Connecting the Pauline Dots: Not Whether but What Sort of Imputation? #PFG

The following is from David I. Starling and seems to me remarkably clear and thoroughly Pauline:

At this point in the discussion, the topic of imputation arises – not only because it is a notorious point of contention between old perspective and new perspective but also (and more importantly) because of the language and imagery implied by words such as “righteous,” “justified,” and “condemned.” In Rom 3:24, for example, the justification that is accomplished through the work of Christ is conferred on its recipients “by his grace as a gift” (δωρεὰν τῇ αὑτοῦ χάριτι) – language that anticipates the discussion in the following chapter, in which the justification of the ungodly is described as a metaphorical transaction in which righteousness is “reckoned as a gift” (λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν; Rom 4:4, 6, 12; cf. 5:16-15) and sin, conversely, is “not reckon[ed]” against the sinner (Rom 4:8; cf. 2 Cor 5:19).

Imputation, then (or “reckoning”), of one sort or another, is not an un-Pauline intrusion into the doctrine of justification; it is part of the conceptual array that the texts themselves bequeath to us as a framework within which to articulate our understanding of the righteous status of those on whom God’s justifying verdict has been pronounced. If we are to follow Paul’s lead in constructing our doctrinal formulations, the question is not whether we will have a doctrine of imputation but merely what sort of doctrine of imputation we will construct – which metaphorical credits or debits we will speak of as being imputed to whom – and how much work we will ask it to do within our doctrinal system. If Paul is happy to speak of God as “reckon[ing] righteousness,” “as a gift,” to “ungodly” people whose record of conduct could hardly warrant this verdict; if Paul speaks of this gift of righteousness as having been made possible by the faithful obedience of Christ, culminating in his atoning death; and if the forensic and covenantal background against which Paul makes these assertions is one in which “righteousness” is language not only for the status created by a judge’s verdict but also for the record of conduct with which this sort of verdict ought normally to correspond, then surely, one might argue, we are only connecting Pauline dots, not drawing a whole new picture, if we speak in terms of God’s imputing our sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us.

From “Covenants and Courtrooms, Imputation and Imitation: Righteousness and Justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters 4:1 (2014): 37-48, here 43-44. This issue of JSPL was devoted to reviewing N.T. Wright’s recent and substantial Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Reflections on Four Views on the Apostle Paul (@Zondervan)

The first book I’ve read this new year is a review of copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul. This book is a recent addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoints series and is intended to introduce readers to some of the major issues current in Pauline studies. These “views” books are always fun because they tackle controversial  topics head on and usually often contain substantive and helpful interchange between the contributors who all get the opportunity to respond to one another’s views. I don’t intend to provide a full-on review in this post, but I do want to call attention to a few interesting features of this book exploring them somewhat more fully than I was able to in the review (for reasons of space, you know).
  • The first is the interesting and somewhat surprising extent to which the contributors engaged in debate over which letters are authentically Pauline. Thomas Schreiner (Reformed view) and Luke Timothy Johnson (Catholic view) both base their readings of Paul on all thirteen letters that bear his name. Douglas Campbell (Post-New Perspective view) and Mark Nanos (Jewish view) only make use of the undisputed letters, and Campbell really works primarily and more narrowly with Romans 5-8. As a result, there was a fair bit of interchange over which sources to use. Schreiner and Johnson critiqued Campbell and Nanos for neglecting half the sources, while the latter two expressed their concerns that the former two were willing to use those hotly contested pastorals along with both Ephesians and Colossians. It is typically said that there is a consensus among scholars with regard to which letters can be used as sources for Paul’s authentic theology, and, as a result, arguments are based on these “undisputed” letters, because those who work with the others leave themselves open to the charge that they are basing an argument about Paul on letters he didn’t write. My question is this: if there is such strong consensus, why does this issue get so much debate time in Four Views on the Apostle Paul? Now, admittedly, it doesn’t follow that because two out of four contributors to this book hold to Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters that there is no true consensus among scholars. The editors could have knowingly picked two out of a small minority who held the view represented by Schreiner and Johnson. However, this wasn’t the only publication in 2012 that raised this issue. At the end of the year, Paul Foster published an article in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament in which he argued that the consensus concerning which letters Paul did not write is “crumbling”. He specifically argued that the arguments against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians are irrelevant and inconclusive. And the essay includes a survey detailing the diversity of thought among scholars as to the authorship of the disputed letters. More and more scholars are arguing that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, while others, beyond Schreiner and Johnson, argue for the authenticity of all thirteen. At the end of the article, Foster published the results of an informal survey he conducted at the 2011 meeting of the British New Testament Society in which the respondents had the opportunity to answer “yes”, “no”, or “undecided” to the question of whether Paul wrote each epistle. Here are the combined percentages for the so-called disputed letters of those answering “yes” or “undecided”: Ephesians, 61%; Colossians, 89%; 2 Thessalonians, 68%; 1 Timothy, 44%; 2 Timothy, 46%; and Titus, 42%. Now the British New Testament Society may not be representative of all New Testament scholars, but the results are nevertheless very interesting, and they lead me to suppose that, while we may have a consensus that Paul wrote at least seven letters, there is less and less consensus over the lack of authenticity of of the remaining six.
  • The second issue is the more problematic aspect of Four Views on the Apostle Paul that it included no essay setting forth the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I usually aim to evaluate a book on what it does say rather than what it doesn’t, but in this case I believe an exception is warranted. Whether or not one holds a NPP view, no one can deny its significance for contemporary Pauline scholarship. The NPP came up repeatedly in this book; the contributors interacted with it rather extensively. As indicated above, one of the chapters was even labeled a “Post-New Perspective” view. and several times it was suggested that we must move beyond the NPP. Well, what is this thing we must move beyond? These “views” books are introductory by nature, and many readers will be newcomers to the serious study of Paul, yet this major perspective has been left out. Indeed, given that the NPP is a critique of the Reformed view set forth by Schreiner, and that Campbell’s Post-New Perspective is a critique of the NPP, the book leaves you with that feeling like you’ve bitten into an Oreo cookie only to discover that the creamy middle has been left out. 
  • Third and finally, I’ll briefly say that I while I enjoyed the essay by Luke Timothy Johnson, I found it a rather curious chapter in that it was titled “A Catholic Perspective”, yet there was little to nothing in it that was distinctively Roman Catholic. Johnson hints at this at the beginning of the chapter, and Schreiner notes in his response that Johnson “didn’t emphasize Catholic distinctives” (97). So, if you’re looking for a reading of Paul that defends a Tridentine view of justification, you won’t find it here. 
Allow me to conclude by saying these two points of critique are no reason to pass over this book. It most assuredly has much to commend it. I enjoyed it very much and found it to be quite the page-turner as I was eager to discover how each respondent would set forth their own views and evaluate the essays of the other contributors. This book will give you a basic and accessible introduction to some important issues in Paul, and for these reasons I commend it. 

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as “theories.” Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell’s latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of “justification theory.”
It’s one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn’t work it’s way into the Church. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don’t want to leave that up to theory.
Paul wrote of sinners that, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.
The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn’t he? Does God justify sinners or doesn’t he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.

What is the Righteousness of God?

One of the ongoing debates in New Testament studies is the question of what is meant by the phrase “the righteousness of God” (Gk. δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ). At the center of the debate is Romans 3:21-22, where the phrase in question appears twice. The Greek phrase can be nuanced this way and that, but the two major options for “the righteousness of God” are (1) the righteous status that God grants to believers or (2) God’s own attribute or quality of righteousness. With the first option, δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ would be translated along the lines of “a righteousness from God” (NIV); with the second, it would be “the righteousness of God” (NRSV) or “God’s righteousness.” I’ve wrestled with the evidence for each interpretive option for several years now, often having difficulty settling on one or the other. I now find myself settling into the view that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21-22 refers to God’s own attribute or quality of righteousness, and I intend to use this post (and likely a few following posts) to highlight a few of the exegetical matters that have led me to hold this particular view of the righteousness of God (for now, at least).
A key determinant in translating δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ (“the righteousness of God”) is the flow of the argument in the whole of Romans 3. Romans 3 begins with a question: what advantage has the Jew? This question follows logically from the previous material in that Paul has just finished indicting his fellow Jews right alongside the non-Jewish nations arguing that they properly and justly stand under the condemnation of God. So, if the Paul’s Jewish kinsmen are justly condemned along with the Gentiles, then the question is natural: what’s so special about being a Jew?
Paul’s answer is that the Jews are special in that they were made stewards of God’s self-revelation (3:2). The problem is that they did not faithfully steward that with which they were entrusted. They did not proclaim the name of God to the nations. This raises the question as to God’s own faithfulness. God has promised to bless all the nations of the world through Israel; yet if God is to be just, he must condemn Israel for her lawlessness. So, God finds himself in a catch-22: how will God be faithful to keep his promise to bless the world through Israel and still act in righteousness in condemning Israel for her unfaithfulness? What is God to do?
All this is to make the point that the central question of Romans 3 is whether or not God will act according to his righteousness. Paul asserts that God must be proved true, justified in his words, and prevail in his judging (3:4). But how exactly is he going to do that when the law silences the mouths of all and makes the whole world, Jew and Gentile, accountable to God?
If the question of Romans 3 is how God will be found righteous when he must both bless the world through Israel and simultaneously condemn Israel, then the answer to that question comes in Romans 3:21-26. God reveals his own righteousness (δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ) through Jesus. Jesus is both the faithful Israelite through whom the world will be blessed and the one who propitiates (ἱλαστήριον, 3:25) the just wrath of God that condemns sin. He does all this to demonstrate his own righteousness (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:25) and to prove that he himself is righteous (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:26) by showing himself to be both just (or righteous), in that he condemns sin, and justifier (or the one who makes righteous), in that he blesses the world through Jesus, the faithful Jew.
So, what is the righteousness of God? In Romans 3 it is that attribute whereby God always does what he ought to do. He always does what is right. He keeps his promise to Abraham to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant. He maintains his justice by condemning sin. And he does all this so that he may be justified in his words and prevail in his judging. He does it to reveal his own perfect righteous character. That’s the righteousness of God.

What About Imputation? More on N.T. Wright at ETS

In a recent post, I said that N.T. Wright’s presentation at ETS surprised me with regard to two areas: his clarification regarding final justification and the role of works and his comments on imputation.  Here are my reflections on the role of works.  Now on to the matter of imputation.

Wright has often suggested that the Reformed doctrine of imputation makes righteousness out to be a gas-like substance that can be passed across the divine courtroom from judge to defendant.  I thought this was an interesting and, perhaps, valid objection; that is, until I read some Reformed writings on imputation.  I then discovered that Wright’s portrayal of imputation was a caricature and that he was knocking down a straw man.  No serious Reformed thinker thinks of imputed righteousness as a substance that can be passed around like a gas.  It would seem that the debate was at an impasse.
I do think, though, that some of Wright’s comments at ETS may provide room for some progress in the debate.  If I recall correctly, at the end of his talk he indicated that through faith the believer is united to Christ and, as a result, that which is true of Jesus becomes true of the believer as well, which may very well include Christ’s righteousness, even though the Bible doesn’t really speak that way of Christ.  Wright said that you could call that imputation, but that this is not what the Reformers meant by the word.  Wright is concerned about the idea of merit being acquired by Christ and shifted to the believer.  He charged that those were medieval categories that the Reformers took on board but shouldn’t have, and that may or may not be the case.  I’m no historical theologian, so I’ll avoid saying too much about what the Reformers said. 
I would suggest, though, that the concept of faith-union with Christ as the way in which that which is true of Christ becomes true of those in Christ is a good place to start an attempt to move forward.  I think Wright and the Reformed camp could agree on this.  If Christ has indeed been justified, that is declared righteous, because of his perfect obedience, and if those who are in Christ share with him all that is his, then it is right to say that the verdict that came to Christ because of his obedience (merit?) is reckoned to the believer because they are joined to Christ by faith.  The imputation of Christ’s righteousness would be shorthand for that rather long sentence.  I think both sides could agree with this summary.  If not, someone out there help me out.

The Role of Works: Further Reflection on N.T. Wright at ETS

Thanks very much to Revd. John P. Richardson for directing his readership to my post reflecting on Tom Wright’s recent comments at ETS.  So many of you clicked through that I thought I would say a bit more regarding my brief comments in the previous post.  So, I’ll take a post on the matter of the role of works and one on the matter of imputation language. 
As indicated previously, I was quite pleased with Wright’s statement that he affirmed the language of final justification “according to works” over against “on the basis of works.”  I was pleased with this move because I raised just this question at the IVP lecture at SBL in New Orleans last year.  I raised the question because Piper very clearly asked Wright for clarification in his book The Future of Justification (22).  Piper did not charge Wright with teaching justification on the basis of works but pointed out that he regularly spoke of final justification on the basis of the whole life lived; Piper carefully cited several places where Wright has said this or a slight variation of it.  To Piper, this came across as suggesting that our works were the basis of our justification.  So, Piper asked for clarification.  In my reading of Wright’s response to Piper, I didn’t find any real clarification on this point.  So, I asked for clarification at the IVP lecture: Is justification on the basis of the whole life or in accordance with the whole life?  Insofar as my memory is accurate, Wright indicated that he believed that to be a distinction that is not made in the Greek.  Very well; that is a response.  Given the opportunity, I would suggest that this may be the precise distinction made when Paul speaks of judgment as each being repaid according to his works (kata ta erga Rom 2.6) as opposed no man’s inability to be justified from works of the law (ex ergōn nomou Rom 3:20).  That would have to be worked out in a much longer discussion; I simply submit it here as a potential avenue of conversation. 
The main point I’m getting at is that I took Wright to have actually thought through this a bit more and made the clarification for which he was repeatedly asked.  Last year he didn’t see a distinction between “basis” and “according to”; this year he has said that he agrees with judgment according to works over against judgment on the basis of works.  In my hearing of Wright and my reading of his clarification at The Ugley Vicar, I think he is saying that final justification is in accord with the works produced by the Spirit indwelling the believer.  I think Piper would agree with this as well. 
Given all that, I really think the talks at ETS provided an opportunity to make progress in the conversation on justification.  Tune in next time for some post-ETS reflections on imputation.

Can We Speak of the Righteousness of Christ?

In recent debates over the Reformation doctrine of Justification, the phrase “the righteousness of Christ” has come under heavy criticism.  The doctrine of Justification asserts that a person is justified, or declared righteous, before God only because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed or reckoned to that person through faith in Christ.  The controversy comes because the specific Greek phrase dikaiosunē Christou (the righteousness of Christ) does not appear in the New Testament.  Thus, the argument goes, it is inappropriate to say that the Bible speaks of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.  Any response to this challenge in favor of the traditional Reformational formula faces a dual task.  First, it must be shown that the language of righteousness is used with regard to Christ such that there is a righteousness that is uniquely his.  Second, it must be shown that the New Testament speaks of this unique Christ-righteousness as being shared with, or reckoned to, human beings.  

With regard to the first task, it may well be the case that the specific phrase “the righteousness of Christ” is not found in the scriptures.  It is also the case, though, that the scriptures speak of the justification of Christ.  First Timothy 3:16 says clearly that Christ was “justified in the Spirit.”  This action is referring to Christ’s resurrection where God overturned the verdict of the human courts and declared Jesus to be justified before the heavenly court.  One who is justified is righteous.  So, even though the precise phrase “the righteousness of Christ” is not in the New Testament, the scriptures certainly speak of the resurrection as constituting the verdict that Jesus is indeed uniquely righteous.     
With regard to the second task we turn to those passages of scripture which speak of the believer being united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  One such passage is Romans 6:5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  The language of “union” here is the language of covenant.  With his death and resurrection, Christ inaugurated a new covenant, of which the benefits become ours when we are united to him through faith.  Thus, if we are guaranteed final resurrection by virtue of our union with Christ, because what is true of him is true of those who are united with him, then we are guaranteed the final declaration of justification by virtue of our union with Christ.  His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our final justification.  Present justification by faith is an anticipation of that future and final justification.  This should not be thought of as two verdicts, by the way, but the one verdict of the future realized in the present through faith.  The point is that the unique righteousness that belongs only to Christ by virtue of his resurrection is shared with those who have faith-union with him such that they too can be said to be righteous or justified.  And what is the basis of this justification?  It is nothing other than the declaration of righteousness granted to Christ at his resurrection because of his obedience unto death which is then transferred to believers through union with him.  And what is the word used to describe this covenantal transfer of righteousness by virtue of faith-union with Christ?  It is nothing other than imputation. 
To summarize the argument, we can say that we are justified through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because Christ’s resurrection constitutes the verdict of God that Christ is indeed justified, or righteous.  Through faith-union with Christ, his unique righteousness is granted to believers precisely because we share all that is his in union with him.  Our resurrection from the dead will be the ultimate realization of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.  This is why Paul can write that Christ was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).  Christ was justified in his resurrection.  Insomuch as we are joined to him, the verdict of righteous that is his in the resurrection is imputed to us through faith. 
All this is phrased with excellence in the final verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be that I Should Gain.”  The emphases are mine, of course.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.