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.

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