The next article consists of J.V. Fesko tackling the “works of the law” in Paul as N.T. Wright construes them, which is to say, as boundary markers. The works of the law for Wright are not the moral good works “which the Reformation tradition loves to hate.” For Wright, the identity markers were things like circumcision, the food laws, and the Sabbath.
Fesko responds, quite rightly, by pointing out that certain things are enclosed by boundaries. The border to a country encloses a way of life. It is not just about being on this side of the border or that one. The boundary markers do not exist in their own right, but are there for a reason, and they mark and point to something else. Fesko quotes Paul quoting Deuteronomy — “cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26). The whole thing is a package deal, and it is not possible to separate moral duties from the covenant markers which show responsibility to live in that way. In the Reformation, not only did the Reformers tag the monks for their immoralities and various duncitalities, but they also pointed to the boundary markers like the tonsure, just to reinforce from time to time how ridiculous the whole thing was.
Distinctions do not imply separation. In fact, the impossibilty of separation in these things is often what makes the need to make distinctions so pressing.
Examples in Paul are numerous, and it is hard to know where to start. Righteousness, for example, is the photo negative of unrighteousness, and unrighteousness (in Romans, say) consists of: “Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful” (Rom. 1:29-31). Not a word about an unwillingness to be circumcised, or about eating bacon, or about Sabbath breaking. Now these other markers come into the discussion, of course, but emphatically not because they are separate and distinct from the moral good works that the Reformation tradition loves to hate.
“For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:5-6).
In the newness of the Spirit, we are delivered from the state of death in which we were held, and that deliverance was also a deliverance from the law, and that deliverance from the law was necessary because the law worked in our members to stir up the motions of sins. These “motions of sins” were not dutiful circumcision, circumspect Sabbath keeping, and diligent oyster avoidance. They were, you know, sins.
On top of everything else, not only does Wright’s point here collapse in the light of the biblical evidence, it is also manifestly inconsistent with what Wright cogently points out elsewhere. He states in Jesus and the Victory of God, quite rightly, that a worldview is not just a set of boundary markers. “Worldviews may be studied in terms of four features: characteristic stories; fundamental symbols; habitual praxis; and a set of questions and answers” (p. 138). This, mind you, is one worldview, not four worldviews standing shoulder to shoulder. To say, as Wright does, that “the works of the law” refers to identity markers, and are not about moral duties, is like saying that the responsibility to stand for the national anthem is not connected to the responsibility to refrain from selling state secrets to the Russians.
In short, this particular point, which Wright has said is the insight from Sanders that we should consider as settled, is only settled in the same way that Al Gore’s science on global warming is settled. It is anything but settled, and taking this one step further, this point as stated is simply, flatly, demonstrably wrong.
The only substantive difference I might have with Fesko comes in an illustration he shares with Doug Moo, where he says that Wright takes things that are in the “background of Paul’s letter and moves them to the foreground.” I am not comfortable with a background/foreground grid because I do believe that the boundary markers and the lifestyle marked out by them were all tangled up together. It is our responsibility to distinguish them in this mix for that reason. Fesko does distinguish them, as he ought to, but he separates them too widely (as it seems to me) in order to do so. Wright, on the other hands, seems to be missing the point altogether. This was a very good article.