Saturday, March 01, 2008

Wright on ...something

In Tom Wright's recent book Surprised by Hope, he makes a rather odd statement when talking about the subject of purgatory. In making the point that we don't need purgatory after death, he seems to suggest that our own deaths are somehow atoning.
As the reformers insisted, bodily death itself is the destruction of the sinful person. Someone once accused me of suggesting that God was a magician if he could wonderfully make a still-sinful person into a no-longer-sinful person just like that. But that's not the point. Death itself gets rid of all that is still sinful; this isn't magic but good theology. there is nothing then left to purge. Some older teachers suggested that purgatory would still be necessary because one would still need to bear some punishment for one's sins, but any such suggestion is of course abhorrent to anyone with even a faint understanding of Paul, who teaches that "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ." (170)
Over at Jeremy Priest's blog, he suggests that Wright could be referring to a common tradition. Following Douglas Moo's understanding of Romans 6:7, Wright could be using a Jewish understanding around the time of Second Temple Judaism where, following Gen 2:16-17 and 3:21-23, death itself is considered an atonement for sins. Moo finds it "likely, then, that Paul is citing a general maxim, to the effect that "death severs the hold of sin on a person" and points to the rabbinic writing of b. Shabb. 151b, Bar. "when a man is dead he is freed from fulfilling the law" (Moo 377).

Just to be clear, Rom 6:7 looks like a parenthetical comment in the midst of Paul's discussion of the assurance of baptism.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (ESV)
The truly strange thing is that NT Wright does not seem to interpret Rom 6:7 in this way. In his NIB Commentary on Romans, Wright says
Paul explains yet further with a cryptic aside (v. 7): the one who has died is freed from sin. That, at least, is what he clearly means; but the verb he uses, puzzlingly to us, is dedikaiwtai (dedikaiotai, "has been justified"). Many commentators conclude that Paul is here invoking a well-known rabbinic principle about death paying all debts. I agree with Cranfield that this is unlikely, since Paul nowhere suggests that physical death settles all accounts in God's sight. Verse 7 is not, then, a general principle invoked to explain the more specific point in v. 6, but a comment about the one who has been co-crucified with Christ; such a one has been "justified from" - that is, cleared from - their sin. Once more, we may compare Gal 2:19-20: "I through the law died to the law." What, then, "justified," rather than "freed"? The answer must be that, unlike most of his recent readers, Paul is able to keep the lawcourt metaphor still running in his mind even while expounding baptism and the Christian's solidarity in Christ. The Christian's freedom from sin comes through God's judicial decision. And this judicial decision is embodied in baptism.
So, either Wright has substantially changed his interpretation of this passage or he's not referring to Rom 6:7 here. If it's the latter, I'd be interested to know if it's due to one of those unnamed reformers or some other older textual tradition. If it's the former, why the switch? In either case, it would've been nice to have a footnote.

I also wonder what implications his quotation would carry for atonement, but that's another issue for another time.


  1. That's really interesting. I'm speaking as a complete outsider here--having never made the jump to N.T. Wright, as you well know--but I can't help feeling really uncomfortable with some of his statements, like: "this isn't magic but good theology."

    By what criteria? I'm sure he answers this, but...

    Also: "any such suggestion is of course abhorrent to anyone with even a faint understanding of Paul." My. How many Christians (vaguely characterized as "some older teachers") have had no understanding of Paul.

    Finally, based only on the snippets above, I wonder how important the word "still" in the first bold-faced quotation might be, and how it might help reconcile the two statements. But, again, I don't have enough grasp on Tom's theology to talk intelligently on this.

  2. Ok, so here are my thoughts on reconciling apparently contradicting comments:

    I assume that in the first quote Wright speaks of a man that is a Christian and therefore being transformed in his inner man by Christ. Only the flesh(the body and its urges and drives)remains as an opponent to this process. At death, this flesh(which is naturally evil since the fall of Adam) no longer can pull towards sin and Christ's work in the man is complete. This can be reconciled with the second quote if you realize that he is not talking about death paying anything but that death is simply the time that Christians are finally separated from their sin nature by separation from the flesh.

  3. Ben,

    I always feel bad when discussing Wright because I only really write about him when I disagree with him. When I agree with him, I tend to just assume his point and go on. In other words, I'm afraid that my portrait of Wright isn't all that right.

    On the magic point, I think he's just saying that sin can't be wished away. Something has to happen for things to change (ie Christ had to die).

    On the other bit, I think you're missing what he's saying. By speaking of those who thought that "purgatory would still be necessary because one would still need to bear some punishment for one's sins...", I think he's pointing out that some might say that even though our sins are forgiven, we still need to suffer the consequences of that sin. So we would still need to bear punishment for forgiven sins. I think he's right to note that this view would be quite unorthodox.

    I have some thoughts on how I would try to go about reconciling his statements, but I'll put those into a separate blog post.


    I think you'd be exactly right if Wright was talking about the death of our disposition or propensity to sin. But since this comes up in the context of his discussion of purgatory and dealing with sins when/after we die, I tend to think that there's a real difference here.

  4. It's been suggested to me that Mark's reading here was the correct one and that I was misunderstanding the passage. I'm not yet convinced.

    So just to let you know...I'm probably wrong in my reading of Wright. I still think my two story idea (at
    isn't a bad one and is rather helpful. It just might not be as helpful hear as I had hoped.