Monday, May 5, 2008

The Gospel: Is Wright Wrong? Yes and No... (Part 2)

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

In my previous post I addressed a key aspect of N. T. Wright’s view of the gospel that I thought was right and important, namely that it is not an anthropocentric message, but a Christocentric message. It isn’t fundamentally about us, but about Jesus Christ as Lord. To preach the gospel is not to preach an abstract system of salvation but to preach Christ, especially Christ as Lord (cf. Philippians 1:7-18).

I agree with much of what Wright has to say about the gospel, and think he offers important correctives to popular evangelical approaches that lead people to think it is about how we can get eternal fire insurance or that it is all about how God will help us be successful and prosperous in this world. In their book, Cat & Dog Theology (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003), Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robison develop a theological insight from a joke about cats and dogs: “A dog says, ‘you pet me, you ,feed me, you shelter me, you love me, you must be God.’ A cat says, ‘you pet me, you ,feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God’” (p. 15). Too many evangelicals have a cat theology in which God’s grace to us in Christ is taken as evidence that Christianity is all about us after all. But we are not at the center of the universe. Christ is.

While I agree with much of what Wright says about the gospel I have a problem with his insistence that it is simply a message about Christ. It seems to me that his understanding of the gospel leaves out something that must be included. And Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very concerned about precisely the part that Wright leaves out. There is no real evidence that the false teachers Paul is concerned about in Galatia were teaching a different message about who Christ is or what he had done than what Paul was saying. They did not deny that he had died for our sins, been raised from the dead and was Israel’s Messiah and Lord over all creation. It seems on those points they were on the same page as the apostle Paul. Where they differed, however, was in what they taught about how one needed to respond to that wonderful news about Christ the Lord. In their view it was not sufficient to turn to Christ in faith (a faith that would be manifest in obedience as well), but it was also necessary to become Jews through circumcision and obey the Law of Moses. It was not their message about Jesus himself that was different, but their message about the required response. Still, Paul describes such a message as “another gospel” – a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9). This suggests Wright is working with a truncated version of the gospel when he strictly limits its contents to statements about Jesus and resists including within the gospel message the parts that explain how – on what terms – it becomes good news for us. Paul anathematizes the false teachers in Galatia for preaching a false gospel when the primary difference seems to have been regarding the necessary response to Christ’s death, resurrection and lordship, not Christ’s nature or role as Lord or the narrative of his death and resurrection.

In fact, there are a number of other texts that suggest that in an important sense the gospel message is in fact a message about us. In Galatians 3:8 Paul indicates that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” Here the gospel is not only identified with God’s promise to bless all the nations (Genesis 12:3), but Paul says it is based on God’s intention to justify the Gentiles by faith. So the gospel is not only a story about Jesus Christ, but also has to do with the blessings we receive and with justification in particular. Wright wants to sharply distinguish between the gospel and the doctrine of justification. He emphasizes that the preaching of the gospel is not the same as the message of justification. He is right to say they are not synonymous but implies a greater distinction between them than Paul’s own language suggests. Galatians 3:8 is exhibit A to that effect. The whole argument of his letters to the Romans and Galatians also reinforces the strong relationship between the two. Surely one of Paul’s purposes in the writing of Romans is to expound his understanding of the gospel for the sake of Roman Christians who have no first-hand knowledge of it. The gospel is what Paul is talking about both in Romans 1:1-6 and in 1:14-17 and in 1:14-17 it is explicitly the relationship between the gospel and justification that is highlighted. Wright has argued that actual the nature of the gospel is given in 1:1-6 and that 1:14-17 brings in the related but different issue of its effects. But the bulk of Romans 1-8 (at least) is dedicated to unpacking the contents of 1:16-17 and the understanding of justification that flows from Habakkuk 2:4, Genesis 16:5 and other OT texts (see the outline for chapters 1-8 in Cranfield’s commentaries and the discussion of the relationship between 1:16-17 and the following chapters (especially 3:21-22) in the first chapter of Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith). When Paul wants to expose the Romans to the nature of his preaching of the gospel he spends a large chunk of his time explaining his understanding of justification.

A similar thing happens in Galatians. In Galatians 1:8-9 Paul makes it clear he is concerned about people preaching a different gospel, a false gospel. In Galatians 1:11-12 he emphasizes the divine rather than human origin of his gospel message. The fact that Paul gives so much attention to the issue of justification in 2:16-5:11 is because his gospel can hardly be separated from his teaching on justification. Paul’s gospel and his teaching on justification are not exactly the same thing, but, to steal the language of the Chalcedonian definition on the two natures of Christ, one might say there is no “confusion, change, division, or separation" between justification and the gospel in Paul’s thought.

Romans 10 does a fine job of revealing the Christocentric nature of the gospel message as well as the fact that it includes an explanation of the required response to the message about Christ and is tied to justification so that while the message of the gospel may not be exactly the same as the doctrine of justification they are quite closely related. In Romans 10:5-18 the message of Christ’s death and resurrection is referred to as “the word of faith that we proclaim” (v. 8; this and other scriptural quotations in this posting are from the ESV). And Paul insists that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9). Note the scriptural verses Paul quotes from the OT to back up this understanding of the gospel in the following verses. In v. 11 Paul cites from Isaiah 28:16: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame" and in v. 13 he cites Joel 2:32: “"everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." In v. 15 he cites Nahum 1:15: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" In v. 16 he points out that “not all obeyed the gospel.” The texts from Isaiah and Joel, like the quote from Genesis 12:3 in Galatians 3, stress the role of and the blessings experienced by those who believe, those who call on the name of the Lord. The Nahum text confirms that what Paul has been discussing throughout the passage is the preaching of the gospel – “the good news.”

While this posting focuses on Wright’s view of the contents of the gospel message and not on the strengths and weaknesses of his views on justification (despite the close relationship between the two) I feel the need to point out in passing that I think Wright is also wrong to argue that justification is not entrance language. (“Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian” What Saint Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997], p. 125.) God’s declaration that we are righteous is a speech act which actually makes it so, rather than simply a recognition of something that was already true before the statement is made. Wright seems to recognize this on page 98 of What Saint Paul Really Said (“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”; emphases his), but the rest of his discussion leaves that insight behind. We could also bring up the evidence pointed out by Simon Gathercole and others that E.P. Sanders’ understanding of first century Judaism (which Wright seems to accept without qualification) does not do justice to all the evidence available (see Simon J. Gathercole, Where Is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]). Again, a full full-fledged discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s understanding of justification would require a much longer treatment and will not be undertaken here.

Wright often uses a rhetoric that of the type “It [whatever the theological topic is] is not this [whatever the common view has been] but that [his new understanding]. Usually I find myself agreeing that he has put his finger on something very important and has made a point that needed to be made. Often, however, I also conclude that his new dichotomy does not really do full justice to the issue. In this case he is right to point out that the gospel does not consist of an abstract theory of salvation and is not really about us and our blessings, but about Christ – his death, resurrection and reign – but it also includes the blessings that our ours as by faith we participate in his death, resurrection and reign. And the nature of the appropriate response to the message about Christ is essential enough to the gospel itself that to get that wrong is to preach a different gospel, a false one. I’m grateful for Wright’s informed and stimulating writings on so many important issues even though I don’t think he always gets things exactly right. But then I don’t suppose I do either. Through much of my Christian life I’m sure my own understanding and teaching of the gospel reinforced the idea that I was at the center of God’s universe (good old “cat theology”) and failed to emphasize the point that Christ is the center of the universe and to understand that is to understand that life only makes sense if he is at the center of our own personal universe as well. Did I really understand the gospel back then? Well, yes and no…

No comments:

Post a Comment