Thursday, November 02, 2006

Becoming friendly with the New Perspective, and becoming the righteousness of God

I’ve been pondering it for a long time, but yesterday I started to realise that I’m more ‘New Perspective’ in terms of Paul that I’m not. It was an odd moment of self-realisation, but on reading 2 Cor 5:21 (in preparation for my forthcoming sermon this Sunday service), the thesis which maintains the ‘righteousness of God’ in this passage is God’s covenant faithfulness now makes more sense to me than the traditional reading involving personal imputed righteousness. It is, in actual fact, what I consider the natural reading. Furthermore, I thought Murray Harris’ dismissal of Wright’s argument in his new (and otherwise excellent) 2 Corinthians commentary was highly suspect. He writes:

‘According to Wright ..., dikaiosu,nh qeou/ in 5:21 refers to God’s covenant faithfulness that was evident through Paul’s ministry, so that Paul himself is “a revelation in person of the covenant faithfulness of God”. But such a view destroys the parallelism between a`marti,a and dikaiosu,nh ..., restricts the h`mei/j arbitrarily to Paul and his ministry, and robs the characteristically Pauline phrase evn Cristw/ of its potency’ (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians [NIGTC], Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005, p. 456, fn. 207, italics mine)
I suggest that his argument can be refuted point by point. The text, for reference: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21 NRSV)

First, according to Wright’s scheme I think it is clear why sin would still be paralleled with righteousness. The ‘power of sin’ as a slave master (cf. here Lichtenberger’s analysis of sin in Das Ich Adams und das Ich der Menschheit, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004) finds its solution in the faithfulness of God to his promises fulfilled in the proclamation of Christ as Lord. In otehr words, the parallelism is hardly ‘destroyed’! Besides, if sin is injustice, and not only ‘personal’, then the parallelism fits Wright’s scheme better than Harris’. At the most it could be claimed that sin offering language (sacrificial and from the cultus) is not well paired with covenantal language (something Harris claims in the commentary), but even this would be to divide what should be seen together. I don’t believe we should speak of the sacrificial system ‘over there’, and the covenant ‘over here’, as if separated by a chasm. Both are part of the same story and divine plan, and dovetail with one another at various points (cf., off the top of my head, the prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings and 2 Chron) . It would be as wrong as wanting to divide creation from covenant, as MacLeod appears to attempt.

Second, Harris argues Wright ‘restricts the h`mei/j arbitrarily to Paul and his ministry’. i) Whether the restriction is arbitrary or not depends on the understanding of the passage! The premise for his argument is on shaky grounds. Not only that, I heard a paper at a London School of Theology New Testament conference a year or two back that argued that Wright’s ‘restriction’ can be extended and no harm is done to the basic argument. Besides, it’s not simply about restricting a reference, as Wright makes clear in his popular level ‘2 Corinthians “for everyone”’. I note also that Harris restricts the reference of application in his exegesis of 2 Cor 12:9 in a way that will disappoint some ...

Third, Harris argues Wright’s argument ‘robs the characteristically Pauline phrase evn Cristw/ of its potency’. This puzzles me more than any of the other points! Why does he think it is robed? It is precisely by identifying with the risen Christ, in faith, that Paul embodies the covenant faithfulness of God in the world. In fact, the presence of the claim ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ just a few verses previous (5:17) makes Wright’s argument, in terms of being ‘in Christ’, all the more persuasive, for this links God’s world-directed-renewing activity with being ‘in Christ’, precisely as in 5:21: ‘so that in him we might become ...’

Lastly, Harris doesn’t give due credit to the matter that, in my view, is decisive. Wright’s argument makes much better sense of 5:21 in the immediate context. Becoming ‘the righteousness of God’ thus is saying much the same thing as having been given ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ (5:18), and rounds off the previous verses far better than if we understand our verse as referring to imputed righteousness.

None of this should detract from my judgment that Harris’ commentary is an essential for any 2 Cor research. He is particularly strong, brilliant even, in his syntactical analyses.

My next post will respond to the equally disputable criticism of Wright’s argument as presented by D. MacLeod in his 2004 SBET article (22/2, p. 173-95).

Crikey, so I’m a NPP loving sinner, eh? To answer my own question, to an extent I guess I am, though I would want to qualify my position.

But the big question is: does that mean I’m going to hell?

Apparently, yes.


At 11/03/2006 1:52 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

The context of Paul discussing his apostolic ministry both immediately before and after 5:21 has always made me sympathetical to Wright's reading on this one.

At 11/03/2006 9:27 AM, Anonymous Sean said...

This is a pretty solid critique of Harris, and I heartily concur! Welcome to the NPP tribe, with qualifications of course...

At 11/04/2006 8:39 AM, Anonymous Michael F. Bird said...

This is one area where I heartily disagree with Wright. I call his interpretation "bizaar". True, 2 Corinthians 5 does mention the apostolic ministry, but also the apostolic message of God's saving righteousness. I think Wright has done, what he is often prone to do, that is mistake the content for the context. I look forward to your critique of D. MacLeod.

At 11/06/2006 6:16 AM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

CT, I'm not sure NTW is completely right, but I"m also skeptical of the traditional (over-) interpretations of this verse. Would you elaborate at some point on the "extension" of application you referenced? I think I know what this means and if so then I've thought the same thing before.

I suppose you're also going to tie NTW's read here into Christ-letter?

At 11/07/2006 12:23 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Mike,
I've learnt a lot from your writings on this subject, but I don't think Wright mistakes context for content - he starts of, in his major article on 5:21, by analysing the content of the verse first, and the meaning of the righteousness of God, but then concludes that this cannot settle the matter, and so turns to the context. And how he uses teh context to understand teh passage is, in my books, nothing different from teh method used to understand teh difficulties of, say, 1 Cor 7:35 in light of 32-34, or 1 Cor 8:6 in light of 1-5...

At 11/07/2006 12:37 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi JB,
I left that undiscussed simply because I feel it was part of the papers distinctive and original contribution, and I don't want to bung that up on teh blog without the authors permission. And I just couldn't be bothered to contact him, so I thought I'd leave it under developed. He wants to say, along with Hays, that the 'we' can be taken to reflect all teh Christians Paul addresses, and not just himself and his ministry team.


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