A Challenge for Wright on Romans 4:4-5 image

A Challenge for Wright on Romans 4:4-5

One of the things that I've often wondered about Tom Wright's view of Paul concerns his reading of Romans 4:4-8. If you read the chapter as about the integration of Jews and Gentiles rather than as about being justified by faith apart from works of Law, as Wright does (as opposed to reading it as about both of these), what do you do with the bit about wages, due and gift? Here's the key section:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness ... (Romans 4:4-5)

That sure sounds like Paul is distinguishing between those who work towards justification (and thus receive their wages as a due, rather than as a gift), and those who do not rely on works but trust in the God who justifies sinners (and thus have faith credited to them as righteousness). That is how I read it, and how almost all Protestants have read it. But this, for Wright and some others, cannot be the distinction Paul has in mind, because his polemic against “works of the Law” is about ethnic boundary markers rather than contributing towards final justification by obeying the Torah. So what on earth does he do with Romans 4:4-5?

Well, he’s just explained his view in some detail in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. He summarises it like this:

In Rom. 4 Paul has the whole of Gen. 15 in mind, and expounds it in relation to the covenantal promise of a single worldwide family. This forms a key part of his demonstration that Israel’s God has been faithful to the covenant, and Paul’s language of dikaiosunē reflects that. His reference to Abraham’s ‘reward’ (misthos) in 4.4 is an allusion to Gen. 15.1, where the ‘reward’ is the large family; he is not, then, refuting a view of justification which involves ‘earning’ a righteous status. One may then read 4.1 (modifying Hays’s earlier proposal) as ‘Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?’, with 4.16-17 as the eventual answer to that question, not a parenthesis. ‘The justification of the ungodly’ in 4.5 is then a reference, not to Abraham’s own justification, but to the divine promise to include Gentile sinners within his family.

The approach will be familiar to many readers of Wright’s theology - the language of covenant faithfulness, the unusual reading of 4:1, the insistence that all of Genesis 15 is in view here, and so on - but what is new to me, at least, is the idea that misthos (wages/reward) is an allusion to Genesis 15:1, and therefore has nothing to do with working to secure justification. For a full defence of this position, you’d have to read the article; I have to admit to being unpersuaded, not least because these crucial verses (4-5) fit so much better with the traditional Protestant reading - that Paul is highlighting the difference between justification by faith and works, using a financial metaphor - than with Wright’s new reading. In fact, it seems that Wright knows what an uphill climb he has here. The line that particularly amused me was this:

Paul has picked up misthos from Genesis, which is firmly in the front of his mind, and allows an illustration to develop sideways out of it, which by coincidence happens to overlap with one way of expounding an ‘old perspective’ view of justification.

Quite a coincidence. Or it could be, of course, that Paul is using misthos to make exactly the point Protestants have usually taken him to be making, and Wright’s objection to seeing “works of Torah” as having anything to do with final justification is simply wrong, and perilously close to the fallacy of the excluded middle (whereby the only options are “earning your way into God’s good books” on the one hand, and “demarcating yourself as part of God’s people” on the other, with the more nuanced view, “obeying Torah as a means to secure final justification”, completely marginalised).

Clearly, this sort of thing doesn’t get properly resolved in a blog post. But I hope it gets you thinking, and if nothing else, prompts the interested among you to read Wright’s article and see what you think.

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