More wrangling with Wright: this time his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreters Bible Volume X (Nashville, Abingdon, 2002) chapters 1 -8

For many years I have seen Paul’s Letter to the Romans as central to understanding the Biblical basis of Christianity …so many powerful verses that over the years have been significant for me in my Christian life and growth. But Romans is also full of difficult and complex concepts. For the past 12 years each morning amongst other things I have read a passage from Romans, thinking about the Greek text and working twice now through Wright’s Commentary. (His commentary also provides helpful reference to many others including Luther, Calvin, Cranfield, Kasemann, Moo, Dunn, Fitzmyer, Bryan, Byrne, Donfried, Hays, Hay & Johnson, Wagner and since Wright, we now have Jewett, Schlatter in English, Bird, Longenecker, Schreiner, Witherington and many others besides).

I keep coming back to Wright because he insists on simply reading and working on the text as it stands and because he sees the whole book as a total unity, constantly demonstrating how Paul repeats and deepens concepts from previous chapters into a consistent and powerfully built up single argument. He has chapters 9-11 as the centre of the book and he constantly refers to whole Biblical story as uniquely reflected in Romans.  That is (i) the Genesis 12 story of God’s covenant with Abraham that through his seed, Israel, all the families of the world will be blessed; and (ii) the Isaiah 49 and 53  story that Israel is called to be a light to the nations and that their promised suffering servant is the Messiah who is God enfleshed in humanity for the purpose of the salvation of humanity.

Another helpful addition to Wright’s commentary is a series of far-reaching reflections  after each section of the text is dealt with. In typical fashion Wright seeks to relate Romans to  the C21st and, as ever, I have found his reflections to be thought provoking and powerful for my Christian life and thinking.  The following is a summary of the reflections from Chapters 1 – 8 of Wright’s Commentary with some comments of my own interspersed. (but it is mainly Wright!)

 

REFLECTIONS ON ROMANS  (Based on N T Wright: The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary , and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume !X, Nashville, Abingdon Press,2002 pp393-770)

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 1:

  1. The question of the righteousness of God (ie the justice of God – theodicy) looms large today because of the horrors and evident evil of the C20th (Armenia/Turkey/Greece ethnic cleansing, WW1, WW2, Holocaust, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Korea, Viet-Nam, Cambodia killing fields, Mao Tse Tung and Chinese cultural revolution, Stalinist purges in Russia (30 million dead), Chile (Pinochet), Rwandan genocide, September 11 2001,  Balkans ethnic cleansing (Bosnia/Serbia/Croatia), Syria.  Where is God in all this when he has promised to bring all things into justice, peace and harmony including in the cosmos as a whole? The church’s ministry is to unveil God’s righteousness once more through the Gospel of Jesus, unleashing God’s power for salvation.
  1. The Gospel” in Paul’s letter to the Romans is not primarily about sinful human beings and how they attain justification and salvation for eternal life…this message was not simply the offer of a new reordering of one’s private spiritual interiority, a new clearing up of a morally dysfunctional life via forgiveness for the past and a new moral energy for the present. It was not simply a new vocation to live for God and for others in the world….it was rather good news about God and Jesus…that principalities and powers of darkness, sin and death had been defeated and were now summoned to allegiance..it was a command requiring obedience much more than an invitation seeking a response…..this command comes out of the blue, is unexpected and unwelcome and is never trendy. Our contemporaries are not interested in a Jewish Messiah from the C1st being proclaimed as the centre of history.  They say:

“surely the world has not in fact improved” (did Paul say it would?)

“Christianity has been responsible for great evils” (yes though demonstrably when in         rebellion against itself)

“surely we know Christianity is untrue?” (Well, no, we don’t)

Yes these objections must be  taken seriously but modernism’s and atheism’s  replacement is looking decidely threadbare.  When the Gospel is proclaimed and God’s justice is proclaimed by the Holy Spirit in God’s faithful people it is impossible to remain a mere spectator.

  1. In spite of the powerful message we bear we are not to be tyrannically overbearing…we are to be humble slaves of the living God dealing sensitively, in season, with those within our sphere. (see Paul’s humble prayer in Romans 1)
  1. The Gospel Paul proclaims is for both Jews and non-Jews in spite of the political incorrectness and anger this idea generates today. How can Christians have a message for Jews in an age of the Crusades and the Holocaust? Good question, difficult to answer, but how also can the Gospel be kept from the Jews …what right do we have to do this? The reality is that Jews are still called to recognise their Messiah.
  1. Christian proclamation cannot ignore human wickedness and the wrath of God which expresses his justice/righteousness. “Embrace” must be counterbalanced by “exclusion”. (Volf) The world says:”there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the human  race. It is unhealthy or morbid to dwell on sin always or to be drawing attention to it. It is pathological to approve of punishment, let alone retribution. It is bordering on blasphemy to suppose that God would ever be wrathful.”  But on the contrary we cannot ignore Paul’s stern warnings in Romans 1.
  2. Paganism and idolatry are both on the march today  eg worship of blood and soil (Nazism); worship of Mammon (materialism/greed esp Western economic greed); worship of Eros (dehumanising and dangerous pursuit of every erotic titillation); worship of Mars (War); worship of Nature (Pantheism).  All lead either to dehumanisation, human poverty, human slavery, human exploitation.
  1. Paul’s controversial comments about homosexuality relate to his view that the practice is a dangerous distortion of God’s intention of a male/female order in creation…as above human culture as a whole tends towards idolatry in this case erotic idolatry. It is a logical thing to argue that with greater knowledge of human psychology we should reassess the explanation of same-sex desires and orientation nor is he making a case by case analysis. Rather he is using rampant homosexual practice and public displays of homoeroticism as a symbol of cultural fracturing and idolatry. We cannot sideline this argument, but neither can we sideline his warning in chapter 2 that a moral superiority complex is equally evil. Christians have a basic vocation to be a light to the world in their own moral lives and their dealings with others of all beliefs and practices.
  1. Paul’s concern for truth achieved through the “renewal of the mind by the Spirit” clashes  with both Enlightenment foundationalism (cui bono…”who stands to gain?…claims to truth are often covert claims to power) and also Post-modern relativism. (Newbigin’s “wandering in a twilight where all cats are grey”…How can we know that Post-modernism’s claim about the relativism of truth is itself true?) (cf verification principle in logical positivism).

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 2:

  1. Moralism itself is not wrong although the context of Paul’s moralism is different from pagan, Jewish or post-modern moralism; in any case  we do not need:

i) laissez-faire tolerance

ii) street-level existential ‘do what you please as long as it does not hurt anyone’

iii) those who do not practise what they teach eg Seneca; Johnson:The Intellectuals… but none avoids this e.g. sermon on the mount …secretly no-one is righteous.

iv) those who are hypocrites – denouncing the faults of others whilst secretly practising them themselves.

 

10.  The problem in our society is the projecting of our own vices on others and then angrily blaming them for the very same things. e.g. between parents and children; and also when journalists (the main source of moralising in our society ), whose own lives might not always bear public scrutiny , take delight in exposing, in the rich and famous, failings of which they themselves may be privately guilty.The Christian’s life should be open to the searchlight of the Holy Spirit, only then will one be able to gently and firmly articulate a standard and denounce evil.

11.   The final hope of a just judgment of God demands the challenge of realising God’s judgment in the present. We do not need:

– a vague hope for a better life hereafter  cf Marx ‘religion as the opiate of the people’. this is a parody of Paul’s teaching ..if we teach this we are agents of oppression!

– vague warnings about possible unpleasant consequences of wrongdoing.

– artificially pumped up shrill hellfire denunciations of sins and casual self-satisfied salvation assurance in Jesus. Rather we should be agents for realising God’s justice in the present time in all ways possible.

The Messianic hope has come forward into the present.

12.  It still needs saying…that the creator of the world has no ‘favoured nations clause’.  Noone, no culture, no nation, no ethnic group, can say, ‘because we are x. y or z, God will be gracious to us come what may.  [cf Volf: Exclusion and Embrace] This is of course particularly includes those who promote a particular Christian affiliation.What happens when God’s impartiality conflicts with the covenant made with Israel?….The Messiah promised to Israel, becomes the Messiah for all people! The failure of Israel to be God’s light to the Gentile world is the key to the interpretation of Romans. Israel’s prophesied redemption did not occur with the return from exile. It is not a geographic promise…..the so-called “personal relationship” with God is not the message of evangelism (Romans 2:17..we cannot brag about our relationship with God. The point throughout the Hebrew scriptures is that the creator of the world is Israel’s God and vice versa…the God of Israel is the creator of the world not just the creator of Israel.

13. Romans 2 bears a special message for professing Christians.  We cannot presume upon God’s kindness and forbearance.  There is a day when “…God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”  We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of things done in the body.  To name the name of Jesus is, as Romans 2:16 makes clear, to invoke the one to whom all, especially his own, will give account.

 

14. Who is the teacher to the foolish and the guide to the blind? In our generation it is politicians, journalists, intellectuals, police, union leaders and the chattering classes but they all routinely show by their behaviour that they are blind guides. Idealistic Jews claim that the Zionist State of Israel is the light to the nations but poverty stricken Palestinians would beg to differ; Christians now consider themselves to be the light to the world and indeed there are many churches where the gospel is lived out in its full transforming reality but,  particularly at the point of unity many churches fail. Paul in Romans fights against the church splitting along cultural or ethnic lines using dogmatic differences as a cloak for continuing tribal identity. Sadly this still occurs today whether catholic/protestant warfare in Northern Ireland, Maronite Christianity in Lebanon, Orthodox/Catholic warfare in the Balkans. As long as those who name the name of Jesus Christ cannot at least share the Eucharist, cannot in some cases even pray together, the name of God will continue to be blasphemed among pagans.

15.  Paul’s claim in Romans 2 (even though ‘in tears’) that Christians are the people of the renewed covenant (‘true Jews’) is deeply offensive to:

– Modern Jews scarred by Nazism for whom the claim is anti-Judaism (ie a rejection of Judaism as a way of life) and anti-Semitic (a rejection of a particular race with overtones of C19th racial theories).

– Many modern Christians who were also scarred by the offence of the Nazi ‘final solution’ against the Jews as the effect of claims made by Paul in passages like Romans  chapter 2. The moral they think is that the Church must back off from such claims and should express faith in terms of spirituality, based on the Jew Jesus of Nazareth, which many Jews have found life-giving (part of the third quest?). Maccoby..Paul is to be rejected as the paganizer of the Jewish message of Jesus.

– Those ‘modernists’ (actually those rooted in C18th Enlightenment views) who think that all religions are inadequate approximations to truth and none has exclusive rights to it. This is a covert way of saying that the “religions of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are all misleading since all of them make claims that the other must deny if they are not to lose their identity. This is combined with a secular agenda coupled with a laudable desire for humility and mutual respect, but sometimes using a highly arrogant liberalism that challenges all truth claims while pressing its own with remarkable intolerance. (how does the modern secularist know his/her truth claim is true?)

There are two responses:  i) Paul was in fact a Christian Jew who proclaimed to the world the Jewish gospel message (the one God of the whole created world , the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who gave the Torah, had now unveiled in Jesus the Messiah the final plan to bring justice and healing to the world.  Paul knew that this Gospel was ‘to the Jew first,’ but also and equally ‘to the Greek’.  Paul would never have countenanced a split twin-track salvation history (against Gaston and Gager).

ii) There is a curious anomaly in this ‘modernist’ Christian position which urges us to reject non-Jewish styles of Christianity and encourages the recovery of Jewish roots  and rituals including Christianised seder meals etc.  On the other hand we must reject all claims to be ‘the Jew’, ‘The circumcision’. The demon word is Supersession. In such a view the church has taken Israel’s place in God’s plan leaving no room any longer for non-Christian Israel.        This double position is grossly inconsistent. The Jewish roots of Christianity show us that all the early Christians rejoiced in their in their Jewishness, seeking earnestly to share the blessings of the Messianic age prophesied in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy and including figures like John the Baptist and the Essenes. It was the Jewish prophets who threw the membership of the renewed covenant open far and wide and it was unpopular then just as when Paul did the same. There is no easy solution to this massive problem which is why Paul mounted his large and complex argument in chapters 9 -11.

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 3

16.  Before we “apply” or “translate” the severe and dense verses of Romans 2 and 3 to our own day we must consider their relevance in Paul’s own time.  (their own unique meaning).  It is that God, always active within the world in various ways, acted uniquely and decisively at one moment in history. God will be just and faithful. Preachers cannot avoid being ancient historians if they are to avoid shallow anachronism. 

Since the enlightenment religious rhetoric has been in favour of broad general truths, timeless and abstract religious or ethical norms or guidelines. Modernity insists Biblical particularity is unjust. Projecting our hard won (and often deeply ambiguous) democracy on to the heavens we demand that all humans should have the same vote and voice. How, we ask, can a unique act of God be fair? cf the Barthian discussion whether Christianity is a ‘religion’ or a ‘revelation’. But we should not assume pace Kasemann that the Jews were following a religion only…they were clearly looking for a revelation.

Our confusion re God’s particular and decisive action is that we misunderstand its meaning..

  • it was not to convey information to humans
  • or to provide a set of rules to live by…that would be arbitrary and unfair
  • nor to straighten out a few kinks in creation (miracles).   Why would not God act in our day to straighten our genocide and mass destruction.

We must seek for another model of divine unique action.eg that of an architect who must design a blueprint at one time and place for the benefit of all. We have the glory of the ‘gospel’ …a god with muddy boots and dirty hands, busy at the centre of the mess so that all may be cleaned up and sorted out.

17. The point (or advantage) of being Jewish broadens out to the point of being human. Philosophy and theology, writers and artists ponder why ‘civilisation’ cannot build peace. The Jewish vocation was to bring light to the Gentiles. The human vocation is to reflect God’s image into the world. We could reject all of Judaism (Marcion); and all human vocation (New Age thinking..ie humans are part of the world’s problems and are only animals with highly developed brains ..Singer). But Paul argues that God has called and created humans to reflect God’s image in the world. The righteousness of God has been revealed in an obedient human (Jesus) to fulfil God’s purpose in creation. See especially 1 Corinthians 15: 20-28; Philippians 3:20-21; see also Hebrews 2:5-10.

17.Sin is controversial today. To deny human sinfulness (as many, including many Christians) do today is to deny the reality of evil and the heart of the “good news” …it is not good news if there is no evil to defeat. Much modern psychology just sees varieties of human behaviour but such rationalism leads to relativism. Tragically, just as those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it, so those who turn a blind eye to wickedness are always in danger of perpetrating it. (if there is no danger of disease why take precautions; if the human race is basically ok let’s eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall live!) At the same time post-modernity is is urging us to have a hermeneutic of suspicion ..of every word, action and motive and commands everyone to be true to themselves but such a command is deeply suspect.  It allows the bully, the tyrant, the murderer and the adulterer to be true to themselves and persuades us to thank God “we are not like other men” because we neglect to look into our own hearts and see our need for God’s salvation.

18.  Paul’s robust catalogue of evil always looks to the hope of God’s righteousness. He does not (like many preachers today) preach a denouncing dualism or a dismissive ignoring of sin because it is too depressing.

19. The dismissal of ‘works of the law” as a means of justification has many overtones which should not be mistaken for the fundamental meaning of Paul’s argument. It is Israel specific explaining that the Torah cannot define them as the eschatological people of God..Torah cannot perform this function. This warning sends signals in other spheres as well:

– Roman moralists of Paul’s day show that thought and noble intention are not enough

– Luther’s anxious fretting of ‘Christian duties’ was not enough

– Despite the Reformation the devout John Wesley had not heard the message of grace until he read Luther’s Commentary on  Galatians.

– The Enlightenment post-Kantian moral imperative preached as law to people to encourage them to recognise their inner guilt so they can preach the Gospel to them will not do …transformation is required.

–  C21st century “for me” Gospel screens out the other half of Romans and reduces the story of Israel to “the wrong way of approaching God or ‘religion’. The unique story of Israel and Jesus is the fundamental truth of the Gospel. Only thus can we retain the heart of Reformation theology with its defence of God’s righteousness, not ours.

20. Romans 3:21-26, so often quoted, states that the “righteousness” (ie saving justice, covenantal faithfulness) of the creator God has been revealed once for all in the death of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. This claim appears counter-intuitive in the contemporary world because his death, in fact, does not seem to have made much of a difference in the world. Two ‘Christian’ responses to this have been:

i) to reduce Jesus’ death as an example, albeit the supreme example of God’s love as a  ‘general’ truth rather than an event through which the world became a different place or

ii) a particular kind of ‘atonement theology’ that rescues souls out of the world leaving this worldly injustice unaffected  e.g. the “left behind” film series.( a retreat from Paul’s vision of God’s justice as well as that of the Jewish prophets and indeed Jesus’ own teaching)

Since the C1st other massive Western agendas have attempted to impress themselves on the contemporary world including, amongst others,

– The Renaissance world claim that by the rediscovery of classical virtues and art and their own unique understand the real significant change in history did not happen in the “Middle Ages” but in the C15th

– The Western Europe enlightenment view that C18th scientific and philosophical advances provided the real basis for a rival eschatology, not the C1st death of a Jew in Palestine.

[Wright could have added: The C7th Islamic revolution of Mohammed with its extreme view that followers of the Qu’ran have the only truth that matters..also the might and depth of Chinese philosophy/Buddhist teaching with its numbers and entrepreneurial strength has sights on world domination]

21.  This amazing theme of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel, as an unbreakable commitment, even though Israel was unfaithful, demands further exploration…it is a theme not sufficiently remarked on or thought through. …in these verses Paul points to the promise beyond Israel to the promises and commands given by God to all humankind. The challenge is then to work out how the cross of Jesus unveils, in a decisive action , those promises as well; and how to live on the basis that it does so.

22. These verses state in sharp and concise form the extraordinary and earth-shattering proposition that the creator God has acted to provide the deeply costly remedy for the plight that hangs over all humankind. Not to be deeply moved by this is to fail to listen. ….Verses 21-26 could stand as a heading over one gospel passage after another, as though to say, “this is what the story is all about.”

23. This passage also highlights one aspect of Paul’s complex portrait of Jesus.His faithfulness.  Given a vocation, He was true to it, though it cost Him everything. It is a matter not for guilt on our part (although this might be a helpful side effect, but for awe and gratitude. This faithfulness impinges on each of us personally…cf Galatians 2:20  The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.  This faithfulness of Jesus sustains the whole argument of the rest of Romans and it can also sustain the believer and the Christian community through all the trials that beset them (in being light and salt to the world). Paul emphasises in Romans 8:35 that this grace and redemption comes through the love of “the Messiah” (tou Christou).  It is that kind of subtle change that tells us where his heart really is.

24. Following the hateful Christian history of persecution of the Jews we should always remember that for Paul, the Gospel was “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. The Jews are still the object of God’s love and grace (as they were “entrusted with the oracles of God”. We must not despise or reject/ignore them, that is offensive. But the Gospel is offensive to Jews (a crucified Messiah who died for love of the whole world …not just Jews and not just Christians! The Gospel is also offensive to the post-enlightenment West for whom inoffensiveness  is a supreme virtue. Current single race or single culture Christian churches are understandable but are just as dangerous and indeed sad as the division between Gentile and Jewish Christian churches in the first century. There is no ‘favoured nations’ clause in Christianity.  cf Tutu: God is not a Christian!

 25. No favoured nations clause applies also to communities and nations not just churches. There is no room for African tribalism (Rwanda); Ethno-centric nationalism and  cleansing (Balkans); Republican or Unionist Christianity (Northern Ireland) or militant Christianity of any sort, Lebanese or white Australian.  All dishonour God (“with their sharp feet they spew out blood, poison is on their lips”). We should hang our heads in sorrow (Miroslav Volf).

26. For more than half a millenium Protestant Christians have been fighting a war against Catholicism but sometimes the targets have been very confused. Romans addresses two fronts: (i) Justification and salvation cannot be earned..both are the free gift and grace of God  (Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling). (ii) The heart of the Torah is still significant  but for daily living and an awareness of sinfulness, not for justification. Where the church has gathered accretions to the doctrine of justification by faith alone including embracing the enlightenment dualism of reason and contingent historical reality, introducing to Protestantism the sense that anything to do with physical objects or behaviour was somehow “worldly” as opposed to”godly”, creating a subtly different protest not against “works righteousness” but against having anything to do with the present world. This leads to a disdain for creation and a disdain for political and social action for which liberation theology was a natural correction. In worship it led to a “low church mentality” of disdaining against any liturgical practice or tradition (including movement, gestures, objects, robes, even the liturgy itself) as a form of “legalism” and a compromise of the Gospel. While it is true that worship activities can come to be regarded as “things we do to earn God’s favour” such a conclusion can also come from an adherence to Quaker silence or a charismatic prayer meeting. Such debates, while important, are not what Paul is arguing in Romans 3.

A similar disdain for formality came with the Romantic poets’ sense of awe and wonder in the natural world and the idea that the only ‘authentic’ way for humans to do anything was to act as if it were spontaneous and did not have to be carefully worked out…the impact was a common Protestant desire for spontaneity and freedom from rules.  But this ignores the value of carefully thought out prayers, the drama of the eucharistic liturgy, and the sense of worship that quiet liturgical process can create. Reducing liturgy to only the words of Paul himself or Jesus filtered through translation, reformation and enlightenment has everything to do with personal, social and cultural preferences and prejudices and nothing to do with Paul.   A good deal of polemic that disguises itself with theological language is in fact a determination to preserve one particular cultural heritage and way of doing things which is the very thing Paul opposed in Romans. The great final climax of his letter in chapters 14 and 15 demonstrates that “justification by faith”  is designed to result in “fellowship in faith” in which different cultures and different ways of doing things respect and celebrate one another’s practices.  It remains a difficult problem for the church to determine what is the essence of the Gospel that should be preserved at all costs and what is a matter of theological indifference. The main challenge of the Western church in the C21st is how to preserve the celebration of different cultures from degeneration into  a mere postmodern smorgasbord of options in which everything including morality and theology , are up for negotiation.   Yet the challenge of Romans is that Jews and Greeks belong together in God’s family and should learn to work that out in practice. This must be the guide for solving all our divisions today.

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 4

26b (p505)  There is a non-negotiable task of persuading those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord to see themselves as the children of Abraham.  The Pauline picture of the people of God is inescapably rooted in the history of Israel from Genesis 11 (and in a metaphorical way from Genesis 3) onward. Therefore we must have a non-Marcionite view of Scripture. The fulfilment of God’s promise is central. But this family is NOT defined by Jewish law but by the faithfulness of Abraham in the faithfulness of God.  The Christian church is not therefore “ a new group” it is the same God and the same promise as Israel’s God.  Like Israel our task is to be a light to the world, bearing witness to the Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate revelation of God’s love for the world and its people and God’s supreme action in dealing with human sinfulness with justice once and for all, for ever and since creation.

27. Within the ‘belief in the resurrection’ family of Christianity, there is no room for sub-definitions. Christianity should not be defined by culture, especially not our own culture. Christians naturally gravitate toward communities of similar background, personality, speech, social position, bank balance, theology esp.  in Western urban areas. Our reasons would be regarded by Paul as irrelevant, even damaging. It is a world -wide community based on God’s promise to Abraham [and it is or will be a universal community based on Jesus death on the cross for all who seek a meaning in God beyond themselves and live accordingly].

28. Christians must embody in their church life the faith articulated in Romans 4:4 – 8 (a forgiven community because there is none who is righteous. God in Christ has enabled all people to return to him who are prepared to walk in faithfulness illustrated by Abraham who have received a right standing with God based on the faithfulness of Jesus in the Cross. As Christians we are to shine as lights in the world witnessing to others of the light of Christ which can transform human life into eternal life, beginning now and also begin to redeem the earth and its peoples.Through this life we can overcome any evil. This acceptance by God does not give us the right to be snobbish about those who use religious practice to come close to God. Piety does not earn God’s favour but neither does impiety. Neither religion or irreligion will do; neither moralism or immoralism but rather seeking to walk in the way of God, not men. The tree is known by its fruit especially the corporate life of a group of Christians. We have this astonishing gift but we have not earned it by anything we have done or are..we are to be light and salt in the world (not death, darkness, judgment, or easy approval).  cf Kasemann’s repeated talk of homo religiososus.

29. Truth faith should reflect and feed on the character of God.  Humanity represents the image-bearers of God. Redeemed humanity responds to the death and decay in the world steadfastly acknowledging the God who raises the dead and creates out of nothing. Such faithfulness brings new life that reverses and undoes the idolatry of Romans 1 and  holds out the hope of a new remade humanity (as in Romans 12) ,transforming mind, character and behaviour including our behaviour toward the world.

30. It is not primitive thinking to base a theology on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was as ridiculous in the C1st as it is to many today. It did not become ridiculous in the Enlightenment. The foolishness of the Cross (and the empty tomb) fly in the face of human logic just as Abraham’s “dead” body and Sarah’s “dead” (as good as dead in both cases) womb opposes human wisdom. We might discuss the best way to speak of the resurrection in the C21st but “there is no room, as far as Paul is concerned, for that impossible hybrid, a Christian who does not in any sense believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 5

 

31  [Romans 5:1-5] God’s love of and  reconciliation with humanity demonstrated in and through Jesus the Messiah and his death is deeply personal and sits at the heart of Christian faith. If our hearts are not ‘strangely warmed’ when we read this and we see only theological derivations we have missed Paul’s point.  It is vital to keep Jesus, and the cross and resurrection, at the centre of the picture, and to invoke the Holy Spirit through whom God’s love floods our hearts.  We need to check regularly that we are not worshiping, and deriving spurious comfort from, an idol of our own imagining. Meditating on the death of Jesus is not of course just morbid fixation on the details of Christ’s suffering.

32 Romans 5:1-5 stresses God’s love leading to assurance (hope). When many Western Christians are flirting with universalism, there is simultaneously an underemphasis on the eternal security of Christian believers. It is almost as though we are trying to say that everyone else may well be saved but that we cannot be too sure about ourselves. The fact that the lives of some Christians make a mockery of their faith is beside the point  here (Paul deals with this over and over in 1 Corinthians). Those whom God justified, he also glorified..we need to grasp this.

33. Celebrating our sufferings is not morbid….it builds patience, endurance and tried and tested character. We need to model these traits in society. The post-modern West does not value these things wanting everything at once and the freedom to change character at the mood of the moment….it is in many ways a community without hope.  [cf Sondheim: Into the Woods ]

34 There is a political challenge in Christ’s loving sacrificial death for humanity. Jesus achieved justice through his own death not the death of those who stood in his way [contrast Roman justitia]  How might God’s reconciling action in Christ become the ground and model for the reconciliation of human enemies? Conservative Christians have focussed only on Jesus’ death for them and their spiritual growth.  Christian political activists have ignored Paul’s theology of Jesus’ death. We need both/and in real life.

35. We live in a world of the superabundance of God’s grace (Romans 5) if we have eyes to see it. Surrounded by sin, death and suffering  the vibrant plant of the Spirit’s life is planted side by side with all wickedness when we act in faith…the free gift following many trespasses….results in mission and prayer and a life-giving harvest. But our society has reinvented a secularised version of Original Sin under the guise of a hermeneutic of suspicion describing all life as hard, cruel and unfair. If there are signs of life and hope , they tend to be those we make for ourselves. Our culture oscillates between despair and self-salvation. 

36. The achievement of Jesus himself is always worth further explanation and meditation. In Romans we should limit the theology of the cross to Romans 3:21 -26 but add 4:25, 5:6-10, 6:3-11, 7:4, 8:3-4 and 8:31-39. For those who want to remain independent, being ruled by grace appears almost as much a threat as being ruled by sin and death….this is of course, absurd. Love seeks the well-being, the flourishing of the beloved, not their extinction or dimunition. To look love in the face and see only a threat is the self-imposed nemesis of the hermeneutic of suspicion.  (Nemesis = classically, the divine punishment for presumption and hubris). The free gift is offered through the obedience, the faithfulness of Jesus himself. Paul sees the voluntary death of Jesus as the  Messianic act par excellence, the triumphant accomplishment of that covenant plan for which Israel was called in the first place, the completion of the purpose for which God called Abraham. Paul’s allusions to the fourth servant song can be found in this passage (Romans 5).

37.  Paul’s personification of sin and death is not popular today where sin is seen as an outdated neurosis and death an unfortunate problem yet to be solved. In spite of the evil and violent terror of our age the world fears a true diagnosis not least because in the West the treatment may be humiliating. Fancy having to admit that those boring and out of touch Christians had the answers.  No, we will die as we have lived, in ironic agnosticism, worshipping Heisenberg’s uncertainty prinicple. Part of the problem is that traditional Christianity has operated on a truncated view of sin, majoring on personal, especially sexual immorality.  Political structural evil has been untouched by the church and when it is addressed the preachers who do so tend to leave the home base of Pauline theology in order to do so, not using the very resources which will provide the critique.  Romans 5 invites us to explore a reintegrated view of sin and death, rebellion and consequent dehumanisation, as the major problem of mankind.

38. The hermeneutic of suspicion interrogates every text, artefact, every piece of popular culture asking ‘whose perspective does it represent? who is it oppressing? who is implicitly marginalised by it?. Gaining huge breakthroughs by liberation movements for women and blacks it becomes a mind-set in itself …a doctrine of original sin without the free grace resulting in people having to feel guilty for what they inalienably are and apologising for innocent actions. It also produces a reflex “victim culture” in which those who feel “oppressed” or “marginalised” become blameless and any criticism of them is categorised as further oppression.   It is an attempt to erect a new ethical framework in the wake of the perceived failure of secularism’s failed morality. A true analysis of sin, structural and personal, would mean rediscovering that beyond proper and necessary suspicion, there is such a thing as trust, and that healthy societies, as well as individuals, thrive on it.

FROM ROMANS CHAPTER 6 AND 7:

39. In Romans 6 and 12 Paul writes a “theology of the Christian life”. Being a Christian means living from within a particular story – the subversive story of God’s love for the world and Israel, and especially the Messiah, reaching to a climax at his death and resurrection. It is prefigured in the Exodus/Red Sea narrative and taken on by us at our baptism. Learning about the Christian life and learning about the God revealed in Jesus are two sides of the same coin. This story shaped our lives in baptism and must continue to shape thought, life, and prayer thereafter. Otherwise one will be living a lie, allowing sin to continue exercising a sovereignty to which it has no more right.

40.  This narrative has been woven deeply into the consciousness of Western culture and many movements, national, political, social and cultural, including some that are opposed to each other! have told their own stories as liberation narratives.  But the Exodus/Christian story cannot simply be one “little story” among others, just a part of the cultural smorgasbord, alongside other ‘religious experiences’ that effectively enslaved humans and led them off to die.  Even the postmodern critique that insists that all large metanarratives are instruments of slavery appeals to, and gets its power from, one story that, it assumes, is not: and that story is precisely its own version, filtered through many layers of cultural accretions, of the exodus narrative, the freeing of slaves from Pharaoh’s yoke. The Christian Gospel is, at this level, telling the story that all humans know in their bones they want to hear. It is true that in appealing to this story all kinds of things are said and done that in some way or other distort it, or even threaten to destroy it outright. e.g. international politics where one overthrow of power for “freedom” simply and quickly results in a new “enslavement” [eg the Arab Spring]. Cf business “freedom” in a take-over resulting in the destruction of other businesses; the freedom of people to express their sexual potential regularly results both in the dimunition of the freedom of others and also in their own enslavement  to destructive and dehumanizing habits of mind and body. With freedom comes new responsibilities.

41.  Romans 6 throws a bright spotlight on the dangerous half-truth, currently fashionable, that “God accepts us as we are”. True justification is by faith alone through grace alone but grace is alway  transformative. God accepts us where we are but God does not intend to leave us where we are.  The idea that Christian holiness is to be attained by very person simply doing what comes naturally would actually be funny were it not so prevalent. True freedom is not simply the random, directionless life, but the genuine humanness which reflects the image of God…found under the lordship of Christ

42. Baptism reminds us that without the Holy Spirit we cannot live up to Christ’s ideal in our own strength. We are all too aware that thousands, perhaps millions, of the baptised seem to have abandoned the practice of Christian faith and life; but we are nevertheless called to allow the dying and rising of Christ in which we have shared to have its force and way in our own lives. Through the Holy Spirit we will indeed be able to make our own the victory of grace, to present our members, and our whole selves, as instruments of God’s ongoing purposes.  Who seriously thinks they can live up to that ideal in their own strength? 44

FROM ROMANS 7-8:11

43.  Romans 7:1 – 8:11 is a whole story, not to be cherry-picked. It is the story of God’s covenant love towards Israel whose family story goes back to Abraham—and Paul would insist that this is a non-negotiable part of being God’s people. It is the story that, following the Exodus from Egypt, Torah informs Israel in no uncertain terms that it is simply a subset of the people of “Adam” …of humanity, in slavery to sin and facing death…not just a story of ethnic Israel (which would have increasingly remote to later Christian living in any subsequent century.) It is the story of how God’s chosen people, with a vocation to be a light to the world, the church’s forbears, had to pass through the anguished realisation that the Torah alone could not deal with human sin so that, through the Messiah and the Spirit, new hope might be born.

44.  The Torah is holy, just and good. It is not responsible for sin or death, but is “used” by sin (human sin) to produce death. We must not  be Marcionites and semi, crypto-, and unwitting Marcionites [Cranfield: Romans Comm.] The Torah is God-given.  Any suggestion that law in general, or the law in particular, were or are shabby, second-rate, primitive, destructive of true religion, and therefore to be abolished, set aside, ore treated as irrelevant in the bright new day of a law-free faith, must be ruled out. 

45.  The Torah by itself is weak ..either in the Church or modern Israeli society…against those who would use it to reintroduce the death penalty, or believe God wills the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple or who want to see Jewish law as normative for Christians…this is to make the mistake of treating revelation in a flat, dehistoricized fashion.The Torah cannot give the life to which it points and accentuates the Adamic i.e. human condition. The whole Bible is the Word of God but it is a narrative rather than a law; a narrative reaching its climax in the life, death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus the Messiah.

46.   Romans 7-9 might reflect Paul’s sense of standing vis-à-vis his kinsfolk according to the flesh much as Moses had stood in Exodus 33, seeing Israel as a whole in rebellion against God and agonising over what could be done. Was Paul in Romans 7 when he describes “another law bringing death..” that the zeal he and others had for torah in his pre-Christian days was not only bringing death to those they opposed e.g. Stephen but also bringing down death on themselves, driving them closer to the brink of a war with Rome they could not possibly win? Perhaps this applies to many areas of conflict around the world, not just in Middle Eastern politics but wherever zeal for ancestral traditions, which may or may not have been good in their way and place, leads to idolatrous behaviour that is as destructive for the perpetrators as for the victims.

47.   Romans 7 can also be shown to refer to all humanity cf Romans 2:1-16, that even when the human race embraces and affirms some moral code, or even some moral principle, living up to it proves impossible. This does not mean that the code or the principle was wrong or misleading; just that there is a twist with the human race…which distorts the best intentions, and exposes self-interest at the heart of apparent altruism. Folk can easily say that the same is true of Christians also; so is the whole message of Romans invalid? No! The Christian is not “under law”, and is not “sold under sin”. There is an irony here in that in the 1960’s many folk trumpeted that that the old moral codes were no longer relevant (all we need is love!) and many in mainline churches bought this message and the moral chaos has been pitiful to behold. But it is somewhat unfair to hold up as prime evidence that Christians are “as bad as the rest’ those parts of the church that have exhibited major disloyalty to traditional Christian teaching over many years…why not look to the worldwide church where in places Christians can still be spoken of as folk who model a different way of holiness and self-sacrificial love..even accepting that the greatest  saints are still tempted and fail until Christ comes.

48. The C20th downplaying of sin and Sin (including within much theology) has damaged church and society. Politicians and media have pretended that a little more Western style democracy will solve the world’s remaining ills but the Western powers are just as riddled with corruption, selfishness and sexual and financial scandals as Africa or the East. There is such a thing as Sin [Paul uses the term 19 times between Romans 7:1 and 8:11; he can speak of Satan, but does so sparingly ..only once in Romans, 16:20 and only 10 times in the entire Pauline corpus]. Sin is more than the sum total of human wrongdoing. It is powerful and its power infects even those with the best intentions.

49.  The remedy for Sin is the Cross and the Spirit. It is a mystery that God “condemned Sin in the flesh of the Messiah” but this is the heart of Christianity. The world thinks this teaching will produce a human existence dogged by guilt, paranoia and self-hatred and liberal theology spent half the C20th seeking to get around the Pauline remedy. This makes nonsense of N T teaching which, with the diagnosis, provides the remedy..the great shout of ‘no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus..the liberating bracing Spirit of God in our lives of Christian freedom. Is it too much to ask that this dynamic can transform human government, law, individuals and the cosmos?

50.  Christian assurance is not self-assurance or formulaic and of course can be easily satirised. But distortions do not invalidate the reality…humility in some traditions demands questioning certainty of salvation and in other traditions certainty should be proclaimed on every occasion..the reality is that assurance in Scripture and Christian experience comes from the deepest wrestling and struggling. Still there should be no doubt of the outcome for the baptised (the symbol) , faithful (the sign) , Spirit-filled (the guarantee) follower of the Messiah.

51. There can be no split-level Christianity. Christians must be Spirit-filled but the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be narrowly defined or always obvious as some teachings have made out.  Unwitting passengers in the church, who think of themselves as Christians  but in whose heart and life the Spirit has not taken up residence, and who are still living “according to the flesh” whatever form that may take need to heed warnings against complacency as also super-spirituals need to heed warnings of superiority. The Spirit will (must) make a difference not just to how someone feels, but to how they live.

52.  The purposes of God, including the Torah, are mysterious as all true speech about God must acknowledge. The purposes of God, including the Torah, are darker and more unexpected than devout Judaism and serious Paganism will allow and call for intellectual recognition so much as for worship and love. Only a truly incarnational and trinitarian theology will meet the world’s need.  A purely covenantal private national story will remain inscrutable to the outside world, which will continue to believe that might and money are the things that matter; that sex is the greatest human pleasure and good and that killing people is the only way to get things done. Alas, in much of the world, even in much of the would-be Christian world, these things are still impicitly believed. It is time for a genuinely incarnational theology to be let loose again upon the world…a fully Trinitarian theology, calling forth worship, love and service, is the only possible basis for genuine gospel work that will bring life and hope to the world.

FROM ROMANS 8:12-39

 53.  Christians live in a state of permanent indebtedness to God’s grace (like a drowning man being thrown a a life-belt.) This theology is sometimes vilified as perpetrating a bullying or dominating God. but this condition of permanent indebtedness to God is not diminution,  but rather an enhancement, of full human dignity. There can be no higher dignity than that of being remade in the image of God’s Son.  The alternative is to be remade in the image of that which is enslaved to decay and death. Being finally overwhelmed by love we discover a fulfilment, a self-realization, through self-giving and self-abandonment, so the story of grace is one in which humans find themselves by losing themselves. This is not immature dependence. It is like the mutual giving of those who live in love to another person.

54.  Christians are called to work to bring about God’s new creation, not to with passively for Armageddon. We must work in the areas of ecology, restorative justice, politics and aesthetics to bring full healing to the created order. We must not allow the world to be manipulated by science or exploited by technology. It will not do to concentrate on individual justification while allowing wider issues of justice to go unaddressed.  A world full of corruption, injustice, oppression, division, suspicion and war  needs Christians to be in the forefront of bringing, in the present time, signs and foretastes of God’s fresh beauty to birth within the world, signs of hope for what the Spirit will do.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And, though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs—-

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Gerard Manley Hopkins,  God’s Grandeur.

55.  In Christian experience there is both the assured child-parent love relationship that enables us to call God “Abba” and also the inarticulate groaning which is all that is possible when confronting the absolute horror and trauma of evil in the world. We live in this period between the first and final full revelation of Christ the King. Prayer itself is a matter of both knowing and not knowing, of security and insecurity,  of “having nothing but possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10). The call to this kind of inarticulate prayer is not exactly the same thing as the discipline of silence ..it is not simply contemplation or stream of consciousness..it is rather an agony that would come into speech if it could. Inaugurated eschatology does not mean that all problems are solved..laid out for us to put into practice…but we can indeed count on the victory of the Messiah on the cross and the gift of the Spirit. The two go together in Paul and in Christian experience.

56. Intercession for the world is not an optional extra and this includes intercession for ourselves as long as we do not become self-centred. If we are God’s beloved children, our small as well as our great concerns matter.

57. Suffering is a mystery, indeed.  It is to be rejected as a final good…Christians do not embrace some kind of masochism. Yet suffering is embraced as a sign of the time at which we live and even as a part of the means by which redemption comes into the world. But the redemptive value of suffering cannot be preached by the comfortable to the uncomfortable…by the elderly to youth going off to war, by masters to slaves, by men to women. Yet the abuse of suffering does not invalidate the lessons and personal growth which come from suffering.  Nevertheless we must beware of the danger…“the corrupting of the best is the worst of all”… There is also a component of suffering which, for the Christian, is messianic and redemptive. Suffering can be transforming and transformative. When, in 1998, Westminster Abbey decided to fill the ten vacant niches on the West Front with statues of C20th Christian martyrs, there was no shortage of candidates. The choices were revealing and powerfully evocative of the worldwide spread of the faith and of the challenge still posed by the Gospel to the power of the world, and vice versa: Maximilian Kolbe, Poland (1941); Manche Masemola, South Africa (1928); Janani Lowum, Uganda (1977); Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (1918); Martin Luther King Jr, USA (1669); Oscar Romero, (El Salvador (1980); Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Germany (1945); Esther John, Pakistan (1960); Lucian Taped, Papua New Guinea (1942); Wang Zhiming, China (1972).

58.   In a way that is characteristic of Romans 5-8 as a whole, Jesus is seldom mentioned yet everywhere present. “Fellow heirs with the Messiah” (8:17) means being “conformed to the image of God’s Son.” (8:29)…It would not be fanciful to see Gethsemane standing behind 8:18-27, if not in Paul’s conscious mind, nevertheless in the strong tradition of the earth church reading these words (see Hebrews 5:7-9) [In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able  to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.]

59. The rootedness of the entire discussion of Romans 5-8 in the narrative theology of the exodus enables one to suggest a pattern of Christian reading of the Old Testament that is neither simply historical nor simply typological. On the one hand it is important that the original events are seen in their own right, as the formative events of the people of Israel. On the other hand, as many different strands within Second Temple Judaism bear witness, the exodus story was used as a template for the great expectations which were cherished in the time of Jesus. God would, many believed, accomplish something for which the original exodus would be both a historical starting-point and the pattern. Paul, in company with many other early Christians, believed that this had happened in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and in the sending of the Spirit by which the church was enabled to go forward to the promised land of the new creation in the kingdom of God on a renewed earth. This reflects part of what Paul meant by saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection had happened “according to the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

60.  Christian security is based, in Paul in Romans 8:31-39, on a specific trinitarian revelation of God In Paul’s theology, spirituality, faith and hope are all focussed on this very specific God. Not the vague dream of God or God through a thick cloud; not a vague Deism; not a God to whom there could be many routes or of whom there could be many revelations. In the post-Christian West this belief has been misunderstood, scorned as incomprehensible, arrogant, cocky and set aside in favour of pantheism or panentheism. It is true that God will eventually be “all in all” but this eschatology is only inaugurated in Christ. It is not complete. Although, in principle, the creator is knowable through creation, to search for a divinity within the created order is out of the question. Christian assurance, not found in the New Age, or any other religion, must, however, face the challenges of suffering with Christ or it will remain at best, immature. 

 

61.  Christian assurance is kept in place in the Bible. Paul’s use of Scripture is not, as some commentators have suggested, unprincipled or peculiar. It speaks of the pattern of the covenant God redeeming his people through Israel and Israel’s suffering and triumphant servant Messiah. Paul brings together law, prophets and writings in a web of allusion and echo to which (it seems to me) only the most pedantic of scholars can remain deaf. Paul brings these themes together in order to say in practice what he says explicitly in Romans 15:4: these things were written for our encouragement, “so that through patience and the comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.”   The people of God in the present are not simply a creation out of nothing; they are, however unexpectedly, the family promised to Abraham. The problems faced by Abraham’s family before the Messiah’s coming, notably the fulfilment of the covenant,  were problems Paul believed had been answered in Christ. The resurgence of apparently similar problems in the church was to be answered in terms of life in Christ and the victory of the Spirit. The church’s task, in its own use of the Scriptures, is to hear both the earlier stages of its own story and the continual resonances in the echo chamber of the messianic events concerning Jesus which will inform and guide its own journey through the wilderness. Learning to hear these multiple resonances with the proper blend of imaginative attention and discipline is a major part of Christian teaching and discipleship.

62. In Romans 8:31-39 Paul describes the suffering Christians will inevitably face because of their faithfulness to the Gospel in more detail than anywhere else in his letters save 2 Corinthians  6 and 11. This suffering is real—both physical and the opposition of supernatural powers/cosmic forces. It is not the gaining of a higher consciousness that overcomes pain, or the attainment of personal self-advancement or fulfilment. There are many forms of Christianity on offer today that pose no threat to any principalities and powers, and indeed make a virtue of not confronting anyone with anything. What kind of authenticity can they claim? This is not to defend or be confused with some would-be preachers and evangelists, who are often enough propagating not the gospel itself but a particularly brittle parody of it, which can only be defended by shouting louder! But for Paul the message of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus never failed to arouse the wrath of the powers in one way or another. If this message were to catch on, the world would be turned upside down, and a lot of vested interests with it.  [eg the world’s arms industries??] The Western church is in danger of selling a spiritual version of the good life…”life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

63. The theme of Romans 8:31-39 is the love of God, the ultimate human fulfilment, among the most basic and vital Christian disciplines, matched by opening one’s heart and life to the tidal wave of love, displacing all rivals, a vast sea that we must swim in or sail on. Amor ergo sum, I am loved, therefore I am! God’s love is beyond all human government and the hermeneutic of suspicion, (which speaks of original separation from God and by cosmic human pride), seeking justice, opposing exploitation.  Being loved by the true God, we are to become truly human beings in sharing that love. The love of God proposes a hermeneutic of trust..not a casual or shallow trust of any person or proposition that comes along, but a deep and hard won trust, a knowing that is born of being loved and of loving in return. We have in Romans the greatest exposition of the victory of the God of love over sin and its consequences. And this is the love, seen supremely in the death of the Messiah, which reaches out to the whole world with the exodus message, the freedom message, the word of joy and justice, the word of the Gospel of Jesus.

 

 

 

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