Monday, August 11, 2008

The Climax of the Covenant - A Critical Review

The Climax of the CovenantN.T. Wright, presently the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Communion, interestingly prefaces his book, The Climax of the Covenant1, by noting his “growing conviction that covenant theology is one of the main clues … for understanding Paul.”2 That this appears on one of the first pages of one of Wright’s earliest extended studies3 is telling in hindsight. With the Atlantic Ocean and several centuries’ worth of tradition set between them, it could only have been this common thread of interest in covenant that brought Wright’s work into the significant relationship it presently has with American Calvinism.4 And relate they have. The ‘dialogue’ between Wright and the Reformed5 has become the source of no little controversy, generating an impressive amount of literature, both popular and academic, that wrestles with the validity and implications of Wright’s unique suggestions. To be sure, this interaction has (unfortunately) been the source of much heated debate, having become highly politicized and marked by all the standard charges of heresy and name-calling that generally accompany challenges to status quo. Despite this fact, though, there appears to be some sort of broadening acceptance of at least some of the corrections that Wright’s work offers. Because of this, it seems that there is reasonable need for any contemporary church leader to familiarize himself with the essence of the (for lack of a better word) ‘movement’ in order to discern for himself what sort of response is appropriate to it. What follows here should not exhaust one’s exposure to the concerns at hand, but is an attempt to critically examine one important primary source from which most of Wright’s work develops.

In some regards it is rather difficult to classify The Climax…, as it is not actually written together as a single coherent argument directed toward a single thesis. Rather, the book is mostly a pastiche of papers that Wright has either published in theological journals or presented at various academic conferences. This, of course, in no way demeans the content of those papers – that they were chosen to be published and presented already indicates a high caliber of work. What it does mean, though, is that the working thesis of the book bears a sense of artificial imposition and contrivance. Still, contrivance notwithstanding, Wright’s book is ‘about’ something. Bracketed by an introductory section and a conclusion, the articles are divided into two main sections: the former describing the shape of Pauline Christology, the latter describing Paul’s understanding of the Law. On the basis of his observations, Wright argues that, according to Paul, the person and work of Jesus brings an end to the Law (i.e., the Torah) by becoming the fulfillment of the Law. This point, of course, is highly nuanced and applied more extensively throughout the book, but this adequately summarizes the way in which Wright sees Jesus as “climax.”

Any sound reading of Wright will find that he is time and again arguing as an apologist.6 Wright begins The Climax… with just this spirit, defending the rational consistency of Paul’s thought. It has not uncommonly been alleged that the arguments Paul puts forth are of the ad hoc variety, hastily strewn together in order to legitimize his teaching du jour. Wright takes this view to task, noting that these accusations are made all too hastily and usually stem from a refusal to patiently listen to what Paul actually has to say.7 Wright spends the rest of the book sorting through some of these arguments, attempting to locate them within the ‘narrative substructure’ (drawing from Richard Hays, obviously) of Paul’s thought. Of course, there is still a certain frankness about Wright, a desire to call a spade ‘a spade’. He concedes, “I am not, of course, suggesting that there are no problems in Paul’s arguments: only (here) that the problems do not lie just where they are commonly thought to.”8 And this is what distinguishes the book: Wright goes towards these ‘problem texts’, not with the intent of merely resituating the puzzle pieces into some forced cogency, but by suggesting that we look at the picture on the box to see how the individual pieces might relate on a larger scale.

Wright begins the first half of his argument by observing that, within the book of Genesis, Abraham is cast as the solution to Adam’s sin.9 (This is manifest in the various restatements of Adam’s cultural commission in Abrahamic passages.)10 Thus, Wright:
Israel, the family of Abraham, is God’s true humanity. Her land is God’s land. Her enemies are God’s enemies, and they will be subject to her in the same way that the beasts were subject to Adam. It is within this context that we should understand those passages in the Old Testament which make similar claims about Israel’s king.11

Wright traces this same line of thinking in Paul (namely in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5), concluding that the Pauline Jesus inherits – or rather, incarnates – the Adamic distinctives of Israel, thus redefining traditional Israelite ideas about election, among other things. As well, the distinct ‘creational monotheism’ of the Jews is re-worked in the chiastic poem of Colossians 1:15-20 to explain that Christ (or ‘Messiah’) Jesus plays the unique role of being creator and sustainer of the universe (a role only ascribable to YHWH), and simultaneously (in being a new Adam) the eschatological telos of the universe.12

While the first half of The Climax… seems intuitive enough, the second half (though really, it is no less intuitive) puts forth Wright’s more distinctive views. Here Wright addresses the significance of the Law in Pauline discourse, addressing various arguments in Galatians 3 and Romans 7-11. Placing the Lutheran and Reformed views of the Law in dichotomy (negative and positive, respectively), Wright, ever the Anglican, proposes to find a via media.13 It is important to note that, in Wright’s reading of Paul, he has a rather distinct meaning of ‘law’ (nomos) or ‘works of the law’ (ergon nomou). Rather than understand the ‘law’ as an abstract concept of living by rules or divine calling or rite simpliciter, Wright is convinced that the only nomos in Paul’s mind is the Jewish Torah. Of course, the Torah contains plenty of those abstract qualities (rules, divine commands, rituals, etc.), but Wright believes that the law, for Paul, is the Torah itself.14 On the fore, this distinction may seem unnecessarily subtle, but in terms of exegesis, reading Paul’s polemics as regarding the Torah rather than the mere principle of law has significant cash value. Operating on this basis, Wright concludes that a Pauline doctrine of the ‘Law’ assigns a double purpose, both positive and negative.15 On the one hand, the Torah was given to give life to the people of God, but because of sinful flesh, it only brought condemnation.16 This, yet, was not a graceless act; for in bringing a people under the Torah, God could gather sin and judgment into one place in order to finally deal with it.17 In being called together under sin and judgment, these people were called to die (and be reborn). This, of course, comes to fruition – a climax – in the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who overcomes the sinful flesh of Adam and, in his death and resurrection, inaugurates a new creation, indwelt not only by the Jews, but to any that would have faith.

If this seems relatively basic, then it may be helpful, here, to highlight the uniqueness of what Wright is saying. Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. In Chapter VII, the Confession says that Adam was born into a “covenant of works.” Now, Wright seems relatively hands off on the issue of whether there was a covenantal relationship between God and Adam. It’s really beyond the scope of his studies. What matters here is that the WCF qualifies this covenant by its “condition of perfect and personal obedience.” This is the works-principle of the Reformed. The fault of man, then, is his perpetual moral failure and inability to keep this covenant. The hope of man in the WCF is the “covenant of grace,” which depends only on faith. While it would be surprising if Wright did not essentially agree with the idea that Adam’s sin is undone by membership in a new covenant order based on faith alone, there is no doubt that he would be critical of the formulation. This would be clearest in observing that while the WCF sees the Pauline ‘curse of the law’ as an essentially Adamic reality, Wright sees it revealed in the very constitution of Israel (a la Deuteronomy 30). Of course, even Wright sees Israel as a sort of ‘Adam’, but he finds the central duality in Paul to be between the old Israel of the flesh and the new Israel of the Spirit; not a difference between a covenant that depends on obedience and one that does not. This different manner of describing the relationship between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ is the root of many concerns that some Calvinists have with Wright as a theologian.

Despite the noted difference between Wright and the Westminster divines, in some regards, they bear striking similarity. The most apparent commonality, it seems, is in their shared conviction in the constitutional continuity between Israel and the Church. Wright, at multiple places, criticizes what he calls “two-covenant theology”18 as a real distortion of the biblical evidence. This is not to be misunderstood as a criticism of the bi-covenantal theology of the WCF (the covenant of works vs. the covenant of grace), but actually affirms its sentiments that the covenant with the Jews does not run parallel to the covenant with Christians. Rather, Calvinists and Wright together view the Mosaic covenant as an older administration of the covenant of grace, which has reached its truest form in Christ.

One primary criticism has already been hinted at and falls more upon methodological than theological lines. There is certainly tremendous value in a book which depends wholly upon exegetical lines. Indeed, an insistence on giving theological language a biblical shape is one of his trademark techniques and one of his most helpful contributions. Still – and this may sound a strange criticism – theological discourse, particularly in terms of dogmatics, requires a certain suspension of (biblical) textual discussion in order to actually articulate the theology being conveyed. A collection of exegetical, albeit excellent, papers is not the same as an argument. With minimal discussion of what Wright’s biblical theology means for the confession of the Church, his book suffers from lack of cogency, and leaves itself open to all sorts of ambiguous readings. A book framed more upon the principle of an articulated thesis, or even a couple specific theses, defended by Wright’s thorough exegeses, would fare better, I believe.

My second criticism, as well, is methodological. Wright begins his discussion of the law thusly:
There are (at least) two ways of dealing with the vexed question of Paul’s attitude to the law. One is to approach the task by means of a theological debate: Luther thought Paul was against the law, Calvin thought he was in favor of it, Schweitzer thought the question was wrongly put, and the twentieth century has been writing footnotes to all three. A very different approach is to work through the key passages which must feature in any serious discussion, set them in their exegetical context, and see what sense can be made of them as they stand, leaving the ‘systematic’ questions until later (insofar as that is really possible…).19

While I really do sympathize with Wright in the need for giving theology a biblical shape, the sort of rhetoric employed here threatens to cut him off from his audience on (at least) a couple fronts. Firstly, distancing himself from an antinomian Luther and a legalistic Calvin offends Lutherans and Calvinists alike in that it caricatures each of their respective positions. While it cannot be denied that brevity necessarily entails a certain amount of reductionism, criticizing two large traditions of the Christian Church in passing comment before moving on to engage some of the most controversial passages in the Church’s history will almost certainly raise the affective filter of volatile confessional Protestants. Secondly, saving perhaps the last clause about suspending systematic discourse, Wright’s “very different approach” sounds eerily similar to the sort of polemics employed by the Reformers which Wright has just distanced himself from. And really, substitute ‘tradition’ for “‘systematic’ questions” and you find that Wright has pretentiously (though almost certainly unintentionally) cast himself as a sort of theological hero who will save us all from our dishonest readings of the text. At least Wright qualifies himself with “insofar as [this] is really possible,” but unless Wright takes the time to thoroughly engage and explain the theology of Calvin and Luther (even elsewhere), such a polemical move seems altogether unwise.

Despite these problems, I believe Wright has done the Church a service by offering some ‘fresh’ insights into the nature of Pauline thought. Demonstrating, for example, that the Galatians polemic was not only not a disagreement about whether or not one had to earn his salvation, but that the question at hand was of eschatological dimensions accomplishes a couple things. It puts to bed difficulties over reconciling faith and obedience (which seem to be, historically, the dominant categories of debate among believers) and likewise gives the book of Galatians a far more universally significant scope. If we are still under Torah, then God has not finished dealing with our sins, and so we must stay in exile, with eager longing for the Messiah to come.

Additionally helpful are some of Wright’s studies in Christology, giving them a distinctively ‘Jewish’ flavor. It should be noted that Wright’s work is never held at odds with Athanasius or Chalcedon or Nicea, but it advances their content, giving them Jewish ‘flesh’ as it were. Scholars, such as Richard Bauckham, have drawn profitably from Wright’s exegesis, putting forward new, clearer understandings of how Christ is presented in Scripture.20

Aside from a commentary on Colossians, The Climax of the Covenant is Wright’s first major book. He has since published an incredible amount of academic and popular literature which continues to expand on ideas which find their root in these studies. Despite the mix of hype and controversy (which has not really been addressed in this review) that surround his work today, The Climax… is a more or less sober collection of studies which would prove helpful to any student of New Testament theology.

1 Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. (Minneapolis: Fotress, 1993).
2 Ibid., p. xi.
3 Following only his Colossians commentary, The Climax of the Covenant precedes the whole Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress) series and his slightly more accessible What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) and Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).
4 For those unaware, perhaps second to ‘the doctrine of predestination’, Calvinism is distinguished by its use of ‘covenant’ as the fundamental theological principle for describing the various relations between God and man. While Anglicanism (and other Christian traditions, for that matter) does not deny the role of covenant in a comprehensive dogmatic theology, covenant plays a far more central role in Calvinism (or ‘Reformed Theology’ as it is often called). So Wright’s comment is doubly interesting: both because of the natural interest for Calvinists generated by a rigorous explication of Pauline thought in covenantal terms, and because of the intrigue of an Anglican covenant theologian.
5 Of course it is acknowledged that Anglicanism is in some sense “Reformed,” but any familiarity with the Anglican Communion’s lex orandi, lex credendi theology and Presbyterian confessionalism would indicate that the way in which these two traditions are “Reformed” is rather unique to each of them.
6 This point is all too often unacknowledged. Whereas Wright is popularly portrayed as a sort of ‘progressive’, or even a ‘revisionist’, in truth, such things can only be minimally confirmed. Consider Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), a critical examination and refutation of four prominent popular critics of the ‘traditional’ Jesus. The entire Christian Origins and the Question of God series is written as an appeal to the Academy for the credibility of the claims of the Christian Church. The recently published Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) is yet another clear example of Wright’s heart as an apologist. Even the ever controversial What Saint Paul Really Said is written with the aim of showing the continuity of thought between Jesus and Paul (as it is often suggested that the teachings of Paul are substantially different from those of Jesus).
7 Ibid., pp. 8-13.
8 Ibid., p. 13.
9 Ibid., pp. 21-23.
10 Wright cites Genesis 1:28; 12:2f; 17:2, 6, 8; 22:16ff; 26:3f; 26:24; 28:3; 35:11f; 47:27; 48:3f.
11 Ibid. 23. Italics mine.
12 Ibid., p. 112.
13 Ibid., p. 137.
14 Ibid., pp. 144-8.
15 Ibid., p. 244.
16 Ibid., p. 207.
17 Ibid., p. 240.
18 Ibid., pp. 14, 232, 253-5.
19 Ibid., p. 137.
20 Bauckham, Richard. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).