Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, Louisiana
Paul in Different Perspectives
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Lecture 1: Starting Points and Opening Reflections
3 January 2005
Thank you for your warm welcome and generous hospitality. It is an enormous pleasure for Maggie and myself to be here in Monroe for the first time. I am particularly grateful to those who have worked very hard to set this conference up and make it all happen.
I want in this opening session to set some parameters for our subsequent discussion, and in particular to put some cards firmly and clearly on the table about my starting points, my fixed points in reading Paul, and my aims in expounding his theology. I am aware – and it is a matter of some irony in my mind – that my own views on Paul have been the subject of far more interest and debate in America, and within churches other than my own, than they have in England, or within worldwide Anglicanism. I do sometimes catch myself wondering, ‘Why should I worry if one branch of American Presbyterianism wants to fight another branch about whether I’m a good thing or a bad thing?’; rather as though two baseball fans were to argue about the respective merits of a cricket player. One answer is, I guess, that since I think my own reading of Paul represents a historically grounded and theologically accurate and sensitive understanding I naturally hope that other Christians of whatever tradition will find what I say fruitful, and I grieve that anyone should get into trouble in their own denomination, whatever that may be, for embracing a viewpoint which ought at the very least to be within anybody’s limits of orthodoxy. I suppose, though, that part at least of the reason I am concerned about all this is that within my own church I have engaged in a lifelong struggle to get Paul back on to the agenda, and to allow his vision of God in Christ, of the cross and resurrection, and justification by faith, to become once more part of the bloodstream of a church that was founded on them but has done its best to forget the fact. My church grew directly out of the sixteenth-century Reformation, and even where I have disagreed with some of the Reformers’ particular proposals I believe I have remained true to their foundational principles. And, indeed, I want now to begin the first section of this lecture with a quote from the first and perhaps the greatest of the English reformers, the one from whom I most securely learnt the formal principle which underlies all my reading not only of Paul but of the whole of scripture.
1. No Syllable Altered
That formal principle is, of course, a total commitment to scripture itself, over against all human traditions, all structures created by human reason, all abstractions from the actual text. Of course, I read scripture within various traditions, I use reason in thinking about it, I make my own abstractions from the text as I go along. I am not a naive positivist, as some appear to think. But at every point one must come back to the text itself, the whole text, and in the last analysis nothing but the text. I have in mind in particular at this point a saying which has accompanied me through my whole adult life, a line from the early English reformer William Tyndale. The first research project I undertook as a postgraduate was a edition – the first one since the 1570s – of the work of Tyndale’s friend and colleague John Frith, a cheerful young scholar and devout Protestant Christian who was burnt at the stake two years before Tyndale, in 1533. As Frith lay in prison awaiting his fate, Tyndale, in exile in Belgium, wrote him two letters. The concern both men had shared, working at full stretch against all the odds, had been to get the Bible in English into the common life of the church and people. Many were suspicious of this attempt, preferring to control what people thought scripture contained rather than to allow it free rein and full force, an attitude some of you here know only too well. Tyndale rejects such suspicions. In his first letter to Frith, dated probably in January 1533, he writes this memorable sentence, which was etched upon my mind and heart long before I became a Bible translator myself. ‘I call God to record,’ he writes, ‘against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honour, pleasure or riches, might be given me.’ I think of that sentence when I read and preach from scripture. I recalled it as I stood before Tyndale’s statue on the Thames Embankment before I went into No. 10 Downing Street to accept a senior appointment in the Church of England. I have recalled it a thousand times as I have struggled in my own work to express in clear, crisp contemporary English as close as I can get to the Greek of Paul, Mark, Luke and the rest. As far as I’m concerned, Tyndale’s principle is exactly right – even if he did not always, in our judgment today, live up to it himself. It’s not easy; it is again and again a matter of close judgment. But it is judgment informed not only by scholarship but also by conscience. Not one syllable must be changed. That is what it means to speak of ‘sola scriptura’ and to mean it.
It is for that reason that I begin my reflections with a single syllable at the heart of Romans 3. Indeed, in this case it is a single letter in Greek, the letter e, eta. In 3.29–30 Paul writes e Ioudaion ho theos monon? ouchi kai ethnon? nai kai ethnon, eiper heis ho theos hos dikaiosei peritomen ek pisteos kai akrobustian dia tes pisteos. That opening single letter, e, translates into a single syllable in English, this time with two letters: Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one, and will justify circumcision on the ground of faith and uncircumcision through faith. It would be interesting to study the various translations and commentaries and see what different traditions have done with that opening e, that connecting ‘or’. Sadly, Tyndale himself, followed by the King James version, omits it altogether. Several of the classic commentaries find it very puzzling. Paul has been talking about how sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law; why does he suddenly shift here to an apparently different topic, that of the equality before God of Jews and Gentiles? Some, indeed, have expounded the passage as though verses 29–30 did not exist, as though the paragraph stopped with verse 28. But Paul has written e; the Holy Spirit has inspired that single syllable, that single letter; and are we going to ignore it?
The answer, of course, is that for Paul there is an intimate connection between God’s free justification of sinners through the death of Jesus and on the basis of faith, on the one hand, and God’s creation, on the other hand, of a new family composed of Jews and Gentiles alike. We can well understand that the Reformers themselves, faced with the urgent challenge of a deeply corrupt Roman Catholicism, rightly wanted to emphasize the first rather than the second. But in sharing their formal principle of sola scriptura we are bound to highlight what is there in the text, syllable by syllable, even if they did not. And for Paul that little e is a crucial, tell-tale indication of where his actual argument is going. Its point is simply this: that if God were to justify people on any other ground than faith, then he would after all be God of the Jews only, and not of Gentiles also. And unless we are prepared to think through why that is so, and to grasp the fact that this is where the whole paragraph is going – in other words, unless we see that Romans 3.21–31 as it stands, syllable by syllable, in the text of inspired scripture, is driving towards this point, which is then massively supported by the whole of chapter 4, and that this point is not a side-issue, an ‘extra implication’ of a gospel which is about something quite different – then the formal principle of all reformation-inspired theology has been sacrificed on the altar of our own traditions.
Let’s take another example. In Galatians 2.16 we have another single-syllable word, this time of two letters: the little connective de, normally meaning a gentle ‘but’ or ‘yet’. Listen to what Paul writes, starting a verse earlier: We are Jews by birth, not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the Law, but through the faith of Jesus the Messiah (let’s leave that question open for the moment; whether it means ‘faith in’ or ‘the faithfulness of’ does not affect my present point). What is the point of that ‘yet’, that single syllable which as a good heir of the Reformation I am determined not to alter against my conscience, even though sadly once again both Tyndale and the King James version omit it? The sentence itself, never mind the wider context, gives the clear answer: to be ‘justified by works of the Law’ would mean a status of privilege for Jews over against Gentiles. The wider context explains that this is indeed what Paul is talking about: he is not offering a theory of salvation, nor yet an ordo salutis per se, but rather a bold and frank statement, in relation to the behaviour of Peter, Barnabas and the others at Antioch, of why it is that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, not least uncircumcised Gentile Christians, belong at the same table. Galatians 2.16 is the first time in Paul’s writings he mentions justification by faith, and he does so in order to insist that all those who believe in Jesus the Messiah are equally members of God’s family. The question which dominates the whole letter from this point on is: who are the true children of Abraham, the single family whom God promised to him? And the answer is: all those who believe in Jesus the Messiah, whose faith is the only badge of membership that counts. All of this flows from taking seriously that little syllable de in 2.16.
I could go to other examples, but time is short and I merely refer to them in passing: we could take gar in Romans 10.12, for instance, or – to go up to two syllables! – dio in Ephesians 2.11. A third example to make the point, I hope, even clearer. Another single-syllable word, gar, in Romans 10.12. How does the passage go? Verse 11 declares that one believes in Jesus’ resurrection with the heart ‘unto righteousness’, and confesses Jesus’ lordship with the lips ‘unto salvation’ – as opposed, as we know from earlier in the passage, to keeping the works of the Law. Verse 12 then explains this (the function of gar always being to explain something that has just gone before): ou gar estin diastole Ioudaion te kai Hellenos; ho gar autos kyrios panton. The explanation as to why righteousness comes through faith in Jesus’ resurrection and salvation through confession that he is Lord is that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord is Lord of all. This is of course exactly the same point as we saw in Romans 3.29, only now worked out in relation to the particular argument of chapters 9—11, building on and developing the earlier themes of the letter. I dare not alter that gar, that explanation of justification by faith in terms of the coming together of Jew and Gentile into a single family. It stands in the scripture which God has inspired by his Spirit, and I am committed to giving it full weight.
Permit me a final example, this time another three-letter word but with two syllables: dio. It comes in Ephesians 2.11, and indeed Ephesians, which I take to be by Paul in the teeth of the scholarly fashion of the last hundred years, provides as a whole an excellent study in how to take seriously not only the bits of Paul which sustain our particular traditions but the bits which challenge us to go deeper. In this instance, the word connects together the two halves of the chapter, 2.1–10 and 2.11–21. The first half provides a classic statement of the fact that all humankind, Jew as well as Gentile, is enslaved to sin in body and mind, and of the fact that it is by God’s mercy and love that we are forgiven our sins and saved from wrath. ‘By grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God; not because of works, lest anyone should boast’. A central statement of a great Pauline theme to stand beside anything from Romans and Galatians. Paul then immediately writes dio, ‘therefore’: `Therefore remember that you Gentiles, having once been separated from the covenant family of God’s people, have been brought into membership through the sacrificial death, the blood, of the Messiah.’ I must do justice to that dio if I am to stand before God as a reader and interpreter of inspired scripture; and as I do so I discover, reading on to the end of the chapter and the start of chapter 3, that this coming together of Jew and Gentile is not one incidental spin-off from grace and justification, not just one interesting result among many, but that it lies at the very heart of Paul’s gospel, by his own definition: that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise through Messiah Jesus.
I thus discover that my call, my Reformational call, to be a faithful reader and interpreter of scripture impels me to take seriously the fact, to which many writers in the last two hundred years have called attention, that whenever Paul is talking about justification by faith he is also talking about the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the single people of God. I did not make this up; it is there in the God-given texts. I do not draw from this observation the conclusion that some have done (I think particularly of Wrede and Schweitzer), namely that justification is itself a mere secondary doctrine, called upon for particular polemical purposes but not at the very centre of Paul’s thought. On the contrary: since the creation, through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, of this single multi-ethnic family, the family God promised to Abraham, the family justified, declared to be in the right, declared to be God’s people, on the basis of faith alone, the family whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Messiah in their place and on their behalf, the family who constitute the first-fruits of the new creation that began with the bodily resurrection of Jesus – since the creation of this family was the aim and goal of all Paul’s work, and since this work was by its very nature polemical, granted the deeply suspicious pagan world on the one hand and the deeply Law-based Jewish world on the other, it was natural and inevitable that Paul’s apostolic work would itself involve polemical exposition of the results of the gospel, and that justification by faith, as itself a key polemical doctrine, would find itself at the centre when he did so. That which God has joined, joined not least through the single little syllables which serve as the tiny rudders for the large ship of his holy word, let us not put asunder. And since these little words join together whole arguments, let us pay attention to the actual arguments Paul mounts, not to three or four verses snatched out of their real-life, God-given contexts. This is my first appeal to you, an appeal which is for the Reformation principle of sola scriptura to have its way again over against all our human traditions.
2. No Other Lord
My second section is an appeal that we take seriously, in reading Paul, his own central emphasis on Jesus as the world’s true Lord. Sola Scriptura must lead, and in Paul obviously does lead, to Solus Christus. In the Reformation this slogan functioned not least as a warning against the insertion into theology or spirituality of other potential mediators between God and human beings, meaning the saints and in particular Mary. I regard this as a still important task, and in my own work within the last year or two I have devoted some time to restating the Reformers’ view of sainthood and defending it not only in print, not only in a rather sharp commentary on the Anglican-Roman agreed statement on Mary, but also in vital liturgical debates in the Church of England’s General Synod. I wave these credentials before you as a sign that I still regard that particular Reformation battle as urgent and vital.
But it is not something we find stressed in Paul. He is not worried that some of his converts may start giving special honour to some dead Christians over others; nor is he aware of Mary and her supposed ‘mediation’ in the task of salvation. Jesus was born of a woman, he says in Galatians 4.4; that is his only mention of her. But his insistence on Jesus as the world’s true and only Lord is central and vital. Let me spell this out in four subsections, each of which is very important within any attempt to get to the heart of Paul.
First, when Paul uses the word ‘gospel’, this is the very centre of what he is referring to: the annoucement that Jesus, the crucified Jew from Nazareth, has been raised from the dead by the creator God, and has been exalted as Lord of the world, claiming allegiance from all alike, Jew and Gentile, great and small, from Caesar on his throne to the poorest child of the humblest slave in the farthest corners of the world. For Paul, what he means by ‘the gospel’ is not, despite some of our current usage, the description of a way of salvation; it is not an account of how you can reorder your private spirituality; it is not an ordo salutis. ‘The gospel’ is not, in particular, identical with the doctrine of justification. ‘The gospel’ is not itself the same thing as the revelation of God’s righteousness; that revelation takes place within the gospel, so that when the gospel is announced God’s righteousness is indeed unveiled; but ‘the gospel’ itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world. Notice how this works out in Romans, and again we must pay attention to what scripture says rather than to what our traditions would have preferred it to say. Paul describes his gospel in 1.3–4; then, in 1.16–17, he explains why he is not ashamed of this gospel, because in it God’s righteousness is unveiled. Those of us who grew up in the Reformation tradition were often taught, implicitly if not explicitly, (a) that 1.16–17 is the first statement of justification by faith, which then becomes the main theme of the letter, (b) that justification by faith is what Paul means by ‘the gospel’, and (c) that 1.3–4 is a detached statement of an early credal formula put in at that point for some reason but not central either to Paul’s thought or to the message of the letter. I well remember the struggle I had, intellectually and spiritually, back in the mid 1970s, as I realised that each of those three points had to be challenged in the name of careful, faithful and accurate exegesis of what Paul actually wrote. My continuing commitment to reading 1.3–4 as Paul’s opening statement of the gospel itself, 1.16–17 as a statement of the unveiling of God’s own righteousness, which in turn results in justification by faith but is a much bigger thing altogether, and the consequent difference between ‘the gospel’ and ‘justification by faith’, without diminution or derogation of the latter – that continuing commitment has justified itself, if I can put it like that, by so many further exegetical and theological insights that have flowed directly from it that I could not dream of going back on it. Solus Christus: the Messiah himself, not any truth about myself, not even about my salvation, is the centre of Paul’s gospel.
The second thing to say about the universal Lordship of Jesus Christ in Paul is what we today call the political meaning. In several passages, when Paul says that Jesus is Lord one of the many meanings of that is that Caesar is not. I have written about this extensively elsewhere and haven’t got time to develop it further at the moment, except to point out that for Paul’s hearers the word ‘gospel’ itself, applied to the message about Jesus, would have carried this implication, since along with its meaning in Isaiah 40 and 52, which stand in the background of Paul’s own thinking, the word euangelion was in first-century use as the ‘good news’ of the accession, or the birthday, of the Emperor. Part of the meaning of Solus Christus for today is that we recapture Paul’s insistence that Jesus is the world’s Lord; that, as Jesus himself said, all authority not only in heaven but also on earth has been given to him. The churches in the western world have hardly begun to address the question of what this might mean in practice, and when they have tried they have often got it badly wrong. But unless we make the effort we are not simply missing out a marginal element in Paul’s preaching. We are being disloyal to the gospel itself, to the message that the crucified Messiah is the Lord of the world.
Third, Paul’s gospel of Jesus and his lordship stands over against all kinds of relativism. Again, there is no time to develop this tonight. Relativism has been a major creed in the western world since the eighteenth century. Sometimes it has even been assumed that it is a necessary part of Christian faith itself. It goes, of course, with the Enlightenment’s favourite virtue, ‘tolerance’. In this respect at least, postmodernity has simply increased the pressure, as the only virtue allowed in many parts of our world is the virtue of recognising that we are all different. Now Paul lived in a highly relativistic world, not least in terms of its various religions. Religious pluralism and syncretism was the order of the day right across the ancient world, with the notable exception of Judaism (and even that was contested in various ways). And it was of the very essence of his work that he established communities of people who were loyal to Jesus as Messiah and Lord and therefore ceased to take part in the other local cults, state religions, mystery cults and so on that their neighbours continued to patronize. The unity of this new community was therefore central and vital, since division would reflect, again and again, ethnic and cultural differences within the Body of Christ. This is where the so-called new perspective on Paul, in one at least of its manifestations, makes a decisive contribution to our understanding of Paul today. When Paul appeals, not for ‘tolerance’, but for that love that accepts a fellow Christian across ethnic and cultural boundaries, he is not, as many have supposed, weakening his ethical stance by allowing that some people see things this way and others that. In the same way, when he insists that one is not justified by works of the law, he is not saying that Christian behaviour doesn’t matter. He isn’t arguing for a laissez-faire tolerance in matters of ethics. His expositions of mutual Christian acceptance in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 are the direct outflowing of justification by faith itself, and they have nothing to do with a relativism or an Enlightenment-style tolerance, but everything to do with saying precisely that Jesus and he alone is Lord – which is of course then at the root of his ethic itself, the most bracing and exhilarating ethic the world has ever known. Thus, whenever I am asked what I think about the so-called ‘other faiths’, which I often am, including on radio shows and the like, one of the things I normally say is that Krishna didn’t die for me, that Buddha didn’t rise again, that Mohammad ruled out as an impossibility what to me is the very centre of my life, that in Jesus Christ the one true God became human and lived, died and rose again for the world’s salvation, and for mine. That is what Solus Christus must say when faced with relativism.
Fourth, Paul’s insistence on Solus Christus comes fully into its own, of course, in his theology of the accomplishment of Jesus in his death and resurrection. There is at this point a strange theory doing the rounds, according to which all of us who have adopted some variety of the so-called new perspective on Paul are, by definition, weak or vague on Paul’s atonement theology. The thinking seems to go like this: all new perspective writers are basically liberals in disguise (not least since they adopt some positions also adopted by some liberals a hundred years ago); liberals tend to be wooly or vague on the atonement; some new perspective writers are also wooly or vague on the atonement; therefore all new perspective writers must be wooly and vague on the atonement. And therefore, I discover, I am criticized in some quarters in exactly these terms. Frankly, I don’t know whether to be offended or amused by this. I am the author of the longest ever exposition and defence, certainly in modern times, of the view that Jesus himself made Isaiah 53, the greatest atonement-chapter in the Old Testament, the clearest statement of penal substitution in the whole of the Bible, central to his own self-understanding and vocation, and I have spelled out the meaning of that, in the sustained climax of my second longest book, in great detail. I have done my NT scholarship in a world where battle-lines were drawn up very clearly on this topic: those who want to avoid penal substitution at all costs have done their best to argue that Jesus did not refer to Isaiah 53, and I have refuted that attempt at great length and, I trust, with proper weight. What is more, I have expounded the truth of Jesus’ death ‘in our place’ from the very first sermon I preached, in Passiontide 1972, when I spoke to a small congregation on the faith of the dying brigand who turned to Jesus on the cross and saw him as the innocent one dying the death of the guilty. I have several volumes of sermons in print, and in many of them you will find sermons on the cross expounding this view of the atonement. If you look at my biblical commentaries, whether scholarly or popular, you will find the same thing. It is therefore bizarre to be told, in a recent book criticizing me on this and on several other counts, that my statements remain ‘vague’, just because I do not subscribe to a particular Reformed way of talking about imputed righteousness, about which we shall have more to say later, and just because I, like Paul himself in many passages, highlight the Christus Victor theme rather than penal substitution, even though when you ask how the powers of evil were defeated Paul’s answer is of course that God condemned them. Again, I invoke the Tyndale principle: I am determined to read exactly what is there in scripture, not to miss a thing on the one hand but not to insert things either into texts which do not state them.
That is why, for instance, I have been very careful to say that in Romans 8.3, where the penal note is struck firmly by Paul himself, the point is that on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of his own Son. He does not say that God condemned the Son, though of course in physical and historical terms that is what it amounted to. That is why, as well, he declares in 2 Corinthians 5.21 that God made him to be sin for us, while adding a caveat that he knew no sin. And that is why, in particular, I insist on paying attention to the actual argument in Galatians 3.10–14, rather than seizing upon a few phrases there and making them support a systematic position which is not what Paul is at that point talking about. I have to point out, in fact, that there is no single passage in Paul where he says all, or even most, of what he believes about what happened on the cross. It is of course possible to present penal substitution in such a way as to remain open, if not even to invite, the kind of riposte which liberal theology has traditionally made, namely that it makes God look like a bloodthirsty tyrant who wants to kill someone and doesn’t much mind who. I have been accused of all kinds of things on this score from the liberal side, but I stand my ground because Paul stands his, even though some who agree with me in formulation have strange ways of putting things which make me embarrassed to be associated with them. But precisely because I believe that God gave us, through Paul, the letters we have, rather than the books of systematic theology which we have deduced from them (necessary though that task of theology obviously is), I have insisted and shall insist on understanding the full sweep of the letters themselves, giving exact and due weight to the statements and arguments that are actually being mounted, instead of ransacking them to fight in-house battles between rival schools of interpretation.
The crucial thing here, I believe, is that the Solus Christus of the Reformation struck a blow, not always understood by the successors of the Reformers, for a thoroughly eschatological understanding of the gospel. Solus Christus is a way of saying that the entire world turned its critical corner when God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus the Messiah and then when God began the new creation in his resurrection, the new creation which was at last possible because the forces of corruption, decay and death had been defeated on Good Friday. That, incidentally, is a theme not sufficiently noticed within Reformed theology and exposition of Paul, but it is one of his greatest subjects, fully integrated of course with everything else. More of that anon.
For me, therefore, Sola Scriptura leads straight to Solus Christus, and Solus Christus cashes out in terms of the meaning of the word ‘gospel’ itself, the political declaration that Jesus is Lord, the stance over against relativism ancient and modern, and the centrality of the cross where God condemned sin once and for all. I stress again that I am not saying anything new here, but only drawing together themes, particularly that of the cross, which have been front and centre in my praying, my preaching, my pastoral work and my scholarship throughout my adult life. I regret that the in-house polemics of some recent writers have suggested otherwise, and hope that the record may hereby be set straight.
3. The Glory of God
I pass from Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus to Soli Deo Gloria, saving the other obvious slogan for later. I want to insist that the great unmentioned subject at the heart of much of Pauline theology is God himself. I shall have more to say about this in the second lecture, when I shall be expounding the way in which Paul took the classic Jewish monotheistic belief about God and rethought it in the light of Christ and the Spirit. But I note, for our present purposes, that the times when Paul most fully and elaborately celebrates the glory, the sole glory, of the one true God are the times when he has presented his gospel, not as a message about how individuals get saved from sin and death, though that is of course taken for granted, but as the message about how God has brought Jew and Gentile together into one body. I refer of course principally to the end of Romans 11, where it is the strange plan of God, expressing both his kindness and his severity to Jew and Gentile alike, that calls forth the final paean of praise. But to this we must at once add Romans 15.1–13, where, at the end of the theological exposition proper of the entire letter, Paul states this as his great aim: that together you, Jew and Gentile alike, may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (15.6). The mutual welcome which is mandatory within the body of Christ, the coming together of Christians across the boundaries of race, class, gender and culture, was predicted in the Old Testament, and according to Paul has now been accomplished as people from all the world place their hope in the Root of Jesse who rises to rule the nations. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, he shouts in exultation in Philippians 2.11, to the glory of God the Father.
Why does Paul see God being glorified specifically by the joint salvation of people of different races? For Paul, as a theologian rooted in the early chapters of Genesis, God is glorified when human beings become truly themselves through the grace and power of the gospel. God created humans to bear his image in the world; and, when that image is restored through the Image himself, Jesus Christ, and through the work of the Spirit, the living God is glorified as he is reflected into the world. That is why, in a connection we cannot emphasize too highly, the sin of humans, whereby they lost the glory of God (Romans 1.18–25; 3.23, which sums up that earlier passage), is reversed when Abraham believes God, gives him the glory, and trusts that he is able to do what he has promised (4.18–21). That is part of the larger logic of Romans 1—4 as a whole, which is why we must read the section in its entirety to see what Paul is really on about. This is where, as one aspect of the glory of God, we meet the theme of God’s over-arching plan of salvation, the saving plan for the whole cosmos, within which the saving plan for human beings is one part, albeit obviously a vital part, not only because our own salvation is rightly a cause of concern but because it is through the salvation of human beings in the present time that the larger plan is taken forward – just as it is through Israel that God intends to save the rest of the human race, and now that it is through Jesus the Messiah that this Israel-purpose has been fulfilled. At the centre of it all, you see, is the Jewish belief, implicit in a thousand first-century texts, not just in Paul, that God called Abraham in order that through his family he might undo the sin of Adam. This is what the covenant is all about, and why as Moses rightly saw God’s own glory is at stake when the covenant appears to have failed (as at the Golden Calf incident). ‘If you let us die in the wilderness, the Egyptians will hear of it; and then what will you do for your great name?’ The covenant which God made with Abraham, the covenant within which all other subsequent covenants (with Moses, with David) are in their different ways subsumed, is the vital missing piece of the jigsaw through which the false antithesis between ‘juridical’ and ‘participationist’ theological schemes are brought together into a fully Pauline single whole; and that falling-apart of categories, juridical and participationist, is itself one of the things that has brought dishonour to God, rather than glory, in the theology and exegesis of the last few generations. The covenant was there to deal with the evil in the world; in other words, to advance the glory of God the creator.
That is why God’s covenantal action has a central and non-negotiable juridical aspect, in two ways. First, it is part of the covenant, part of God’s plan of salvation, that he should judge and condemn idolatry, sin and death itself; this is after all vital if God, the creator, is to be glorified for creation and new creation, rather than being vilified because creation itself seems to have been a gigantic blunder. This is in fact part of the Jewish and Pauline doctrine of the tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosyne theou, God’s righteousness, God’s being-in-the-right. Second, it is part of the covenant, God’s glorious plan of salvation for the world, that through the gospel he should call men, women and children to confess that Jesus is Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead, and thereupon to declare, forensically, that is, as though in a lawcourt, that they are in the right, that their sins have been forgiven, that they are part of his true, single, worldwide family, and that this status in all its aspects will be reaffirmed at the final judgment. Embrace Paul’s covenantal theology and you get the juridical theme not only thrown in but highlighted so that we can see it all clearly; and, with it, we can see clearly that this is indeed the means whereby God, the creator, will bring glory to his own name.
But, equally, the covenant plan of God has what may loosely be called a ‘participationist’ aspect, and this, too, is part of the glorification of God, as I have already shown from Romans 15. Abraham’s true family, the single ‘seed’ which God promised him, is summed up in the Messiah, whose role precisely as Messiah is not least to draw together the identity of the whole of God’s people so that what is true of him is true of them and vice versa. Here we arrive at one of the great truths of the gospel, which is that the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him’. This is the truth which has been expressed within the Reformed tradition in terms of ‘imputed righteousness’, often stated in terms of Jesus Christ having fulfilled the moral law and thus having accumulated a ‘righteous’ status which can be shared with all his people. As with some other theological problems, I regard this as saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong way, and the trouble when you do that is that things on both sides of the equation, and the passages which are invoked to support them, become distorted. The central passage is in fact Romans 6, and I think it is because much post-reformation theology has tended to fight shy of taking seriously Paul’s realistic theology of baptism that it has sought to achieve what Paul describes in that chapter and elsewhere by another route. The Messiah died to sin; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have died to sin. The Messiah rose again and is now ‘alive to God’; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have risen again and are now ‘alive to God’. This is what Paul means in Galatians 3 when he says that as many as have been baptised in to the Messiah have put on the Messiah, and that if we thus belong to the Messiah we are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. There is indeed a status which is reckoned to all God’s people, all those in Christ; and this status is that of dikaiosune, ‘righteousness’, ‘covenant membership’; and this covenant membership, in order to be covenant membership, must be a covenant membership in which the members have died and been raised, because until that has happened they would still be in their sins. ‘I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God; I have been crucified with the Messiah; nevertheless I live; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’. If this is what you are trying to get at by the phrase ‘imputed righteousness’, then I not only have no quarrel with the substance of it but rather insist on it as a central and vital part of Paul’s theology. What I do object to is calling this truth by a name which, within the world of thought where it is common coin, is bound to be heard to say that Jesus has himself earned something called ‘righteousness’, and that he then reckons this to be true of his people (as in the phrase ‘the merits of Christ’), whereas on my reading of Paul the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus is that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection; and, particularly, that this is what Paul means when he speaks of ‘God’s righteousness’, as though that phrase denoted the righteous status which God’s people have in virtue of justification, whereas in fact the phrase, always and everywhere else from the Psalms and Isaiah onwards, refers to God’s own righteousness as the creator and covenant God; and, underneath all of this, I object to the misreading of several key Pauline texts that results, and the marginalisation in consequence of themes which have major importance for Paul but which this theology manages to ignore. The mistake, as I see it, arises from the combination of the Reformers’ proper sense of something being accomplished in Christ Jesus which is then reckoned to us, allied with their overemphasis on the category of iustitia as the catch-all, their consequent underemphasis on Paul’s frequently repeated theology of our participation in the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and their failure to locate Paul’s soteriology itself on the larger map of God’s plan for the whole creation. A proper re-emphasis on ‘God’s righteousness’ as God’s own righteousness should set all this straight.
This, in fact, is at the heart of Paul’s theology of God’s glory, though because of the misreading of dikaosune theou from Martin Luther onwards it has routinely been misunderstood. Paul insists, in Romans above all, that the creator of the world, who has established his covenant with Abraham and has now fulfilled that covenant in Christ, is himself in the right, that he has demonstrated that decisively in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that he will demonstrate it finally when he gives resurrection life to his people and thereby rescues the whole cosmos from its bondage to decay to share the freedom of their glory. ‘We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’, he says in Romans 5.5, and by the end of chapter 8 we know what he means. Soli Deo Gloria is the cry that arises from a fully creational and fully covenantal exposition of Paul.
We shall return to this topic, I do not doubt, more than once over the next couple of days. All I want to suggest at the moment is that Paul’s view of God’s covenant plan, focussed on Jesus as the Messiah in whom God’s people are summed up and through whom, in their unity, they give glory and praise to the creator God who has made the whole human race of one blood – that this view of the covenant, and of God’s glory revealed through it, holds together juridical and participationist theology, and that some things which some post-reformation theology has dealt with through one of those two may better be seen as belonging with the other.
I conclude this section on God’s sole glory with the other obvious Pauline passage, 1 Corinthians 15.20–28. There, as in Romans 8, Paul allows the argument to mount higher and higher, with Jesus already reigning as Messiah and Lord until he has put all his enemies under his feet, in fulfilment of Psalm 8 and Psalm 110; and then, when the task is complete, and death itself is destroyed, he hands over the kingdom to the Father, becoming himself subject to the Father, so that God may be all in all. This is, obviously, very close to Philippians 2.11, and it shows once more that for Paul the sole glory of God is intimately bound up with the healing and restoration of the whole of creation, and within that with the rescue of human beings from sin and death so that they may be restored as God’s image-bearers.
I recognise that in this section of this lecture I have not gone the way many reformation theologians have gone with the topic of Soli Deo Gloria. I have not played off God’s glory against human glory, though that is of course implicit in the way the reformers meant it. I have tried to see what Paul himself means by the glory of God, and I have argued that he sees this glory displayed in the gospel events through which the covenant is fulfilled and creation is redeemed, and that, as one of Paul’s great patristic expositors insisted, the glory of God is then seen in the life of a human being who has been put to death and brought with Christ to new life. But all this propels me, none too soon, into my fourth section.
4. Solo Spiritu
My fourth section is something of a jeu d’esprit, in two senses: first, that it is an innovation into the Reformation list of ‘only’s, and second that it is about the Spirit, God’s Holy Spirit. I want to draw attention, as a way of homing in on questions of ordo salutis which will no doubt occupy us later, to the fact that Paul is quite clear about how human faith, faith in Jesus as the risen Lord, comes about: it comes about by the work of the Holy Spirit through the announcement of the gospel. This is of course another way of saying the more familiar Sola Gratia, but I want to run it this way round to make a particular point about what Paul believes actually happens when people come to faith.
First, as he says in 1 Corinthians 12, no-one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. This is crucial, because ‘Jesus is Lord’ is of course the baptismal confession, which Paul elsewhere highlights both as the confession which indicates that the confessor is saved (Romans 10.11) and as the confession which will one day be made by every creature in heaven, on earth and under the earth (Philippians 2.11). (Presumably on that day those who have refused to make the confession during the present life will not need the Spirit’s assistance on the last day, since at that point it will no longer be a matter of faith, but of clear sight.) The point for the moment is that Paul does not believe, as some within some protestant traditions have believed, that human beings have to come to faith by their own efforts and that only then does God give them the Spirit.
Second, Paul correlates this with his belief in the power of the word, a theme which does not often occur but when it does is extremely important. In 1 Thessalonians 1 and 2 he speaks of the word which has been at work, the sign that God has chosen them, the word which is not mere human words but the powerful divine word. (Once again Isaiah 40 and 55 are in the background, significantly passages which are also about ‘gospel’ and those who proclaim it.) Paul’s view seems to be that when the evangelist announces the ‘word’, God the Spirit works through that proclamation to bring people to faith. Paul has a very precise technical term which he uses to denote this moment, and it is not of course ‘justification’, but ‘call’. ‘Those he called, them he also justified.’
In particular, then, it is the gospel itself through which the Spirit is at work; that is, as I said before, the gospel not as the truth of justification by faith but as the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord – which is why, no doubt, the confession of that Lordship is seen by Paul as the first sign of the Spirit’s powerful work within the human heart and life. We should not underestimate what has happened through this work. It is not as though the gospel is the announcement simply of an odd fact that people happened not to know before – as, say, the information that the world is six billion trillion tons in weight, or that space is curved, or that elephants bury their dead, or any one of a thousand other odd things that not many people know but about which one might in principle come to be convinced by new information and/or good argument. The gospel was not like that. It was the announcement, within the world where Caesar reigned supreme, that a young Jewish prophet who had been crucified by the Roman authorities had been raised from the dead, a thing all pagans knew was impossible and absurd and all Jews knew should only happen at the end, and then to all people not to one in advance; and that this crucified and risen Jesus was the true Lord of the world. This makes no sense in terms of ancient or modern worldviews, which is of course why many then and now have tried to transform it into something more credible. Those of us who have believed the gospel from our earliest memories should not forget what an extraordinary privilege that is. And those who preach the gospel should never forget that for it to have any effect it must be driven by and accompanied with the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
But if the Holy Spirit is the one through whom people come to faith by the preaching of the word of the gospel, it is also clear that the Holy Spirit is the one through whom they move forward from that initial faith to the point where, on the day of the Messiah, they will find the work complete. Paul puts this graphically in Philippians 1 when he says that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ. Paul’s exposition of this in various passages leads directly to the statement of something he says again and again but which is routinely ignored when the eschatological framework of his doctrine of justification is forgotten: that on the last day the final judgment will be made on the evidence of the complete life that someone has led. Back once more to Sola Scriptura: one cannot avoid this conclusion unless you are prepared to scratch out not only Romans 2, about which the reformation tradition has developed several interesting avoidance techniques, but also Romans 14 and 2 Corinthians 5, not to mention sundry passages in Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. And what about Romans 8 itself? ‘If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live’; and this, at the heart of his great argument for assurance, that those whom God justified them he also glorified, the argument which runs from the start of Romans 5 to the end of Romans 8. We should not be mealy-mouthed at this, or pretend that Paul didn’t really mean it; if the Spirit has taken up residence in someone’s heart and life, bringing about faith in the risen Lord, then that person has begun a journey which will end, on the day of judgment, in the words ‘well done’, because as Paul himself says (though many of his interpreters have fought shy of it) those who are in the flesh cannot please God, but those who are in the Spirit, whose minds have been renewed so that they can discern God’s will, really do act in ways which please him. The attempt to shore up justification by faith by saying that the life we now live will be irrelevant at the final judgment is unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself. It was Paul, after all, who answered his own question about what would be his hope and joy and crown of boasting at the appearing of the Lord Jesus with the answer, not ‘the merits and death of Christ’, but the churches he had founded and maintained. ‘It’s you!’ he cries. ‘You are our glory and our joy!’ (1 Thess. 2.19f.)
What then shall we say about sola fide itself, around which all these other ‘only’s have been circling?
5. Sola Fide
I have only a short time, and will say this as briefly as I can. What is ‘justification by faith’ all about?
Paul’s answer is that it is the anticipation, in the present time, of the verdict which will be issued on the last day. Those who believe the gospel; those, that is, in whose hearts and lives the Spirit has been at work by the word to produce the faith that Jesus is Lord and the belief that God raised him from the dead – these people are assured, as soon as they believe, that they are dikaioi, in the right. They are declared to be righteous; the verb dikaioo has that declarative force, the sense of something being said which creates a new situation, as when a minister says ‘I pronounce that they are husband and wife’ or when a judge says ‘I declare that the defendant is not guilty’. They are then, because of God’s declaration, ‘righteous’ in the covenantal sense that they are members of the single family God promised to Abraham, in the forensic sense that the divine lawcourt has already announced its verdict in their case, and in the eschatological sense that this verdict properly anticipates the one which will be issued, in confirmation, on the last day. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Jesus; for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ It takes all of the rest of Romans 8 to explain that, of course, but we should be in no doubt that Paul connects in the most intimate way possible the final verdict ‘not condemned’ with the continuing work of the Spirit, and roots that work in the death of Jesus through which sin was condemned and the verdict ‘righteous’ which was already issued as soon as the gospel had produced faith. It is false to the point of slander to say, as some have, that by stressing the Spirit-led life as that which leads to the final verdict I (or Paul!) must somehow be insinuating that present justification is after all a matter of something I do as opposed to something God does. The word of the gospel, and the work of the Spirit which puts it into effect, is all of grace, producing in me that first fruit of faith which is itself simply the breathing in of God’s love poured out in the cross and the breathing out of what results, the confession that Jesus is Lord and the belief that God raised him from the dead.
Does this mean, after all, some kind of semi-Pelagianism in which God first infuses ‘righteousness’ into me and then declares that he likes what he sees? Have we abandoned the extra nos of the gospel? By no means. That is simply to take what I have said and filter it back through the old misunderstandings of the word ‘righteousness’ which I have been careful to rule out. The whole point of the gospel, and of my initial response to it, is that the gospel is not about me, but about Jesus, and his unique death and resurrection. That is the extra nos, which is actually compromised not by pointing out that the Spirit brings about faith but by making the phrase ‘the gospel’ denote justification itself rather than the proclamation about Jesus. (We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus; that being so, when we believe in justification by faith what we get is not justification itself, but assurance; and it also follows that those who believe in Jesus but do not believe in justification by faith are nevertheless justified by faith without knowing it.) It is precisely this point which a robust Reformed theology ought to celebrate, since it fits exactly with an ordo salutis in which, unlike some other schemes of thought, the word ‘justification’ denotes, not the process whereby the gospel works in someone’s heart (for that, Paul as we have seen reserves the word ‘call’), but the verdict which is issued once the ‘call’ has happened. ‘Those whom he called, them he also justified.’
Justification by faith, the verdict issued in the present time over gospel faith which anticipates the verdict issued in the future over the entire life, thus produces the solid assurance of membership, now and in the future, in the single family promised to Abraham, which as I have already stressed is the family whose sins have been forgiven, since the purpose of the covenant in the first place was always to deal with sin. Justification in the present tells every believer that she or he is a beloved, forgiven child of God, a fact which must at once be put into practice in terms of full membership in God’s people, full dining rights at the family table. Justification by faith in the present is therefore equally about (a) the sigh of relief that I don’t have to earn my status in God’s people, simply to receive it, and (b) the definition of the Christian community in terms of nothing more nor less than faith itself. And this brings us back where we began: because, since the covenant community was promised to Abraham and his family, and since the Jewish people had been the embattled guardians of that promise for two millennia, nothing was more natural, but nothing would have been more fatal to God’s ultimate purposes, than for the bearers of the promise to try to confine it to Abraham’s family according to the flesh. They had been entrusted with the promise, but they had proved untrustworthy, and had not brought about the worldwide glorification of Israel’s God that had been intended. (That is what is going on in Romans 3.1–8, and it would be good to see the supposed defenders of reformed orthodoxy offering an exegesis of that passage.) But now the Messiah has been faithful, as the representative Israelite, so that God’s own covenant faithfulness would be unveiled in action in his ‘obedience unto death, even the death of the cross’. And since the covenant purpose, to deal with sin and to launch new creation, has thus been spectacularly accomplished in his work, justification in the present must be by faith alone, not by works of the Jewish Law, partly because all human beings have fallen short of God’s glory, and partly because if it were by the Law only Jews would qualify. And we know, because Paul insists on it, with that little single-syllable, single-letter word we spoke of an hour ago, that God is not the God of Jews only, but of Gentiles also, since God is one.
I have done two things in this lecture, which many would regard as incompatible. I have been expounding the basic tenets of the protestant reformation: Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Fide, with an extra one of my own, Solo Spiritu. I have done so by the formal principle enunciated in the first, taking scripture with absolute seriousness and seeking to test all human schemes in its light. But I have also been expounding my own version of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, in which I have been equally critical, without naming them, of Ed Sanders and many of his followers on the one hand and my critics such as Guy Waters and many of his readers on the other. My hope and prayer for this conference is that we will now be able to carry forward this conversation not simply so that we can hear, understand and appreciate one another better but so that we can send out a signal from this place that there are ways forward, not simply backward, in the study of Paul and more particularly in the living, teaching and above all proclaiming of the gospel by which he defined himself. The reformed faith which I have held since my youth is enhanced, not diminished, by fresh exploration of scripture. My prayer is that we together this week may know the truth, the (dare I say) ecumenical truth, which Paul longed that Jews and Gentiles would come to embody, that we may with one mouth, from across our different traditions, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.