Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Homeless in this world

I'm in Edinburgh at the moment for the 13th Dogmatics Conference. Breathing the rarified air of the systematicians can leave me with theological vertigo - but I found this evening's paper by Professor Bruce McCormack truly edifying. His paper closed with this quote from Karl Barth (who else!)...

Homeless in this world, not yet at home in the next, we human beings are wanderers between two worlds. But precisely as wanderers, we are also children of God in Christ. The mystery of our life is God's mystery. Moved by Him, we must sigh, be ashamed of ourselves, be shocked and die. Moved by Him, we may be joyful and courageous, hope and live. He is the origin. Therefore, we persist in the movement and cry out: 'Hallowed be Thy name! Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!"

Konfirmandenunterricht, 1909-1921, 372-3

Dr Mike Bird on Romans 7

Further to my reflections on Romans, I've noticed that Mike Bird (he of the crazed Zonderpunked videos), who teaches the Romans module has been updating the course notes and has published his own thoughts on Romans 7.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reflections on Romans

My reflections on Romans are now ended. I should point out that the last few posts on Romans are my own reflections, and may or may not reflect the content of the taught module.

For completeness, I can reveal that the Romans module on the HTC course (a Level 3 module) is taught by Dr Michael Bird and is split between exegesis of key passages (for which the main textbook is Moo's or Schreiner's commentary) and Wirkungsgeschichte (for which the textbook is Greenman and Larsen's Reading Romans through the Centuries). Needless to say, another excellent module. I should also note that I found Jimmy Dunn's two volumes on Romans in the Word series extremely helpful. If you want to own and use one commentary on Romans, I can't help you. My solution is to own and use two: Moo and Dunn. And to borrow others!

Romans 15:8-9

Our exegesis paper was from this chapter. Thielman writes that the pastoral goal of the entire letter reaches its climax in this chapter. Quite so! For those interested in Paul's argument here, and especially the phrase introducing the catena of OT quotations in the chapter, I offer the following…

The syntax of 15:8-9 has not been finally resolved; Cranfield lists no less than six suggested explanations. Keck clearly sets out the crux of the debate: either there are two parallel purposes to Christ's servant-hood (confirming the promises and Gentiles glorifying God), or there is a single purpose (confirming the promises is the means to the Gentiles glorifying God). Moo believes the first alternative best reflects Paul's theological argument here. However, Lambrecht sets out the key objection to this parallelism: the resulting change in subject between clauses is syntactically awkward. Moo attempts to explain the awkward construction by appealing to Käsemann's noting of the theological tension between the equality of Jew and Gentile, and the salvation-historical priority of the Jew. The NIV adopts the second alternative, and translates the conjunction as 'so that', therefore subordinating Christ's servant-hood to the circumcision to the purpose of leading the Gentiles to glorify God. Cranfield himself reads the conjunction as an adversative: 'but the Gentiles glorify God for [his] mercy'. This gives the sense that the Jews should glorify God, but actually only the Gentiles are doing so. Cranfield's solution avoids the awkward syntax of the first alternative, but does not do justice to indications of parallelism in the text. Dunn concurs with Cranfield's reading, but is more ambiguous as to the meaning: 'Paul's whole point is that Christ became servant of the circumcised not with a view to their salvation alone, but to confirm both phases of God's saving purpose: to the Jew first but also to the Gentile'. Wagner produces what we believe is the most satisfying solution, which is achieved by proposing Christ, not the Gentiles, as the subject of the second clause. Wagner's solution can be represented thus:

For I say that Christ has become
a servant to the circumcision
on behalf of the truth of God
in order to confirm the promises to the fathers
And [a servant] to the Gentiles
on behalf of the mercy [of God]
[in order] to glorify God

In filling the ellipses directly from the parallelism, a solution is obtained which is both syntactically and theologically balanced, where the progression of salvation history from Jew (here denoted by the circumcision) to Gentile is reflected in the differentiated roles of God's truth and mercy, and where equality is powerfully underlined in the servant-hood of Christ to both.

References to authors are usually to their major commentaries on Romans. Wagner's paper is 'The Christ, Servant of Jew and Gentile: A Fresh Approach to Romans 15:8-9', JBL 116.3 (1997).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Romans 11

In Romans 11 I think we find one of the most important pieces of imagery for understanding the relationship of the NT and OT people of God and of the Old and New Covenants. That image is that of the Olive Tree, employed by Paul to impress on the Gentile Christians their indebtedness to the Jews and therefore prayerful humility in their attitude to unbelieving Jews.

The important point is that Gentile Christians are considered as wild (uncultivated) olive braches that have been grafted (contrary to nature) into an already existing cultivated olive tree with a rich (pioths) root. Unbelieving Jews are considered to be broken off. The olive tree therefore represents the covenant people of God which has continued into the New Covenant Age from the Old, onto which Christians are grafted and become members. This idea of a renewed covenant with Israel, of which Gentile Christians then become beneficiaries through their in-grafting is reflected in the New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31, and in the Pentecost narrative. This strong theme of continuity in Paul's thought must be recognised when interpreting Paul.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Romans 7

In Romans 5 Paul expands the basis for justification by faith (which he introduced in chapter 3) – the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. For Paul, we are 'justified in/by His blood' (5:9). Can't get clearer than that! Chapter 6 then emphasises that believers have been made new (we have died and risen to new life – spiritually). Christians must consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). That means a commitment to righteous living – hence Paul's imperatives (5:12,13,19).

In Chapter 7, Paul writes specifically to Jews (7:1). If you don't pick that up, then interpreting this next section is (more) problematic. Paul's great concern is to explain that the Law has served it's purpose (the argument here ties in very well with that in Galatians 3:15-29, esp 24-25). Obviously, as becomes clearer later in the letter (and is evidenced in other parts of the NT), Jewish Christians' attitude to the Law was a major stumbling block to church unity. So, Paul tackles this in the Roman church. If he can address it there, then he has addressed in in the congregations at the centre of the known world. The Law is holy and good (but Paul would still maintain that Christ has superseded the Law). It provided a framework for covenantal obedience, and highlighted sin, revealing to the attentive Jew the need for forgiveness and the importance of faith.

In this context, the problematic section in 7:14-25 then is not about the Christian life, but about the experience of a Jew. Paul could possibly be speaking autobiographically, but I prefer the view that he assumes the persona of a faithful Jew. He is obviously not describing a legalistic, or careless, Jew since the 'I' is joyfully concurring with the law of God in the inner man. That he is describing a Christian is unlikely, simply because he describes the general experience of not doing the good that he wishes, and doing the evil that he does not wish. I don't believe that's a description of the Christian life. It is likely that this is a description of life under the Law. Paul then makes the transitional argument at the beginning of Chapter 8 that there is 'therefore now' no condemnation. That's an eschatological 'now': now, in the New Age, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you/me free from the law of sin and death (the situation he described in 7:14-25). If this is true then Chapter 7 helps us to answer the theological question about the different experience of God's people under the Old and New Covenants, leading into the practical effect of the adoption as sons (8:15, cf8:23), which is an eschatological benefit of the New Covenant.

Interestingly, I think Lloyd-Jones recognised the problem of interpreting this as a description of a Christian and took the view that Paul here was describing the experience of someone becoming a Christian. I wouldn’t agree, but this view has more merit than others.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Romans 4

Paul continues his argument in this chapter that justification is by faith in God, not merely by obedience to the Law. This argument serves perhaps two causes for Paul:
  • Soteriological: to reinforce his point that only obedience to God which is the result of faith (inward circumcision in the language of Deuteronomy) is true obedience, because justification is by faith. Paul wants to emphasise that the promises given to Abraham, the foundation for the great hope of all believers are given to those who have faith and are realised in the New Covenant, not in the Sinaitic Covenant.
  • Ecclesiological: to emphasise to the Jewish believers in Rome that the Law was subservient to the true means of justification before God, which is faith. Therefore, Paul can disconnect both circumcision (4:10) and obedience to the Law from justification (4:13, see Galatians 3:17-18). Abraham did not have the Law (contrary to some Rabbinic teaching, which illustrates the problem Paul had!) and so justification cannot rely on the Law. Abraham was justified (his faith reckoned as righteousness) while uncircumcised, so justification cannot rely upon circumcision.

Participation in God's people through justification and becoming a beneficiary of the promises given to Abraham does not depend on circumcision, or on the Law, but on faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Romans 3

In this chapter, Paul hints at the problem of unbelieving Israel (which he takes up properly later) and also emphasises the universality of sin – for the Jew as well as the pagans he has described in chapter 1. This chapter also provides the other half of the problem of chapter 2. If the doers of the Law were justified (2:13), then how come no flesh (comprehensive enough!) will be justified by the works of the Law? It might be that Paul is arguing eschatologically: that the Law is superseded by Christ and so the works of the Law are not relevant. The problem with this is that the eschatological 'now' is in 3:21. So, 3:19-20 are dealing with the Law from within the context of those under the Law. Those who see a problem with a straightforward reading here are not seeing that the doers of the Law are justified (2:13), but not by the works of the Law (3:20). The two statements are entirely compatible and fit totally into Paul's argument. The doers of the Law still committed sin, and their sin could not be atoned for by any works of the Law - they could not be justified by the works of the Law. And yet, they were justified. How? By faith (which is what Paul underlines in Chapter 4), apart from the works of the Law (3:28).

On 3:27, Dunn writes:

Once the centrality of 'faith' in the preceding section is grasped, the movement of thought in v27 becomes clear, for in the resumed diatribe of vv27-31 it is precisely this point which is hammered home: faith as the proper understanding of the law, faith as the indispensible basis of 'doing the law'.

But, for Paul, debates about the Law itself are now academic, because a new eschatological age has dawned. Now, the righteousness of God is manifest without the Law, through faith in Jesus Christ (3:21-22) embracing all nations and peoples. Paul's argument is aimed at showing that it is faith that's essential.

Justification has always been by faith. In the New Age, both Jews' and Gentiles' faith must be in Jesus (Paul's Christology is clear here). In fact, those Jews justified under the Law (their 'doing' of the Law a result of their circumcision of heart, or faith) were also redeemed by Jesus Christ because God had merely passed over their former sins in his forbearance. But now, atonement has been made, and redemption accomplished in Christ.

Romans 3 adequately demonstrates the obstacles in interpreting Paul and the Law. The interpreter is ranging across eschatological and covenantal boundaries. At once dealing with Jewish legalism and obedience under the Old Covenant, and debates on the Law, then with the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, and justification through faith in him.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Romans 2

This, according to Tom Wright, is the joker in the pack. Maybe. It's definitely a key spot at which to get your interpretation correct. The direction you take here will have big consequences. It's quite clear that in Romans 2 Paul is attacking a Jewish trust in covenant status, divorced from covenant obedience. To claim to be righteous with an attendant unrighteousness is absurd – and will lead to wrath. Therefore such people are in the same position as the unrighteous pagan. To be justified before God it is not enough merely to hear the Law, it must be obeyed (2:12). This is where some interpretations falter. To 'do' the Law is not to be morally perfect. The Law assumes the moral imperfection of the people of God – it provides for the confession of, and forgiveness of, sin within its rubric. We might best describe 'doing' the Law as covenantal obedience, living a life of obedient faith – a point that Paul goes on to stress.

Paul stresses that circumcision is of value to the one who practices the Law, but to the one who is a transgressor, it becomes uncircumcision (2:25). In the same way, the pagan who is obedient is justified, rather than the Jew who is a transgressor. 'Transgressor' here must be interpreted in as the antithesis of the 'doer' of the Law – it is the person who has no heart concern for obedience. Paul makes clear that this obedience is the sign of an inward change (2:29). Circumcision is of value, if it is followed by circumcision of the heart. The Law itself stresses this – circumcision of the heart, the Law in the heart, is the means to life (see Deut 10:16; 30:6, Cf. 6:4-6; 11:18).

As to who the Gentiles are who instinctively do the things of the Law (2:14,15), or the uncircumcised who keeps the Law (2:27), Paul could be referring to God-fearers (or theoretically to proselytes in the former case), but I think it likely that he here refers to Gentile Christians.

See also my former post on Romans 2.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Romans 1

During the last intersemester I blogged my usual reflections on the previous semester's modules at HTC, with one exception. I didn't blog any reflections on the Romans module, taught by Mike Bird. A crime? Probably close. Anyhow, I am now blogging some brief reflections/thoughts on that module over the next few days, in the form of a few thoughts on selected chapters, beginning with Romans 1.

Paul's critique in Romans 1 bears similarities to Jewish renunciations in Wisdom 11-15. Dodd characterises God's wrath (1:18) as the inevitable process of moral forces. Dr Bird's notes rightly reject this. But, I wonder whether perhaps we should add a 'merely'. It is a theme apparent in OT Wisdom that God's order is stamped in the fabric of the world. Therefore God's wrath is not merely eschatological, or a proactive discrete intervention, but also it is outworked in the fabric of the world, in the structure of his order, and in the effects of the disorder of chaos which works against God's order through the forces of darkness. The giving up (or handing over) of 1:24ff suggests God's grace in holding back the consequences of his wrath revealed in the natural order, but when this grace is removed sinful societies as well as people begin to debase and destroy themselves (they receive the due penalty, 1:27). This is an aspect of God's wrath.

If we want to square this with a conception of 'active wrath', it's not difficult. Paul in Colossians writes of the role of Christ in God's maintaining of the order of matter - at that level natural processes are founded on the order generated by God himself.

Perhaps another neglected aspect of God's wrath is its relationship to salvation and the righteousness of God. Part of the function of God's righteousness is to remove (ultimately) from creation all that will despoil it - and to protect the seeds of the new creation in this age in the church. His wrath is the operative energy in this process, the aim of which is to secure the salvation of the cosmos, with the new humanity at its centre in Christ. Only when we keep salvation and judgement connected will we avoid some of the pitfalls in our conceptualisation of God's wrath.

As with all of these, there is much more I could write, but I'll leave it there...