Reading Romans Wrightly

We’re beginning a year-long series in Romans at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I’m finding it challenging, to say the least. Romans has been quite the lightening rod of late for debates between scholars in Reformed circles (represented by John Piper), on the one hand, and New Perspective folks (preeminently N. T. Wright), on the other, over justification, Romans, and Paul in general. What follows are some ramblings from what is a work in progress (my thinking about the issues!), as I try to sort all of this out to my satisfaction.

Where Romans is concerned, the debate seems to center around whether we should read the text (a) as a somewhat abstract, a-historical treatise addressed to the human condition or (b) as an occasional letter in which Paul underscores the centrality of the Christ event in God’s unfolding drama of salvation-history, in order to address perceived needs (primarily a lack of harmony between Jews & Gentiles) in the church at Rome.

I think both perspectives have much to offer. The historian in me, however, views ‘b,’ above, as the self-evident place to begin. I think Wright’s reading of Romans, for example, makes a whole lot of historical sense, particularly his understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s covenant faithfulness.

My impression, moreover, is that Wright makes more room for traditional insights in his reading of Paul than he is often credited with—certainly more room than numbers of Reformed theologians make in their reconstructions for recent findings related to ancient Judaism. For example, you will not find a more robust (read ‘orthodox’) expression of atonement theology than Wright’s treatment of Romans 3:25. He argues persuasively for both expiation (removal of sin) and propitiation (satisfaction of God’s wrath) in his commentary on the passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

Now I don’t buy what Wright does with imputation (I find his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 fascinating but forced), but given his understanding of union with Christ (‘in Christ’), I don’t find Wright doing anything remotely close to propagating ‘another gospel’ with his take on imputation. Frankly, some of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate could be toned down a bit.

With regard to ‘a,’ above (reading Romans as addressed in general terms to the human condition), I am quite convinced that Paul does, indeed, get there in his argument in Romans. This (in part) is what makes Romans such a spiritually powerful and timelessly relevant exposition of the Gospel. And this is where our Reformed brothers have much of value to contribute to the ongoing conversation. But if we begin here and stay here in our reading of Romans, we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that surface in Piper’s recent critique of Wright’s understanding of Paul:

Problem #1 — Piper offers a rather idiosyncratic understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ as God’s ‘unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory.’ God certainly does exhibit an unwavering commitment to act for his own glory, but is that actually what Paul means with the phrase ‘righteousness of God’? I think not. Nor do others, since one has to look far and wide for any NT scholar who interprets the phrase this way. Reading ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises situates the phrase, in contrast, squarely in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people, and it makes much better sense (IMO!) of the argument of Romans. In the former case we have theology sans history. In the latter we have salvation history generating a robust picture of God (theology!) acting in history to redeem a people for his own possession.

Problem #2 — Piper collapses ethnic pride under the all-encompassing rubric of human sinfulness and rebellion. Fine, in the abstract, at any rate. Ethnic pride certainly is one very ugly expression of human sin. But to make this move at the gate is potentially to miss completely Paul’s passion to see Jewish and Gentile Christians rise above their ethnic differences and genuinely exhibit in their local church communities their oneness in Christ. Toss into the mix Western individualism (and our emphasis upon Jesus as ‘personal savior’), and many of us will (mis)read Romans as a treatise primarily about ‘me and God,’ rather than as a missiological challenge to pursue peace between ‘us and them.’

Problem #3 — Piper virtually dismisses Second Temple Jewish background as the proper context in which to situate Paul’s writings, suggesting, instead, that the context of Romans itself should be given priority. I find this utterly counterintuitive, and I suspect that few will follow Piper here. Of course the context of Romans should be given priority. But to assume we can read Romans 3:1-8, for example, in the context of the letter, without imposing upon the text our own broader, unarticulated matrices of understanding (e.g., controlling narratives from our theological training, church background, or whatever) is methodologically naive, to say the least. Like it or not, we will inevitably read Romans 3:1-8 in the context of Romans in the context of something else—whether that something else be 21st century neo-Calvinism or 1st century Judaism. I’ll opt for the latter, while remaining appreciative of the often timeless insights and truths of the former.

Last Sunday was our first Sunday in Romans. I challenged our people to read the text primarily asking, What does this passage say about God’s plan for his people? How do I fit into that big picture? and only secondarily asking, What does this passage say about me and my personal relationship with God?

Both kinds of questions are legitimate and, of course, hardly unrelated. And both are absolutely indispensable. But we need to begin our pilgrimage in Romans by asking the questions of the text that Paul is most immediately answering. Then, I think, we’ll begin to find ourselves on the Wright track. 🙂

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7 Comments on “Reading Romans Wrightly”

  1. Jeffrey Bruce Says:

    Well said Dr. Hellerman,

    I wish my “works in progress” were this well-written and thought-out!

    I agree with you regarding Piper (esp. Piper’s point on the meaning of “righteousness of God” – I’ve never heard anyone else defend that interpretation of the phrase). Also wholeheartedly agree about Wright being far more solid than people give him credit for (in various places, I’ve heard him defend a forensic view of justification, penal substitution, and perseverance of the saints).

    Do you think Wright’s view on diskaiosyne theou is broad enough? I agree with Wright that the phrase refers to a property/activity of God, but he seems to downplay (neglect?) the retributive aspect of God’s righteousness. I see Wright discussing the good news about God’s covenant faithfulness (i.e. God promises to bless his people), but not the bad news about covenant faithfulness (i.e. God curses law-breakers), which comes out clearly in Romans 3:1-8. It seems that both dimensions of God’s righteousness need to be accounted for to appreciate the nuance of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-4:25.
    Does Wright mention this in his commentary (haven’t gotten around to reading it)?

    Also, have you read Michael Bird’s The Saving Righteousness of God? That book was immensely helpful
    for me.


    • hellerman Says:

      Hi, Jeff, so wonderful to hear from you. I assume you’re still up to your neck in ministry. You’re obviously still thinking hard about NT theology!

      Your question about the breadth of Wright’s view of dikaiosune theou has really got me thinking. Interestingly enough, the key OT text Wright provides to illustrate his contention that ‘righteousness of God’ = God’s covenant faithfulness is Daniel 9, where ‘retributive’ justice is at the forefront (see vv. 4-14). So he certainly understands that. How much Wright emphasizes it in his reading of Romans I cannot seem to recall.

      I certainly agree with you that it is part of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-4. In fact, I think it is right at the heart of Paul’s argument. For example, Paul views the potential problem raised by God ‘passing over sins previously committed’ (3:25; e. g., ‘Hey, where is God’s covenant faithfulness in dealing with sin here?!’) as solved precisely by God’s retributive justice. Now, however—and here’s what turns God’s retributive justice into Good News for us (i.e., ironically, blessing!), the one on the receiving end the curse is not the sinner but, rather, Jesus, our substitute; thus Paul’s emphasis on propitiation in the immediate context.

      So now the waters are muddied, in the best sort of way, and it becomes difficult to keep ‘blessing’ and ‘curse’ in airtight categories as two mutually exclusive expressions of the righteousness of God. For in the single act of Christ’s crucifixion, God has (a) fulfilled his unconditional promise to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham, and He has (b) fulfilled his promise in the Mosaic covenant to curse the sinner.

      What remains of retributive justice, of course, is God’s wrath poured out on unbelievers at the end of the age. While Paul certainly alludes to this in Romans (e. g., 1:18, proleptically), the focus on retributive justice in the letter centers, instead, around God’s saving work at the cross, where, again, curse turns into blessing, and where, therefore, retributive justice can for the first time in salvation history be viewed in positive terms. Perhaps this is why what you call ‘the bad news about covenant faithfulness’ doesn’t look as ‘bad’ you think it should in Wright’s treatment. Just a thought. [Plus, I think Wright is a bit overly optimistic about the ‘already’ half of the ‘already/not yet’ aspect of the Kingdom of God. But that’s a story for another time.]

      Finally, no, I have not read Bird’s book. I plan to pick it up. But I do have a post about birds on my blog ☺.

  2. hellerman Says:

    Hey, Jeff, I got Bird’s book and am working through it. So far I am really impressed. Very judicious blend of perspectives new and old.


  3. Bill Wolitarsky Says:

    Thanks for refering me to your blog. I will read what you wrote this evening more carefully and comment tomorrow. I am familiar with Piper and N.T. Wrights book “Justification” which is a response to Piper’s comments about Wright’s views on Justification in Romans. Thanks for your interest in exposing me to ideas on this subject.

  4. Bill Wolitarsky Says:

    Dr. Hellerman,

    I have read your article “Reading Romans Wrightly” and find it enlightening and helpful. One thing for sure, you have done your homework and I am inspried to read more carefully the text of Romans itself with some of the ideas brought up in your article.

    We are truly blessed to be listening to a series of messages on Sunday morning delieverd by you and Brandon. I have a great deal of respect for both of you and the fact that you are very much in touch with the theological and exegetical issues involved. You both do an excellent job, as challenging as it is, to bring complex thoughts to be helpful to us who face the callenges of work and family life.

  5. Miriam Allard Says:

    I want to ask something to Mr. Bill Wolitarsky. Do you have a dauthter named Lisa? and Have you ever lived in Canada in Laval in the Grande Maison ou Big House on boulevand Lévesque in Laval? I was the friend of your daughter and I know all your other children and your wife Karen I think tell me if you are the right person. I still live in Canada and expecting news from Lisa my friend when I was about 10 or 12 years old.. Thank you

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