Jesus Creed

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Justification and New Perspective 5

NTWright.jpgTom Wright made a fascinating suggestion in chp two of his book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision
, that I did not mention in our previous summary. He suggested that Ephesians may have begun the new perspective.

Until you know what that kind of claim means you should be very careful about criticizing the new perspective. A brief on what he’s saying: what happens to Romans or Galatians if we read them through the lens of the theology of Ephesians? Instantaneously, Romans and Galatians would become more ecclesial. Why, Wright is asking, do so many critics of the new perspective have a theology that does not really make way for the ideas of Ephesians — like cosmic redemption and that God’s plan was to include Jews and Gentiles in the people of God and the powerful role of the Holy Spirit? Well, you get the picture. Of course, the reverse point is being made too: Ephesians has been read through the lens of Romans so much that many have treated Ephesians the way those who deny Pauline authorship have treated it: ignore it. (Wright is not saying that Ephesians should be skipped or that Romans should be too – no, he’s arguing we need both.)

In chp 3 of Wright’s fine book, a book noted for clarity, candor and courtesy — with no hyped-up accusations, Wright begins with a sketch of what Jews in the 1st Century were hoping for, and he makes his oft-made point: it was going to heaven when they died. The tide carrying everyone along was the “hope that Israel’s God would act once more and this time do it properly. Individual hope fits within that. If you want proof, close your computer screen and read the first two chps of Luke. (Then come back to finish this post.)


So what was at work in Judaism (the bulk, mind you, not for each person) at the time of Jesus and Paul?

1. They were living out a continuous narrative from Abraham to the consummation. They were part of it. They knew that because they knew what the Bible said. They were living in a world that knew God was true to his word and that had an ending that had not yet come. 

2. Tom next says they were living in a world that thought like Daniel 9 — that the exile had not completely ended. Israel has come back to the Land but things are far from satisfactory — not only have some of the themes not been fulfilled (God returning to the Temple, for instance), but foreigners were in command in the Land. That’s enough right there to establish that for Jews at the time of Jesus and Paul there is still a sense of expectation. This is the controlling narrative at the time of Jesus and Paul. Too many today, Wright observes, would rather “settle back into the comfort of a non-historical soteriology the long and short of which is ‘my relationship with God’ rather than ‘what God is going to do to sort out his world and his people'” (61). This is the big issue at hand.

3. Wright then quotes at length from Daniel 9:4-19, which I’ve also included at the bottom below (read it). Righteousness here is connected to God’s covenant faithfulness and to Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness. Wright is suggesting this is the kind of text that reflects what was going on in Judaism and what was going on for Jesus and Paul. And it leads to his next section — the meaning of “the righteousness of God.”

Daniel 9:4″O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. 6 We
have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name
to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the

7 “Lord,
you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame–the men of
Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all
the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness
to you. 8 O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. 9 The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; 10 we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.

the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant
of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you.
12 You
have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by
bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has
ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. 13 Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. 14 The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

15 “Now,
O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand
and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have
sinned, we have done wrong. 16 O
Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and
your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the
iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object
of scorn to all those around us.

17 “Now,
our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake,
O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. 18 Give
ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city
that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are
righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 O
Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O
my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”

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posted May 13, 2009 at 7:04 am

Hey Scott,
First, thanks for posting this conversation.
Second, in this passage, ‘Wright begins with a sketch of what Jews in the 1st Century were hoping for, and he makes his oft-made point: it was going to heaven when they died’ — shouldn’t that be ‘it was NOT going to heaven when they died’?
In the Grace of the Three in One,

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posted May 13, 2009 at 7:06 am

Did you mean “was” or “wasn’t” below:
“Wright begins with a sketch of what Jews in the 1st Century were hoping for, and he makes his oft-made point: it was going to heaven when they died.”

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posted May 13, 2009 at 10:14 am

Scot, in sketching Ephesians being the lense to read romans and galatians through, was not Ephesians written after the other two. I would love a link to the most accurate chronology of the NT writings if possible, the net is full of gobbly- goop.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 10:24 am

“Ephesians has been read through the lens of Romans”
Just have to point out that both sides are completely capable of this. You can force Ephesians — or any other book — to conform to your interpretation, or preconceived notions, of Romans whether your interpretation is New or old.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 11:30 am

I’d like to pose a hermeneutical question. If Ephesians is written roughly 3-5 years later than Romans and Galatians, and (as Wright encourages) is the lens through which to read these earlier writings, can we rightly view Ephesians (and other later Pauline writings) as a more seasoned form of Pauline theology? What I mean is, can we assume that Paul’s later writings were written in part to bring clarification to earlier writings?
The hope today is that each one of us mature in our spiritual life as God opens the eyes of our heart more and more to His truth and plan. Is it reasonable to expect the same of Paul? And, if Paul matured spiritually, could he have written in such a way that didn’t abandon earlier theology, but rather displayed a more concise, clear theology?

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John W Frye

posted May 13, 2009 at 11:37 am

I will repeat: you did mean “…’it was NOT going to heaven when they died.'”
As I pondered Wright’s point that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that they were living within God’s grand, but turbulent narrative, I’ve come think that Piper and many Westerners (including me and the way I was trained) approach the New Testament era beginning with John the Baptist and Jesus and Paul with some sort of neutral, secular mindset driving them to look for “nuggets” to fit into their tidy systems/tradition. The Gospels and Paul’s letters are lifted out of the grand story and transformed into archeological beds from which to dig out systematic theology. That mindset wouldn’t dare be used on the Old Testament narratives because what sense would it make? But within the world of Jesus and Paul, Abraham and David show up as “illustrations” of some kind of Reformation theological point, i.e., “justification by faith” in its 16th century construct. It’s as if the story of God stopped sometime between the testaments and history is leaped over to the 16th century and read back into the NT books. Can you say theological “lunacy”?

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posted May 13, 2009 at 11:37 am

Specifically to Comments 3 & 4, I wouldn’t get bogged down on issues of dating and authorship, as Wright is not here making a claim regarding historicity and publication but of interpretation. It is an interesting thought-experiment which he suggests: What if we read Ephesians having never read Galatians or Romans at all? This is a different question than perhaps the one you are assuming. (I am not being critical of your comments, but rather am trying to clarify what it appears that Wright is saying.)
Once we have done this, NTW contends, then we see ecclesiology emerging (if I may use that term so early in the day) along with Paul’s understanding of justification. Now that we have a sense of how Paul envisions this, we can work it back into texts such as Galatians and see how it is connected in Pauline thought all along. That is the contention. And, I must admit, The Bishop does a solid job in pulling it off.
On Daniel 9:
I believe Daniel 7 is pivotal to understanding the Gospels (Son of Man). If we grapple with what is happening in Dan7 then we can see the implications through to Dan9. And that is what NTW is contending – the ascension and sovereignty of the Son of Man leads to the outworking into the world. But Daniel has not seen this dominion realized in his experience, it led him to this prayer. Jesus’ and Paul’s contemporaries still had not seen it realized.
We have in part . . .but . . .

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posted May 13, 2009 at 12:08 pm

John (and Jack and Superstar),
Scot is in South Africa – and I am not sure if he has much access or time.
But Wright would never have said it was going to heaven when they died (at least not from anything I’ve read or listened to) so it must be a typo.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I would like to hear your opinion on Wright’s point #2.
Wright makes this point a lot and I don’t know what sources he uses to back it up. It is key to his Christian Origis and the Question of God series and a big part of his “fresh” perspective on Paul.
What biblical or extra-biblical support do we have for Wright’s assertion that “everyone” (or even “a lot of people”) believed that Israel was still in exile at the time of Jesus?

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Ken M. Penner

posted May 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Wright’s support is in Isa 52:8, Ezekiel 43:1-7; Nehemiah 9:36; CD 1.3-8 (from the Dead Sea Scrolls); Tobit 14.5-7; Baruch 3.7-8; 2 Maccabees 1.27-9
See David Miller’s critique at

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Derek Leman

posted May 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I was clued in to the value of Ephesians for NPP and also for our own corner of theology (Messianic Jewish theology) in a lecture series by Mark Kinzer two years ago (author of Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism).
Ephesians is quite a valuable book for our perspective (reclaiming the place of Israel in the central narrative thread or canonical narrative of the Bible).
It is also, as you say here, a great corrective to the more polemical and rhetorically charged writings of Romans and Galatians (of course, Romans 11 is great from our MJ perspective also).
I think rhetorical criticism is very helpful in reading Romans and Galatians (for a far out suggestion, try Mark Nanos’s book on Romans and Galatians and for a more “palatable” one, try Ben Witherington’s rhetorical commentaries).
Derek Leman

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Derek Leman

posted May 13, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Ken (#10):
I looked at David Miller’s critique of Wright’s point that Jews in the Second-Temple period saw themselves in exile.
I think he is off for several reasons (though his knowledge of the sources is good):
(1) The Maccabean period, at least early on, was beloved because it held out a promise for true freedom from exile — a promise the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) did not deliver.
(2) The very fact of the first Jewish revolt shows Jewish zeal to be rid of the “exile” of Roman domination.
(3) Miller’s use of Josephus is misleading, as Josephus was a known suck-up to his Roman patrons.
(4) In Judaism, we are in exile until the Messianic Age — period.
Derek Leman

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posted May 13, 2009 at 1:30 pm

An interesting study which also plays well into the discussion on Ephesians:
William W. Klein, ‘The New Chosen People’ (Wipf & Stock, 2001 reprint). Valuable insight into Ephesians 1 (and other passages), but which helps to work within the one-story-of-God’s-people motif.

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Matt Edwards

posted May 13, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Thanks Ken!

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Josh Rowley

posted May 13, 2009 at 7:25 pm

“[W]hat happens to Romans or Galatians if we read them through the lens of the theology of Ephesians? Instantaneously, Romans and Galatians would become more ecclesial. Why, Wright is asking, do so many critics of the new perspective have a theology that does not really make way for the ideas of Ephesians — like cosmic redemption and that God’s plan was to include Jews and Gentiles in the people of God and the powerful role of the Holy Spirit?”
As I’ve been reading and reviewing Piper’s book on my blog, I’ve been struck by his heavy reliance on one book–Romans. Moreover, he relies almost exclusively on just two chapters in this book (3 and 4). And it might be fair to say that if Piper knew just two verses (Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:6), he would be able to arrive at the understanding of justification he advocates. Ephesians (which, among other things, celebrates the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant of grace) does not seem to play an important role in Piper’s thinking.
Also, Piper does little with the references to circumcision that come between 3:28 and 4:6, and after 4:6. If Paul does not have Gentile inclusion in mind, then why these references? Paul seems to draw a comparison between Abraham and Gentiles of faith (Abraham was not circumcised when he was justified; Gentiles need not be circumcised to be justified; faith, rather than circumcision, is evidence of membership in God’s covenant family). By ignoring the many references to circumcision in Romans 3 and 4, Piper can more easily define justification individualistically and abstractly, pushing the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which has nothing to do with the issue Paul faced on the ground–namely, reconciling two different people-groups, Jews and Gentiles). Even when Piper exegetes Acts (Acts 13, no less), he ignores the matter of Gentile inclusion!
It’s becoming clear to me that Wright and Piper ultimately disagree because they differ in their use of Scripture. Wright is attentive to context–literary, canonical, and historical. Piper is not, instead simply prooftexting.

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Joe B

posted May 14, 2009 at 8:39 am

Re: Heavy reliance on Romans, a la Josh R and OP
Yes, there is an improper overemphasis on Romans employed by Piper and all his crew. BUT!! It is not the Romans of Paul he relies on, it is the Romans of Augustine (I know I’m not first here to make this point.) The original article cites the Holy Spirit as a key theme in Ephesians, and so it is. But there is no book in the bible more saturated with pneumatology than Romans. Indeed in my reading, Chapters 1-7 all build up pointedly to Chapter 8’s expposition of “Life by the Spirit”. After the “question of the Jews interlude”, the remainder of the book is on the practical outworking of the spirit in ecclesial life.
I think reading Romans as a book on “justification” is an error in itself. It is important but incidental to the larger story of the now-but-not-yet resurrection of the dead through the spirit of God: “Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” We are vindicated just as Christ Jesus was vindicated: by resurrection! And that is where I make my point and underscore the point of the original article:
Walking in newness of life (following Jesus) is and must be central to the gospel. Living by the spirit is “Resurrection Now”, and it is as essential as getting your hand stamped for the “not-yet” resurrection at the last day.
Nobody needed me to say any of that, I just wanted to feel involved in this exciting conversation!!

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Josh Rowley

posted May 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Joe B:
Right, the issue is not simply that Piper relies too heavily on one book (Romans). I’m almost finished reading and reviewing Piper’s book on my blog, and it has become clear that he relies heavily on one particular interpretation of just one part of Romans (3:28-5:1). And even in this small section, he emphasizes verses selectively (Romans 3:28 and 4:6 come to mind), without attention to their immediate literary context.

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Michael Metts

posted May 29, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Dr. McKnight,
IMO, Wright misses the point of these passages. In volume one of Christian Origins Wright makes this same case using Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 in addition to Daniel 9. The case of course he is making is that God’s righteousness plays a significant role in God’s covenant faithfulness (however significant a role it is, is not clear to me as a reader; I’ve searched volume one backwards and forwards but could not find Wright saying how central he sees it).
The problem with this reading is that (and perhaps Wright’s scope is too broad for me at this point) righteousness is not central in these texts, but rather God’s grace. If Wright is reading these texts in a way so as to support his thesis that God’s righteousness is the frame for covenant faithfulness and using Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 for buttressing, he sorely misses (again, IMO) the point of these passages. God’s covenant faithfulness should be viewed simply as God’s grace — these passages make this clear.
I know volume one of Christian Origins is dated now, and maybe his views have matured some.
Michael Metts

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Michael Metts

posted May 29, 2009 at 8:53 pm

The NT and the People of God pp 271-272 (for the reference). He uses Ezra 9:6-15, Neh 9:6-38, and Dan 9:3-19 as witnesses for this view.
Is righteousness central at all in any of these? The passage from Nehemiah especially witnesses God’s grace.

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posted June 12, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Did you mean to say: “Wright begins with a sketch of what Jews in the 1st Century were hoping for, and he makes his oft-made point: it was *NOT* going to heaven when they died.

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posted July 21, 2009 at 3:13 am

This is for Michael Metts.
If you think of the Torah in terms of a covenant (i.e. – a legally binding agreement) with terms and conditions, most of which are in the instructions of the Torah (and here I think it’s important that we remember that Torah means “instruction” not “law”.) We can see how righteousness (or justice, since in both Greek and Hebrew they are related ideas, not separate) is absolutely important in these contexts, exactly because Grace or even Mercy are also being shown. Mercy is only mercy when the subject is justice, and Chesed (Grace) is only Chesed (i.e. – covenant faithfulness, or justice) in terms of a covenant, an agreement between the two sides. Therefore, exactly when we are talking about Mercy and Grace, we are, in Wright’s understanding, talking about God’s justice and his faithfulness to his covenants, often in spite of the unfaithfulness of other party in the covenant. God’s justice is to see his part of the covenant through, and so that will sometimes reflect itself in wrath and sometimes in mercy, but it will always reflect covenant faithfulness and justice on God’s part.
Taking your Nehemiah 9 section, look at the end of verse 8 – “And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.” This is the concept of righteousness on God’s part that Wright is using, and I believe that it is central to these passages. See also in the Dan. 9 reference, vs. 4, 14 & 16. (Dan. 9:16a “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem.”) Righteousness, covenant faithfulness and mercy are almost always linked, not just in Paul, but before them, in the Prophets. In that sense, the “new perspective” even predates Paul, it goes back to the prophets. ;)
Hope this helps.
Grace and Peace,

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