I am busy preparing for my Seminar on Romans 5-8 at the moment. The three commentaries that I rely on most (they give the broadest possible variety of points of view) are Ben Witherinton III’s, Brendan Byrne’s and of course Tom Wright’s. I am also reading Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God – very good for anyone trying to get their head around the “historical Jesus” quest(s).
Also on Wright, for anyone interested in either his own work or critiques of it, are the recordings from this Seminar held at Wheaton College last year. Excellent stuff there.
And then (and this is the main point of this blog) there is an article which is not available online in the Lutheran Quarterly (some of you read this, I know) by Dr Erik Heen, NT professor at Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania “A Lutheran Response to the New Perspective on Paul” (LQ vol XXIV no. 3). It doesn’t focus on Wright (it includes Stendahl, Sanders and Dunn) but does take issue with a statement in Wright’s book Justification.
Perhaps the most misunderstood term in Lutheran theology within the NPP is “Law”. Representative is Wright’s characterisation of “the Lutheran scheme whereby the law is a bad thing abolished by Christ.”
The body of the article is therefore a defence of the Lutheran “Law/Gospel” paradigm – in particular in Luther’s own writings – over against the New Perspective’s reading of St Paul’s use of this term. In particular, Heen is at pains to show that Lutheran theology speaks of various “uses” of “the law”, not all of them negative.
While it is a good defence of this peculiarly Lutheran doctrine, the article unfortunately fails to be very useful for anyone actually seeking a Lutheran critique of the NPP, and specifically of Tom Wright’s understanding of how the term “ho nomos” (ie. “the Law”) functions in Paul’s writings.
In his Romans commentary, Wright takes issue with a number of other commentators in insisting that when St Paul speaks of “THE Law”, he is always speaking of the Jewish Torah. This itself can be understood in a number of ways – as it was in fact in Paul’s own day. It can mean the Sinaitic covenant, the “Law of Moses”, the Pentateuch, the laws of Halakah, and even sometimes by extension the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes this means that we end up with a very stretched meaning of “Torah”, but Wright’s point is that Paul is intending this “stretching”. Wright expressly rejects the idea that it can mean “more general principles or statutes or forces or authorities” (as Michael Winger writes in “By What Law?”, quoted by Heen).
A good example is in Romans 3:27-28. Here is the RSV translation:
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. 28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
The word “nomos” (“law”) appears three times in these verses in the Greek text; the RSV translates it twice as “principle” and once as “law”. But what Paul seems to be doing is contrasting a “Torah of works” with a “Torah of faith” – which may very well be related to the “Torah of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2) and “the new life of the Spirit (Rom 7:6).
Another case is at the end of Romans 7, precisely where Paul has been working hard to defend the goodness and holiness of “the Law/Torah”:
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.
Here the RSV translates “law” in each case for “nomos”, but in v21 the Greek is quite clearly “THE Law” (“ho nomos”), not “a law”. Paul is still talking about “the Torah”, even when he speaks of “another Law” – he is still talking about “the Torah”, but the Torah acting in a paradoxically different way from which it ought to function, ie. emphasising sin rather than eradicating it (as in Rom 7:5,10-11).
In any case, Dr Heen has not appreciated the fact that Wright, whenever he reads Paul’s using the word “Law”, believes that Paul is speaking about “the Torah” . So when Wright says that Lutheran theology thinks of “the Law” as a “bad thing abolished by Christ”, he means this is the way in which Lutherans think of “the Torah”.
Dr Heen, however, understands the phrase “the Law” in Paul in a more Lutheran sense. When Lutheran theology speaks of “the Law”, it is speaking of the existential effect or aspect of God’s Word as it addresses me. When I hear God’s Word commanding or forbidding me to do this or that, I am hearing “the Law”. (Conversely, when I hear God’s Word as a promise of grace and mercy, I am hearing “the Gospel”). It would be wrong therefore to speak of “the Law” (or “the Gospel” for that matter) in authentic Lutheran theology as a “principle” (although it has certainly been mistaken for such at times), but it certainly isn’t the same thing as “the Torah”. Thus in his article, Heen quotes approvingly from David Lose who wrote:
[One recognises] the law…not simply from what it says (content) but from what it does (function).
Therefore, Heen concludes,
The law, in other words, is not a “bad” thing but the active, lively Word of God that drives one to Christ.
This is good Lutheranism, but it is not what Wright understands St Paul to mean by “the Law”, and it isn’t what he meant when he wrote that Lutheranism sees the law “as a bad thing abolished by Christ.”
Sometimes – although Heen rightly objects to an approach to “the Law” of Israel which makes an artificial distinction between the moral and ceremonial aspects – “the Law” can mean for Lutherans “the 10 Commandments”. Thus, seen in theological terms of the existential address of God’s commanding and demanding Word, or even in simpler catechetical terms of the 10 Commandments, Lutheran theology does still see a positive use for “the Law”. Heen writes:
One might observe that this first use of the law is similar in some respects to Torah (“law” in Jewish discourse) understood as God’s gift to Israel. That is, the usus politicus outlines human responsibilities archetypically represented by the two tables of the Ten Commandments. …The Ten Commandments, in fact, are central to the Lutheran catechetical tradition…
But again Wright – for all his admittedly limited understanding of Lutheran theology (and Catholic for that matter) is nevertheless right to say that most Lutherans would generally believe that “the Torah” itself (the Sinaitic Code rather than “the Law” in Lutheran terms) is a “bad thing abolished by Christ”.
The problem here, as in many “dialogues”, is that we are using different words for different things. Just to take an instance that regularly reoccurs on this blog: Purgatory. If you forget the name and just talk about what the doctrine is really about, you tend to find more agreement than you might previously have thought. Likewise, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with what Heen has written about the “use of the law” in Lutheran terms. Much the same could be said in terms of Catholic theology. The thing that Lutheran theologians, and Catholic ones for that matter, need to wrestle with is not the question of whether or not Wright has properly understood either Lutheran or Catholic theology as such, but whether he has properly understood Pauline theology. If he has, then we all have some rethinking to do.