Romans

by Fr Alvin Kimel

I am reading the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It has been a long time since I last sat down and slowly read through this letter in its entirety; but it seems to be a good time for me to do so. For one thing, I want to see if the letter reads differently from a Catholic (or at least more Catholic) perspective than it did, say, twenty years ago.

I am not a biblical scholar nor do I read Greek. I am thus dependent on the commentators. The two principal commentators I am relying on for my reading are N. T. Wright and Brendan Byrne. I am not finding Joseph Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary as helpful as I thought it would be, though clearly it is a magisterial work. I am also consulting James Dunn and C. E. B. Cranfield, though with less consistent attention. I only have so much time, and I do want to finish the epistle sometime before Jesus returns in glory.

I should state upfront that I bring to my reading of Paul my recollections of E. P. Sanders’s seminal work Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I read the book shortly after it was published in the late 70s, and he convinced me that the Apostle was not addressing the questions of legalism and works-righteousness that so animated the 16th century Reformers. It will be interesting to see whether my reading of Romans confirms or disconfirms Sanders’s thesis.

I have titled this blog series “Ruminating Romans,” for that is all I can offer—ruminations. I lack the competence to do historical exegesis, nor would I want to restrict myself to historical exegesis, in any case. The Letter to the Romans is Holy Scripture and therefore must be read in conversation with the Bible as a whole and with the theological and dogmatic tradition. And perhaps through my rumination on this letter, God may even speak a word to me. I’m told that it’s happened before.

The RSV is the principle translation I am reading, but alongside it I am also reading Ronald Knox’s translation of the Vulgate. Fitzmyer provides his own translation.

Romans 1:1-6:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (RSV)

It is Paul who writes; a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be his apostle, and set apart to preach the gospel of God. That gospel, promised long ago by means of his prophets in the holy scriptures, tells us of his Son, descended, in respect of his human birth, from the line of David, but, in respect of the sanctified spirit that was his, marked out miraculously as the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through him we have received the grace of apostleship; all over the world, men must be taught to honour his name by paying him the homage of their faith, and you among them, you, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Knox)

I immediately note Paul’s quiet claim to apostleship. Though Paul does not assert authority over the churches in Rome, which he did not found and to whom he has never preached, he does see fit to remind his readers of his consecrated role within the history of salvation. He is an apostle of Jesus Christ, entrusted with a divine mission “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Surely Paul’s readers already knew something about Paul’s story and his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. I mention this now, because it seems to me that it is crucial to recall this story as we read through Paul’s letter, especially at those points when Paul discusses Torah and righteousness. Paul was not converted to the Christian faith by a theory or argument. He was converted by Christ himself. In an instant Paul discovered that his zeal to destroy the Church, and thus protect the faith of his fathers, was tragically misplaced. Paul “knew” that the post-resurrection disciples of Jesus were heretics, because they dared to proclaim the messianic identity of a man whose brutal execution by the pagans had already demonstrated the falseness of the claim: “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree” (Gal 3:13). As N. T. Wright has noted in several of his writings, all Jews agreed that God’s true Messiah would be victorious against the enemies of Israel. If a person claims to be the long awaited king and fails in his messianic work, he is thereby shown to be a pretender. Jesus had not inaugurated a new age of peace and national glory. Jesus had not conquered the armies of Caesar. He was therefore not the Messiah. Yet on the road to Damascus Paul learned that which cannot be was in fact the case. Not only was this crucified Jesus alive, raised from the dead by God Almighty and enthroned as Lord, but Paul was actively opposing him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Small wonder that Paul was struck blind. His world had been turned upside down.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus not only convinced him that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, but it simultaneously revealed to him that God was fulfilling biblical prophecy to graciously incorporate the Gentiles into a renewed Israel. As I recall from reading Martin Hengel and F. F. Bruce many years ago, the early Jewish persecution of the Christian movement was directed principally against the Hellenists, i.e., Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who felt free to abandon Torah observance and admit Gentiles into their fellowship. Paul, like many others, viewed these Torah-free Jews as traitors to God and his holy people; and he zealously sought to destroy them. But Paul was wrong, as he learned on the road to Damascus, and the Church was right. Paul’s fervid desire to serve and honor God had led him to violent opposition to God and thus into grievous sin. Paul’s confrontation with the risen Christ, therefore, not only required him to acknowledge a crucified rabbi as the Messiah of Israel, but it also required him to radically reconfigure his understanding of God’s covenant with Israel. Thus the Apostle to the Gentiles was born.

15 January 2007

Romans 1:1-6

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (RSV)

It is Paul who writes; a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be his apostle, and set apart to preach the gospel of God. That gospel, promised long ago by means of his prophets in the holy scriptures, tells us of his Son, descended, in respect of his human birth, from the line of David, but, in respect of the sanctified spirit that was his, marked out miraculously as the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through him we have received the grace of apostleship; all over the world, men must be taught to honour his name by paying him the homage of their faith, and you among them, you, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Knox)

Paul tells us that he was set apart for the gospel, the good news of God. The content of the gospel is Jesus, the Son of God and Messiah of Israel:

the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (1:3-4)

Fitzmyer denies the messianic reference of the words Son and Son of God in these verses, but Wright affirms this reference emphatically: First Paul asserts Jesus’ descent from King David, and then he asserts that by the resurrection we now know “that he really was the Messiah and had been so all along. This, indeed, was almost certainly where Paul’s Christian thinking began: with the recognition, at or shortly after his Damascus road experience, that the Jesus he had thought to be a false Messiah was after all the true one.”

On the other hand, Wright dismisses any suggestion of divine sonship. We must beware of over-exegeting, he tells us. Messiahship carried no overtones of divinity in the Jewish world. But I believe that Wright is being far too cautious. Even at the historical exegetical level, how can we not read into this language all that we know about Paul’s christology? Paul has after all told us, perhaps quoting a piece of catechetical tradition, that this Jesus Messiah has been designated, appointed, installed, established, and determined as “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness.” Jesus now shares in God’s rule of the universe. He is the source of that new life and power that characterizes Christian existence. Paul cannot speak of the God of Israel without immediately coupling this God with Jesus Messiah. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7), Paul greets his Roman readers in formulaic words that can be found in most of his letters. But not only is the Deity coupled with Jesus, he is eternally qualified by his relationship with Jesus: he is now “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6). The grammar of Paul’s discourse cries out for at least an implicit claim of divine status. Would not the Gentile recipients of Paul’s epistle have interpreted Paul’s reference to Jesus as Son as implying his divinity? Did not these Gentile believers worship the Lord Jesus? Did not Paul worship him?

Surely it is not over-exegeting to suggest that the titles “Son” and “Son of God” convey more, though certainly not less, than messianic sonship. As Richard Bauckham argues in his book Crucified God, the New Testament writers included Jesus within the divine identity of God, and they did so “by including Jesus in the unique, defining characteristics by which Jewish monotheism identified God as unique.” One of the most striking examples of this divine identification is found in Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6). In his Epistle to the Philippians Paul declares that God has exalted Jesus and bestowed upon him “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tonguess confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). If Paul was willing to speak of Jesus as mediator of creation, if he was willing to confess Jesus as bearing the sacred name of God, is it not reasonable to infer that he would have thought together messianic sonship and divine sonship? Cranfield agrees: “It is clear that, as used by Paul with reference to Christ, the designation ‘Son of God’ expresses nothing less than a relationship to God which is ‘personal, ethical and inherent,’ involving a real community of nature between Christ and God.”

It is indeed a step, yet perhaps not after all a very big step, from St Paul’s “designated Son of God in power” to the Council of Nicaea’s “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

16 January 2007

Rom 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (RSV)

I am not ashamed of this gospel. It is an instrument of God’s power, that brings salvation to all who believe in it, Jew first and then Greek. It reveals God’s way of justifying us, faith first and last; as the scripture says, It is faith that brings life to the just man. (Knox)

Commentators are agreed that in these two verses St Paul announces the theological theme of his letter, the gospel—the very gospel for which Paul was set apart, the very gospel whose content is Jesus, the Son of God and Messiah of Israel. Paul yearns to proclaim this gospel to the citizens of Rome.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul declares. I immediately think upon his words in 1st Corinthians: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:22-25). Paul knows well from his missionary work how easily the good news of Christ is scornfully dismissed as blasphemy or hokum. He bears on his body and soul the wounds of evangelism. How can a crucified rabbi be the true Messiah of Israel? How can a Jew be savior of the world? But Paul is neither ashamed nor discouraged by the apparent implausibility of his message. Paul knows that which those who reject the gospel do not know: the gospel is the power of God “unleashed in human history” (Fitzmyer). He has experienced its power at first hand. He has witnessed the transformation of lives and the formation of vital communities of faith that transcend race and nationality. He knows that each time he preaches the good news of Jesus Christ the Spirit of the coming kingdom is released and made present. And he knows that when the gospel is received in faith, lives are changed. People are reborn. Churches are created. The charismata are distributed. When confronted by the decision of so many Galatian believers to submit themselves to Torah, Paul’s strongest rejoinder was appeal to the present and remembered work of the Holy Spirit: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2).

The gospel is more than a human word, more than a transfer of information. It is truly God’s Word, the Word which spoke the world into being, the Word proclaimed by the prophets, the Word enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. And because it is his Word, it is his power. It contains the saving energy of the Creator. In 1st Thessalonians Paul rejoices in the faith of the Thessalonians and notes the special character of the gospel message that generated their faith: “for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:4). The gospel unleashes the power of God because it speaks of Jesus Christ, “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness.” The proclamation of this risen and exalted Jesus carries with it his supernatural grace and energy.

The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Salvation is deliverance from destruction and wrath and restoration to wholeness, justice, and peace. Wright is emphatic in his insistence that St Paul is not thinking of salvation as translation to an ethereal heaven. Salvation is nothing less than resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the world. Byrne observes that salvation for Paul “has a predominantly future reference.” Salvation is an eschatological reality. We have been reborn through the gospel and now expectantly await the consummation of the kingdom; we await salvation. And yet salvation cannot be understood as exclusively future. Even now we are justified. Even now we are in Christ. Even now we share in the divine life of God and experience the first-fruits of the Spirit. Even now we partake of our Savior’s body and blood. Even now we are being conformed to the image of the incarnate Son. The gospel creates for us and in us the life of grace and drives us to its consummation. Cranfield elaborates:

What Paul is saying here, then, is that the gospel is God’s effective power active in the world of men to bring about deliverance from His wrath in the final judgment and reinstatement in that glory of God which was lost through sin—that is, an eschatological salvation which reflects its splendour back into the present of those who are to share it. … The gospel is this by virtue of its content, its subject, Jesus Christ. It is He Himself who is its effectiveness. His work was God’s decisive act for men’s salvation, and in the gospel, in the message of which He is the content, He presents Himself to men as it were clothed in the efficacy of His saving work.

The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. The preaching of Jesus Christ is Jesus Christ present in grace, love, and converting dynamism. The preaching of the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Every preacher needs to take this truth into his heart and soul.

17 January 2007

Rom 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (RSV)

I am not ashamed of this gospel. It is an instrument of God’s power, that brings salvation to all who believe in it, Jew first and then Greek. It reveals God’s way of justifying us, faith first and last; as the scripture says, It is faith that brings life to the just man. (Knox)

In the gospel, Paul tells us, the dikaiosynê theou is being revealed. The grammatical tense is present (“is revealed” or “is being revealed”), not aorist (“was revealed”). The preaching of the gospel is itself an ongoing act of divine revelation. The gospel does not simply tell about the dikaiosynê theou revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ; it participates in that revelation. God reveals his dikaiosynê (“righteousness,” “uprightness”) each time the good news of Christ is announced.

Dikaiosynê theou is a grammatically interesting expression. Is it best rendered as the “righteousness of God” (subjective genitive), the “righteousness from God” (objective genitive), or the “righteousness of God that proceeds to human beings” (genitive of origin)? Apparently each is grammatically possible, and each has its defenders among contemporary exegetes. The objective genitive reading has enjoyed especially strong support in the Western exegetical tradition (as reflected in the Knox translation). It’s impossible for a nonexpert like myself to arrive at a definitive opinion, but I am persuaded by the arguments of Wright and Fitzmyer in favor of the subjective genitive. Thus Wright:

When [dikaiosynê theou] … occurs in biblical and post-biblical Jewish texts, it always refers to God’s own righteousness, not to the status people have from God; and Jewish discussions of “God’s righteousness” in this sense show close parallels with Paul’s arguments in Romans. … In particular, the flow of thought through the letter as a whole makes far more sense if we understand the statement of the theme of 1:17 as being about God and God’s covenant faithfulness and justice, rather than simply about “justification.” It brings into focus chapters 9-11, not as an appendix to a more general treatment of sin and salvation, but as the intended major climax of the whole letter; and it allows for the significance of 15:1-13 as a final summing up of the subject. … Paul’s aim, it seems, is to explain to the Roman church what God has been up to and where they might belong on the map of these purposes.

And Fitzmyer:

Dikaiosynê theou (or dikaiosynê auto, “his uprightness”) appears again in 3.5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3(bix). Here dikaiosynê theou stands in contrast to orgê theou, “the wrath of God” (1:18), an attribute, property, or quality in God. Because that sense is also found in 3:5 and best suits the other verses in chap. 3, that sense is used for all passages in Romans in which this phrase occurs.

Theou is thus understood as a possessive or subjective gen., descriptive of God’s upright being and of his upright activity, and not as a gen. of author or origin. When dikaiosynê is called an attribute or quality, nothing static is implied; it is an aspect of God’s power, whence proceeds his acquitting and salvific activity in a forensic mode.

Paul uses dikaiosynê theou in the sense in which God’s uprightness is spoken of in postexilic writings of the OT, even though the specific phrase never occurs as such in the LXX. It is the quality whereby God actively acquits his sinful people, manifesting toward them his power and gracious activity in a just judgment (see Isa 46:13 [where "my righteousness," and "my salvation" stand in parallelism]; 51:5, 6, 8; 56:1; 61:10; Ps 40:9-10). It is now manifested toward humanity because of what Christ Jesus has done for them.

In the Septuagint dikaiosynê is used to translate the Hebrew word sedaqah. This word, the scholars tell us, refers primarily to God’s covenant fidelity. God is righteous in that he is faithful to his promises to his people and actively works for their deliverance from evil and enemy. Dunn explains further:

Righteousness is not something which an individual has on his or her own, independently of anyone else; it is something which one has precisely in one’s relationships as a social being. People are righteous when they meet the claims which others have on them by virtue of their relationship. … So too when it is predicated of God—in this case the relationship between the covenant which God entered into with his people. … God is “righteous” when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies (e.g., Exod 9:27; 1 Sam 12:7; Dan 9:16; Mic 6:5)—”righteousness” as “covenant faithfulness (Rom 3:3-5, 35; 10:3; also 9:6 and 15:8). Particularly in the Psalms and Second Isaiah the logic of covenant grace is followed through with the result that righteousness and salvation become virtually synonymous: the righteousness of God as God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant. … It is clearly this concept of God’s righteousness which Paul takes over here; the “righteousness of God” being his way of explicating “the power of God for salvation.”

Similarly Byrne:

Behind Paul’s Greek term dikaiosynê lies the biblical and early post-biblical usage of the Hebrew word group sedeq/sedaqa which it overwhelmingly (though by no means exclusively translates. The notion denoted by the word group is essentially relational and has to do with the assessment of one’s action or behavior according to whether it conforms or does not conform to the demands of expectation of some other person with whom one is in relationship. Put in plainer language, the righteous person is the one who “does the right thing” by some other party. Righteousness is the state or status of the person who, in terms of the relationship, is acknowledged by the other to have done the right thing, to be “in the right.” The classic biblical illustration is the acknowledgment given by Judah to Tamar at the end of the sordid episode recounted in Gen 38:26: “She is more righteous than I.”

In his more specific appeal to the “righteousness of God” as “revealed” (apokalyptetai) in the gospel, Paul stands in continuity with a biblical tradition greatly shaped by the exilic prophet who speaks in Isaiah 40:55. This (Second) Isaiah employed the language of “righteousness” in particular connection with the saving and liberating acts of God on behalf of captive Israel. God’s saving acts on behalf of the exiled people are an exercise of righteousness, revealing God to be “righteous” (“faithful”) in terms of relationship with Israel.

In Paul’s eyes, the gospel “reveals” the “righteousness of God” in that it announces that God has acted faithfully, not only with respect to Israel, but, as Creator, with respect to the entire world. What is at stake is God’s own righteousness, which human beings acknowledge in the act of faith (cf., later, 3:36).

We will be returning to the righteousness of God throughout our ruminations. At this point I have a couple simple questions: Would Paul’s Gentile readers in Rome have understood his Hebrew-shaped use of dikaiosynê? To what extent would secular meanings of the word have influenced their reading of Paul’s epistle? And given that Paul was a diaspora Jew writing to Gentiles, how do we know that Paul’s use of dikaiosynê is not informed by secular usage?

I note the interpretation of “the justice of God” given by the fifth century commentator Ambrosiaster: “It is the justice of God, because he has given what he has promised through the prophets, shows that God is just and becomes a witness to his justice” (Iustitia est Dei, quia quod promisit dedit, ideo credens hoc esse se consecutum quod promiserat Deus per prophetas suos, iustum Deum probat et testis est iustitiae eius).

19 January 2007

Rom 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (RSV)

I am not ashamed of this gospel. It is an instrument of God’s power, that brings salvation to all who believe in it, Jew first and then Greek. It reveals God’s way of justifying us, faith first and last; as the scripture says, It is faith that brings life to the just man. (Knox)

Salvation is given to faith. Precisely what this means for St Paul we will need to discover as we read through his Epistle to the Romans. Is faith assent? trust? obedience? all the above? Was Paul even interested in the kind of refined distinctions that theologians like to make?

At this point in our reading, we may say that faith is humanity’s proper and saving response to the gospel—”faith in the message, and so faith in Jesus Christ who is its content and in God who has acted in Him and whose power the message is” (Cranfield). It is this faith that distinguishes the Christian from pagans and non-Christian Jews. It is important to remember the missionary context of the first-century Church. Paul is writing to converts. Each convert, having heard the gospel, has confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, surrendered himself to baptism, and entered into the eucharistic life of the Church. Each has taken up his cross and begun a life of discipleship. Each has staked his future on the resurrection of Jesus and the faithfulness of his heavenly Father. “Faith” succinctly identifies and describes the Church: Christians are a people of faith, “faith first and last.”

Perhaps we might be able to say a bit more if we knew precisely how to render the quotation from Habakkuk; but exegetes disagree. The quotation is ambiguous, perhaps even deliberately so. Paul has left out the possessive pronoun that is found in the LXX (“The righteous out of my faithfulness shall live”), giving us instead “The righteous out of faith/faithfulness shall live.” Dunn suggests that we resist the temptation to eliminate the ambiguity of the Habakkuk citation. The original readers of the letter would have found the citation as imprecise and cryptic as exegetes do today. “In short,” Dunn concludes, “Paul probably intends the Habakkuk quotation to be understood with a richness of meaning which can embrace within it the fuller understanding of the gospel for which Paul stands, in its continuity with the revelation to Israel.”

St Augustine: “What is now the church, prior to the appearance of what will be, lives in toils and afflictions, and in her the just live by faith.”

20 January 2007

Rom 1:18-23

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (RSV)

God’s anger is being revealed from heaven; his anger against the impiety and wrong-doing of the men whose wrong-doing denies his truth its full scope. The knowledge of God is clear to their minds; God himself has made it clear to them; from the foundations of the world men have caught sight of his invisible nature, his eternal power and his divineness, as they are known through his creatures. Thus there is no excuse for them; although they had the knowledge of God, they did not honour him or give thanks to him as God; they became fantastic in their notions, and their senseless hearts grew benighted; they, how claimed to be so wise, turned fools, and exchanged the glory of the imperishable God for representations of perishable man, of bird and beast and reptile. (Knox)

Our text begins with the connective “for” (gar; omitted in Knox), thus suggesting that the revelation of divine wrath (orgê theou) is related to the revelation of divine righteousness (dikaiosynê theou) in vv 15-17. But how is this relation to be understood? Are the two revelations occurring simultaneously—the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel and the revelation of the wrath of God from heaven—or are the two revelations more intimately related? Given the parallelism between v 17 and v 18, it seems increasingly likely, at least to me, that Paul understood these two revelations as mysteriously, perhap obversely, joined.

The wrath of God against human wickedness is now unveiled, Paul tells us. But how? Surely not in the events themselves. Human wickedness had been around a long time. Certainly Jews were not surprised by the extent and depth of Gentile immorality and had long preached against it. As Wright observes, “Paul’s point is not that the moral corruption of the pagan world provides a fresh revelation of God’s wrath. Pagans have always behaved like that, at least when seen from Paul’s Jewish standpoint. He must mean that, in some way or another, the fact of Jesus has drawn back the veil on the wrath to come.” Wright finds his solution in 2:16: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” By his resurrection and enthronement, Jesus has been revealed as the judge of the quick and the dead. But Wright’s solution seems insufficient. The identification of Jesus as he who will judge sin and reward virtue directs us to the future, as immediate as it might be. But the revelation, both of divine righteousness and divine wrath, is occurring now. Cranfield proposes that we must look to the events of which the gospel speaks to find the revelation of orgê theou:

It must be said at once that it is very easy to get from reading vv. 18ff the impression that Paul is thinking here of the revelation of God’s wrath as taking place in the frustrations, futilities and disasters which result from human asebeia and adikia. But Paul himself has given a pretty clear indication of the parallelism in language and structure between vv. 17 and 18 that this is not his meaning. In v. 17 he has stated that dikaiosynê theou is being revealed in the gospel, that is, in the on-going proclamation of the gospel. And this statement presupposes a prior revelation of dikaiosynê theou in the gospel events themselves, a revelation indicated by the perfect pephanenerotai in 3:21. In view of the parallelism between vv. 17 and 18, the most natural way of taking v. 18 is to understand Paul to mean that orgê theou also is being revealed in the gospel, that is, in the on-going proclamation of the gospel, and to recognize that behind, and basic to, this revelation of the wrath of God in the preaching, is the prior revelation of the wrath of God in the gospel events. …

The two revelations referred to in these two verses are then really two aspects of the same process. The preaching of Christ crucified, risen, ascended and coming again, is at the same time both the offer to men of a status of righteousness before God and the revelation of God’s wrath against their sin. In the gospel the divine mercy and the divine judgment are inseparable from each other: the forgiveness offered to us is forgiveness without condoning. And this is so because in the gospel events themselves there was wrought for men no cheap or superficial forgiveness, but God’s costly forgiveness. … We do not see the full meaning of the wrath of God in the disasters befalling sinful men in the course of history: the reality of the wrath of God is only truly known when it is seen in its revelation in Gethsemene and on Golgotha.

God’s judgment against human sin and wickedness has occurred on the hill of Calvary. Jesus has drunk to the dregs the cup of God’s wrath. And it is this Jesus who will judge all mankind on that final day. The gospel of the Crucified is now being proclaimed in the world, and the revelation of the righteousness of God is thus revealed—and simultaneously the wrath of God is revealed, both in the events proclaimed and in the rejection of the preached gospel by both Jews and Gentiles. Commenting on Rom 1:18, William of St Thierry writes: “In the gospel is revealed not only the justice and glorification of believers but also the injustice and wrath of the unbelievers, which is their just condemnation.”

Some exegetes have sought to distance God from the wrath of which Paul speaks. C. H. Dodd, for example, interprets the divine wrath as “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” Sin sets in motion destruction and thus is its own punishment. Yet clearly Paul thinks of wrath as a personal attribute of God and not just an impersonal process within the world. The divine wrath is the implacable hostility of the good and holy God against all wickedness and evil. Truly it is inconceivable that a God of love and righteousness would not hate the injustice, violence, and immorality of humanity. Moral relativism and equivalency is not love but indifference. The wrath of God, Wright explains, is God’s “determination not to give evil the last word, to root out from the good creation all that defaces and destroys it.” When Paul speak of the divine wrath and its manifestation in the world, he is speaking from the heart of the Scriptures.

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. For behold, the Lord is coming forth out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed upon her, and will no more cover her slain. (Isa 26:20-21)

Theologians rightly insist that we must not project into deity the irrationality and passion of human anger, yet neither may we rationalize away the divine wrath. We have no choice but to speak by way of analogy and metaphor, but our language does intend an attribute of God. The wrath of God is now revealed and active, and this wrath will be exercised in definitive fullness on the Day of the Lord. The language of Paul is unequivocal:

Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering—since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thess 1:4-10)

But the theological problem remains. How do we understand the union of love and wrath, mercy and justice within God? St Paul does not, as far as I can determine, give us the answer, except perhaps the only answer anyone can give—the cross.

22 January 2007

Rom 1:18-2:1

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.(RSV)

Why does the Apostle write of the sins and vices of fallen humanity? What is its argumentative and rhetorical purpose within the epistle? The answer is given in 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” In other words, 1:18-32 is written to convict the implied reader of hypocrisy. Paul is employing a rhetorical form of diatribe, in which a dialogue is pursued with an imaginary person. The identity of this person becomes clear in 2:17-24: he is a Jewish moralist. Byrne explains the rhetorical strategy:

The introduction of the letter (1:1-7) has shown its primary addressees (the implied audience) to be Gentile Christians in Rome. But in the section that now begins, 1:18-4:25, it soon becomes clear that the implied addressee is a Jew as yet to be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. It is this development that creates the problem of the letter’s “double address.” … The over-all intent is to convince the Gentile believers in Rome of the power and all-sufficiency of the Christian gospel, specifically in its inclusion of them within the community of the saved. Paul’s tactic at this point is to reinforce the claims made for the Christian gospel by allowing them to “overhear” a dialogue with a Jewish partner.

Paul, therefore, is setting a trap in 1:18-32. He advances a comprehensive statement of Gentile sinfulness with which he knows his Jewish interlocutors will agree. In chapter 2 the reader will discover that Israel itself is included in the indictment.

At the heart of sin, Paul tells us, is suppression of the truth. To turn from God in self-assertion is to actively deny and stifle that knowledge of God possessed by every human being. Man cannot not know God. He cannot not apprehend the reality of the creator as evidenced in his creation. He cannot not know the truth of things. Man is therefore morally culpable for his injustice and godlessness. Cranfield writes, “Sin is always an assault upon the truth.” It is an attempt to murder God. Man seeks to establish an autonomous existence and thus suppresses the truth of the righteous and holy God who wills our good, the truth of the radical contingency of the world, the truth of the moral structure of existence. In his wrath God delivers humanity over to the consequences—idolatry, chaos, wickedness, immorality, violence, and the darkening of the human mind. “One is punished by the very things by which he sins” (Wisdom 11:16).

24 January 2007

Rom 2:1-5

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (RSV)

I have to wonder: Would Rabbi Saul of Tarsus have recognized himself as included in the Apostle’s indictment of fallen humanity?

In his Epistle to the Philippians, Paul informs us that as to Torah, he was a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church; as to righteousness under Torah, blameless (3:5-7). Paul does not appear to have suffered the introspective, reproving conscience that plagued Luther. As a practicing Pharisee, he does not appear to have believed that it was impossible for someone to fulfill the commandments of Torah, nor as a practicing Christian does he appear to have so personally internalized the commandment to love as to generate perpetual self-condemnation. He reminds the Thessalonians “how holy and righteous and blameless” his behavior was when he was with them (1 Thess 2:10). In 1st Corinthians he tells his readers that he is unaware of anything against himself, though he awaits the judgment of God upon his life and deeds (1 Cor 4:3-5). Paul has a robust conscience. He knows that he had sinned grievously by his zealous persecution of the Church; but that was in the past. Though the foremost of sinners, his sins had been washed away in the waters of baptism.

Might Saul, therefore, rightly protest against his Christian self that while some of his fellow Jews were indeed living lives as bad as the Gentiles, this was and is not true for himself and many of his fellow Pharisees?

I think the answer is yes. How does this yes affect Paul’s critique of righteousness through Torah?

We must ultimately look deeper to understand Paul’s views of the universality of sin. We will be returning to this question many times in the course of our reading.

24 January 2007

Rom 2:1-16

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (RSV)

St Paul now briefly describes for us the final judgment. As N. T. Wright notes, this description comes as a surprise to modern readers. We are used to hearing the gospel declared as salvation from judgment; but for the Apostle the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus as eschatological Messiah and therefore as judge. Jesus has come to set the world to rights and minister final and ultimate justice. God will judge humanity by and through the man crucified on Golgotha.

Perhaps even more of a surprise is the Apostle’s insistence that the final judgment is a judgment by works: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” We need not think of this judgment as gross calculation: two points for helping a little ole lady across the street, ten thousand points for marital fidelity in an unhappy marriage, fifteen demerits for missing Mass, five thousand demerits for grand theft auto. We should think, rather, of the final judgment as announced “on the basis of the whole life led” (Wright).

Why does Paul introduce the theme of the final judgment at this point in his letter? I refer back to my earlier rumination where I suggested, following Byrne (and Wright, Fitzmyer, and Dunn), that in this passage Paul is principally addressing an imaginary Jewish moralist. Paul is keen to tell this moralist that his ethnic identity and possession of Torah will not save him on the last day: “For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (11-13). Jews live under Torah and therefore will be judged by their obedience to Torah. If they have therefore lived lives deserving of wrath, well described in 1:18-32, this wrath is what they will receive, regardless of their ethnic identity. Torah is not a talisman that protecs one from judgment. “What counts,” explains Wright, “is doing Torah. … Israel’s ethnic privilege, backed up by possession of Torah, will be of no avail at the final judgment. Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession.” Gentiles, on the other hand, do not live under Torah and therefore will not be judged by Torah. If they have sinned without the law, they will be doomed without the law; yet if they have lived morally praiseworthy lives, they thereby demonstrate that Torah has been written on their hearts and therefore can expect a gracious judgment from the Lord Jesus Christ. God is impartial and just. At the end, Jew and Gentile stand on equal footing before the exalted Son of Man.

2:13 deserves further comment: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be righteoused.” (I follow here the suggestion of E. P. Sanders to resurrect the verbal form of righteous.) This is the first instance in Romans of the verb dikaioô. It is in the future tense and refers to the final judgment at the day of the Lord. Here it clearly has a forensic meaning: to be righteoused is to be vindicated, accepted; it is to be declared innocent and just. But when Cranfield writes that that the word “refers to status in relation to God rather than moral quality,” I have to register my disagreement. Paul is clear that the eschatological declaration is based on actions. In v 6 he tells us that God “will render to every man according to his works,” and in vv 7-11 he tells us that those who are patient in well-doing will receive eternal life and those who do not “obey the truth” will receive wrath and fury. How then can one assert that this judgment is not based on moral quality? How can God’s final verdict not reflect something about the person in himself, given what Paul has thus far written? Paul’s premise is that Jews are in fact guilty of disobedience and are therefore unrighteous in God’s eyes. This is not a nominal unrighteousness, as if God might declare someone unrighteous who in fact has faithfully lived Torah. The obedient and faithful will be rewarded with eternal life; the disobedient and faithless condemned. One might even say that Paul’s rhetorical strategy requires final justification by works: how else can the Jewish moralist be convicted of his hypocrisy and brought before the Holy God on equal terms with the Gentile? Chris VanLandingham criticizes Cranfield’s exegesis of v 13:

Cranfield’s statement … is obviously circular. Why must the verb interpret the noun? Why not have the noun interpret the verb? What about the context, since the context concerns “behavior” and “moral quality”? Also, “status in relation to God” is hard to distinguish from election. Paul’s description of God as an impartial judge to both Jews and Gentiles renders election irrelevant. Cranfield’s assertion regarding dikaioi completely ignores the context in which the term is used. Again, the criterion at the judgment is whether one has been obedient. For this reason, Paul says that the doers of the law will be righteous (dikaiôthesontai) and, by implication, are righteous (dikaioi). Verse 13b does not say anything different from verses 7 and 10. Whatever the term means elsewhere, both in and outside of Paul’s letters, here it refers to the moral righteousness of the person so described. Although the context is judicial, a judicial context does not demand a certain forensic sense for dikaiôthesontai, such as right standing, right relationship, or simply acquittal. A forum, tribunal, or in this case, the Last Judgment is convened for the purpose of a finding, not just a declaration. Assuming there is a declaration, God will determine the truth of the matter and find whether the person is, in reality, righteous (i.e., morally upright, the opposite of unrighteous, wicked, sinful, impious) or wicked. Since the context places the emphasis on the moral state of a person as each appears before God, this sense should dictate that the passive verb be translated as “to be righteous.” Other possibilities, such as “to be found righteous” or even “to be proved righteous,” are acceptable as long as one recognizes that the one described is qualitatively righteous in himself, and not just in God’s estimation. In verse 13, the doer of the law is obviously righteous before he comes para tô Theô. (Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul, pp. 225-226)

This reading of 2:13 poses an apparent contradiction to 3:20 (“For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law”). We will ruminate on this apparent contradiction when we come to this verse. In the meantime, I will simply say that this “plain” reading of Paul’s description of the final judgment accords well with what the words seem to be saying.

It is helpful to read Romans 2:1-16 alongside two passages from the gospels:

Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 5:25-29)

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt 25:31-46)

In both gospel passages Jesus announces himself to be the judge of the great assize and reaffirms the traditional Jewish understanding that the final judgment will be based on deeds.

Needless to say, challenging questions are raised by this passage, both for our reading of Romans and for Christian doctrine. Paul’s teaching here on the final judgment cannot simply be dismissed, as if he were speaking merely hypothetically. It enjoys too much support from other portions of the New Testament, including Paul’s own writings: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10). The question thus becomes: How do we relate the final judgment according to deeds to the first justification according to faith?

25 January 2007

Rom 2:17-29

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. (RSV)

Thou claimest Jewish blood; thou reliest on the law; God is all thy boast; thou canst tell what is his will, discern what things are of moment, because the law has taught thee. Thou hast confidence in thyself as one who leads the blind, a light to their darkness; admonishing the fool, instructing the simple, because in the law thou hast the incarnation of all knowledge and all truth. Tell me, then, thou who teachest others, hast thou no lesson for thyself? Is it a thief that preaches against stealing, an adulterer that forbids adultery? Dost thou rob temples, thou, who shrinkest from the touch of an idol? Thy boast is in the law; wilt thou break the law, to God’s dishonour? The name of God, says the scripture, has become a reproach among the Gentiles, because of you. Circumcision, to be sure, is of value, so long as thou keepest the law; but if thou breakest the law, thy circumcision has lost its effect. And if one who has never been circumcised observes the conditions of the law, does it not follow that he, though uncircumcised, will be reckoned as one who is circumcised? That he, who keeps the law, though uncircumcised in body, will be able to pass judgement on thee, who breakest the law, though circumcised outwardly, in the flesh. He is a Jew indeed who is one inwardly, according to the spirit, not the letter of the law, for God’s, not for man’s approval. (Knox)

The identity of Paul’s fictional interlocutor is finally revealed—a Jewish moralist. He is a person who relies on Torah and boasts in God. Wright explains that resting on Torah does not mean “using the Torah as a ladder of good works, up which to climb to a position of moral superiority or a self-earned salvation.” Torah is a precious gift from God, an incarnation of truth and moral guidance. The Jew rightly rests upon it, rightly looks to it as light in the darkness. This indeed is the unique vocation of Israel—to be a light to the nations. Wright also notes that the RSV translation “boast of your relation to God” is misleading, as it suggests a personal relationship between two people. The Knox translation better captures the meaning: “God is all thy boast.” The Jewish moralist is not boasting in himself or his personal accomplishments but in the divine election of Israel.

But what happens if Israel is herself compromised? How can she be a teacher of the Gentiles when she is guilty of theft, adultery, and temple-robbing? Paul is speaking here in generalities, of the nation of Israel as a whole. Clearly not all Jews were guilty of the sins he enumerates. As Wright comments, “Paul is not for a moment suggesting anything so absurd as that all Jews steal, commit adultery, rob temples, and so forth. HIs point is rather that the national boast of ethnic Israel, that of being the creator’s chosen people, is falsified if theft, adultery, and so forth are found within the nation. The presence of misbehavior within ethnic Israel renders void the national, ethnic boast; it prevents Israel from fulfilling its calling to be the light of the world.” God has called Israel to be his chosen people in order to deliver humanity from the power of sin and restore the just order of his creation, yet Israel has failed her vocation. She has become part of the darkness, as her long biblical history demonstrates. What then of God’s plan to redeem humanity? What will God do?

In vv 25-29 Paul then makes a critical move. He asserts disobedience to Torah effectively nullifies circumcision (the sign of inclusion within God’s people) and disenfranchises one from the covenant and its blessings. Perhaps Amos and Jeremiah might have agreed with him. But Paul’s next step is startling: he proposes the possibility that one can be a Jew without being circumcised at all: “if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” Is not Paul contradicting himself? Circumcision is itself commanded by Torah. How can one fully obey Torah while at the same time disregarding one of its key precepts? Paul resolves the contradiction by introducing a distinction between outer and inner, physical and spiritual: “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.” The title “Jew,” in other words, properly belongs not to the physically circumcised but to the spiritually circumcised. The allusion to Ezekiel 36:25-27 is strong:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Perhaps Paul is also thinking of the promise of the new covenant, in which God will write his Torah upon the hearts of his people (Jer 31:33):

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Thus Paul prepares the way for the inclusion of Gentiles into Israel through Jesus the Messiah in and by the Holy Spirit.

30 January 2007

Rom 3:9-20

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (RSV)

Well then, has either side the advantage? In no way. Jews and Gentiles, as we have before alleged, are alike convicted of sin. Thus, it is written, There is not an innocent man among them, no, not one. There is nobody who reflects, and searches for God; all alike are on the wrong course, all are wasted lives; not one of them acts honourably, no not one. Their mouths are gaping tombs, they use their tongues to flatter. Under their lips the venom of asps is hidden. Their talk overflows with curses and calumny. They run hot-foot to shed blood; havoc and ruin follow in their path; they way of peace is unknown to them. They do not keep the fear of God before their eyes. So the law says, and we know that the words of the law are meant for the law’s own subjects; it is determined that no one shall have anything to say for himself, that the whole world shall own itself liable to God’s judgements. No human creature can become acceptable in his sight by observing the law; what the law does is to give us the full consciousness of sin. (Knox)

Elected by God, the Jewish people have been entrusted with the gift of Torah, yet mere possession of Torah, as we saw in chap 2, cannot protect Jews from divine wrath and judgment. Paul now intensifies his argument: “For I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (lit. “under sin”). No doubt Paul was driving to this conclusion all along, but I have to wonder if his argument to this point has really prepared us for it. In chaps 1-2 Paul confronted us with the massive historical factuality of human sin and disobedience, but here he hints at the power of sin (more fully elaborated in chaps 5-8) that possesses the heart of every man who has not been circumcised in his heart by the Spirit, Jew and Gentile. It is this pernicious power of sin that explains the sin of humanity. Dunn summarizes:

In Romans Paul sees sin (along with death) as the most negative and most dangerous force in human experience. The question of conceptualization is therefore secondary. The one fact is that man experiences (consciously or unconsciously) a power which works in him to bind him wholly to his mortality and corruptibility, to render impotent any knowledge of God or concern to do God’s will, to provoke his merely animal appetites in forgetfulness that he is a creature of God—and that power Paul calls “sin.”

Paul supports his argument by a catena of biblical citations. The point of this list is stated in v. 19: God through his written oracles testifies that even those who live “under the Law” are convicted as unrighteous. Torah silences the mouth of even the most obedient Jew. The whole world stands in the dock. Appeal to ethnic or national identity is thus voided. God judges impartially and justly. For this reason “no human being will be righteoused in his sight by works of the law.”

How are we to understand “works of the law”? It is important to remember one of the central aims of this epistle—to defend and advance the inclusion of Gentiles into Israel, apart from circumcision. From Paul’s perspective, and his Gentile Christian readers, this inclusion is an already accomplished fact. In the Messiah Jesus God has decisively and irreversibly acted to eliminate the ritual barriers between Jew and Greek, barriers which he himself had established. A new age has been inaugurated. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh. The covenant has been renewed and reconfigured.

Paul is not arguing against legalism, as this has been formulated since the Reformation. The legalist interpretation of course continues to be advanced by Protestant exegetes; but it is increasingly seen to be historically unlikely. Paul is not arguing against proto-Pelagians who are trying to earn their way into heaven by doing good works. He is arguing against restriction of covenant status to circumcised Jews and thus arguing for inclusion of Gentiles into Israel through Jesus Christ. Hence it is best to understand “works of the law” as referring to that “mode of existence marked out in its distinctiveness as determined by the law, the religious practices which set those ‘within the law’ (v 19) apart as the people of the law” (Dunn). The target of Paul’s polemic, therefore, is the devout non-Christian Jew who believes that he is righteous by his ethnic-religious identity. The Jew cannot achieve righteousness through Torah for two reasons: first, because he has failed to recognize the new thing God has done in Jesus Christ; and second, because he has failed to recognize his own bondage to sin. As Byrne writes, “It is this resistance to God, rather than any intrinsic wrongfulness of ‘works’ as such, that is the problem.”

I concur with Wright’s summary of this passage:

The dismissal of ‘works of the law’ as the means of justification has all kinds of overtones. Paul’s fundamental meaning is that no Jew can use possession of the Torah, and performance of its key symbolic ‘works’ of ethnic demarcation, as demonstration in the present time that they belong to the eschatological people of God, the people who will inherit the age to come. Torah is incapable of performing this function: When appealed to, it reminds its possessors of their own sin.

In thus declaring that “no human being will be righteoused in his sight by works of the law,” Paul is not contradicting what he has just written a few paragraphs earlier, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be righteoused” (2:13). The two texts are reconciled in that new identity and freedom from sin granted to believers through Holy Baptism. Paul will make this clear to his readers a bit later in Romans. The Holy Spirit has written the law upon the hearts of believers. They have now become true doers of Torah. In Christ Paul thinks together justification and regeneration, covenant and Church, faith and Torah.

3 February 2007

Rom 3:21-31

I have been reading and rereading N. T. Wright’s various discussions of Paul and justification by faith. On this subject Wright is especially illuminating and challenging. Few scholars can match his wide-ranging command of Scripture and ancient history. But most impressive of all is his union of scholarship and evangelical faith. In his writings he is always seeking to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ. This, I believe, explains his popularity among Christians of various denominational stripes. They discern in Bishop Wright a man who has penetrated the letter of Scripture and grasped that truth to which the biblical writers bore witness. He inspires trust and confidence.

Wright believes that Christians, especially since the Reformation but even before, have misunderstood St Paul on the subject of justification. From Augustine to Luther and the present, theologians have understood “justification” to refer to the question of how “human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 116). But whatever Paul might think about this question, he does not use justification language to answer it. For the Apostle justification speaks to the question, Who belongs to the covenant people of God?

‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In [E. P.] Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church. (p. 119)

The Apostles invokes the language of justification to speak of God’s reconfiguration of Israel around her crucified Messiah. The chosen people of God is no longer determined by obedience to Torah but rather by faithful and obedient relationship to Christ—no longer by works of the law but by faith in Jesus. Those who have believed the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection and confess him as Lord and Messiah are now accorded the status of righteous: they are recognized by God as belonging to his Church of the new covenant.

Wright appeals to the ancient Jewish law court to unpack the language of righteousness. There are three parties—judge, plaintiff, and defendant. Plaintiff and defendant present their case to the judge, who determines the just outcome according to Torah. It is the responsibility of the judge to adjudicate the case impartially and fairly. He has a special responsibility to defend the defenseless and oppressed, who have no one else to plead their cause. When the judge executes his task responsibly and wisely, he is said to be righteous. He has done justice.

For the plaintiff and defendant righteousness operates differently. Wright explains:

For the plaintiff and defendant, however, to be ‘righteous’ has none of these connotations. They, after all, are not trying the case. Nor, less obviously to us because of the moral overtones the word ‘righteous’ now has in our own language, does the word mean that they are, before the case starts, morally upright and so deserving to have the verdict go their way. No; for the plaintiff or defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.

How does this work out? Let us take the plaintiff first. If and when the court upholds the plaintiff’s accusation, he or she is ‘righteous’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; it simply means that in this case the court has vindicated him or her in the charge they have brought.

It is the same with the defendant. If and when the court upholds the defendant, acquitting him or her of the charge, he or she is ‘righteous’. This, again, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; simply that he or she has, in this case, been vindicated against the accuser; in other words, acquitted.

Of course, the word dikaios, ‘righteous’, in secular Greek as in English, carried moralistic overtones. Granted this, it is not hard to see how it could come to refer not just to a status held after the decision of the court, but also to the character and past behavior of either the plaintiff or the defendant. But the key point is that, within the technical language of the law court, ‘righteous’ means, for these two persons, the status they have when the court finds in their favour. Nothing more, nothing less. (pp. 97-98)

In the first century Jews commonly looked forward to that great day when the Lord would judge the nations and set the world to rights. On that day God will vindicate Israel and disclose the identities of those who have been faithful to their covenantal obligations. By his eschatological verdict, the righteous God will reveal the righteous. Moreover, at least some groups of Jews believed that the righteous could be identified in the present: “The present sign of our future vindication consists in our present loyalty to the covenant obligations laid upon us by our God. Our ‘works of the law’ demonstrate in the present that, when God acts, we will be seen to be his people” (p. 99).

But what happens if God decides to redefine Israel around the crucified and risen Jesus and to incorporate Gentiles into her fellowship? At this point, faith, not works of Torah, becomes the identifying marker of righteousness. The righteous are the baptized; the righteous are those who have died with Christ and now live with him in the Holy Spirit; the righteous are those who confess the Crucified as Lord and Messiah. To put it simply, the Church of Jesus Christ, not ethnic Judaism, is the people of righteousness. As Wright explains, “The point of justification by faith is that, as he insists in [Romans] 3:26, it takes place in the present time as opposed to on the last day. It has to do with the questions, ‘Who now belongs to God’s people?’, and ‘How can you tell?’ The answer is: all who believe in the gospel belong, and that is the only way you can tell—not by who their parents were, or how well they have obeyed the Torah (or any other moral code), or whether they have been circumcised. Justification, for Paul, is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God” (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 121).

I find persuasive Wright’s ecclesiological interpretation of justification, particularly in light of Paul’s concern to defend the inclusion of Gentiles into the new covenant community. When Paul speaks of “justification by faith,” he is not arguing against legalism or moralism, nor is he answering the question “Who among the baptized will get into heaven?” or “How do I get saved?” Paul’s reflections here are driven by ecclesiology, covenant, and the eucharistic fellowship of Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus Christ.

I well understand why confessional Protestants have responded to Wright’s interpretation of justification with hostility, for it directly challenges the identification of the Reformation construal of justification with the Pauline gospel. My question at this point of my ruminations is this: Does Wright’s analysis of righteousness as forensic-ecclesiological status comprehend all that Paul means? What is the relationship in Paul between justification and regeneration? Is it possible that Paul in fact thinks the two together? Consider the very different opinion of E. P. Sanders:

The passive verb ‘to be righteoused’ in Paul’s letters almost always means to be changed, to be transferred from one realm to another: from sin to obedience, from death to life, from being under the law to being under grace. While some words beginning with dik are judicial in Paul, the passive verb seldom is (only in 1 Cor. 4:4; 6:11; Rom. 2:13), and it is the passive verb which bears the brunt of the argument in Galatians 2-3 and Romans 3-4. This is why ‘righteousness’ by faith is slightly misleading as a summary of Paul’s position. The noun ‘righteousness’ implies a status, while Paul’s verb has more the connotation of something which happens to a person. This is seldom legal acquittal. When Paul wrote that he and Peter, though previously not ‘Gentile sinners’, had been righteoused by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:15-16), he did not mean that they had been guilty but were now innocent. They had previously been innocent enough, not ‘sinners’. When they were ‘righteoused’ they were made one person with Christ (Gal. 3:28), or, as Paul put it in another letter, they have become part of a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17; see 5:21, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’). The passive dikaioun does not easily bear this meaning—changed, transferred, incorporated into another person—but Paul forced it to do so. (Paul, p. 48)

In the discussion in Romans 3-4 the verb ‘reckon’ (logizomai), derived from Genesis 15:6, comes into prominence (3:28, and eleven times in chapter 4). This does not mean, however, that Paul thinks of righteousness as being fictitiously imputed to those who have faith, while they remain sinners in fact. In sharing Christ’s death Christians have died to the old order. They no longer live in sin (6:2), but are ‘slaves’ of righteousness, who have become obedient to God (6:15-18). Paul picked up ‘reckon’ from Genesis, and then he repeated it, with no thought of a fictional, ‘merely imputed’ righteousness. (p. 67)

Perhaps Paul was willing to mix his metaphors a bit more than Wright allows.

7 February 2007


 
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