Now eschatology comes into the picture. "Eschatology - the long hope of Israel for her God to act at last, once for all" (p. 99). Israel desires that the covenant God will vindicate them in the future. Some Jews thought that the present sign in the present that they would be vindicated the future was by loyalty to their covenant obligations, 'works of the law'.
Options for a Key Term
In this section Wright basically discusses the various 'options' one has in defining 'the righteousness of God'. Does it refer to God's own righteousness or the status that God grants to us? A very helpful chart is provided which displays the variety of interpretations. Wright says that the Jewish evidence is on his side in affirming that it refers to God's own righteousness. Wright sees God's righteousness as his covenant faithfulness and his saving power. "[God's righteousness has] to do with God's covenant faithfulness, both as a quality in God and as an active power which goes out, in expression of that faithfulness, to do what the covenant always promises: to deal with evil [Wright uses the word 'evil' to denote a variety of things: sin, evil on a big scale, etc.], to save his people, and to do so with true impartiality" (p. 103).