Thursday, November 26, 2015

Paul: Sonship, Resurrection, Justification, Predestination

It was a number of years ago that I made an offhand comment to a former student (who is now a prominent Lutheran apologist): "I think the key to 'justification' is the Resurrection." Since then the idea has been percolating away on the back burner.  In Romans, as well as elsewhere, St Paul collects strands of metaphorical theology to make his case for the significance and efficacy of the Christ event. It does not go too far to say that, for Paul, the Christ event (the Incarnation proper, which includes conception, birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and session) is our salvation: our belief, which I previously linked to baptism in ancient Church ritual, is decidedly secondary (yet not, therefore, of no importance). We can start to see this as we tease out the connections between Paul's language of sonship, resurrection, justification, and predestination.

In Romans 1:16 (a verse often taken as programmatic for the rest of the Epistle and St Paul's theology writ large), he says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek." What, though, is the Gospel? Paul has already alerted us to it in the opening salvo: "the Gospel of God, which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures [here meaning the Old Testament], concerning [this word should be understood as "the content of which is"] His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." This version of the Gospel, which is both different and similar to his recounting in 1 Cor. 15, is decidedly similar to the narrative presentation of the canonical Gospels. As can be seen, the conception of sonship, of the paternity of Christ, is central to this telling. Yes, according to the flesh, He is the son of David, which entails all the requisite claims to kingship found in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms (2, 45, and 110 coming immediately to mind). However, St Paul makes the daring -- and important -- move to ground a divine paternity "in power," the same power by which salvation comes to "everyone who believes." What is this power? The resurrection from the dead. (If I wanted to emphasize the Trinitarian nature of all this, I would note that the agent of resurrection is the Spirit of holiness. That will have to wait for another day.) It is this "power" that enacts the "declaration" (or, better, "designation") of Christ as the Son of God; in other words, the resurrection was the public ("with power") justification of Christ's claim to be "Son of God" as recorded everywhere in the Gospels. Here we are already seeing a possible connection between sonship and justification, although the link is not yet particularly explicit. Having this start, though, allows us to reread Romans fruitfully.

It is worth noting at this junction an important aspect of sonship, both to the ancient world generally and Christian faith in particular. Sonship was not just about biology, or filial affection, but about authority and inheritance. The son and the father were, legally, co-authoritative over whatever property was in the possession of the father. Of course, the son had to reach legal age, otherwise the property would be held in trust by regents or stewards (who could be slaves, cf. Gal. 4:1ff.): once he came into his full inheritance, however, he could be co-regent with his father (we see this in the co-reigns of many of Israel and Judah's kings). Now, if a naturally-born son either died before (or after) this or was disinherited, someone could be adopted in his stead. We see this happen with Julius Caesar's adoption of Octavius to be his "son": the point was that Octavius would inherit Caesar's legal authority, if not his role as dictator for life (obviously, this was contested). If the father happened to be a king, then the inheriting son would have the kingdom as his own, which was more than just authority: kingdom are made up of subjects, of property, and privileges. What if, though, the son (whom the father wishes to bring to "glory," that is, into the inheritance with all the attendant privileges) has been kidnapped and enslaved? This seems a strange thing to say; however, it is St Paul's argument in Galatians 3-4:

If there had been a Torah given which could have given life [not biological life, but God's Life], truly justice would have been by the Torah. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by the faith of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Torah, confined for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Torah was our pedagogue to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue. For you are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus...Now I say that an heir, as long as he is a minor, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Torah, to redeem those who were under the Torah, that we might receive the adoption as sons...but then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?

Galatians, as a letter written to a (set of?) congregation which had already been catechized by St Paul, is necessarily laconic: it is an occasional and pastoral epistle, not a fully-explicated statement of doctrine. In many ways the language employed in this passage is reminiscent of the fuller explanation found in Romans, to which we will need to go to fill out details. (It is my theory, which I need to work on more, that Romans is essentially an unpacking of the argument found in Galatians for an audience with whom St Paul had no previous personal contact. Even the altercation with St Peter is reminiscent of Romans 1-3.) The problem of justice ("righteousness" in most translations) is here again prominent; yet the Torah, and therefore the special elected relationship that the Jews enjoyed, could not bring this justice to bear. Why? Because "the Scripture has confined all under sin." Or, as put in Romans, "Now we know that whatever the Torah says, it says to those who are under the Torah [that is, to Jews], that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be accountable before God" (3:19), or, "For God has confined [the same word as in Gal. 3:22 and 23] them all in disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (11:32). The purpose of the Torah was not to justify, to liberate from sin, but rather that through those who bore it [the Jews] God might judge sin itself for the salvation of all. For the Jew, then, to "boast" of their election (Rom. 3:27-31), was to commit to an over-realized eschatology: election was a means to a much greater end, but it had been reduced to the End. The problem with this, of course, is that if Israel's election had been the telos, then the problem of sin dwelling within man, of the corruption leading to death plaguing all humankind, had not been dealt with and God could not be truly just. A truly just God would save His creation from the nothingness it had become enslaved to and enamored with.

St Paul's rejoinder to the claim of privilege, of election, is that the point of it was to "confine all under sin," so that the faith of Jesus Christ, His allegiance to His Father as the Incarnate One, would lead to sin/death/Satan overplaying their hand by condemning to death an innocent human, not knowing that this Innocent One was the Holy One of Israel that cannot be contained by death, contaminated by corruption, or swayed towards sin. "Before that time," though, Israel [the only possible referent for Paul's first person plural pronoun] was given a teacher, a pedagogue, to point them towards the liberation to come, the maturity of the son into his inheritance. Israel, here, is acting as the representative of all humanity: their salvation, their maturity, would lead to "all the families of the earth being blessed" (Gen. 12:3).

The strange moment, though, where we see the severe providence of God, is how Paul then goes to compare how a minor is under "guardians and stewards" until maturity to being in "bondage to the elements of the world." Here the metaphor of household slaves could include the pedagogue, the Torah, but it seems rather odd to consider it as one of the "elements of the world," especially as the Apostle further explicates that the Gentiles were under the elements as well as the Jews, yet the Gentiles were not given the election and the Torah. The "elements," instead seem to refer to "those which by nature are not gods" (4:8), whom the Galatian Gentiles "served" (a term of bondage/slavery). The Torah served Israel, even though Israel did not have the full maturity; the elements are oppressive to both Israel and the Gentiles. However, by misusing the Torah, it becomes one of the "elements of the world" and therefore oppressive -- this is the main point of Paul's allegory of Abraham's two sons. All of this to say, though, that the "son" [humankind, both Jew and Gentile] is, by the permission (?) of the Father "under bondage" to the elements of the world, until such a time as his maturity/liberation is at hand. However, to become mature, to participate in the liberation, requires pistis, faith, which St Paul connects to the ecclesial sacrament of baptism. There is a rather poignant, if not difficult, mixing of metaphors going on here: are the powers that enslave the agents of the Father, or are they acting of their own accord against the Father's purposes? The answer takes us to another part of Paul's theology: the principalities and powers.

Paul recognizes that these beings are "created by Him [Christ]...whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers...all were created...for Him" (Col. 1:16), and that they rule with an authority granted by God Himself (Rom. 13:1); yet...the Apostle also says that they "crucified the Lord of Glory" (1 Cor. 2:8), that they are "the rulers of the darkness of this age...spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies" (Eph. 6:12) against which the Church must be armed by Christ; however...Christ is "far above all principality and power and might and dominion" (Eph. 1:21) and has "disarmed principalities and powers, [making] a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [the Cross!]" (Col. 2:15). In other words, these authorities -- which can be conceived of both as political rulers and the (fallen) angelic hosts behind such -- had a role given to them by God from which they asserted their own will and became tyrants over humankind. The Incarnation, leading to the Cross, is God's great judgment against them and their leader, Satan, and the liberation of those so enslaved and enamored by them. The mixing of the metaphors in Galatians, then, is not confusion, but terse revelation of the true state of affairs that God's "son," both Jew and Gentile, find himself in. One of the truly awful corollaries of this is that the Torah, God's gift to the Jews for the sake of the world, has been turned from a pedagogue into a tyrant, into an element, which explains St Paul's polemic against it, yet his right admiration for it.

For Paul, then, there is a cosmic problem at work and a cosmic solution that has been enacted: the work of Christ is bigger than Israel, and even bigger than the Gentiles, it goes to the heart of the "subjection to futility" the creation has been put under by God.

Why, though, has the creation been subjected to futility? Why have all been confined to disobedience? Why are all under sin? Here is the place, I believe, that Paul is most profound in his theology and most misunderstood: all are kept in this fallen state so that God might save all from futility, from disobedience, from sin. To unpack this, we must return to Paul’s account of the Gospel as found in 1:3-4. The Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord has been “declared” or “designated” as Son of God “with power” by His resurrection from the dead. It is key to note that Paul does not identify Christ as Son after the resurrection, but starts his account of the Gospel with that identification. The “declaration” of divine paternity is not an adoptionist statement: Christ is acknowledged as Son – what He was before – “with power.” Jesus was already the Son of God, but His claim to be so (found everywhere in the Gospels) could not be believed, or even understood, until His vindication/justification, that is, His resurrection. At this point, the matter was settled: this One truly is the Son of God. From this point the apostolic mission begins. It is the same power, the power to raise from the dead, that can bring “salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek” (1:16). This revelation of God’s justice, Christ’s resurrection, shows as well that Christ is the “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15), the image in whom humankind was created to begin with. Those who bear the image, though, have become enslaved by deception and now enact their own destruction, trending towards death, the opposite of God Himself, who is Life. What this says, then, is that humankind’s divine sonship is not what Christ’s sonship is based on, but the other way around. God, who is Love, so desired to share Himself with that which is outside of Himself that He created beings like Himself, in His very image, so that they might participate in His blessedness. Into this entered sin and death, which since man was God’s image-bearer meant that sin and death spread to the whole of creation which had been put in man’s trust and under his authority. The problem, for St Paul, is how to finally eradicate sin, death, and corruption from God’s created order and how to then bring that order into God’s glory. Now that sin and death had a foothold of universal corruption, now that the sonship of humankind had been spurned, it was God’s prerogative to so orchestrate history to save His world, His image-bearers, and deal with sin and death. Sin and death, though, had to be shown for what they really are. Hence the Torah, which would be the power that would be “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practice evil” (Rom. 13:4), that is, on Satan, for “the law brings about wrath” (4:15). How did it do this? “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” (7:11), “sin, that is might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good [that is, the commandment], so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (7:13), “for what the Torah could not do [give Life, Gal. 3:21], in that it was weak through the flesh [sin having produced death in it], God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh” (8:3). Christ’s death on the Cross, then, was God’s judgment against the encroachment of sin, death, and corruption as it tried to parasitically destroy God’s whole creation. This is the meaning of St Paul’s rather terse statement in 2 Cor. 5: “For He [the Father] made Him who knew no sin [Christ] sin for us” (v. 21). Note that there is an element of wrath here, but it does not divide the Trinity, as so many popular accounts of PSA do: God does not punish His Son, nor does He pour out His wrath on the hypostasis of His Son, but rather judges, condemns, and executes sin in the flesh of His Son. While God judges sin and what has caused it to be in His world, He freely pardons those humans (which St Paul tells us is all of them), “in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Rom. 3:25). Christ does not suffer some “penalty” for every human sin; God “passes over those” because of the Paschal sacrifice. Rather, God attends to the root problem of sin’s origin and continuing tyranny while protecting the very ones, humans, He has come to save. This is how Paul can say that “we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (5:9). There is a penal aspect to the Cross, but it is against sin, death, and the devil. Since these have become integrated into human persons, however, we must escape the judgment by joining ourselves to Christ in His protective Paschal death. It is in this very act of liberation, Christ’s death, that we are made to share in His divine paternity, that is, we are adopted into the family of God. Here is the connection between justification, that liberation from the power of sin, that deliverance from the wrath of God, that protection afforded us by the Passover Lamb, and adoption, the full sharing in the Life of God which He intended from before the creation of the universe (“predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” 8:29).

Yet…whereas Christ’s sonship was justified “with power” by the resurrection, our situation outwardly seems the same. We still die, we still struggle against sin, we still groan for the liberation of all things. St Paul sees all this in eschatological terms: what is true of Christ is, by virtue of faith and baptism, true of us, but it has not been accomplished “with power.” However, based on the powerful resurrection of Christ, we know that this will happen. Whereas Christ has been “designated” as Son of God with power, we are “pre-designated” to be so conformed to that image. The word “designated” here is used both in 1:4 to talk about Christ’s paternity and in 8:29-30 to talk about ours: it is most often translated as “predestined.” However, that term carries a lot of baggage, especially since the time of St Augustine, that it was never intended to carry. There is no need to go to any “secret will” of God to understand it: the word isn’t speaking of any pre-temporal choice of those who would be saved and those “passed over.” Rather, it is an eschatological term of promise that what God has done in Christ, He will do in those who are sacramentally joined to Him. Christ has been declared Son, we will be declared sons: this is so certain that God has “pre-declared” us to be what we have not yet been revealed “with power” to be.

With all that has been said about sonship, about Israel’s election, about “confining all to sin,” and so on, chapters 9-11 of Romans make a natural home in St Paul’s explication: if this is what God intended from the beginning, to bring both Jew and Gentile into adoption by Christ’s faith and ours, what does that mean for Jewish history and, more pertinently, the Jewish future? So many had cast off God’s Messiah – in fact they had become agents of His demise – so what would happen to them? Paul’s beautiful answer (which has little, if anything, to do with Augustinianism or Calvinism) is that their work of bearing the covenant, of bringing the Messiah to judge sin in His flesh, has allowed the Gentiles to come in, which in turn will allow them, through jealousy, to abandon the supposed exclusive privileges of their election and cling to what God’s true plan all along was. The Jewish contribution (“the root” of 11:16-17) is what made possible the salvation of the world, which makes their rejection of the Messiah all the more tragic, as the Apostle laments in 9:1-5. By rejecting the work of the Son, the Christ, and clinging on to the privileges of Torah, they align themselves with the powers that abused the Torah to put all creation under God’s wrath and so, like any Gentiles who so refuse, fall under the condemnation that has come upon sin in Jesus Christ. Works of the Torah could not justify, that is liberate from sin, for the Torah was meant to bring wrath upon sin, that Life – that is, resurrection – could come through God’s Son, whom death could not hold.

Justification, Resurrection, Adoption, Predestination. While I will not claim to have fully expounded St Paul (nor do I think anyone can make that claim), I do think the argument presented here offers good clarity as to what his overall theology is and how these specific terms fit into that larger whole. I will continue to work on this, gladly accepting your comments and rejoinders.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Scriptures, the Church, and the Trinity

Friends, what a long, strange trip it has been.

Over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Kimel has been reblogging a shortened series of articles on the relationship between the Scriptures as we have them and the Church.  The full series starts with a fascinating and too-close-to-home salvo entitled "Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity".  In it, he responds to a few evangelical thinkers, pastors, and scholars who are traveling the road away from any semblance of historical orthodoxy to a form of 'biblical' unitarianism.  Readers of this blog and close friends will see some remarkable similarities to my story, especially as it was expressed in my "Postmodern Protestant Dilemma" phase.  Reading the sources Fr. Kimel has been critiquing, along with the comments on the various postings, has been a trip down (a very painful) memory lane.  I've, in a certain narrative form, detailed most of the important things from that time before.  I still struggle, from time to time, with holdovers from that formative decade.  The strange thing to me, as I reflect on it further, is how those theological struggles effectively deconstructed my inherited Western (that is, Catholic-Protestant) understanding of God and built in its place an Eastern (that is, Orthodox) understanding via almost all the heresies of the ancient Church (as if they've ever really gone away).  To me, the grace of God is evident in hindsight; I wouldn't have known it at the time, though.

To continue the strangeness, Fr. Kimel's posts have been tackling the same questions I asked (and experienced as spiritual pain), in almost the same order.  One of the main ones, which I'd like to focus on here, is: is it possible to read a set of texts outside of their intended context and get their meaning?  In other words, can the Scriptures be divorced from the historical ecclesial setting they were written in and for, and still lead us to Trinitarian dogma?  It is a fascinating question; one that gets to the roots of lingering problems for Protestants and biblical interpretation.

One of the corollaries of sola Scriptura, as it is commonly practiced today, is that the Scriptures are a self-contained, self-interpreting set of documents.  Since they are the "only infallible rule for faith and life," they must contain completely clear and authoritative teaching on all that is necessary for faith and life.  (I know that this was not the original intent of the Reformation doctrine: I'm looking at my own experience with it and what I see in contemporary Protestantism.)  The Church can err; their interpretation of the documents can be taken as wisdom, but not ultimately authoritative, which includes confessional standards to which individual denominations and individual believers profess some sort of allegiance.  I've discussed this problem before.  Without a binding, authoritative (and implicitly infallible) interpretation from an ecclesial community, it falls to the individual believer to ascertain dogma for themselves.  This is key, as it opens up the problem of relativism: is there a dogma in these texts?  If so, how can we sufficiently prove it for the salvation of all humans?  In other words, once we determine the dogma behind the Scriptures, we must become apostles of it.  One can look at the work of Frank Viola in Reimagining Church for just such a stance.  One may also look at the work of Douglas Wilson and the CREC, or Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network, or...etc.  But, and this is a rather sticky wicket here, if the individual is the arbiter of the text's meaning, how can it be objectively judged as the authoritative and binding (that is, true or infallible) interpretation of the text?

Short answer: it can't.

At this point, even if one were to adhere to some theory of "mere Christianity" (a common core of beliefs that are non-negotiable, whether C.S. Lewis-style or "The Fundamentals"-style), there is no medium to assure and discern either accuracy of interpretation or authoritative status.  One individual's reading is just as likely to be Spirit-inspired as another (especially given the demotion the Spirit often "enjoys" in evangelical circles from reality/hypostasis to emotion).  In the end, there is nothing that can be done about this, which calls for a radically different sort of ecclesiology, very akin to what we see in evangelicalism as it exists today.

However, the Scriptures never assert a doctrine of self-containment or self-interpretation.  In fact, "the Scriptures" itself doesn't exist in the Scriptures as understood in the modern world: what we call "the Bible" or "the Scriptures" are an abstraction.  The implicit understanding is that this collection of books is (a) self-authenticating, (b) complete by its own authority and testimony, and (c) self-contextualizing.  In other words, the Scriptures stand alone interpretively, without historical development or communal use.  This isn't to say that a community (or set of communities) hasn't utilized the books for its "faith and life," but that the community is always under judgment for error of misappropriation (semper reformanda secundum verbum dei).

Looking at the genesis of the texts (and here I'll concentrate on the New Testament), though, we see that this was not the intention of the authors.  Here's my claim: the authors of the New Testament never intended their epistles or books to have meaning outside their use in the ecclesial community started by Jesus Christ through His apostles and their legitimate successors.  In other words, there is no meaning to the, say,  book of Romans outside of its context in the Church.  Certainly, the words and sentences can be read and understood by those trained to read texts; but all that such a reading will generate are interesting tidbits that lack any binding authority for "faith and life."  Such a reading misses, for example, the link between St Paul's language of "faith" and the ecclesial sacrament of baptism.  The letter itself was never intended to be excised from this context, even though it was originally addressed to a certain (set of?) congregation in a historically delimited time and place.  Wherever the local Church is, there is the Catholic Church, we might say.  If we desire, then, to find the "original" meaning of a biblical text, it must be read within the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church.  To do otherwise is to produce, necessarily, eisegesis.

Another example might be the Gospels themselves: there are lots of scholarly theories about what they mean, which of the Lord Christ's sayings are "authentic," and what communities they were written for.  However, there is no evidence that the books ever circulated independently in disconnected communities (this isn't to say that they definitely never did, as one cannot prove an argument from silence): rather, the first mentions of them as authoritative texts come from, say, St Irenaeus who always speaks of them as a diverse unity.  What point, then, is there to trying to find their individual genesis?  Whether or not they ever circulated independently, they were not intended to stay that way (and very quickly left such a situation).  Any attempt to "get behind" the texts to figure out the "Johannine community" (for example) is an eisegetical red herring.

What, then, does the ecclesial context look like?  Here we encounter a question that I've only recently thought to ask: what did the Apostles hand on to the communities they established and nurtured?  I think I had always assumed that they gave them a verbal form of the Scriptures, maybe a copy of the Old Testament (and some not-yet-canonized New Testament works), and left it at that.  However, this assumption is riddled with problems: did they expect those who just came out of paganism, full of idolatry and immorality, to puzzle together what worship was and what it was for?  (I think, although I cannot prove this, that here is the origin of the various theories that put early Christian "innovations" such as invocation of the saints and iconography in the hands of the 'unwashed masses' who foisted them upon powerless and unsuspecting bishops.  These same pusillanimous bishops, of course, are they ones who used their power welded to Constantinian statecraft to force Trinitarian tritheism on the aforementioned pure unitarian 'unwashed masses.')  It seems clear, not only from the New Testament (particularly the necessarily laconic Pastoral Epistles) but also early Church history, that the Apostles were very thorough in passing on liturgies, ascetic practices, institutional forms, and dogmatic assumptions necessary for rightly reading and applying the inspired texts of Holy Writ.  In other words, "Holy Tradition" is just as old -- and necessary -- as the documents of the Church.  Tertullian and St Irenaeus, for example, received the (amazingly consistent, even with their variations) regula fidei from those who went before them as the necessary and unquestionable assumptions that guided biblical interpretation.  Those regula were, by all accounts, Trinitarian in form, even if not as fleshed out as they would need to become by the Arian, Eunomian, Pneumatomachian, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite, Monoenergite, and other controversies that threatened to misinterpret and therefore damage the Apostolic Deposit.

What about the irregularities we see in these early centuries, though?  The whole of the Church Catholic did not, for example, use the so-called St John Chrysostom liturgy.  This is to be expected.  It only becomes a problem if we take the ecclesial context out of its own context: the action and work of the Holy Spirit within the community.  Could the liturgy develop in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, yet still proclaim the same Faith?  Yes, as long as the same Spirit guided the developments.  Any theory that posits some some of "fall" of the Church needs to commit a terrible heresy: the Holy Spirit abandoned, wholesale, the Church sometime after the death of the Apostles.  In my own personal journey, this was the question that started to break up my own arrogance at interpreting the Scriptures outside the Pneumatic and ecclesial contexts in which their home is: if the Spirit had so abandoned the communities, why was my interpretation privileged?  Could the Spirit have just as easily (if not more easily, given my historical and cultural distant from the original Apostolate) have abandoned me?  Was it Descartes' proposed demon whispering my interpretive work in my ears?

This isn't to say, in the aftermath and my salvation via St Irenaeus and St Antony of Egypt, that things have gotten particularly easier.  The questions of where (that is, in what community) the Spirit resides, which form of the text is authoritative, and so on continue to dog me.  But the air has been sufficiently cleared from trying to read the Scriptures as a stand-alone document.  Conceived as such, they are a wax-nose: the Trinity won't be found in them because, and this is vital, the Trinity is the assumption needed to make sense of the texts.  Salvation is, in the end, sharing the Life of God (called "the Kingdom" and "eternal life"), so it only stands to reason that participating in that Life is necessary for the right use and understanding of the texts gifted to us by that very same God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Rereading Romans 1-3

My friend, colleague, and professor has, in his comments on "Atonement and Iconicity", encouraged me to look more deeply at Romans 1-3.  Since I was teaching on chapters 1-8 tonight, there was opportunity to start digging in.  I am by no means anywhere done meditating on these chapters, but I did find some very interesting things I'd never noticed in the text before.  I won't be tackling the issues he raises specifically, as we've reserved those for a personal meet up.

What I did notice, and I think this helps my overall reading, is that St Paul has a very specific set of pronouns he uses as he develops his argument, an argument that has hints of chiasm as well.  In 1:1-17, the Apostle is very comfortable using first person singular pronouns, climaxing in the grand statement of "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for the power [referenced in 1:4] of God is to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek.  For in it [an ambiguous pronoun, is it referring to the Gospel, that is, the proclamation found in 1:3-4, or the 'power' of resurrection by the Spirit?  I'm inclining towards the latter.] the justice of God is revealed by faith to faith, as it is written: 'The Just One shall live by faith'."  (It is controversial, but I think reading the Hosea passage as referring to Christ, who by faithful obedience to the Father lived, that is, was resurrected, is a preferable reading to the commonplace interpretation.)  What is key to note, at this point, is that St Paul has brought us a compact and lovely declaration about what the Gospel is (1:3-4), about the revelation of God's justice, and faith.  We'll return to that shortly.

The gears are shifted, then, to third person plural pronouns in 1:18-32.  The whole passage is describing the work of "men who suppress the truth in injustice" (1:18).  I think it important to ask whether or not the comma, which the NKJV has between "men" and "who" is warranted.  Is St Paul making a broad, universalizing claim?  This is the traditional reading, as I understand it.  There are textual reasons, however, to withhold that judgment, particularly chapter 2, where the pronouns switch again to second person singular, with the vocative of "man" being used.  The "men" of chapter 1 are being contrasted against the "man" of chapter 2, in the form of a dialogue (starting in earnest in chapter 3).  The "man" critiqued in chapter 2 assumes that he is not part of the deviant cadre of "men" in chapter 1.  The context clues (particularly 2:12-16, 17, and so on) show that the critiqued "man" is a Jew who has rested on the blessing of Torah and covenant who thinks that the "men" of chapter 1 are the Gentiles ("sinners" -- Gal. 2:15), well deserving of the "wrath of God" (that is, being left to their own devices leading, ultimately, to death).  However, as chapter 2 starts, St Paul turns the table of this interlocutor in the most dramatic fashion: "Therefore, you are inexcusable, o man..."  If chapter 1:18-32 is true (and, as St Paul avers later, it is), then both Gentile and Jew are "under sin," that is, under the power/dominion of sin, awaiting the end of that state, which is death.  This helps to explain what the Apostle says at the beginning of chapter 8: "Therefore [since Christ has delivered us from the 'body of death' (7:24-25)] there is no condemnation [that is, death has been defeated and life has come in the resurrection] for those who are in Christ Jesus..."

All of this to say: 1:18-32 is a very common set of Jewish critiques of pagan life, assumed by everyone.  However, the problem St Paul is explicating is that even the Jew is in danger of death, of reverting to the nihil from which he was formed (as St Athanasius might put it), since both are "under the power of sin."  The major problem, then, isn't the distorted will (that does mean it isn't a problem, though) but the bondage to death and sin that distorts the will in the first place (7:5, 8).  Man is a sinner because he is born into that state: "through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, in which [eph ho] all sinned" (5:12).  How can man do anything but sin and die, Jew or Gentile, when he is in this state?  Indeed, the Jew is no better off for having the Law, except that the Torah was given to them that its purpose, of "bringing about wrath" (4:15), of "making the offense abound" (5:20), of being taken advantage of by sin so that sin "might appear sin", and therefore "become exceedingly sinful" (7:13), so that Christ might "condemn sin in the flesh" (8:3).

God's wrath, it appears, is a function of His love: He is condemning sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ, even the sin that makes us enemies of God (5:10 -- note that we are God's enemies in this passage, yet God is consistently said to bear towards us love, not hatred or animosity).  It also appears that God's wrath is twofold: He is actively condemning sin, yet for humans it is experienced as allowing them to actualize their desires and passions, distorted as they now are since they are separated from the Source of Life.  That is, God's wrath is letting them go the full way to death (1:32 and 5:23).

This does change the lawcourt metaphor from its common presentation.  Instead of God as Judge, mankind as defendent, and sin/death/Satan as prosecutor, with Jesus stepping in to take the punishment deserved by man, God is the Judge who is punishing Satan for enslaving and perverting mankind, with Jesus Himself being the rescuer.

More, of course, needs to be said about this.  This is in no way a complete understanding of God's work of salvation in Romans, especially as I've not discussed the act of faith done by trusting in the blood of the Passover lamb, nor of Christ's identity as said Lamb.  I also have not gotten to the chiasmus present, but it is late.