N.T. Wright’s Brief Comments on “Works Righteousness”

I’m currently reviewing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 4 in N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God, for Fortress Press. To say the least, Wright is changing the scene of NT studies and has been doing so for some time now. His erudite and winsome prose make 1700+ pages pass with ease.

I find myself at times reading with pen in hand and notes beside me with an inability to capture all my thoughts and questions and insights he brings to the table. There are other times I find myself adding up mathematical equations that are bit odd to me (e.g., 1+2 = 4). I see what he’s saying, but I’m don’t see how it adds up to what he says.

Other times I am left with questions that will cause me stop on a paragraph or a thought for hours on end. These statements leave me with a sense of intrigue. Some prod me on to further study; some prod me on to further ponder the implications; some prod me to reexamine typological and thematic relationships.

For example, here is one. If Wright is correct in his assertion, then evangelical theology may need to reexamine the problem of the Galatian judaizers and their representation of “works righteousness”. If Wright is correct, is Paul competing against a works righteousness model, as has been defined, or something else? This quote may require protestants to revisit the redefining of the “so-called” works righteousness model prevalent in reformed thought.

Having said that, we are bound to find it frustrating that we have almost no texts from this period that do what we would like, namely, speak from a clearly Pharisaic point of view about what Paul the apostle calls ‘justification by works of the law’. The closest we get, as is well known, is the Essene document 4QMMT. Though this document arguably criticizes the Pharisees, it appears to share, so far as we can tell, a sense of the shape of how eschatology works in relation to election and thus to present justification, enabling us to make the substitution of Pharisaic elements for Essene ones in the hope that we will thereby come closer to the answer.

The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’.[1]

I’d love to have thoughts and quotes regarding to your take on this quote and its relationship to Galatians. Does this quote bear weight to change previous Galatian interpretations? Do you find other evidence in 2nd Temple literature to argue other wise? Is Galatians representative of Pharisaical theology and offering a works righteousness model?


[1]N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4:1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 184.

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