Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Justification and New Perspective 19

posted by Scot McKnight

NTWright.jpgAnother debate in the new vs. old perspective on Paul debate is how to understand Romans 4 and Abraham. Is he an example of faith? Or, as  Tom Wright, in Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision , puts it: “Pull out Abraham, and you won’t just pull out a single loose thread from the sweater. You will unravel the whole thing.”

For Wright, Abraham is not an example of faith so much as the substantive person in the original covenant itself. Abraham is part of the “who is the family of God” question. The issue is not about what Abraham found but whether we have found Abraham to be our father (218).

The promise to Abraham was that he would have a family as numerous as there are stars in the sky, and that through him the Gentiles would be blessed. The promise was not going to heaven when he died (220).

Wright’s contention then is that chp 4 of Romans is not about how Abraham got saved by faith but about God’s faithfulness to Abraham to bless the whole world through the one covenant and that through faith (not works that separate Gentiles from Israel). We see in this the dividing line between old and new: is the animating issue personal redemption from the works-principle of distorted humans or is it the one covenant with Israel to bless the world? (Not a simple dichotomy here, but an orienting perspective.)



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Joey

posted June 17, 2009 at 10:49 am


Just to play the Devil’s advocate* (or OPP advocate, depending on how feisty you’re feeling), couldn’t it be argued that Jesus is that blessing promised to Abraham? If Jesus fulfills the blessing of Abraham’s covenant, then what does that covenant have to do with us?
What does scripture say about Jesus’ role in Abraham’s covenant?
*please note, I don’t hold onto this as a position, just mindful inquiry.



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 10:50 am


Isn’t it more accurate to say that Romans 4 is about both God’s faithfulness and Abraham’s faith in God’s faithfulness?



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Brian McLaughlin

posted June 17, 2009 at 10:59 am


I think RJS has hit it. Wright is on to something, but he misses a significant part of the chapter if he ignores Abraham as a pattern of personal faithfulness. To illustrate that this is not simply an OPP vs. NPP issue, James Dunn emphasizes the pattern of Abraham’s faith (see Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, esp. 226-240). In fact, Dunn makes the case that it was common in the Judaism of Paul’s day to use Abraham as a model of personal faithfulness (Sir. 44:20; 1 Macc 2:52). Therefore, according to Dunn, Paul is picking up on this existing discussion and using it for his purposes.
I think this is similar to the discussion on “faith of Christ”: this is not strictly and OPP vs. NPP issue, because Dunn is on the opposite of Wright in both cases.



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MatthewS

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:32 am


That’s part of the power of story. Read the story with a focus on Abraham, you see an important character who also models, inspires. Read the story with a focus on God and you see his hesed. God is faithful, loving. He pursued Abraham and through Abraham the whole earth.



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John W Frye

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm


The Grand Story cannot be ignored.
I would like someone who favors the OPP (the Old Reformed Perspective on Paul and justification) to give evidence to ?the animating issue [of] personal redemption from the works-principle of distorted humans? in the experience of Abraham. What ?works-principle? did his ?faith? save him from? If there isn?t one, then why does the OPP insistently read that ?works-principle? into the Gospels and the Pauline texts? The OPP?s trivialization of the place of Abraham in the grand narrative sweep of God?s Story by reducing Abraham to a mere ?illustration? of some humanly-crafted model of justification is thoroughly indefensible. NT Wright?s exegetical finesse within the biblical narrative regarding Abraham offers a stimulating, comprehensive theology over against the OPP?s flat-footed stomping through the Bible, cutting and pasting this text and that while ignoring important this text and that, in order to prop up a 16th century systematic theological (traditional) construct. The more this conversation continues the more evident it is that *sola scriptura* is not the animating issue of the OPP.



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Brian McLaughlin

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:33 pm


John (5). I’ll take the challenge (even though I’m not completely OPP – I agree that the primary issue in Rom/Gal is Jew/Gentile, not :how to get saved.” However, I still believe that Paul’s discussion of Jew/Gentile has tremendous individual salvation implications, which is what Fee says of Philippians 3 and even Wright says by using Eph. 2:1-22 as a paradigm).
To attempt an answer, let me return to James Dunn, himself an NPP advocate: “And the close parallel between James 2:23 and 1 Macc 2:52 implies that most Jews of Paul’s day would readily enough recognize and identify with the position Paul attacks here: Abraham was justified by works (cf James 2:21), that is, by demonstrating his covenant faithfulness and obedience to God’s command in the offering of Isaac; he can boast in his God-given privileges and steadfastness under trial…But, adds Paul, even so, he cannot boast in reference to God. Herein lies the crucial flaw in the typical Jewish answer for Paul. Their pride in having a privileged position among the nations became a pride before God and so fell under the same judgment outlined in 1:21-22. This was the tragedy of Jewish boasting: their boast in having a special status before God (attested by their works of the law) was preventing them from recongizing that the only way anyone can stand before God is by humble faith.” (WBC, vol. 1, 227).
Dunn attests to an element of both OPP and NPP: The Jews were not trying to “earn their salvation” as Luther et al claim. HOWEVER, their pride in their works of the law (as illustrated by Abraham’s faithful work of offering Isaac) caused an element of self-righteousness and exclusion. While not exactly the Lutheran interpretation, clearly there is an element of self-righteousness that must be overcome. Thus, Paul turns the argument on its head and uses Abraham as an illustration.
Why does using Abraham as an illustration negate his role in the grand narrative? I don’t see why they have to be contradictory? Furthermore, the Reformed have a very high view of the promise to Abe (certainly over dispys).
Frankly, some of the posts I read on these threads do the same thing that the OPPers do in reverse: both are so one sided that they miss the “finesse” of Paul’s arguments that actually cover both grounds. This is why Wright’s using of Eph. 2 is so helpful.



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david yates

posted June 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm


Wright ‘Justification’, chapter 7, Romans, part VI, on Romans 4.
Wright needs to acknowledge that he himself stresses Paul’s reinterpretions of what was promised to Abraham (eg land becomes world), so should be more careful what conclusions he draws going back to the actual words to Abraham (pp.193-4 GB, Scot gives p.220 USA).
I like where Wright says Jews struggle for admittance to God’s people, Romans 4.12.
I don’t agree where Wright says the main theme of Romans 4 is Abraham’s single family. For one thing, Wright is too simply historical, and needs to say more about what the significance of apparent epochs in salvation history might mean: Abraham is (metaphorical) father of all who have faith, so is also father of those before him who had faith, eg Abel, so Abraham’s family is not only the gentiles who believed subsequent to Jesus. I think the main theme is salvation by faith, not that the law is exclusive of gentiles, and that since the promise is by faith it can be sure even to Jews who do not keep Torah.
Wright’s exegesis of Romans 4.2-5 is unacceptable. Wright does not allow that Jews under Torah were working for reward from God, but here Paul says that that is what it actually comes to (see Piper’s ‘Future of Justification’, available free online, footnote 7, p.150).
In Romans 4:6-8, David is said by Wright to be blessed because he was forgiven. But he leaves out that Paul says David thought he was blessed because he was forgiven when he had failed to do the works he should have done (Piper FJ, pp.145-8, footnote 4 on David, but also a critique of Wright’s exegesis on Romans 3:27-30. Note that Wright, in ‘Justification’, does not answer Piper on his exegesis, Wright simply blithely repeats the same exegesis of Romans he has given for over 35 years. One would have thought this an ideal opportunity for Wright to prove his accusation that his opponents are blinded by their doctrine and don’t go back to the Bible. I get the impression Wright’s exegeses are skewed by his commitment to his grand scheme.).



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John W Frye

posted June 17, 2009 at 2:58 pm


Brian (#6),
Thanks so much for pushing back. Your correlation of Dunn to Wright helps broaden my understanding of the debate. I don’t see why whether or not the 1st century Jews were misguided by some level of self-righteousness bears on NT Wright’s brilliant contribution to the biblical discussion on justification. Paul does not seem to stress the Jews’ failure in merit-based righteousness, but a failure of God-designed purpose. I added a key little word regarding Abraham as an illustration. I added “mere” to illustration. What is Abraham illustrating? A Reformation construct of justification or the grand purpose God had for Israel to bless the world/the nations? For the neo-Reformed types Abraham is secondary to a systematic theological category. For NT Wright Abraham is primary in God’s grand Story of blessing the nations.



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John W Frye

posted June 17, 2009 at 3:14 pm


David (#7),
One small part of God’s promise to Abraham had to do with “land.” How can you miss the world-wide scope of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17? “Land” isn’t even brought up by Paul in Romans 4.
Where do you see “reward” in Romans 4:2-5? I don’t see “reward” or its cognates anywhere in the text. Maybe you’re working from a faulty NIV text, I don’t know. If you’re playing “wages” against the NIV’s “credited as righteousness,” then you’re introducing a concept(“reward”) into the text that’s not there.



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Brian McLaughlin

posted June 17, 2009 at 3:46 pm


John – your initial pushes always challenge me, so thank you. I pray that I never come across as too combative. I love a good debate, sometimes too much. So please always take my push-backs as iron sharpening iron.



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John W Frye

posted June 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm


Brian (#10),
I know what you mean…sometimes I think I get a little edgy myself in commenting or too edgy, but I like to ‘stir the pot’ to see what rises. I like the information that you bring to the table and I benefit from your insights. So, yes, I am sharpened by your push-backs. God bless you.



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david yates

posted June 17, 2009 at 4:49 pm


John (#9).
Wright makes much of the promise of ‘land’ to Abraham being reinterpreted by Paul as ‘world’, elsewhere than just here. I was making the point that Wright countenances such things. In this particular place (pp.193-4, GB), Wright makes much of the actual words to Abraham being about him having a family, in contrast with what he says the old perspective might ‘imagine’, that it was about his sins being forgiven. However, forgiveness of sins has a contextually correct place among what can be seen was being promised to Abraham, just as ‘world’ for ‘land’.
A related point I would like to make is that Wright often says we must consider the whole text that Paul had in mind when we find him quoting things from the Old Testament. But, if you look at what Wright makes of this, as though no-one but himself has seen the revelatory difference it makes, time after time the fuller text has no surprises: if a text Paul quotes speaks of judgement, Wright looks it up and says ‘wonder of wonders, the text goes on to say there is also mercy after judgement!’. But, of course! Every text you can come up with from the Old Testament speaks of judgement and mercy after judgement. Everybody knows, and it makes no difference to how other people than Wright are reading texts. Wright really does need to interact with other commentators, as they are doing with him, and he needs to look at their exegesis of texts instead of saying they only write about their doctrinal positions and don’t go to the texts.
Romans 4.4 has the Greek word ‘misthos’, and it surely doesn’t make any difference to the point here whether it is taken as ‘wages’ or ‘reward’ (KJV: ‘Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt’).



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John Frye

posted June 17, 2009 at 9:40 pm


David (#12),
Again, I don’t see how Paul’s reference to Abraham has *anything* to do with forgiveness of sins. The David reference certainly might be more pertinent, but Abraham.
Misthos as you know is clearly an economic term for wages earned, not a reward graciously given. Neither Wright nor Paul states “that Jews under Torah were working for reward from God.”



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david yates

posted June 18, 2009 at 4:53 am


John (#13).
The promises to Abraham, which Abraham believed, were ultimately about putting creation right, which involves forgiveness of sins.
The point of the matter is that Jews were keeping the law for wages or reward (it makes no difference), not out of gratitude.



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Matt Larsen

posted June 18, 2009 at 10:49 am


The general arch of Romans seems to leans in NTW’s direction. While Romans does certainly talk about faith[fulness] (see the many uses of the word pistis/os) and how one is made right with God, this message is not large enough to make sense of the whole letter, particularly how ch. 9-11 and ch. 14-15 fit into Paul’s tight knit argument.
Paul’s letter seems to seek to answer the question, “Has God been faithful to his covenant that he made with his people since so many of them have not believed?” His answer to that question is ALL about Abraham. The large arch of the letter is about how God’s plan all along was to work through the family of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. He has been faithful to that covenant indeed. If the disbelief of many Jews meant salvation for the Gentiles, how much more blessing will there belief bring?
It is a bit of a false dichotomy to make an either/or distinction between Abraham as our example of faith[fulness] and Abraham as the thread that holds the whole Christian story together. However, the example theme is clearly a subcategory under Paul’s main point about Abraham as the means blessing all the families of the earth.



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Tim

posted June 18, 2009 at 2:51 pm


Abraham’s story is all about God’s faithfulness. When you look at the actual narrative, Abraham’s faith is pretty fickle:
1. Laughed at God’s promise
2. Lied twice, passing Sarah off as simply his sister and not his wife
3. The Hagar incident
4. Suggested adopting Eliezer of Damascus as his son
In my reading, Abraham didn’t demonstrate that he was really trusting God’s promise. I opt for the “God’s faithfulness” interpretation ahead of the “Abraham’s faith in God’s promise” interpretation.



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