Volume 40 - Issue 1

Romans 4 and the Justification of Abraham in Light of Perspectives New and Newer

By David Shaw


Romans 4 remains a central text in the debate over the New Perspective on Paul. This article locates that debate in the context of a wider discussion concerning the place of justification in Paul’s theology before responding to a fresh reading of Rom 4 by N. T. Wright. His proposal that Abraham’s belief in the God who justifies the ungodly refers to God’s promise to include the Gentiles is outlined and critiqued with the aid of Wright’s earlier and rather different readings of the chapter. In closing, the article accounts for Abraham’s role within the argument of Romans and the place of justification in Paul’s theology.

As if justification in Romans 4 were not already an overly-ambitious subject, I want to begin with a word about justification in the 20th century. Naturally this demands gross oversimplification, but I persist in the hope that it will accomplish three helpful things. First, in a complex and diffuse debate, it might help to orient the reader to its most basic shape and character. Second, and more specifically, it might offer a framework in which to understand the significance of what is being said about justification in Romans 4. Third, it will highlight areas of the current discussion of justification we can only touch on in this article but are worth at least being aware of.

Narrowing the focus somewhat, but still dealing in generalisations, I will then sketch the present state of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) discussion. Despite the fact that interest is growing in perspectives yet newer, perhaps this is timely given the long-awaited publication of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.2 While the seeds of much that it contains are sown in earlier works, there are a few new elements which distinguish Wright further from fellow proponents of the NPP and which (perhaps on account of its formidable length) seem to have largely gone unnoticed, not least a provocative new approach to Rom 4. That being the case, I will outline Wright’s new reading before critiquing it, aided not least by Wright’s own earlier exegesis of the chapter. In so doing there will be an opportunity to reflect upon the significance of Abraham in Romans, and justification in Paul.

1. Justification in the 20th Century

Put simply, the doctrine of justification in the 20th century has endured one of two fates. It has either retained its traditional meaning but been declared peripheral to Paul’s concerns, or it has remained central by undergoing a degree of redefinition.

The former of these can be traced back to William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer for whom justification by faith was a ‘polemical doctrine’3 and a ‘subsidiary crater’4 respectively, serving only the limited purpose of justifying Paul’s Gentile mission and his stance vis-à-vis the Law. To their minds, the fact that Paul only spoke in such terms when engaged in the defence of that mission (principally in Galatians and Romans) signals its secondary importance, as does the fact that his opposition of works to faith makes it impossible to derive an ethic from the doctrine of justification. Despite lying fallow for a time, the view was championed by E.P. Sanders who exchanged Schweitzer’s terminology of mysticism for his own preferred term ‘participatory eschatology,’ but retained his basic thrust.5 Like Wrede and Schweitzer, Sanders was content to label Paul’s arguments concerning justification (especially Rom 1–4) as somewhat self-contradictory, confident that Paul’s theological heart lay elsewhere. More recently still, the view is enjoying a renaissance and has found a champion in Douglas Campbell, who contributes a chapter to the recent Four Views on the Apostle Paul.6 He identifies Paul’s theological centre with the acronym PPME: pneumatologically participatory martyrological eschatology.7 Not content to see justification relegated to a Pauline periphery, Campbell attempts the ‘exegetical elimination’ of several key texts in Paul—chiefly large portions of Rom 1–4—by ascribing their forensic framework to his opponents. He thereby seeks to neutralise justification as a rival to PPME at the centre of Paul’s thought and to distance Paul even further from forensic categories of forgiveness, atonement and judgment.8 The thought expressed by Wrede re-emerges, therefore: ‘God does not appear before man as judge at all; he shows himself rather as giver,’9 or, in Campbell’s terms, as liberator from the powers of sin and death. Of course for those of us who never supposed that participation with Christ and justification by faith in Christ are opposed to one another (nor God’s generosity and his role as the world’s judge) this combative way of setting things up may come as a surprise. This is, however, we should note, a view that goes back to Schweitzer who insists that ‘progress always consists in taking one or other of two alternatives, in abandoning the attempt to combine them.’10 As much as anything, the persistence of that rhetorical strategy is his bequest to New Testament studies, as we shall see.

To sum up then, one of justification’s fates has been to retain its traditional meaning but to be cast to the edges of Pauline thought. At best it has an occasional and defensive quality, defending his mission to the Gentiles (Wrede, Schweitzer, Sanders), at worst it is a form of soteriological contractualism he actually opposes (Campbell). Either way, Rom 4 holds little interest for Sanders and Campbell compared to the participatory riches of Rom 5–8.11

The second experience of Paul’s doctrine of justification is that it has kept its place at the heart of Paul’s theology but it has been redefined to at least some extent. That would be true in the case of Ernst Käsemann, for whom the righteousness of God became a kind of catch-all term, describing God’s gift and transformative power, and the justification of the ungodly became a pin to burst all manner of religious and secular ideologies.12

More recently, in a different form, it is the position of James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright as advocates of the NPP. The Old Perspective on Paul (OPP), in their view, misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification, but, rightly interpreted, it is still central to Paul. The supposed error was to assume that Paul was asking sixteenth century questions—‘how can I find mercy from an angry God?’—when actually justification addresses a very different first century set of questions—‘how are the people of God marked out and so on what terms are Gentiles to be admitted?’13 Suitably redefined to speak of covenant membership, it follows that the doctrine of justification was dear to the heart and central to the thinking of the man who knew himself to be the apostle to the Gentiles.14

These then have been the twin fates of justification in recent times; relocated by some to the edge of Paul’s thought to be replaced by participatory categories, redefined by others to address ethnic and social concerns. Given the significance of Rom 4 to the latter approach we now begin to focus our attention there. Needless to say there has been all manner of debate over the extent to which NPP’s redefinition of justification clarifies or obscures Paul’s true meaning and how comfortably the proposed reading sits within the bounds of Protestant orthodoxy. We will not settle those debates here, but my intent is at least for us to gain a sense of the lay of the land and, as it happens, Rom 4 currently offers one of the best views as we will see. By way of a run up to that passage, I want to make some more general observations about the state of the New Perspective debates.

2. The Current State of the New Perspective Discussion

First, Schweitzer casts a shadow over the NPP debate as well. Remember: Progress always consists in taking one or other of two alternatives, in abandoning the attempt to combine them. In this case the debate was frequently engaged in antithetical terms: OPP versus NPP; individual salvation versus Jew/Gentile relations. Is Rom 4 about how people are saved or how Gentiles are included?

Second, more recently there have been some attempts to combine them, or at least to turn down the rhetorical volume. On the OPP side there is now widespread appreciation for the first century context in which Paul’s doctrine of justification arose and it is a welcome thing that the regrettable caricatures of Judaism and the overly individualised versions of the OPP (Bultmann’s existentialism is often in the background) prevalent in the early 20th century have been laid to rest.

On the NPP side too there is a growing sense of the OPP lion lying down with the NPP lamb, most notably in the case of Dunn. Although he rejects claims that he has considerably modified his position, he confesses to setting up his arguments in ways that were ‘misleading and unnecessarily provocative’ at the birth of the NPP.15 Dunn now insists his intent was not to nullify the Reformed doctrine of justification, but rather to establish it on a firmer and broader basis.16 Dunn writes, ‘If the New Perspective sparks off a renewed attempt to do justice to the whole Paul, it will have been a worthwhile hiccup in the ongoing process of receiving what Paul has still to say about the gospel for today.’17 Note that. What was once hailed as a Copernican revolution is now a ‘worthwhile hiccup’. N. T. Wright also seems ready to beat his sword into a ploughshare in the spirit of Isaiah 2. In Paul and the Faithfulness of God he believes that if by his approach

We manage to get beyond the false stand-off between ‘salvation history’ and ‘apocalyptic’, and also between ‘participatory’ and ‘juristic’, we should also manage, with this analysis, to transcend the low-grade either/or that has been taking place between ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives. I have no interest in perpetuating such a squabble.18

Similarly, in an article published in 2012 he characterises the NPP as a Reformed protest against a Lutheran theology, suggesting that ‘had Reformed scholars like Herman Ridderbos been listened to, the protest might never have been necessary.’19

On the other hand, however, at least in the case of Wright, things are a bit more complicated. A more recent article still, published in 2013, is written more in the spirit of Joel 3 with ploughshares beaten back into swords as the knives come out for the OPP: He writes that his argument ‘strikes exactly against a position which has become one of the last strongholds of the “old perspective” on Paul’, going on to declare that his reading means that ‘this last refuge of the “old perspective” is dismantled, leaving the occupants nowhere to hide.’20

So, what is this last refuge of the old perspective? Answer: It’s Rom 4 and in particular 4:4–8. This is significant for a few reasons. First, and not before time, it brings us to Abraham. Second, this passage is regularly identified as problematic for the NPP. It is the Achilles heel, the smoking gun. Pick your metaphor. So this makes a fresh attempt to read the passage within a NPP framework worth attending to. Third, this is a passage Wright has changed his mind on and the result is two quite different readings of Rom 4; one that may be found in his commentary on Romans and in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision,21 and one that is first proposed in the 2013 article entitled ‘Paul and the Patriarch’22 and taken up into Paul and the Faithfulness of God.23 Two quite different readings of Romans; both are Wright but at least one of them is wrong, and either way it is worth having a sense of where he now stands. Fourth, the spirit of Schweitzer has once more descended and the antitheses have re-emerged. As we just heard, the OPP is not to be accommodated but to be dismantled. Or to give but one example from Paul and the Faithfulness of God, we learn that “Romans 4 . . . is through and through covenantal; hardly at all soteriological.”24

3. N. T. Wright’s New Reading of Romans 4

In keeping with his earlier interpretations of Rom 4, Wright rejects (as most do) the view that Paul is proof-texting his doctrine of justification by faith or selecting Abraham at random from the gallery of the heroes of the faith. Rather, ‘Paul is expounding the covenant-making chapter (Gen 15) in order to show that the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel is (however shocking and paradoxical it may be) the fulfillment of this ancient promise.’25

Taking into account the context of Gen 15, Wright believes the promise has two elements which are developed throughout Rom 4. First, ‘Abraham asked God about an actual physical offspring; this is answered by God “raising the dead”, giving life to his and Sarah’s “dead” bodies by giving them a son of their own.’ Second, ‘God promised in addition, something far more abundant than Abraham’s specific request: a family consisting of many nations, like the stars of heaven.’26 Paul alludes to these two successive developments in reverse order in 4:11–12 (Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised, and the father of circumcised who combine their circumcision with faith), and in their proper order both in 4:16 (those of the law, and those who share Abraham’s faith) and in 4:17 where Paul alludes to the “life-out-of-death Isaac and . . . the created-out-of-nothing ‘many nations.’”27 Taken together these substantiate the truth of God’s words at the opening of Gen 15 that ‘your reward will be very great’ (ὁ μισθός σου πολὺς ἔσται σφόδρα).28

Crucial for Wright’s argument moving forward is the presence of that term μισθός (reward) in Gen 15:1 and Rom 4:4, for he thinks it re-orients our reading of Rom 4:4–5. Apart from that observation it might be supposed that Rom 4:4–5 offers an everyday example of a general principle that one who works receives what is due and one who does not receives anything he has as a gift.29 However the use of the term μισθός shows that “Paul is still talking about the patriarch himself.”30 He receives the promise of innumerable offspring as a gift and therefore neither he nor his physical descendants have any right to boast of their role in God’s plan to bring salvation to the world. “Yes” Wright concedes,

Paul does then develop a very brief book-keeping metaphor in verse 4. But the reason for the metaphor itself (‘working’ for a reward which is then ‘owed’) emerges not from an underlying implicit Second-Temple Jewish soteriology of ‘doing good works’ to earn God’s favour . . . but from Genesis 15 itself which is innocent of all such notions, and which speaks instead, as Paul does, of covenant and family. Verse 4 embroiders this with a particular colour, but this embroidery carries no weight in the passage as a whole.31

At this point Wright turns to the question of how to read ‘the justification of the ungodly’ in Rom 4:5 and answers it in the most novel way. He first outlines a traditional approach: Abraham is an ungodly, uncircumcised sinner in need of justification and, by believing that God will justify the ungodly, he is justified. “One may summarize this view point by saying that Abraham is justified because he believes in justification by faith.”32

By contrast, Wright proposes that the passage should be read thus:

  1. God makes a promise to Abraham that his ‘reward’ will be a colossal, worldwide family, like the stars of heaven in number and occupying not just ‘the land’ but ‘the world’;
  2. In order to believe this promise, Abraham must believe that somehow God will bring into this family people from all sorts of ethnic and moral backgrounds, i.e. the ‘ungodly’;
  3. Abraham thus ‘believes in “the one who justifies the ungodly”’, i.e. the God who has made this promise to him about his ‘ungodly’ descendants, not in the sense that he has believed in his own justification;
  4. Abraham is therefore himself ‘justified by faith’, not in that he was previously ‘ungodly’ (still less that he continued to be ‘ungodly’ after being justified, as some have suggested), but that God has reckoned him ‘righteous’—with a meaning yet to be determined;
  5. Abraham is ‘justified by faith’, not because he has believed in an abstract system of justification or soteriology, but because he has believed in the God who has made promises about his enormous multi-ethnic family.
  6. The chapter is thus explaining that what God has done in the events concerning Jesus (3.21–26) is the fulfilment of the covenant promises made to Abraham in the beginning;
  7. Romans 4 thus explains the way in which the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, the covenant faithfulness of God, is revealed in the gospel (3.21, cf. 1.15–17).33

There is something remarkably ironic here, but first we ought to note the way Wright goes on to determine the meaning of righteousness. Once again the context of Gen 15 is invoked, but in this case to confirm a view Wright has held for many years. The fact that the reckoning of righteousness to Abraham comes between the promise of the great reward in 15:1 and the covenant-making ceremony in 15:7–21 “strongly suggests that ‘reckoned it to him as righteousness’ means, more or less, ‘God reckoned this in terms of covenant membership’, or perhaps ‘God made a covenant with him on this basis’.”34 If there is any development here it is in the expansion of δικαιόω (‘to justify’) to denote not only being declared a member of a covenant but to have someone make a covenant made with you. The irony alluded to a moment ago is that while the opposing view of Rom 4 is caricatured as justification by believing in justification by faith, Wright’s view of Abraham’s justification is that he was justified for believing in someone else’s justification by faith (namely his future Gentile children)!

We are getting ahead of ourselves, however. One last feature of Wright’s argument merits coverage before we turn to any further critique, namely the role of David in Romans 4.35 Does the citation of Psalm 32 demonstrate that Paul after all, has soteriological and not covenantal matters in mind? Wright thinks not for two reasons. First, he insists that these are not mutually exclusive after all, but that the covenant with Abraham, in the context of Gen 1–12, was established in order to deal with sin in some way.36 Second, Paul’s “strenuous emphasis on the inclusion of the Gentiles” explains the citation, once it is noticed that Ps 32:1–2 and 32:6 generalise the experience of forgiveness. Thus Paul makes the psalm

Point to God’s determination to ‘justify the ungodly’, to bring pagans into his family. . . . David here is not, any more than Abraham, spoken of as himself a sinner (though no doubt Paul could have said that too) but rather is invoked as one who gives testimony to the blessing of forgiveness on anyone who has no works, no outward sign of belonging to God’s people.37

To that extent Wright could summarise Rom 4:6–8 in the same way he summarises the chapter as a whole, it “is about the bringing of Gentiles into the one family, a theme repeated again and again from different angles.”38

4. Response

As we noted earlier, there is the danger of accepting the antithetical premise of his argument. We don’t actually have to choose between Rom 4 being about soteriology or the covenant. In a sense Wright does not want us to either and in this article as elsewhere he insists that since the covenant was designed to deal with sin it is false to play covenantal themes off against soteriology.39 No doubt we wonder why then he so frequently does so, and we might like to hear some more specifics on what it actually means for Israel to be the place where the world’s sin was meant to be dealt with, but soteriology is there, and the wisest thing to do is to ignore some of the antitheses he sets up and dig around behind them.

That said, the illuminating question remains why justification is not by works but by faith. For Wright the answer is still that if justification were by works then the Gentiles would be left outside. If by works of Torah it would mean “the end of the promise, the end of the multi-ethnic seed, the end of the worldwide inheritance.”40 But, as I shall argue, there is more at stake than the extent of God’s people. If justification were not by faith there would be no people of God at all. That becomes clear when we attend to a number of connections between this chapter, the surrounding argument in Romans and some intertextual connections elsewhere. As we do this we can actually lean quite heavily on Wright’s Romans commentary which is alert to many these connections. What seems to have happened more recently is that the one allusion to Abraham’s ‘reward’ in Gen 15:1, if there is an allusion to it at all, has drowned out all the other references to which he once drew attention. Many of those revolve around the phrase concerning the justification of the ungodly.

First, as many commentators note, God is here said to do what he forbids judges to do. In a striking parallel to Rom 4:5 the Greek text of Isa 5:23 pronounces a woe on οἱ δικαιοῦντες τὸν ἀσεβῆ (“those who justify the ungodly). In Prov 17:15 “he who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” In Exod 23:7 the Lord himself swears that he will not justify the ungodly.41

In light of these texts it seems very farfetched indeed to say that the justification of the ungodly in Rom 4 is a reference to the inclusion of Gentiles. The clear context of the phrase is of the forensic acquittal of the guilty. To justify the ungodly in Isaiah and Proverbs and Exodus is not to extend the boundaries of the covenant community but to allow an injustice to occur within it.

Confirmation of that view is found in the connections between the justification of the ungodly in 4:5 and its surrounding context in Romans. As Rom 1–3 has developed, human unrighteousness is universal, placing all in the category of the ungodly. The wrath of God (1:18) is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness (ἀσέβεια) and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Jew and Gentile alike are under wrath (1:18). Jew and Gentile alike are under sin (3:9). Jew and Gentile alike are unrighteous (3:10).

At this point in the argument of Romans we are, of course, at an impasse. The only candidates for justification are ungodly and yet God has sworn not to justify the ungodly. “But now,” Paul writes in 3:21, “God’s righteousness has been revealed.” In the presentation of Jesus as a propitiatory sacrifice God is able both to be just and the justifier of the wicked,42 and it is to this account of the atonement and the preceding account of the human plight that the description of God as the one who justifies the ungodly looks back, for only there is the circle squared. Equally relevant is the later reference to the ungodly in Rom 5:6, for again there it denotes not Gentiles but all believers, regardless of the background in their pre-Christian existence: “while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly (ὑπὲρ ἀσεβῶν). . . . But God demonstrates his own love for us. . . .”

To return to 3:21–26 for a moment it also seems to me to be the most likely source of Paul’s illustration in 4:4–5. In truth the reference to μισθός is actually rather incidental, permitting a contrast between the one who works and receives what he is due as such and not as a gift (i.e. it is not κατὰ χάριν) and the one does not work but, by implication, receives as gift anything that comes his way. This, surely, is an echo of 3:24 where those who have fallen short of God’s glory—that is to say, all of us—may be justified freely by his grace (δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι).

‘May be justified’, we say, and can only be justified on those terms. The background of universal sinfulness makes it certain that by works of the law no flesh will be justified (3:20) and in support of this thesis there can be little doubt that Paul introduces Abraham as Exhibit A.43 This introduction has both a defensive and offensive character to it. Defensive, in two ways. First, Paul is clearly defending his thesis, showing that the argument advanced in 3:19–31 finds support in 4:1–17, as Table 1 demonstrates.

Table 1.

Rom 3:19–20 Rom 3:27–31 Rom 4:1–17
Every mouth stopped (3:19) Boasting is excluded (3:27a, cf. 2:17, 2:23) Abraham has no right to boast (4:1–2)
By works of the law no human being (σάρξ) will be justified because a person (ἄνθρωπος) is justified by faith not works of the law (3:27b–28) because Abraham was justified by faith, not works (4:3–8)
Circumcised and uncircumcised are united under the one God through faith (3:29–30) Circumcised and uncircumcised are united as children of Abraham through faith (4:9–17)44

Defensive, secondly, with the characterisation of Abraham in second Temple Judaism in mind where the patriarch’s obedience (either in connection with the command to sacrifice Isaac or in proleptic obedience to the Torah) was ascribed some role in Abraham’s justification. For example:

Sirach 44:19–20: ‘Abraham was a great father of many nations, and no-one was found like him in glory, who kept the Law of the most high and entered into covenant with him, and established the covenant in his flesh, and was found faithful in testing.’

Damascus Document 3:2–4: ‘Abraham did not walk in evil, and he was accounted a friend of God because he kept the commandments of God and did not choose his own will.’

1 Maccabees 2:52: ‘Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?’

In light of such readings, Paul carefully and characteristically attends to the order of events, insisting on the significance of the fact that Gen 15:6 occurs prior to Abraham’s circumcision in Gen 17 and prior to his obedience in Gen 22.45 That is to say, Abraham’s justification arises from nothing in Abraham. The account of his faith towards the end of the chapter makes the point most forcefully. In faith he looks away from his own body and from that of Sarah which are lifeless and deathly; in faith he looks to God who brings life out of death and yes, the God who justifies the ungodly.46 That his faith becomes the model for us in these respects tells strongly against N. T. Wright’s proposal. In Rom 4 Abraham and David do not stand on the solid rock of their own covenant membership and look beyond themselves to anticipate the granting of the same to Gentiles. Rather they regard their own footing as far from secure, casting themselves on the God who, in the absence of works and the presence of sin, answers with forgiveness and justification. And those are the blessings under discussion in Rom 4.47

The fact that those blessings are available beyond Israel, as 4:9–17 argue, brings us to the offensive aspect of Paul’s argument. The offense lies in the way that Paul relates Abraham to the Gentiles, and here we can take up Wright’s earlier readings of the chapter. As he highlights, the fact that 4:9–12 describes Abraham receiving justification while in uncircumcision and goes on to list him as the father first of the Gentiles (4:11) then of the Jews (and then only of those who follow in the footsteps of his uncircumcised faith, 4:12) “is the beginning of a daring theme: that Abraham is actually more like believing Gentiles than he is like believing Jews.”48

There is a hint of it also in the way Abraham’s faith is described as a reversal of the ungodliness and idolatry in Rom 1 that especially characterises the Gentiles. This is another insight from Wright’s earlier work, building on an article by Eddie Adams, which is left aside in Wright’s more recent publications.49 Consider the following parallels in Table 2.

Table 2.

Humanity ‘knows’ God’s eternal power but reject the Creator (1:20, 25) Abraham recognised God’s creative power (4:17, 21)
Refusing to glorify him or give him thanks (1:21) And gave glory to God (4:19)
‘Thinking themselves wise’ (1:22) Ηaving no confidence in himself (4:19)
With the result that they turn away from natural, fruitful relationships resulting in dishonour and death (1:24–27, 32) With the result that his and Sarah’s bodies produce life and are fruitful

Abraham then provides the model for all while resembling a Gentile most closely in his circumstances prior to circumcision. If Wright’s earlier reading is correct, as I believe it is, his more recent exegesis has it backwards. Abraham is not justified for believing a promise about someone else. He is justified for believing that God can do the impossible for him. If it were the former it is striking that Abraham in Gen 15 remains at one remove from those of us who are Gentiles, he simply believes a promise about us. If, however Rom 4 depicts Abraham as a model believer then he is more obviously a father whom I am to imitate and in whose footsteps I am to follow.

What then shall we say Wright has found in this chapter? Seizing upon the recurrence of the word ‘reward’ in Rom 4:4 and laying aside many far more audible echoes and allusions in the passage, he arrives at a position some distance from his own earlier readings and one in the footsteps of which it is hard to imagine many following. Despite some claim to the contrary he seems in no mind to transcend the “low-grade either/or” of perspectives old and new or to offer terms of peace. In this instance, rather, he has sounded the charge and gone over the top.

5. Concluding Reflections

As we draw to a close I want to return to the false antitheses that bedevil NT studies and suggest that progress often lies in rejecting Schweitzer’s premise. Romans 4 is a case in point in any number of ways. While Campbell and his fellow advocates of the apocalyptic post new-perspective Paul want to champion God’s generosity at the expense of his righteous judgment, Rom 4 holds them together; indeed they combine even in that pregnant phrase the justification of the ungodly. God’s wrath at sin is the remarkable backdrop of God’s generosity; to eliminate the former is to diminish the latter.

Perspectives new and newer are also united in wanting to displace an emphasis on the individual believer with wider horizons, be they ethnic or apocalyptic. But again Rom 4 holds them together. Abraham and David themselves know the blessing of forgiveness, and yet, given Abraham’s role, his individual faith becomes the model for all his children and the grounds of their unity—he is the father of us all (4:16). However, the way in which Rom 4 accents the individual as well as the corporate dimension is one of the notable casualties in Wright’s new reading. Abraham and David still testify that God justifies people, but Wright has removed any sense that they commend the Lord to us knowing that blessedness themselves. Abraham simply believes that God will justify the Gentiles over there, as it were. David is made to speak not from his own deep sense of blessedness but of what God will do for others.

Similarly, and finally, there is a need to hold together the vertical and horizontal aspects of justification. One of the blessings of the NPP has been to highlight Paul’s use the doctrine of justification to argue for the equal standing of Jew and Gentile within God’s people, but as crucial as this observation is it does not force upon us a redefinition of the doctrine.50 The evidence of Romans is that Paul emphasises a common unrighteousness under God’s wrath and a common justification on the basis of faith alone. It is this fundamentally vertical dimension which provides the rationale for Paul’s horizontal, ecclesiological application of the doctrine.

[1] This article is based on a conference paper delivered at the John Owen Centre Conference 2014. The brief requested “A study of Romans 4 setting out the significance of Abraham in the chapter, its wider theological significance for debates on justification especially the NPP, and its application to the believer today.”

[2] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 2013).

[3] William Wrede, Paul, trans. Edward Lummis (London: P. Green, 1908), 122.

[4] Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. William Montgomery (London: A&C Black, 1931), 225.

[5] Sanders expresses his debt to Schweitzer throughout the discussion of Paul that constitutes part two of Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977).

[6] Douglas A. Campbell, “Christ and the Church in Paul: A ‘Post-New Perspective’ Account,” in Four Views on the Apostle Paul, ed. Michael F. Bird, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 113–43. Although they discuss Paul under the much disputed term ‘apocalyptic,’ and differ in their approaches, Martinus de Boer and Beverley Roberts Gaventa make common cause with Campbell against justification by faith as a major theme in Paul. See e.g. Martinus C. de Boer, “Paul’s Mythologising Program in Romans 5–8,” in Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5–8, ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 1–20; Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” Int 58.3 (2004): 229–40. Further back, the figures of J. Louis Martyn, J. Christiaan Beker and Ernst Käsemann loom large and are frequently cited, although their very deep differences are masked by a common appeal to ‘apocalyptic’ as the key to Paul’s thought.

[7] Wrede’s Paul is cited as a classic statement of the view in all but acronym. This is somewhat surprising given Wrede’s emphasis on demonology and on liberation from the physical sphere as the essence of salvation; in neither respect does Campbell follow Wrede.

[8] For the language of “exegetical elimination” see Douglas A. Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 4. For a penetrating review of Campbell’s major tome The Deliverance of God see especially R. Barry Matlock, “Zeal for Paul but Not According to Knowledge: Douglas Campbell’s War on ‘Justification Theory,’” JSNT 34 (2011): 115–49.

[9] Wrede, Paul, 131.

[10] Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, ed. John Bowden (London: SCM, 2000), 198.

[11] When he does discuss the passage, Campbell argues that the significance of Rom 4 lies in the way that Abraham functions as a type of Christ, embodying a faithful trust in God for resurrection. He does not provide an example for believers to follow, therefore, but foreshadows the saving event in which we participate. See The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 715–761.

[12] Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that several members of the apocalyptic school, J. Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell among them, simultaneously reject the doctrine of justification and reinterpret at least some of Paul’s justification language as if it denotes liberative and non-forensic actions, translating δικαιόω as ‘to rectify’ and δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as ‘the deliverance of God.’ Sanders would not approve, however, for he rightly saw that confusion would ensue from extending or reassigning justification language to participatory categories. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 508.

[13] The classic early statement of this case, of course, is Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” HTR 56 (1963): 199–215.

[14] Thus Dunn and Wright agree with Wrede and Schweitzer that justification is a polemical doctrine but would argue that their German predecessors missed the centrality of that polemic to the vocation and mission of Paul.

[15] James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 19. The suggestion that he has significantly modified his position is made by Timo Laato, “Paul’s Anthropological Considerations: Two Problems,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2, The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, 2 vols., WUNT 181 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 2:356n71.

[16] See e.g. James D. G. Dunn, “A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul,” Early Christianity 4 (2013): 157–82; “What’s Right about the Old Perspective?” in Studies in the Pauline Epistles: Essays in Honor of Douglas J. Moo, ed. Matthew Harmon and Jay E. Smith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 214–29.

[17] Dunn, “A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul,” 182.

[18] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 2013), 2:1038. More widely he bewails the either/ors that beset the field, urging that “serious study of Paul must put away childish antitheses.” Ibid., 1:44.

[19] N. T. Wright, “Paul in Current Anglophone Scholarship,” ExpT 123 (2012): 369; cf. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 53, where he expresses the same thought in relation to Calvin, ruing the influence of Luther.

[20] “Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4,” JSNT 35 (2013): 215–16.

[21] “Romans,” in Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, ed. Leander E. Keck, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 393–770; Wright, Justification, 190–97.

[22] “Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4,” JSNT 35 (2013): 207–41, now reprinted in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (London: SPCK, 2013), 554–92. He himself acknowledges “I am here developing, in some cases taking further and in other cases significantly modifying, positions I have argued earlier,” “Paul and the Patriarch,” 208n1.

[23] Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2:995–1007.

[24] Ibid., 1002. The reader at this point is well-advised to acquaint themselves with the rules of Theological Ping-Pong, for which see Basil Mitchell, “How to Play Theological Ping-Pong,” in How to Play Theological Ping-Pong: And Other Essays on Faith and Reason (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 166–83.

[25] Wright, “Paul and the Patriarch,” 208.

[26] Ibid., 214.

[27] Ibid., 215.

[28] Bible translations are taken from the ESV.

[29] Wright in “Romans,” 491 adopts this position but states that “this is the only time he uses this metaphorical field in all his discussions of justification, and we should not allow this unique and brief sidelight to become the dominant note, as it has in much post-Reformation discussion.”

[30] Wright, “Paul and the Patriarch,” 215.

[31] Ibid., 216. Or as he puts it later “Paul has picked up μισθός 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.” Ibid., 233.

[32] That Wright summarises the view this way is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, John Piper has offered a nuanced response to the oft-repeated caricature that the traditional view requires belief in justification by faith for justification. See The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 20, 85–86. Second, one might have thought that he would have taken more care not to caricature a view that he himself once held. See e.g. Wright, Justification, 193: “Yes, of course he is arguing that Abraham was ungodly when God called him, and that it was his faith in ‘the one who justifies the ungodly’. . . that simply clung on to the promises despite that ungodliness.” Clearly Wright once took a more traditional line in Romans 4 but now that reading is caricatured in order to push the reader towards his new interpretation.

[33] “Paul and the Patriarch,” 218.

[34] Ibid., 219.

[35] Wright also devotes space to restating his arguments in favour of translating Rom 4:1 as ‘What shall we say, then? Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?” Ibid., 225–31.

[36] Ibid., 233–34.

[37] Ibid., 235–36. Further support is found in 4:9–12 where Wright sees Paul arguing that the blessing of forgiveness “is intended not primarily for the circumcision but for the uncircumcision.” Ibid., 236.

[38] Wright, “Paul and the Patriarch,” 223.

[39] Ibid., 216–17.

[40] Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2:1005, emphasis mine.

[41] In the LXX the 2nd person form is present, carried over from the first part of the verse, but the vocabulary parallels are striking nonetheless: οὐ δικαιώσεις τὸν ἀσεβῆ ἕνεκεν δώρων (‘do not justify the ungodly for a gift’). On these connections see Wright, “Romans,” 492.

[42] A propitiatory understanding of Jesus death, even if not derived from the term ἱλαστήριον in 3:25 must be implied by the context for before Rom 3:21 there is wrath and after there is peace (5:1)

[43] Not, it is worth emphasising, as a random proof-text or arbitrary example but rather “as ‘our forefather’ he is the example. If Paul’s theology cannot accommodate him, it must be false’” Simon J. Gathercole, Where Is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1–5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 233, emphasis original.

[44] Adapted from Douglas J. Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 245.

[45] As D. A. Carson has frequently pointed out, this attentiveness to matters of chronology is characteristic of apostolic exegesis in general, and that of Paul in particular. See e.g. “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2, The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, 2 vols., WUNT 181 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 393–436.

[46] That the promise’s progress from one patriarchal generation to the next relies upon God to open the wombs of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah highlights human weakness and forms part of the context of the Genesis narrative. So too does Abraham’s attempt to accomplish the fulfilment of the promise with Hagar by fleshly means in Gen 16—as Paul highlights in Gal 4:21–31, such works of the flesh cannot secure freedom and only perpetuate slavery. Such details show that a strong case for the traditional reading of Rom 4 can also be made from the literary context of Gen 15:6.

[47] The point is illustrated specifically in the lives of David and Abraham but Paul’s comment in 4:15 to the effect that ‘the law brings wrath’ recalls the earlier section and demonstrates that Israel as much as the Gentiles stands in need of salvation. It is striking that Acts makes a similar point and in similar terms. Peter addresses the “Men of Israel” in Acts 3 and speaks of God sending Christ in order for them to participate in the blessing promised to the Gentiles, namely forgiveness (3:25–26). Likewise Luke’s Great commission speaks not of a covenant membership being extended to the Gentiles but of a message of forgiveness and repentance being preached beginning in Jerusalem and spreading from there (Luke 24:45–47).

[48] “Romans,” 492.

[49] Wright, “Romans,” 500; for more detail see Edward Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience : Textual Links Between Romans 1 and 4,” JSNT 65 (1997): 47–66.

[50] For further development of this point, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” JETS 54 (2011): 19–34.

David Shaw

David Shaw is vice-principal and lecturer in New Testament, Greek, and Biblical Theology at Oak Hill College in London, England.

Other Articles in this Issue

The account of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac has been and will likely continue to be violently applied so long as the dominant misunderstanding of the text prevails...

In recent years, a growing cadre of younger historians has begun publishing significant books on the history of American evangelicalism...

Within the intra-Reformed debate over baptism, covenant theology is a crucial aspect in determining one's position...

The figure of Abraham creates a covenantal framework for biblical theology that allows baptism to be considered in relation to the Bible's developing story line...