Review: Delivered from the Elements

My earlier notes here.  A potential problem with Leithart is that most people who read him either “join his camp” or “attack his camp.” I don’t want to do either. I actually think the book is quite good.  It has a lot of promise for evangelism and missions and steers a path through the problems with New Perspective on Paul. It is also a good book on metaphysics.

Main idea: the fundamental physics of every society consists of purity, pollution, and ritual (Leithart 12). If you “relocate” the sacred then you change the structure of society.  Goal: a successful atonement theology must show how Jesus’s death and resurrection is the key to history.

One interesting point is that he draws attention to the word “nature.”  Yes, the NT uses “substance” language, but not the kind usually thought.  The NT use of “nature:” a moral order rooted in the differences of the sexes (27).  When Paul uses “nature” it is neither Aristotelian or Stoic.  Gentiles do not have the Torah “by nature” but they still can do what Torah commands (sometimes). Physeis is closely linked to nomos, so of law means a change of the elements (29).

Here is the problem: given what is wrong with the world, how does Jesus’s death as my substitute fix the world?  Leithart will defend substitutionary atonement, but he does not the problem in most popular accounts.  If the goal is to cash Jesus out as the credit card on my account, then did it matter that he was a Jew?  Framed another way: how does Christ’s dying for me deliver humanity from ta stoichea?  You have to be able to answer this question.

“The elements (ta stoichea) are features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).  In both Gentile and Jewish worlds they are structures and symbols that involve distinctions between purity and impurity, sacred and profane.

Yahweh’s intention is to destroy the fleshly physics.  When he introduces Torah he is continuing his cutting away of flesh.  The problem with flesh is that flesh spreads pollution (100). As Leithart notes, “Torah cannot kill flesh without killing the man or woman who bears that flesh” (102).

Torah provides a way for Israel to be Yahweh’s people among the division of nations.  It regulates the flesh but does not fix it. As long as Israel is under Torah she is under managers. It is spiritual and we are flesh.  If we come to it it will kill us.


(1) The judgment is not a  mere verdict of righteousness, but it is the very act by which it is accomplished (181). “It is a favorable judgment in the form of resurrection.” It also makes more sense in the historia salutis than in the ordo.  Justification was an act in Jesus’s life (1 Tim. 3:16). And through it we are delivered from the realm of death and stoichea to the realm of Spirit.

Thesis: Paul denies that the Spirit comes through the mechanisms of Torah (193). Flesh and Torah are mutually defining (Romans 7:1-6).  Paul’s argument: to be reckoned righteous is to receive the Spirit.  We receive the Spirit who does acts of power by hearing the message [as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Humanity is supposed to grow into maturity, but it cannot do this while remaining under the elements and Torah.  The elements are beings who guard and manage children. They could be angelic beings, since Jews received Torah through angels and Gentiles were under beings that are “by nature no gods” (Gal. 4.8).

While stoichea regulate the elements of social life, and a dissolution of stoichea would dissolve the universe, Jesus gives the Spirit who is the new fundamental element of social life (219).  As the Spirit spreads, stoicheic divisions give way to a new order of the Spirit. Instead of a pyramid society of slaves, Paul sees a single body.


The book has several appendices of varying interests.  My main problem with the book was it could have been about 50 pages shorter.  The chapter on Presbyterian Buddhists was neat, but could have been reduced to a footnote.

Review: Justification, God’s Plan (Wright)

I wrote this in 2011.  I don’t think everything Wright said is correct, but we should definitely go with the idea of righteousness as covenant faithfulness.

This is Tom Wright’s response to John Piper’s recent work on justification, and we can think Piper for writing that work: without his work Wright would not have written this one. As most know, Wright has been accused in the past fifteen years of denying justification by faith, attacking the Reformed tradition, and microwaving kittens. Granted, most accusations that Wright has “denied the gospel” are meaningless (for when is the gospel not at stake for Reformed bloggers?). However, there are some serious “old perspective” rebuttals to Wright, and Piper’s is one of them.

While I have not read Piper’s actual work, I’ve read most of his other works, including his major work on “God’s Righteousness,” which is a prominent theme in this debate (Piper, 1993). What many do not realize, however, is that Wright considers himself a Calvinist (!), advancing and improving Reformed themes. In this review we will outline Wright’s major arguments, see whether he is indeed faithful to the Reformed traditions, and offer some tentative ways through the current debate.

Wright agrees with the truths behind traditional Reformed claims about soteriology, but he notes that Reformed have been unable (or even reluctant!) to apply these in a broader cosmic vision. His main problem with Reformed formulations is that they simply dead-end.

Wright gives a brief summary of his project, seeing the 1st century Jews, per Josephus, as living in a continuous narrative, which stretched back to earliest times and would have a climactic moment of fulfillment (Wright 2009: 59). He points the reader to Daniel 9, where the “righteous” God is said to “keep covenant” (Daniel 9:4). Further, God is righteous in terms of this covenant (vv. 11-14, echoing Deuteronomy 27-30). Therefore—and this is something the reader familiar with the debate should see coming—God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness.

Contra Piper, God’s righteousness is not “God’s concern for his own glory.” Hardly anyone in any tradition takes this view, and even J. I. Packer comes to a different view (65).

Supposing one accepts Wright’s denotation, can we assume that Paul even worked with a covenant theology? For Reformed people, this should not even be up for debate. Granted, Piper is a Baptist and isn’t concerned to defend covenant theology (at least by Reformed standards), but it is a question worth considering: did Paul structure his theology around the covenant(s)? The main argument to the contrary is that Paul (and the New Testament) rarely uses the word diatheke, or any of its cognates. True, but can we still see a covenant theology at structure?

The Jews saw themselves living in a continuous narrative, as noted before. The focus of this narrative was Abraham (Gen. 15, 17, and Deuteronomy 27-30). Given Second Temple Judaism (hereafter 2TJ), this story is seen moving forward. Paul rethinks this whole framework around the person of Christ (95-96). We see specific examples of this in Galatians 3. Verse 17 makes it clear that Paul is referring to the Abrahamic covenant. Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are similar; in both cases Paul is appealing to God’s covenantal actions with Abraham.

If Paul is using covenantal theology, then this provides the best context to interpret the arguments concerning God’s righteousness, and ultimately justification. Further, covenant is social in character, which means justification will also have a social dimension.

Interesting, the first time Paul uses the word “justification” he is not using it in a law-court context, but at a dinner table. Justification does concern who is a member of God’s covenant. Justification primarily means we are members of God’s family and have a right to table fellowship.

Further, “works of the law” means “living like a Jew” (Galatians 2:14-15). It does not mean abstract good deeds through which one gains merit, only to see that we are justified by not-merit. Galatians 2:16 must be read in the context of Galatians 2:11-15 (117).

Summary of the review so far (cf. Wright, 133-136):

The promises God made to Abraham were a covenant (Gen 15 = Gal. 3:15, 17). The Abrahamic covenant had in view the liberation of man from the plight of Gen. 3-11. This overall context compels us to understand Paul’s use of dikaios in terms of membership in God’s family. One’s covenant status, therefore, is “righteousness.” God creates a status of “having been declared in the right.” It does not mean God infuses virtue or imputes the righteousness of the judge onto the defendant(!).

Per Romans 1:17 Wright argues that “righteousness” refers to God’s own and reflects his faithfulness to the covenant (180). To understand Romans Wright suggests that Paul’s theology of justification hinges own two poles: eschatology and spirit (189). The judgment in Romans 2:1-16 is a future judgment. The future verdict will correspond to the present one, which (per 3:21-26) is issued on the basis of faith. This happens via the Spirit (Rom. 8:1; 2-27). “Doing the law” in 2:13 should refer to 8:5-8. This points to 10:5-13, where doing the Torah spoken of in Leviticus is explained in terms of Deuteronomy 30, and further in terms of Joel 2:32, the passage about the outpoured spirit (190).

Justification is an act of God that brings about the new situation in terms of the law court. This act of justification enables God to deal with the problem of relationship, reconciliation (225-226).

Wright offers a few other conclusions as well. If one wants to maintain the “imputation” language, then it is fair to say that Christ’s death and resurrection is reckoned to the believer (Wright, 233. Cf. Romans 6:6-11). Further, given the law-court scenario of Judaism, it is quite bizarre to speak of “imputed righteousness.” That’s not the way the lawcourt metaphor works. The judge does not impute his own moral character to the defendant (especially in America, where the judges are usually the most corrupt ones in the room!). The judge simply declares “this one is in the right.”


Wright makes a persuasive case. And though he clearly wins the debate, he is gentle about it. He really wants to maintain what the Reformed tradition sought contra Rome. He is offering exegesis that steers clear of many dead-ends, and contra to being a novelty, he shows how his view incorporates the best of other traditions as well.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why Wright wants to claim he is in the Reformed tradition. He rejects most of the key distinctive. His chapter on Romans 9 is one of the most thorough arguments against unconditional election. But that’s his call. I think he pulled punches as well.


Piper, John. The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9: 1-23. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993.