Patrick Schreiner

Tom Schreiner’s Response to N.T. Wright

In Scripture, Theology on 11/23/2010 at 9:38 PM

As promised here is his response to Wright in the plenary discussion:

Now I shift over to Tom. I agree with much that is in Tom’s paper, but for the sake of time I will focus on a few matters. First, I agree that scripture is the final authority. Some Protestants, some who love the Reformers, do come off at times as neo-Catholics. That is a danger Tom rightly warns us about, but at the same time we must be careful, for our age hankers for what is new, and those who preceded us carefully read the Bible as well. Second, the eschatological character of Pauline thought is central. Eschatology informs everything in Paul’s theology and Tom is right to say this. Third, maybe we are moving closer together on God’s righteousness being ours in Christ. Tom seems to endorse here what VanHoozer says about being incorporated into Christ. I just want to say that both theologically and pastorally this truth is fundamental. We don’t find comfort and assurance in ourselves and what we have accomplished but in Christ’s righteousness which has been given to us when we are united with him. It would be helpful to hear Tom explain, if he accepts this idea, how it works out in Paul’s theology, especially in terms of Paul’s theology of the atonement. Along with this, I am delighted that Tom now speaks of the final judgment as one that will be in accordance with our works instead of on the basis of our works. I think this adjustment and clarification is exactly right and does not contradict the idea that our righteousness is in Christ.  I resonate with Tom when he says that we too quickly drown out what is said about the role of good works in the final judgment because of our tradition. And I am in full agreement with his formulation: we are judged according to our works, but not on the basis of our works.

But we are not in the new heavens and new earth yet. We don’t agree on everything, and some of the concerns raised in my first paper still exist. Tom continues to think that justification is mainly about covenant membership and ecclesiology, whereas I think the primary emphasis is on soteriology with ecclesiological implications. But before we proceed further I want to raise a question of definition. I am not clear what Tom means by justification. He says it is forensic but also has the idea of covenant membership. I understand what he means when he says righteousness is forensic. Justification means we are right with God, but I don’t see how it can also mean that we are covenant members. I would argue that those who are justified are covenant members, but justification shouldn’t be defined as covenant membership. Covenant membership is the result or consequence of being justified. Nor do I think Rom. 4:11, where circumcision documents that one is righteous, supports the covenant membership view. The text does not say that circumcision ratifies that one is a covenant member but that it confirms that one stands in the right before God by faith. An illustration may help. Baptism may document and ratify that one is saved, and those who are baptized are covenant members, but it doesn’t follow logically or lexically from this that the word “saved” means covenant membership. I would say the same line of argument applies to circumcision and righteousness in Rom. 4:11.

In the time I have I want to think briefly about 2 texts Tom raised: Philippians 3 and Romans 4. First, Philippians 3. He says it is obvious in Philippians that the righteousness Paul rejects “is not legalistic self-achievement. It is, explicitly, his membership in physical Israel.”[1] He acknowledges that there may be a kind of legalism here, but says that it “is not the detached legalism of the proto-Pelagian.”[2] Tom often refers to Pelagianism when refuting the old perspective, but it is instructive to reflect on the debates between the Reformers and their Catholic opponents. Those who opposed Luther weren’t Pelagians. They were semi-Pelagians. Luther’s opponents did not deny the grace of God but advocated a synergism between grace and works that was rejected by Luther.  The parallel between Paul and his Jewish opponents and Luther and his Catholic opponents may be more apt than Tom suggests. Paul’s Jewish opponents had a theology of grace too. They were not outright Pelagians, but in Paul’s view their theology of grace was flawed and inadequate.

Let’s consider Philippians 3 further. Certainly Paul mentions privileges that belonged to him from birth, such as circumcision, being from the nation of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5). The new perspective reminds us that ethnic identity was an important feature of Pauline thought. But Paul does not restrict himself to ethnic and nationalistic matters. When Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee, he distinguishes himself from other Jews, and the point is that he was more devoted in his obedience than many of his compatriots. He makes this very point in Gal. 1:14. He was more zealous for the ancestral traditions than his contemporaries. Paul’s zeal for the law was not only inherited; it was pursued. He lived it out by persecuting the church (3:6), by imprisoning and voting to execute believers in Christ whom he did not think were living accord with the law. His obedience to the law is featured in his claim to have lived blamelessly in relation to it (Phil. 3:6). He boasted in his ethnic heritage and in what he did. His boast and reliance on the flesh cannot be confined to covenant privileges (3:3). Paul also concentrates on what he attained, on his extraordinary obedience. So when Paul speaks of “my righteousness” in 3:9, he is not merely saying that he was circumcised and Jewish, while Gentiles lacked these things. He also thinks of what he has accomplished, of his so-called works that would commend him to God. Let me draw one implication from what Paul says. Jews didn’t think they were better than Gentiles solely because they were circumcised and were members of the covenant. They typically believed that they were more obedient and more godly than the Gentiles, that the Gentiles were judged, not merely for being Gentiles, but because they were sinners.

The close parallels between Philippians 3 and Romans 10 support this reading as well. Both texts refer to Israel (Rom. 10:1; Phil. 3:5),[3] zeal (Rom. 10:2; Phil. 3:6), 9), to one’s own righteousness (Rom. 10:3; Phil. 3:9) as opposed to the righteousness of God  (Rom. 10:3; Phil. 3:9), and to law righteousness (Rom. 10:4-5; Phil. 3:6) over against faith-righteousness (Rom. 10:4, 6, 10; Phil. 3:9). The striking correspondences in the texts support the idea that there is a polemic against works-righteousness. Paul specifically speaks of righteousness that comes from “doing” in Rom. 10:5 and opposes it to the righteousness by faith. In the same context, Rom. 9:30-33, Paul contrasts righteousness by faith to works, and he says nothing in Rom. 9:30-10:8 about boundary markers. I conclude that both Philippians 3 and Romans 10 fly in the same orbit, contrasting righteousness which is one’s own that is secured through obedience to the law to righteousness given to one through faith in Christ.

Tom and I still differ on Romans 4 as well. He turns the whole chapter into a discussion of covenant membership, but I want to argue that soteriology is the basis for ecclesiology. As I pointed out the other night, he has to insert the word “we” as an infinitive subject in 4:1 to support his interpretation. Both Dunn and Jewett, neither of whom are advocates of the old perspective, reject this translation. Abraham is an example of how one becomes right with God in 4:1-8 and thus becomes a pattern or example for Gentiles who are included in the covenant. Paul specifically contrasts “works” and faith in referring to Abraham in 4:2-3. Abraham could boast if he did the requisite works. There is no evidence here that works means boundary markers. Circumcision comes up in 4:9-12, but not in these verses. Paul doesn’t speak of “works of law” but of “works” in general. We should not narrow down what Paul has kept broad. Abraham would naturally boast of what he accomplished if his righteousness was obtained by what he did. Instead, he trusted and believed in God.

Tom suggests that 4:4-5 probably focuses on the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God rather than on Abraham himself. I think it is more accurate to say that Paul universalizes what was the case with Abraham. If Abraham was right with God by believing instead of working, then it follows that it is not those who work for God who are right with God. If righteousness were by works, then it is not by grace (cf. Rom. 11:6). Such righteousness would be a debt owed on the basis of the work accomplished, just as payment of a wage is a debt owed to an employee who worked the requisite hours. But that is not how it is with Abraham nor with anyone else. It isn’t the one who works for God who receives the wages of righteousness, for all, including Abraham (Josh. 24:2) are ungodly. One is not righteous before God by working for him but by believing in him. David proves the point. He was not counted righteous by his works. He was guilty of the most flagrant sins (and it wasn’t excluding Gentiles). He was counted righteous by faith.

Tom rightly says that Genesis 15 begins by speaking of reward, and that reward is the inclusion of those who are as many as the stars of heaven. But what Genesis 15 explains and both Romans 4 and Galatians 3 emphasize is that this reward will not be obtained fundamentally because of Abraham’s obedience but because of his faith.

I want to close by stating again how much we stand in debt to Tom for his contributions to scholarship. He is a trailblazing rocket taking us higher and deeper into the scriptures. But I would suggest that the trajectory of the rocket needs some adjustments.

[1] P. 4

[2] P. 4.

[3] Virtually all commentators agree that Israel is in view in Rom. 10:1.

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  1. Patrick,

    Thanks for posting these. I am grateful for your dad, not only his scholarship but also how he has gone about it. This is another example: a very compelling argument done with much grace.

    And, congratulations on the birth of your daughter!


  2. Patrick,

    Thanks so much for posting these! Congrats on the recent birth of your daughter! I also have a daughter, a five month old, my first!

  3. I add one more comment.

    Few people can skillfully interact at this level of thought and at the same time valiantly save Sue from Salty Sam…

  4. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and the rest of the website is very good.

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