N. T. Wright & Christ the Representative of Believers

To understand the view of Nicholas Thomas Wright regarding Christ’s work of redemption, one must begin with the centrality of Adam to the plight of the human race. Anyone who has heard Wright’s lectures on Philippians will not be able to forget his haunting appeal to Genesis 5.3 as a statement of how Adam had twisted God’s work of creation: “When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” (emphasis added).

The only way Jesus could undo the work of Adam was due to his status as the second Adam. Because he was the second Adam, his active and passive obedience availed to bring salvation where there was only curse. Indeed, only with both forms of obedience is it possible to construct “an adequate soteriology.” Thus he comments on Romans 5:

It is true that in the resurrection Christ became the prototype, and source of life, for the future resurrection of believers. But his task as last Adam was not confined to this. His role was that of obedience, not merely in place of disobedience but in order to undo that disobedience. That is the point made in vv. 18-19, where the “act of righteousness,” the “obedience” of the one man Jesus Christ, undoubtedly includes a reference to his long pilgrimage to Calvary. This perhaps needs spelling out in more detail. Since Paul does not call Christ “last Adam” in Romans 5, it may be risky to build too much on the passage in answering what is at best the rather artificial question, as to when Christ became “last Adam”; but since the parallel (and imbalance) between Adam and Christ is worked out in more detail here we are perhaps able to gain a more precise grasp of the theology that underlies both this passage and 1 Corinthians 15. There are two tasks, undertaken by Christ, which may be identified. The first, involving the obedience unto death, is essentially (in Paul’s mind) the task by which the old Adamic humanity is redeemed, that is, the task with which Israel had been entrusted. There is a sense in which this is not “Adamic,” in that it was (clearly) not Adam’s task; this is why vv. 15-17 emphasize the initial imbalance between Adam and Christ. The second task, in which there is the more obvious balance, is the gift of life which follows from Christ’s exaltation; this, underscored in vv. 18-21, corresponds more directly to the task envisaged in 1 Corinthians 15.20-28, 45. In this latter task, Christ is the obedient human through whom the Father’s will for the world is put into effect (5.21: through Jesus Christ). If this were all that needed to be said, there might have been something in the view that the post-resurrection task of Christ is more truly “Adamic” than the pre-resurrection one; but this is not the whole story. The obedience because of which he is now exalted is precisely the obedience unto death. And … this obedience is itself, however paradoxically, “Adamic.” The weakness of the view that sees Christ as last Adam only in his resurrection is that … it fails to provide what Paul achieves: an adequate soteriology (Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993] p. 38-39).

With this in mind, readers are in a position to understand other things Wright argues in Climax of the Covenant. Early on in the book, Wright argues for the centrality of “Adam-Christology” in the Apostle Paul, and for it’s direct relationship to his “Israel-Christology.” While I cannot do adequate justice to his beginning essay “Adam, Israel, and the Messiah” (pp. 18-40; and cannot recommend too highly that people read it for themselves!) it might help to summarize some points made therein about Pauline theology:

  1. Adam is the central figure in Paul’s theology who explains why the world is sinful and cursed. To undo Adam’s sin requires a new Adam.
  2. Abraham is called to be a new Adam and all Israel is collectively given that vocation–to be God’s new humanity and bring salvation to the world where Adam brought death and destruction
  3. Jesus’ identity as new Adam is precisely identical to his identity as the true and faithful Israel.
  4. Finally, and this brings us into Wright’s next essay, “Xpistos as ‘Messiah’ in Paul: Philemon 6″ (pp. 41-55), Jesus gets to be the legitimate representative for Israel precisely because he is Christ–Israel’s anointed king.

This last point is defended as a specifically Pauline belief in his essay on Philemon. His argument is quite compelling but I’m more concerned to set out what N. T. Wright believes, rather than why. Wright argues that for Paul (and, no doubt, for Wright as well), Xpistos bears an “incorporative” meaning: “Paul regularly uses the word to connote, and sometimes even denote, the whole people of whom the Messiah is the representative” (boldface added).

But why should “Messiah” bear such an incorporative sense? Clearly, because it is enemic in the understanding of kingship, in many societies and certainly in ancient Israel, that the king and the people are bound together in such a way that what is true of the one is true in principle of the other.

Wright elaborates:

In Romans 6.11, the result of being baptized “into Christ”… is that one is now “in Christ,” so that what is true of him is true of the one baptized–here, death and resurrection. This occurs within the overall context of the Adam-Christ argument of chapter 5, with its two family solidarities; the Christian has now left the old solidarity (Romans 6.6) and entered the new one. 6.23 may be read by analogy with 6.11; whose who are “in Christ” receive the gift of the life of the new age, which is already Christ’s in virtue of his resurrection–that is, which belongs to Israel’s representative, the Messiah in virtue of his having drawn Israel’s climactic destiny on to himself. Similarly, in Romans 8.1, 2 the point of the expression “in Christ” is that what is true of Christ is true of his people: Christ has come through the judgment of death and out into the new life which death can no longer touch (8.3-4; 8.10-11), and that is now predicated of those who are “in him.” In Galatians 3.26 the ex-pagan Christians are told that they are all sons of God (a regular term for Israel…) in Christ, through faith. It is because of who the Messiah is–the true seed of Abraham, and so on–that Christians are this too, since they are “in” him. Thus in v. 27, explaining this point, Paul speaks of being baptized “into” Christ and so “putting on Christ,” with the result that (3.28) [translating Wright’s reproduction of Paul’s Greek here:] you are all one in Christ Jesus. It is this firm conclusion, with all its overtones of membership in the true people of God, the real people of Abraham, that is then expressed concisely in 3.29 with the genitive [again translating]: and if you are of Christ… When we consider Galatians 3 as a whole, with its essentially historical argument from Abraham through Moses to the fulfillment of God’s promises in the coming of Christ, a strong presupposition is surely created in faovor both of reading Xpistos as “Messaiah,” Israel’s representative, and of understanding the incorporative phrases at the end of the chapter as gaining their meaning from this sens. Because Jesus is the Messiah, he sums up his people in himself, os that what is true of him is true of them (pp. 47-48; boldface added).

As is evident from this quote, and is elaborated many other places in Wright’s work, Paul argues that all who believe the Gospel are now the true Israel so that Jesus’ role as Israel’s “representative” means that he is the representative not of unbelieving Israel (if they remain in unbelief) but of believers whether Jew or Gentile (so that even “the ex-pagan Christians are told that they are all sons of God”).An example of how this “incorporative” sense of Christ works itself out in Wright’s understanding of the atonement can be seen in his commentary on Philemon [The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol 12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988)]. There we builds on his essay on Philemon 6 in Climax of the Covenant and shows how Paul uses the doctrine of Christian “interchange”–that each Christian through Christ is a member of all others. Wright argues that there is a double exchange between Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon in vv. 16, 17:

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

Here we have two interrelated requests:

  1. Paul is requesting that Philemon regard Onesimus positively as he would regard Paul–and thus receive him with Paul’s standing.
  2. Paul is requesting that Philemon draw on the credit Paul has with him to compensate for and make restoration for Onesimus’ debt–confident that he can more than pay (v. 18)

It is a bizarre phenomenon in recent writings by some Reformed dogmaticians that they take certain exegetical statements where Wright argues that Paul is not saying that “the righteousness of God” is imputed to believers, and extrapolate a general theological claim that Wright denies the imputation of Christ’s work to his people. Plainly, Wright does believe that Jesus lived and died and rose as the representative of their people so that they no longer face “the judgment of death” because Christ has already suffered it and received new life as their representative. As Rich Lusk has commented: “While Wright shies away from the term “imputation,” virtually synonymous terms such as “reckon” are used.” Obviously, if we are saved only by Christ’s work and righteous standing before God, which we receive only because Christ is our representative, and only because we believe the Gospel, then Christ’s righteousness is imputed, reckoned, counted to us.

Wright’s problem with drawing a doctrine of imputation out of certain specific texts has nothing to do with a denial that Christ suffered and died as the substitute for believers or that God reckons them as having Christ’s own righteous standing. Rather it is because Wright believes “the righteousness of God” to mean that specific character of faithfulness to the covenant which is revealed in the Gospel because it shows how God has finally vindicated himself and his people. “The righteousness of God” does not refer merely to God’s generic status as “morally perfect.” Anyone can read What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997) and see this for themselves. Unhappily, that book is based on a few short lectures and is rather brief in argumentation. I have personally studied the issue some more and must agree that “the righteousness of God” does seem to refer to God’s faithfulness to the covenant, which the Gospel proves by revealing that God has finally fulfilled his promise to deal with sin impartially and yet save his people from the wrath they deserve.

At this point it may be helpful to remind Presbyterian readers that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms speaks of imputing “the righteousness of Christ” not “the righteousness of God.” What we have here, other than a preference for “reckon” rather than “impute,” is simply a disagreement with the Westminster Assembly’s prooftexts, not its actual doctrine. Since Wright affirms the incarnation he naturally believes that the representative obedience and suffering of Christ is the representative obedience and suffering of God. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think that is what Paul is specifically discussing when he uses the term “the righteousness of God” in his epistles.

Regarding what we typically call “active obedience,” Wright affirms of Christ and the believer and God the relationship which he describes of Paul and Onesimes and Philemon. Believers are received by God as Jesus–being given his righteous status. Thus he writes in his commentary on Mark 1.9-13:

The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true: God looks at us, and says “You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you” (Mark for Everyone, pp. 4, 5).

Regarding “passive obedience,” this practice of painting Wright as denying imputation is especially weird since Wright spends a whole essay (pp. 220-225) arguing that Romans 8.3 should be translated “… God sent his son… as a sin offering.” Wrights argument is straight out of Leviticus and the context of Romans. He writes:

The person who sins in this way delights in God’s law (Romans 7.22) yet finds again and again that he fails to keep it. The remedy which the Old Testament offers for this very condition is the sin-offering, and when we meet, in the very passage where Paul is showing how God deals with the condition of 7.14-25, the phrase which elsewhere in the Greek Bible regularly means “as a sin offering,” there can no longer be any suggestion that the context does not support the sacrificial interpetation. Though Paul can view Christ’s death in various ways (in, for instance, Romans 3.24ff, First Corinthians 5.7) he here draws attention to that deat seen in one way in particular, the way relevant for dealing with sin precisely as it is committeed in 7.13-20… The death of Jesus, precisely as the “sin-offering,” is what is required… (Climax of the Covenant, pp. 224, 225).

Thus, we find N. T. Wright commenting on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper instituted at Passover and then the exchange of Jesus with Barabbas:

It was, first and foremost, a Passover meal. Luke has told us all along that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to “accomplish his Exodus” (9.31). he has come to do for Israel and the whole world what God did through Moses and Aaron in the first Exodus. When the powers of evil that were enslaving God’s people were at their worst, God acted to judge Egypt and save Israel. And the sign and means of both judgment and rescue was the Passover: the angel of death struck down the firstborn of all Egypt, but spared Israel as the firstborn of God, “passing over” their houses because of the blood of the lamb on the doorposts (Exodus 12). Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself. His own death would enable his people to escape…Luke describe the event in such a way that we can hardly miss the point. Barabbas is guilty of some of the crimes of which Jesus, though innocent, is charged: stirring up the people, leading a rebellion… Jesus ends up dying the death appropriate for the violent rebel. He predicted he would be “reckoned with the lawless” (22.37), and it has happened all too soon… [T]his is in fact the climax of the whole gospel. This is the point for which Luke has been preparing us all along. All sinners, all rebels, all the human race are invited to see themselves in the figure of Barabbas; and, as we do so, we discover in this story that Jesus comes to take our place, under condemnation for sins and wickedness great and small. In the strange justice of God, which overrules the unjust “justice” of Rome and every human system, God’s mercy reaches out where human mercy could not, not only sharing, but in this case substituting for, the sinner’s fate (Luke22.1-3; 23.13-26; Luke for Everyone, 262, 279, 280).

2 thoughts on “N. T. Wright & Christ the Representative of Believers

  1. Pingback: Mark Horne » More gross lying slanders easily gush from the typing of Evangelicals with a soapbox

  2. Zack

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