Last night, I asked N.T. Wright a question in front of 1,000 scholars.
For those unaware of N.T. Wright (how could you be?), he is perhaps the best-known theologian in the world. If you are having a television story on historical Jesus or Paul issues, you will most likely want to have N.T. Wright featured. His popular level books sell in high numbers (The Challenge of Jesus, Surprised by Hope, Justification, etc.). His trilogy (The NT and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and Resurrection and the Son of God) is core work to be reckoned with.
Wright gave a lecture and took questions on the subject of justification in the thought of Paul. The idea is how we are justified or made right in the sight of God. Since the room was full of scholars who have an awareness of traditions and schools of thought already, Wright mostly summarized how he came to his views.
He started with a view, in his evangelical youth, that he now recognizes as mostly Lutheran in character. The Jews in the Old Testament earned their way by law-keeping, it didn’t work, now God has given us plan B called grace. That’s pretty close to the way Wright described it.
The moral anarchy of the 1960’s led Wright to question a view of law that is so negative.
He then read Calvin and became converted to a more positive view of law. From Calvin he learned that God’s way with humanity is one way and not two or three or a series of dispensations. And law was given as a gift to those who were already redeemed, who had already walked through the water and had the promised land to look forward to. Law is for believers. Wright didn’t mention it, but the way this view works out in practice is that only the so-called moral laws of the Pentateuch apply today.
To make a long story short, Wright’s ideas became sharpened when he considered Romans 10:3, “Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”
A thought occurred to Wright. The righteousness of their own is not fastidious law-keeping as Luther and others had assumed. It is the idea that Jewish identity in and of itself makes one righteous or acceptable to God. The problem with this idea is that Gentiles will never be able to be right with God unless they become, through circumcision and conversion, Jews.
Wright’s understanding now of justification, which falls into the category of the New Perspective on Paul (a category in which there is still variation, but which views Paul as a faithful Jew), includes the following:
(1) Being “in Christ” is more important for Paul than justification.
(2) Present justification is God’s announcement that currently he grants the verdict of innocence to all who believe.
(3) Future or final justification will be a judgment by works a la Romans 2:6-7 (the synoptic gospels also, 2 Corinthians 5, James, and many other places also).
(4) Paul’s great concern is for the total unity of the people of Messiah as one congregation.
I am with Wright on most of these points. The problem for me comes in how we apply the last one.
Wright has not thoroughly thought through some issues here. In his Anglican context it is easy for him to see a single community without distinctions perhaps.
But what about Jewish people who follow Yeshua.
So here was my question, “What about Messianic Jews? How do you see this working out for us who desire to be faithful to Torah and Christ so that our yes to Jesus is not a no to God?”
First, let me say that Wright was gracious and sensitive. He said that this issue calls for dialogue between Messianic Jews and Christians. He said the church has treated Messianic Jews badly, either as an embarrassment for those who see Jews as having their own covenant and path to God or as heterodox by those who denounce Torah observance.
Yet on a more disappointing note, Wright said that unity is too important for Paul for him to imagine a separate body of Messianic Jews in relation to the church. I say this is disappointing because Torah life is not possible without a community of shared values and Messianic Jews cannot give up connection to the broader Jewish world. A bilateral ecclesiology is necessary (the idea that the congregation of Messiah has two distinct parts: the Jewish and Gentile branches).
On an even more disappointing note, Wright said that even for Jews who follow Yeshua, we have to realize some of the Torah has been set aside. This is not because Torah was bad or insufficient, but that some measures were temporary due to the hardness of hearts. But Jesus, he said, has brought a cure for that hardness rendering such laws unnecessary.
I don’t think he thought this answer through carefully. It would be strange, for example, to argue that circumcision and Sabbath are now unnecessary since hearts are no longer hardened. Perhaps if we’d had more time, Wright could have clarified. Perhaps he views Sabbath and circumcision as still important for Jews who follow Yeshua. If so, I wonder if he has considered that Messianic Jews need their own community.
My point in sharing all this here is to say that Christian theology, in many places, is moving closer to a Torah-friendly view and away from supersessionism. I don’t think Wright has fully made the journey. Others have gone further. But he is trying and is sensitive to anti-Judaism in church theology. He did mention in his remarks that he agreed it is important for Messianic Jews to be faithful to God’s calling. I hope this indicates he is at least conflicted about what that should look like.
Meanwhile, the Old Perspective on Paul, which equates law-keeping with legalism, is shrinking, and this is a good thing.
Perhaps we are seeing in our days the beginning of the coming together of Christians and Jews. A relationship between faithful Jews and Christians must increase. Here at the Society of Biblical Literature, I am encouraged to see the interaction.