“Works of Torah” as the halakha

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November 11, 2019

In my previous post, Martin Luther and the works of Torah, I argued the basic premise that Luther was closer to understanding the phrase “works of the Law” in Paul’s epistles than the early Catholic view and the similar but slightly different view of the “works of the law” as boundary markers of Jewish identity. However, I still took Luther to have misinterpreted the phrase in a couple of ways, including the idea that Paul is referring to human efforts to obey God. While not inconsistent with Paul’s overall presentation of the Gospel, I argued that “works of the law” refers to a set of prescribed works gleaned from the interpretation of the Torah.

Now, if you are familiar with Jewish traditions and history, you would be familiar with the idea of the Oral Torah, which according to Jewish tradition were a set of traditions reputedly passed down orally from Moses down to the period of the Second Temple. The Oral Torah was to give clarity and understand that was not had in the Written Torah. However, these traditions were then written down in the 2nd century CE in the Mishnah. Most likely, however, these oral traditions did not actually come passed down from Moses, but it was a set of traditions that started after the return from the Babylonian exile with Ezra the scribe and then gradually expanded upon by later Jewish sages and scribes until Paul’s day.

This Oral Torah, otherwise known as halakhah, were legal rulings and practices that would allow devout Jews to obey every commandment (also known as mitzvot) from God in the Pentateuch because it was hard to understand. This would make it hard to obey God’s commandments if one did not understand what they were all referring to. Halakah offered educated interpretations of the Torah so that devout Jews could learn how to obey God’s commandments.

Essentially, devotion to the Torah in Second Temple Judaism recognized the distinction between the Torah from Moses and the interpretive application of the Torah. However, unlike our modern critical tendency to separate the sacred text from the interpreter of a text and not investing the authority of the sacred text into the interpretation, this wasn’t the case among the prevailing form of Pharisaical Judaism in the Second Temple period. The tradition that the Oral Torah originated from Moses represented the belief that the Oral Torah was authoritative alongside the Written Torah. So, devout Jews, especially those who believed in the authority of the Rabbis, they would not have made spoken of the halakhic application of the Torah as different from the Torah. Rather, they might be inclined to think of the relationship between the mitzvot of the Written Torah and the halakah of the Oral Torah as two sides of the same coin. Given the necessity of these traditions to interpret the Written Torah, one could not seek to try to obey God’s commandments apart from them.

So, when Paul refers to the works of the Torah, I think he is specifically referring to the halakhic prescriptions. Rather than ruling out the role of Torah outright, Paul focuses on the way the Torah gets used by these traditions. To that end, Paul’s rejection would be similar to the Qumran community. The Qumran community’s dependence upon the “Teacher of righteousness” perhaps shows them as one group who rejected the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees, starting a sect based upon a splitting off from the tradition. In a similar fashion, I would suggest Paul is doing something similar with Jesus as the central figure, analogous to the Qumran’s Teacher of righteousness.

Are there any signals of this being Paul’s meaning by the phrase “works of the Torah?” I would suggest there is one place where it becomes very evident, Romans 3.27-31.

Romans 3.27-31:

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (NRSV)

Paul’s discourse makes the best sense here if we recognize the relationship devout Jews saw between the Torah and its interpretive application. Paul’s vision of God’s righteousness in Romans 3.21-26 is taken to exclude the possibility of boasting by a Torah observant Jew referred to in 2.17. This likely refers to a type of boasting in the expectation of God’s vindication of faithful Israelite’s who know God because of their observation of Torah, which is a theme throughout the Wisdom of Solomon. As a result, the interchange between the hypothetical interlocutor and Paul seems to be addressing what grounds Paul rejects such boasting. Then, the questions “By what law? By that of works?” makes coherent sense if works of the Torah refers to the halakhic interpretation. It would read as if the interlocutor is asking Paul as if he is relying on some halakha to exclude this type of boast. His appeal to the law of faith cements Paul’s point: Paul gives no place for boasting not based upon the Rabbinic interpretive traditions but based upon the faith of Jesus Christ as has just been described in 3.21-26. This will be further will be expanded upon by going back to the Pentateuch and recounting the narrative of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. In so doing, Paul goes back to the Torah and derives a different interpretation that diverges from the halakhic traditions. In other words, Romans 3.27-31 becomes readily understood in a coherent manner if we interpret Paul’s discussions with the interlocuter based upon the Jewish halakhic tradition and Paul’s rejection of it.

Furthermore, in Romans 2.15, Paul describes the work of the Torah (τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου) being written upon the heart of the Gentile. Here, Paul echoes the promises of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34, where God places His instruction/Torah in people’s hearts.  This phrase does not readily make sense as a reference to the written Torah. Nor, would Paul likely use the phrase the work of the Torah to refer to the memory of the written Torah, as this defeats the purpose of Paul’s example (see the previous verse 2.14). In addition, the New Covenant promise of God writing the Torah in the heart would not likely be understood as giving Israelites a memory of the Torah, as the Torah prescribed practices for the Israelites to keep God’s Torah in memory (Deut. 6.5-6). In this light, it is best to take the phrase “the work of the Torah” as referring to the way the Gentile without the Torah has a certain type of custom or practice guides and directs him that is consistent with the meaning of the Torah. In that case, we can look at Paul’s usage of ἔργον in relationship to the Torah to refer to specific types of practices followed that are considered to accomplish what God commands in the Torah.

This understanding of the works of the Torah referring to specific types of practices and customs that are consistent with God’s commandments in the Torah can also help to make sense of Paul’s understanding of his rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2.11-21. For many years, I have thought there seemed to be an inconsistency between Paul’s rebuke of Peter for refusing table fellowship with the Gentiles in 11-13 and Paul’s speech to Peter in 14-21. Strictly speaking, issues of table fellowship are not mentioned in the Pentateuch, so how then does Paul’s speech about the works of the Torah fit with his rebuke of Peter. However, it appears to me that the problem was that I assumed works of the Torah referred to the commandments/mitzvot of the Torah rather than to the interpretive application/halakah. The exclusion of table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles was a part of the interpretive traditions. Works of the Torah as referring to halakhic interpretive applications of Torah makes Paul’s account much more coherent in my mind.

However, to be clear, Paul doesn’t ascribe to some ancient form of sola scriptura that rejects the traditions to simply develop a new ethical program fresh from the Torah. Rather, for Paul, the works of the Torah can not redeem because a person’s response to the Torah was to act against the very thing God’s commanded in the Torah (Rom. 7). As a result, any interpretive application of the Torah is fated to leave people short of God’s glory and righteousness as the powers of sin make obedience to God impossible. The Torah is intrinsically incapable of breaking the powers of sin and death. Consequently, Paul does not think that God intended the Torah to redeem Israel from sin, but as a ‘guide’ for Israel until the coming of Christ. As a consequence, any human attempt to obey the Torah would fall short. Nevertheless, God can use the Torah to make His will known, but Jewish believers would experience this impact of the Torah through their baptismal union in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Circumcision and the interpretive applications of the Torah would be to no avail for them.

In conclusion, I would proffer that the works of the Torah as the halakhic interpretive application of the Torah offers a viable route that goes between the traditional, Lutheran understanding of justification and the New Perspective on Paul’s emphasis of works of the Torah as distinguishing marks between Jew and Gentile. This focus of the NPP can be integrated into this as certainly the interpretive applications of the Torah were made in such a way that heavily distinguish Israelites from the Gentiles that impacted the way the early Church related to the Gentiles. At the same time, Paul is providing a marked limitation of human attempts to obey the Torah that Luther and later Reformers remarked about, while not having to diverge into metaphysical accounts of free will that Luther read into Paul’s comments about the works of the Torah.

Philippians 2.14 and community

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November 10, 2019

In addition to doing research on Romans, my eye has also been directed towards trying to make sense of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Part of the reason is that I think in Philippians we get a vision of the telos that Paul seeks to guide the gatherings of believers toward: the imitation of Christ’s humble servanthood. We see this theme getting expressed a little bit in Romans (Romans 8.16) and 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10.31-11.1), but it in Philippians where see it as a very explicit and salient theme.

So, when I heard the preacher mention make a passing comment about people who value God’s Word takes seriously what is said, including not complaining, it became a source of thought and reflection afterward because it is soon Paul gives the early church hymn about Christ’ servanthood in Philippians 2.6-11 that Paul exhorts the Philippians to “do all things without complaining and arguing.” (As a side note, often times sermons inspire people to think on those things that didn’t relate to the central theme.)

In addressing what Paul is exhorting the Philippians into, it is important to say that what constitutes “complaining” and “arguing” is often in the eye of the beholder. For some, people distinguish between complaining and not complaining, arguing and not arguing based upon what they themselves feel uncomfortable with.

For instance, a highly controlling leader may think any expression of negative feelings or attempt to persuade them that their plans may not be the best will interpret that person as “complaining” and “arguing.” Meanwhile, a leader who is concerned about those people he leads won’t think people are “complaining” and “arguing” when they express their problems and concerns. In other words, people who expect that others should conform to their vision and expectations are prone to see any pushback as complaining and arguing.

Or, consider two people who are discussing politics on facebook where they don’t agree. A person who is comfortable with diverging opinions will be less inclined to think the other person is “arguing” in the negative sense, but rather discussing and debate. However, people who are less open to divergence are going to be more inclined to interpret debate and disagreement as “arguing,” even if there is no attempt to compel or insult the others for disagreeing.

It is important to keep this in mind when we read passages like Philippians 2.14. A person who is highly uncomfortable with a disagreement or being told that not everything is going well may expect more from themselves or other people than a person who is more comfortable with ambiguity and tension.

So, my first point to bring forward is that Paul’s advice is not a universal prohibition against expressing any problems or disagreements for individuals. Paul isn’t trying to encourage the Philippians to be a “Be happy and be quiet” or “be a good team player.” Paul isn’t saying “Get along or move along.” Often times, the prohibition against complaints and arguing is used as a way to reinforce power hierarchies in which those who are powerless are to not say anything about the decisions and actions that those who have power have. Paul is not telling people to live in a community of hierarchical dominance without any sort of dissent. Rather, Paul is providing insight into how a community of mutual servanthood to each other.

This brings me to my next point: it is important to note that Paul is not giving moral guidance as to how an individual is to act, but how the community is to live together. Paul’s instructions are given under the assumption that there are some traits that define the community in Philippians 2.1: that they are encouraged and hopeful in Christ, that they are seeking to console each other in love, that they are sharing together in the Spirit, and they have a basic concern for each other’s well-being. Paul is addressing a community of believers in which they have a certain shared experience and concern, particularly within the life of the Triune God. So, Philippians 2.14 is not addressing how individuals should behave, but rather what should define the life of the community of those called and formed to Christ. Paul is providing a community ethos, not a moral rule for individualistic behavior.

There is a marked difference between a community ethos and moral rules targetting individualistic behavior in terms of how we ‘judge’ people based upon their behavior. People who fall short of specific behavioral rules are typically expressed as expectations that people are obligated to conform to. As a result, we are inclined primarily to focus on people’s “guilt” for failing to hold the standard and not the goodness of living according to the rule: you don’t get credit for what is expected on you. As a result, when breaches of behavioral rules occur, we then consider the step of some sort of discipline, punishment, or, God forbid, vengeance to ‘correct’ for the wrong. We typically motivate people to follow behavioral rules based upon punishment and withholding of privileges.

Meanwhile, a community ethos tends to operate more so as something we encourage people to be a part of because there is something good and life-giving about this way of life. People are not automatically regarded as bad people if they fail to adhere to the community ethos, although punishment may still be necessary under the case of severe or repetitive violations that cause serious harm and damage. People are not controlled to try to live within a community ethos either, although they can be encouraged to live within that ethos with roadblocks to realize it being brought to light. What ultimately distinguishes a community ethos is that it something people are positively encouraging to be part of, not threatened, punished, and controlled into. In other words, Paul’s words about not complaining and grumbling is providing a vision for how the believers should seek to live to be part of a community defined by the love of God, not a law that people are controlled by.

This vision of serving others without complaining and arguing is also something that Paul does not expect the Philippians to be doing immediately, but is a consequence of their learning and growth. Note that the exhortation to not complain or argue comes right after Paul says they should work on their own salvation in line with God’s work in their lives (Php. 2.12-13). Because of the persuseciton and chains that Paul was living in, whether Paul would be able to guide and teach the Philippians anymore in the future was uncertain. As a result, Paul is encouraging them to go to the next step so that their love “may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight to help [them] determine what is best.” (Php. 1.9-11) If the Philippians can know and experience what the completed, mature love of Christ is, then they can be spiritually autonomous and not have to be dependent upon Paul going on into the uncertain future. So, Paul provides a vision for the community that progresses beyond simply having positive regard and concern for each other that they already have and move towards bringing this love to its fullest fruition. When they as a community learned to deeply love and serve each other without complaining and arguing, they can then be confident that they will be innocent people whose life will stand apart from a corrupt and depraved world (Php. 2.15).

So, what Paul is calling the Philippians is a description of the way of life for God’s people that they can realize only through the word and work of God (Phi. 2.13, 16). The community is called to be formed towards the fullness of love.

This way of framing Paul’s words would lead us to look at complaining and arguing differently. Rather than immediately blaming the person who “complains” and “argues,” we would instead suggest there is something amiss in the community when people are lead to complain and argue. Maybe that person is the problem. Maybe they are a perpetually dissatisfied sort who complains and argues to control and get their way. However, maybe that person isn’t actually the problem, but it is that the community is not reaching the fullness of love in some way. A complaint or an argument is a signal that something is amiss, but it doesn’t automatically blame the person who brings the complaint or who argues.

I bring this up because of the way the two wings of American/Western Christianity have been training to function. On the one hand, evangelical/traditional Christianity has had a way of interpreting the Bible’s words against complaining in an individualistic manner, telling people it is wrong to speak up and use their voice when they think something is wrong or something bad is happening. The end result is that we oftentimes put an undue burden on those whose only power to protect and address great harm is to use their voice, automatically guilting them for saying something that isn’t nice and challenges us. We can call this “polite” Christianity” On the other hand, we are witnessing a way of life among progressive Christians that think the life of the Church is to be one who constantly argues and complains about every perceived injustice, which they oftentimes label as “prophetic” but in fact show a reduced sense of discernment between things such as inequalities, wrongs, and frustrations and evils, abuses, and harms. When you use “prophetic” to be a justification for constantly arguing, complaining, and accusing about every perceived fault under the sun as something oppressive and harmful, one is going far off track from Paul’s vision of the complete love of Jesus Christ. We can call this pseudo-prophetic Christianity.

On the one hand, polite Christianity has been used to silence egregious harms done in our midst. For instance, when sexual harassment and abuse are occurring in the halls of the church and enable be using the influence of religion, we need to be able to hear these complaints. There is something seriously, seriously wrong in the community at this point. This the community far from being defined by its members seeking each other’s interest above their own, but rather reinforces the interests of those who have used power to harm; it undercuts the very thing Paul is calling the Philippians to live a part of. The experiencing of harms without complaint or argument isn’t the “love” that Christ came to enable us to live out and experience. So, to focus on not complaining due to the development of a norm of politeness that should not speak negatively gives power to the abuse. Polite Christianity has no power over the outright abuse of power.

However, when people are thought to be wrongly excluded from power because they don’t adhere to the way of life that the community has clearly established, pseudo-prophetic Christianity has for years sought to try to control others through complaining and arguing rather than seeking to form what it is they think God is calling of them. Pseudo-prophetic Christianity is tempted to treat outright abuse and full-blown neglect as on par with what they deem to be an unjustified inequality in power and privilege, treating harm and inequalities as always the same.1 In so doing, they perpetually complain and argue about everything as oppression. As a result, pseudo-prophetic Christianity has no power to form people into love, but rather readily justifies narratives of grievances for all perceived wrongs that are used to motivate further conflict with those whom they do not share much in common.

In short, when we treat Paul’s words in Philippians 2 as a community ethos that he encourages the gathering of believers on Philippians to participate in based upon their shared experience and concern for others through the Triune God, neither polite Christianity nor pseudo-prophetic Christianity can stand as innocent and blameless in the crooked and perverse generation of our present age.

Martin Luther and the works of Torah

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November 6, 2019

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, provided what can be considered the standard view Protestant view about Paul’s concern about the works of the law and justification. In his Preface to Romans, he attempts to provide the reader of Romans a primer on how to understand some of the keywords in Paul’s letter, including law. Regard law, he says:

You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That’s the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn’t let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart. All human beings are called liars (Psalm 116), since none of them keeps or can keep God’s law from the depths of the heart. Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God’s law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not.1

For Luther, law is understood as God’s ethical demands upon human beings. Luther certainly understands that God’s ethical demands are associated with the instructions of Moses as he soon thereafter references Romans 2. In his commentary on Galatians 2.16, he associates Law with Moses. Luther does not dehistoricize the meaning of the law from the Torah, but rather he considers the law as reflected in the Torah. To that end, it may be better to suggest that Luther does not think of law as limited to the Torah, but as God’s general ethical demands upon all people as expressed in the Torah. As such, Luther’s exegesis does not recognize law as being limited within the arrangement of a specific covenant with a specific people, but rather is limited by a general principal of God’s grace. For Luther, Paul’s Gospel essentially represents the conflict that humans face between trying to live in obedience to God’s ethical commands with receiving God’s grace to justify us in faith, which is the classic Luthern antithesis between Law and Grace.

One major implication for Luther’s understanding of law is how it impacts his understanding of works. For Luther, works is a matter of human effort to obey God, not simply conform to the commands of Torah. In short, we can consider “works of the law” to mean “human attempts to obey God’s ethical demands” for Luther.

Now, for those who know me know I am influenced by much of the scholarship coming out of the so-called New Perspective of Paul, particularly in its grandfather E.P. Sanders (whose scholarship influence James Dunn as the father of the NPP) and one of its children in N.T. Wright.2 So, one might be inclined to think I would push back on Luther’s understands of works and Torah here. However, I am of the opinion that Luther didn’t get Paul’s overall theology terribly wrong, but he did get the precise meaning of Paul’s wording wrong, meaning that he failed to understand the specific nuances and complexities of Paul’s argument. Tis a small price to pay in comparison to helping 16th century Europeans read the Scriptures afresh again.

So, I don’t think Luther was entirely off-base in how he understood Paul. My critique of Luther is more narrow than broad in that he treats works of law as representing a general, anthropological and theological reality rather than it pointing to something more specific among the life of first-century Jews. Luther as a person can certainly be forgiven for his lack of historical sensitivity, even though his historical ignorance combined with his later hostility towards Jews would contribute to anti-Semitism that would have dire and deadly consequences in the 20th century. Today, we have mountains material from that period of history that have been largely combed over because of the rise of historical-critical studies, in addition ot use now being aware of the damage that such wrong and distorted views can have in modern societies capable of wide-spread violence and bloodshed. The scholarship of Luther’s day with limited by the sources they had and the influence that Roman Catholicism had on Biblical scholarship. At the time, the main view in Catholicism came from Jerome, who considers works of the law to refer to the ceremonial parts of the Torah, such as Sabbaths, circumcision, etc.

If I were to decide whether Luther or Jerome was closest to understanding Paul’s meaning, I would have to consider Luther was the closer of the two. Much like James Dunn’s view that Pauk’s concern about the works of the Torah related primarily to certain boundaries markers of Jewish identity such as circumcision, Sabbath, diet, etc. Jerome believed that the works of the Torah was referring to very specific Jewish practices. This is not without reason as any close reading of Paul will note that Paul tends to pick certain issues out that were consider highly important to Jewish identities, such as circumcision, meal fellowship and diet, how one sees the days of the week, etc. However, there is no real exegetical basis to suggest Paul’s usage of the phrase ἔργον νόμου was limited to only some of the commandments and not the whole. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to explicitly discount this view of the phrase as Paul says everyone who is under the Torah is under a curse by quoting from LXX Deuteronomy 27.26, which essentially stipulates the faithful Jew is to obey all of God’s instruction. Having to pick between Luther and Jerome, Luther’s account of the works of the law makes a better sense of Paul’s discourse than Jerome’s.

In other words, I would suggest that Luther represented considerable hermeneutical progress in getting the meaning of Paul’s epistles correct from his background, even as the influence of Luther’s remaining errors were left unchecked and contributed to the moral regress into widespread violence, evil, and hatred towards the Jews in the 20th century. To that end, I can be deeply sympathetic with the New Perspective on Paul that has sought to stem the tide of anti-semitism in Biblical Studies and views of Judaism, but yet still recognize the benefit of Luther’s exegetical and theological move in his day.

His narrow *exegetical* error (which would contribute to much broader and more sweeping theological. historical, and ethical errors down the line of history) was to suggest two things: (1) that works was about moral human effort and (2) to not sufficiently recognize the peculiar and specific nature of the Torah in distinction from other forms of praxis. I will address the second first.

Like most dutiful Christians, Luther read the Scriptures as providing the instructions for Christian faith and life. As a result, he like anyone else would have been inclined to read the Old Testament, and the Torah more specifically, as containing ethical obligations that come from God. Luther had a lessened historical consciousness that would lead him to overlook the Torah being God’s instruction specifically to the people of Israel and that in the first century; the commandments of the God of Israel were not even known by most people in the Roman Empire. Rather, God’s Word was counter-cultural to a peculiar people, and as such was not considered to be God’s commands directly given to all humanity but God’s instruction to His people. However, Luther living in the midst of a Christianized word would understand the Law of Moses more as if it was a king giving a law to his imperial subjects.

As a result, Luther appears to understand the Law as the direct expression of God’s will to humanity in general. However, Paul is not engaging in some general discussion about the ethical inability of all humans to obey God. Paul definitely shares this understanding about human inability, although not in terms of the bondage of the will that Luther does. Rather, in Romans, he takes pains to intellectually argue that the Jews are not in any better of a position than the Gentiles in virtue of their being instructed out of the Torah. Israel is not somehow more virtuous and blameless as a people simply because God gave them the Torah. They lived with many of the same ethical weaknesses that were often pointed out of the Gentiles. This is represented by Paul in compressing Israel’s ethical history into a concise statement that sin increased about the Israelites even after they had been given the Torah (Romans 5.20) because they shared in Adam’s nature as the Gentiles did. Paul is not therefore referring to some general sense of God’s will and ethical obligations given to humanity by the law, but rather the whole set of God’s instructions to Israel given through Moses.

This leads me to the second point. Luther understood works as essentially referring to human efforts to obey God. I don’t think this quite gets at Paul’s point when talking about the works of the Torah. Rather, I think works of the Torah refer to the interpretive traditions that many Israelites developed to be obedient to God’s instructions. They would provide specific instructions about how one was to obey the commandments, such as what would and would not classify as working on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, Paul was not concerned with people being instructed by the Torah, as his multiples quotations for the Torah to support his ethical instruct reveal. Nor was he condemning obedience to the Torah by Jews or suggesting the impossibility of doing such, as Romans 2.13 and 8.4 shows that he thinks that Jews can and should obey Torah (through Christ) and it will impact God’s judgment of them. Rather, the problem with Paul is how the Torah is used to pursue righteousness. The letter of the Torah was old (Rom. 7.6) and could kill a person (2 Cor. 3.6). In an effort to try to be righteous, many Israelites would dutifully try to obey the letter of the Torah. The problem is that despite the various practices they created to obey Torah, their efforts to put them into practice would never solve the problem of sin in their life (cf. Col. 2.20-23). No matter how many practices one derived from Torah to try to help order one’s life in accordance to God’s will, one would never be free from the powers of sin and death. A person living under Torah would still find themselves giving into sin, even as they struggled against it (Romans 7.7-25).

So, when Paul is saying that the works of the Torah will not justify a person, he is not referring to some sort of works-righteousness by which a person accumulates enough merits to avoid God’s judgment. Rather, he is referring to the attempts to having such a character of life that God would look at a Torah-observant Jew and say “you are now among the righteous.” Israel’s history would show that having the Torah and trying to obey it was no guarantee of moral development and formation; it was often the exact opposite. Only God’s word of grace to justify people in faith even as they had lived in ungodliness could deliver and redeem a person from their sin, not the efforts of Jews to try to become righteous by their attempts to put the actions they derived from interpreting the Torah.

To some extent, Luther is close to Paul’s own theology and anthropology of sin when Luther talks about the inability of the human will to genuinely obey God. But Paul does not downplay Jewish obedience to Torah it is God instructing who is actively instructing them through the Spirit, but rather Jewish efforts to form their lives through interpretation and application of the Torah to their lives. In so doing, they are stuck in the past and a veil is over their hearts preventing them from hearing what the Spirit is telling God’s people in Christ today. The Torah was God’s covenant instruction for Israel coming out of the Exodus and coming into the land God had promises the patriarchs, a covenant that the people of Israel repeatedly disregarded.

This is why Paul almost goes ballistic against the Gentiles believers in Galatia when they start flirting with idea of adding circumcision and the works of the Torah to their lives. Their life in Christ was begun by the Holy Spirit, and so to go to Torah was to take away one’s seeking of righteousness through the Spirit, but to focus instead of matters of the flesh and human teachings. By trying to add circumcision and Torah when they had never been circumcised or followed the Torah, their focus would go away from being taught and directed by God.

At stake for Paul and the works of the Torah is that a person must be instructed by God through the Holy Spirit to be able to submit to and obey God; trying to focus on interpretation and application of the Torah to doing specific works means that one is not being instructed by God but by something or someone else. God can certainly use the Torah to instruct people, but they must have faith like Abraham’s before they can be so receptive; they must have received the Spirit before they can understand the real Spiritual purposes that the Torah were a past expression of; they must be conformed to Christ before they will be able to live out these purposes.

So, in the end, I would posit that for Paul, the works of the Torah refers to the application of the Torah in specific practices that devout Jews would follow to try to improve their moral and ethical character. Not quite Luther’s view of the works of the law that lead to a false, negative stereotyping of the Jews, but Luther is certainly much closer than the Catholic interpretations of the time as coming from Jerome.

“Worry about nothing” – Philippians 4.6-7 and the difference between anxiety and worry

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November 5, 2019

At the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see him give some instructions to the community as per his usual custom in his epistles. One of the things he instructs the Philippians:

Worry about nothing. Instead, in all things makes your requests known to God in prayer and urgent appeals with thanksgiving and God’s peace, which surpasses all thinking, will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.

It is in these parts of Paul’s letters that we are apt to find some sort of ethical principle that we seek to apply to our lives in a universal sort of way. This passage is no exception. In addition to Jesus words about worrying in the Sermon on the Mount, these words are oft-quoted as a source of direction for how we should deal with our own, modern-day mental afflictions. With the rise of awareness of various forms of anxiety disorders, it is routine to see the application of Jesus and PAul’s language about worrying to what we label in the modern-day as anxiety.

Now, as a follower Jesus, I certainly believe we should seek to apply what Paul said to our lives. However, the way we are Christians try to address modern understanding of anxiety is far off the target for what Paul was addressing. We may sometimes hear social media posts and sermons about how people with anxiety do not have faith. Yet, the specific things that Jesus and Paul were addressing in their exhortations to not worry are significantly different. This is exacerbated by two problems we consistently have in interpretation: (1) ignoring the relationship between moral exhortation and the specific circumstances and (2) translations making us unaware of the significant differences between ancient and modern concepts.

In regards to the first problem, Paul’s exhortation to not worry is not offered as a general, universal prohibition against any sort of mental activity that could have been labeled as worrying. Paul uses the very same word (μεριμνάω) to describe the worry that spouses should have for other people’s well-being (1 Cor. 7.32-34) and also the concern one person may have for other people’s welfare (1 Cor. 12.25; Php. 2.20). Rather, Paul is targetting the specific causes for worry that the Philippians would have: two themes persistently come up in Paul’s epistle: (1) questions about Paul’s well-being and (2) concerns about false teachers. What is happening is that Paul’s persecution is being furthered by Paul’s opposition. Because the Philippians identified with Paul, they Phillipians themselves would begin to be worried because they could imagine that whatever is threatening their beloved teacher could become a threat to them. It is in this context that Paul (a) encourages the Philippians to humbly love one another (2.1-11) and (b) describes his own attitude in being conformed to Christ’s death (3.7-14) and resurrection that he then encourages the Philippians to imitate him in the face of those who would be hostile to them (3.15-19).

When feeling an existential threat, which Paul’s own persecution represented for the Philippians, people can become inclined to living and acting out of fear and becoming hostile. As a consequence, Paul encourages the Philippians to continue to rejoice and to be demonstrably gentle towards others (Php. 4.4-5). They do not need to let the threat to Paul overturn their life together. So, when Paul tells them not to worry in 4.6, Paul is addressing a third consequence of this existential threat: worrying about what might happen. As such, the Greek words indicating the scope of worry and of thanksgiving, μηδὲν (“nothing”) and παντὶ (“all things”), are not intended as some floating reference to anything within the scope of possible within all human life, but rather is addressed within the context of the Phillipians’ specific circumstance: continuing to be faithful and grow in the face of an existential threat. There is nothing in their present situation they should be worried about, even though there is something very real and tough going on in the life of their beloved teacher. Instead, everything they may be concerned about should be brought to God.

One of the concerns that may come up is the future of the Phillipians own life. If their teacher is gone and unable to ever address them again, what will they be able to do? This concern is represented in Paul emphasizing imitating Christ and then Paul who is seeking to be conformed to Christ: in that way, they will continue to work out their own salvation, rather than having to rely upon the instruction of Paul. Likewise, by bringing their concerns to God in everything, they will continue to be protected in Jesus Christ (Php. 4.7). Paul then gives himself as an example of this in Philippians 4.10-14.

The point of this: it isn’t that worry is somehow antithetical to being Christian or having faith. Rather, overcoming worry is about believers become mature and taking their own spiritual well-being in their own hands. How we deal with the situations that worry us is not the dividing line between those with and without faith. Rather, learning how to deal with our concerns and worries through appealing to God is how we mature and become a spiritual adult in Jesus Christ. Worry is where we can learn to deepen our faith.

However, leading to the second reason why we misread passages like these, worry is not the same thing that we today refer to as anxiety. To be clear, there is a relationship between worry and anxiety. People who are anxious can worry. But not all people who have anxiety do worry.

When we talk about anxiety today in modern psychology, we are referring to our physiological and cognitive preparation to pay attention to and respond to potential threats that are not immediately apparent or understood. It is a little bit different from fear in that with fear, we have a specific threat in mind that we figure out how to respond to. With anxiety, however, the lack of specificity to the threat means that when we experience anxiety, we are prepared to act to prevent or head off any potential threat, even if we are not even consciously aware of what different outcomes we fear. A person with social anxiety would experience a mildly uncomfortable state when it came to experiencing social interactions, but they may or may not be aware of any specific fears, such as a fear of being rejected, being harmed, hurting someone’s feelings, etc. The thing about anxiety is the uncertainty of the potential threat, whereas fear operates more with a more clearly understood threat.

Now, when we experience anxiety, there are many behavioral and cognitive strategies we can employ to address such anxiety. One response might be to try to learn a little bit about what it is that is bothering you. A person who has anxiety about public speaking can learn about it and use that knowledge to help them when they are prepare to speak publicly. Or, sometimes, there is little one can do about the anxiety but take one’s mind off it is, so we might seek to distract ourselves by spending time with friends, watching a movie, eating a delicious snack, etc.

In other cases, we feel the discomfort of such unspecified threat, and so we seek to figure out more specifically what the threat is and try to figure out what might happen and what we need to do in response. We much prefer the clarity of a known fear than the ambiguity of a vague threat because we can learn how to respond to what we believe to be true. In some cases, this can be healthy as it allow us to hone our fears. But there are two potential pitfalls to this strategy.

Firstly, because some people deal with anxiety by avoiding the situation, they are apt to ‘learn’ about what makes them anxious by imagining and ruminating on it, rather than actually engaging what evokes anxiety within us. And, sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to learn directly, so we substitute ruminative reflection in its place. In such a condition, people can become isolated from the actual world and caught in their imaginations that bear little resemblance to reality.

Secondly, sometimes our anxieties do not abate with identify a specific fear. This is often the case with social anxiety, as a person can simultaneously have an unconscious fear of rejection, of being harmed, and of hurting other people’s feelings. Ruminating on one of these possible fears may not actually address the various reasons a person experiences social anxiety, leaving the person feeling unsettled beyond just that fear. In that case, the feeling of fear can then heighten the feelings of anxiety.

When we don’t actually learn through experience about the cause of our anxiety and we are constantly going back and forth between anxiety and fear, we engage in the process of anxiety-based worrying. We constantly visit and revisit the problem that we are either unwilling or unable to figure out and address. And this could typify the circumstances the Philippians were facing. Their concern for Paul would have president a general, existential threat to their own well-being, but they themselves were not facing any immediate, specific threat. It was only a general anxiety about their future given their status as followers of Jesus Christ. They might lose Paul as their teacher. They might have to engage with false teachers. They might themselves get persecuted. On and on the possibilities could go, but in the end, they were experiencing an existential threat to their well-being.

Paul’s call for them to no worry was not a statement against anxiety as a general sense of preparation for a vague, unclear sense of threat. Even though Paul would not have been familiar with the modern understanding about anxiety, Paul along with others would have been familiar with the effectiveness that comes by changing the strategies we use to face certain anxiety-provoking situations. What Paul gives in Philippians 4.6-7 is a strategy for dealing with the anxiety that would be provoked by the specific situation by not engaging in worrying, but substituting it with thanksgiving and appeals to God. To that end, Paul is not that much different from modern therapists who employ cognitive-behavioral therapy. In fact, Paul’s understanding of worry would likely have been influenced by the Stoics of the Roman era like Seneca and Epictetus, who were philosophers that acted more like modern-day therapists and were concerned with helping people overcome emotions such as fear and worrying about things they can not control that plagued people’s lives. However, Paul’s response to anxiety has a distinctly Christ-o-centric emphasis in recognizing that God does something in the believers through Christ that ensures their continuing mental wellbeing and spiritual progress in the midst of their appeals and thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, Paul is not saying that people should not experience anxiety. His words do not directly address the realities of the struggles with anxiety and anxiety disorders that various people face. Paul, along with the Stoics who would have been an influence in Paul’s understanding of psychology, were focused on the type of thinking that people feeling a general threat might engage in.

With that in mind, I would put forward it is best to hear the words of Paul in Philippians 4.6-7 as a word for how Christians who experience anxiety can learn to mature in their Christian faith: instead of trying to address anxiety through worry, instead in one’s anxiety learn to making one’s worries and struggles known to God while one also gives thanksgiving to God. To that end, Paul is essentially prescribing the general pattern given in the lament Psalms, where complaints which are brought to God are followed up with an expression of trust.

Anxieties will happen in life because the world can be a dangerous place and because some of us are more sensitive to these dangers than others. Yet, Paul does not condemn anxiety, but rather Paul took a situation that promoted anxiety in those who depended upon him and encouraged them to grow by handling it in a different way than the common pattern of fear, hostility, and worry that feelings of indirect, existential threats can cause. All of us, whether sensitive to feeling anxiety or not, are capable of learning how to act out of our anxiety in different ways, including ways that will reinforce our faith and life in Jesus Christ.

To conclude, I would say something similar about Jesus’ words about worry in the Sermon on the Mount as given in Matthew 6. It is a little different in that Jesus is not telling people “never worry,” but rather getting them to prioritize their concerns to those things that need their immediate attention and trust God to handle those things one has no power to address at the present time. In a similar fashion, worry is being preoccupied with a general sense of concern of one’s own survival but far removed from the present situation. There are challenges and threats we are capable of addressing at specific points of time which we are capable of facing in a way that seeks God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and to those Jesus is not condemning people experiencing any feeling of concern, anxiety, or worry. However, much like the Stoics found worrying about things one has no control over to be irrational, in a similar but somewhat different manner, Jesus preaches to people that there is no need to worry about what God has in His power and is not given to them to address at the present time.

Does the revelation of Christ reveal the problem? – Douglas Campbell and Romans 5

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November 3, 2019

Zondervan’s Counterpoint series is a helpful series on theology that covers various controversial topics by giving voice to three to five scholars that represent different perspectives on various topics, with each scholar’s contribution receiving a response from the other scholars. Recently, I have taken up to read the Counterpoint book on the Apostle Paul, which includes an all-star cast of Pauline scholars in Thomas Schreiner representing the Reformed perspective, Luke Timothy Johnson as outline a Catholic perspective, Douglas Campbell’s presentation of a post-new perspective on Paul, and Mark Nanos’ Jewish view.

Of these four, I have been the most influenced by Douglas Campbell. Having worked through most of his gigantic tome The Deliverance of God, reading smaller works like his chapter on Apocalyptic Epistemology in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination, and even heard him speak at a Logos Institute seminary at the University of St. Andrews, I have become somewhat familiar with the overarching themes in his work. However, his influence on me has at times been more as a foil as I have read his work with high respect, but feeling like his takes on Paul, particularly in Romans, misses the mark.

Perhaps the reason for this is best expressed by N.T. Wright’s opinion on The Deliverance of God: Campbell’s presentation of Paul “is an explicitly stated form of Calvinism.”1 I think this is a bit of an overstatement, and Wright’s recognizes that Campbell would not consider himself Calvinist, but there is something truthful about the charge. However to be clear, Calvinism is not a dirty word, but in the work of John Calvin itself, it can be a form of high praise in giving primary emphasis to the person of Christ. It is this Reformed emphasis that we see express in Barth’s Christocentrism and it is this that we also see in Campbell’s body of work. Commenting on Romans 5.12-21, Campbell says the following:

Paul sets up his extended qualification concerning the superiority of Christ with a telltale comment in 5:14b—that Adam “is a type [typos] of the coming one.” This passing remark states that Christ is the original image and Adam a pale anticipation of Christ, much as a single seal in a blob of wax on a letter is a secondary and somewhat less clear imprint of an original signet ring. And this remark indicates that Paul is “thinking backward” when he crafts this comparison of narratives; he is working out his account of “the problem” in the light of the information that he has received about it from “the solution.” The justification for Paul’s claims concerning Adam lies in Christ’s revelation of the solution, not vice versa.2 

Campbell’s language here echoes that of E.P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, when Sanders said that “Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight.”3 However, whereas Sanders frames this due to the premise that Paul would not have seen a need for a universal savior prior to his Damascus road call and transformation into an apostle.4 Campbell, on the other hand, presents his understanding of Paul in more Barthian terms:

My description emphasizes the importance of revelation as the basis of Paul’s thinking about God; the Trinity, as the God who is revealed to him and with whom he is now involved; and mission as the life that Paul is called to, largely by way of participating in the loving mission of God to the world in Christ and through the Spirit.5

Campbell here reflects a Barth perspective in suggested the Trinity is the primary object of revelation. I would respond that I think it is more appropriate to state that Paul considers the Triune God revealing the shape of redemption. This does not mean that knowledge of the Triune God is not present in revelation, but that in the ancient apocalyptic mindsets, a revelation was given by God to give to a human teacher an understanding of future political and eschatological realities. However, much like in a mentor-mentee relationship, one does not separate what the mentor teachers from the way the mentor acts and live, likewise God’s revelation through the inspiration of the Spirit should not be separated from the way Jesus acts and lives. The Triune God is the persistent agent in revelation in general and so we know of the Trinity as a consequence, but the content of specific revelation is about the nature of and shape of God’s redemption of humanity in Christ.

This brings us to Campbell’s comments on Romans 5.12-21. For Campbell, everything about human life is determined by Jesus Christ in Paul’s mind, including even Adam as a “pale shadow that brings the dazzling illumination and significance of the former into still sharper clarity.”6 God’s revelation in Jesus Christ determines all that is, such that one can not even know the problem until one has the solution. To that end, Campbell’s understanding of revelation in Jesus Christ seems to suggest a supralapsarian position in which even the fall of Adam was ordained to be a type of Christ.7 But, the end result is that we as humans can not understand the problem except by the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is here where we begin to see the more radical elements of Calvinism come through in Campbell’s presentation of Paul. To be clear, Campbell does not argue for a supralapsarian position, but his account for the type-antitype relation between Adam and Christ almost demands it.

However, I want to respond to Campbell’s account from both an exegetical and theological angle. Firstly, Campbell explication does not make the best sense of Paul’s account. I would counter that Romans 5.12-21 is Paul’s attempt to reground his audience in Rome in the Jewish Scriptural narrative in lieu of an account of sin that originates in the devil. Secondly, Campbell’s account does not do sufficient justice to the significance of the Incarnation, in which Christ takes on human weakness by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8.3) to redeem humanity from Adam’s sin.

In regards to the exegetical angle, I would contend that Romans 5.12-21 can be best understood against the backdrop of the theological anthropology given in the Wisdom of Solomon. It has been repeatedly observed that Paul’s discourse in Romans seems to be influenced by the Wisdom of Solomon. My contention is that Paul in Romans is largely correcting and pushing back a specific form of Judaism that is expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon and influenced by the Maccabean literature and that is influenced the Jewish Christians in Rome. If this is the case, we can see the contrast between the two when comparing Wisdom of Solomon and  Romans:

Wisdom of Solomon 2.23-24:

for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience. (NRSV)

Romans 5.12

just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin (NRSV)

It seems as is the Wisdom of Solomon and Paul are presenting two different thanatologies. Given the tradition of the devil being the serpent in Genesis 3, both thanatologies also pull from the same narrative. However, there is a distinct difference between the two. The Wisdom of Solomon relies upon an apocalyptic rereading of the fall narrative, seeing the devil as the agent responsible for death entering into the world.

The differences between the two portrayals of the Adamic narrative is even more pronounced when one reads Wisdom of Solomon’s panegyric of wisdom in chapter 10. In 10.1-4, Adam is seen as protected by wisdom from his transgression and then Adem is distinguished from his unrighteous, murderous son Cain. Then the Wisdom of Solomon continues to extoll the influence of wisdom from in the patriarchal narratives in 10.5-14. However, for Paul, the problem of sin starts with Adam, not Cain. Furthermore, Paul emphasizes that death, not wisdom was ruling the world in Romans 5.14. It seems plausible, if not even probable, that Paul’s account is written to be in distinction from the Wisdom of Solomon’s account.

This is further supported by the different functions of the two thanatologies. The Wisdom of Solomon makes a distinction between two different classes of humans. The faithful Israelites, to whom the author of Wisdom of Solomon belongs to, are distinguished from the ungodly who belong to the company of the devil. We see this distinction between the two become more explicit when the Wisdom of Solomon considers Israel coming out of Exodus to be a holy and blameless nation who are redeemed and given victory over their Egyptian enemies as a reward for their righteousness (Wisdom of Solomon 10.15-21). The righteousness of Israel is distinguished from the ungodliness of the oppressive power of Egypt, no doubt functioning in the Wisdom of Solomon as an indirect statement against the ungodliness of Rome. Thus, to suggest that death is the responsibility of the devil is to suggest that those who are of the devil are evil themselves in seeking to kill other people (Wisdom of Solomon 2.12-20). Meanwhile, faithful Israelites may appear to die, but in fact they have immortality (Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-9).

Of course, Paul rejects any such distinction between Jews and Gentiles, seeing them all equally culpable in sin (Romans 2.1, 12-24, 3.9-20, 22-23). Paul’s rendition of the Adam narrative means both Jews and Gentiles are under the power of sin in virtue of their universal ancestry.

If one pays close attention, Paul’s account of the Adam narrative can be suggested to be truer to the narrative of Genesis 3 than the Wisdom of Solomon. The narrative doesn’t assign the serpent the responsibility for death entered into the world, but upon the actions of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3.22-23). Furthermore, the serpent is a relatively minor character who is not portrayed in terms of the apocalyptic understanding of the devil. Whatever legitimacy there is for the apocalyptic understanding of serpent being the devil, the Widom of Solomon’s account is a very ‘creative’ retelling of Genesis 3, whereas Paul can be said to be a bit closer to the original telling.

To that end, I would suggest that Paul isn’t arguing that the revelation of Christ shows what the problem was in Adam. Rather, Paul is engaging in a different interpretation of the narrative of Genesis 3 than that of the Wisdom of Solomon. The appeal to Adam as the type of Christ is intended as a buttressing for Paul’s interpretation of Adam among the Jewish Christians in Rome. Christ’s righteousness and life can be understood as being the solution to the problem that Israel’s Scriptures situated as occurring in Adam’s sin and death. Speaking to Jewish Christians, Paul does not need to seek to persuade them of the Messiahship of Christ, but rather is seeking to take them away from an anthropology that would distinguish the Jews as inherently more righteous than Gentiles.

This might seem like the solution giving the problem, but I would suggest that for Paul, the revelation of Christ supports the original account of death in the Genesis 3 narrative, rather than the more creative retelling in Wisdom of Solomon. God’s revelation in Christ reinforces the Scriptural narrative over and against the force-fitting of Israel’s story into a later, apocalyptic cast. Christ conforms to a closer interpretation of Israel’s Scriptures.

We see something similar happened between Paul’s telling of the story if Abraham in Romans 4 and the portrayal of Abraham given in 1 Maccabees 2.52. Whereas Mattathias portrays Abraham as being reckoned as righteous as a result of his testing (presumably in the offering of Isaac), Paul focuses on Abraham’s faith in God’s promise being the cause of this righteous reckoning as described in Genesis 15. Yet, ultimately, Paul frames the Abrahamic narrative as fitting within the Christ narrative (Romans 4.17, 24-25). We can perhaps push this to further state that Christ’s revelation of God’s righteousness through the faith of Jesus Christ is validation that people are justified through faith (Romans 3.22), just as Abraham was.

The end result of this would be to say that the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ verifies and confirms Israel’s Scriptures over and against other tellings of the narratives that are more creative and yet have less fidelity to the original Scriptural account. This is a pattern we see strewn through much of the apocalyptic literature, and it is the way in which Israel’s tells its story in a apocalyptic cast that often times reinforces a sense of ethical superiority and destiny as God’s elect people that Paul finds Jesus Christ to absolutely deconstruct and render nonsense. We might say that Paul considers the revelation of Jesus Christ to demythologize the creative fancies of much of the apocalyptic sectors of Judaism.

Why? Because, and this brings me to the second angle. God’s redemption of humanity is had not in a straightforward defeat of the political powers that oppressed Israel, but in the preexistent Christ took on human flesh and conquered the problems that plagued humanity since Adam. In the Incarnation, the shape of Christ’s life was directed to be a powerful antidote to the problem in Adam. That is to state that the incarnation is God’s accommodation par excellence to human nature as it is being lived in Adam. Hence, Paul doesn’t simply say that Jesus took on flesh, but that he took on the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8.2). Adam’s sin was a train coming off the tracks moment and the Incarnation is God’s adapting to bring the train back on track. Christ is a type of Adam because the incarnate Jesus Christ is the solution by reversing the problem of Adam’s sin and death through Jesus’ faithful righteousness culminating in His resurrected life.

Campbell’s account emphasizes the Trinity as the object of revelation, thereby placing emphasis on Jesus Christ in His divine nature. This implicitly leads to the emphasis on how Christ as God is powerfully determinative of human realities. However, while Paul certainly has a high Christology, Paul is concerned about the Incarnation as the redemptive response to human sinfulness. The closest Paul gets in Romans to explicitly describe Jesus in terms that approach the later Nicene and Trinitarian orthodoxy about Jesus’ divinity is in Romans 1.4 and 10.9, neither of which occur near to Romans 5.12-21 or the larger section of 3.21-8.39.8 Rather, Paul emphasizes the commonness between Jesus and humanity in Romans 8.2 and 8.29. Furthermore, in emphasizing Jesus death in the atonement (Romans 3.25), Paul places more emphasis on the sharing humanity between Christ and the world rather than on His divine nature. Given that Romans 3.21-8.39 is framed towards the beginning and end by emphases and references to Jesus’ humanity, it is better to interpret Romans 5.12-21 as Paul’s presentation of the Incarnational response to Adam’s sin rather than the revelation of the Triune God that then defines Adam as the problem.

In short, it is my opinion that Campbell is guilty of force-fitting Romans and Paul into a Barthian theological frame. While I greatly appreciate the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on Christ, as both Barth and Calvin do, there is too much of an implicit reliance on the concept of God’s power in the doctrine of revelation that is then used to define everything as those with power typically does. Speaking with a broader Biblical theology in mind, the power of God is revealed in the servanthood of Jesus Christ, and as such, we should be emphasizing not how the revelation of Christ defines in the world in power, but transforms the world through servant love. This is at the heart of the Incarnation: the revelation of God’s redemption of humanity through God taking on human nature and overcoming our slave-masters in sin and death. The servant of God defeats the slave masters of sin and death that have defined the world. God’s revelation should be understood through the action of servanthood that actualizes Jesus’ Lordship among humanity.9

As such, the problem is already knowable and known prior to Christ, both in experience and given a specific narrative in the Scriptures, but it is a problem that did not suggest its own solution. Only in the revelation of Jesus Christ did the shape of God’s redemption become made known, thereby rendering useless the various apocalyptic speculations about how God would save His people among those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Any sort of Christ-o-centric emphasis that starts from the assumption that God’s power defines truth and reality will be apt to downplay the servanthood of God that does not define truth and reality by fiat that later revelation simply makes known, but rather that revelation actualizes a change in truth and reality through the emergence of faith, hope, and love in those who recognize Jesus as Lord. To that end, I push back against Calvinism and Barthian theology and also Campbell’s account of Paul, even as I highly respect the centrality of Christ in their accounts.

Romans 6.1, continuing in sin, and grace

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November 2, 2019

If you were to turn your Bible to Romans 6.1, more than likely your translation would start the verse reading as: “What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” This verse is commonly read as a question of moral permission: is it okay to sin so that we may have an increase of grace. Lurking in interpretation is a tension that many of us experience between grace and sin: the feeling that the implication of God’s forgiveness that we can do whatever we wish. While most of us recognize the fundamental absurdity of this question, the plausibility of the idea leaves us fearing the ideas of cheap grace, licentiousness, and antinomianism used as a pretext for sin and evil. So, when we approach a passage like Romans 6.1, we are inclined to think that Paul is presenting a hypothetical question about the permissive of sin to which Paul emphatically responds “MAY IT NEVER BE!”

However, what if this interpretation is more so a consequence of (a) our working definition of grace and (b) our moral fears about how people might misconstrue this idea of grace than it is anything Paul is actually arguing in the immediate context. What if in Romans 5 and 6 Paul is giving a causal account and explanation of how sin and righteousness begin to charachterize human beings? Put differently, what is the question of Romans 6 is a question about reality and not about permissibility? I would suggest it might help us to restructure how we see Paul’s argument in Romans 6.

At stake in this question is the grammatical function of the aorist subjunctive ἐπιμένωμεν.1 In Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Daniel Wallace classifies this usage of the subjunctive as deliberative rhetorical subjunctive that asks a type of question that addresses questions of oughtness.2 However, Wallace also catalogs a similar usage of the Deliberative Subjunctive in the form of the deliberative real subjunctive, which addresses matters such as ‘”possibility, means, and location.”3

As both uses are more or less indistinguishable from each other syntactically, that means we would need to rely upon the content and context of the specific discourse to determine whether a deliberate subjunctive is engaging with matters of ontic possibility of ‘is-ness’ vs. ethical permission of ‘ought-ness.’ Offhand, we might be inclined to attribute a question about sin as immediately an ethical question. On the other hand, the rational Paul gives for rejecting the implication of the question in 6.2-3 focuses on an ontic question of the baptized believer’s relation to Jesus’ death. So, we have reason to consider Paul’s question to be a question about ‘is-ness.”

And yet, it is certainly possible that discussions about is-ness and ought-ness can intermingle, so that the rhetorical question is concerned about permissibility to which Paul responds with a response about ontology that determines one’s ethical behaviors, essentially rendering the question a non sequitur. In other words, the question about the permissibility of continuing to sin has no real merit because the ontological reality of the baptized believer is that they cease to sin.

Nevertheless, we should be leery of this interpretation. As stake in the question of Romans 6.1 is not simply about continuing in sin, but that it pertains to the idea that grace increases. The Greek word use for “increase” is πλεονάζω, which Paul just used previously in 5.20 to describe how sin increases in response to the Torah. Meanwhile, grace far exceeds (ὑπερπερισσεύω) the increase of sin. So, ion talking about grace increasing in Romans 6.1, the question seems to be an attempt to present a logical implication that a hypothetical individual might derive from what Paul says in 5.20. Given that 5.18-21 is Paul’s argumentative conclusion derived from his comparison and contrast between Adam and Jesus in 5.12-17, the question of Romans 6.1 should be taken as a hypothetical interlocuter’s attempts to understand the implications of what Paul has said in 5.20.

As 5.12-21 is addressing matters of the is-ness behind the realities of sin, death, life, and righteousness, it is perhaps better suited to read the question of Romans 6.1 as asking a question about the logical implications of Paul argument: since the giving of the Torah lead to the increase of sin, are the people of Israel fated to continue to sin so that God’s grace may increase? We see this implicit idea about Israel being locked in disobedience come up again in Romans 9.19-24 and 11.7-32, to which Paul’s response to this possible reality is that it emerges from a mixture of God’s partial hardening that is also joined with the people’s own ignorance (Romans 9.30-10.4). If this is the case, Romans 6.1 is a question asked to address the ethical reality of those who live under the Torah.

Paul’s response in Romans 6 is to describe two truths that would be paradoxical from perspective of Judaism: (1) the Torah leads to the increase of sin and (2) people can be freed from sin. For the good, faithful Jew, obedience to the Torah would have been seen as a source of moral formation. The hearing of the Torah would have been a moral influence and then the doing of the Torah would have been even more formative. Among the most zealous observers of the Torah, it wouldn’t have been simply that the Torah was one way among many to live obediently to God, but it would have been the one and only way to be righteous. The Torah was fundamentally necessary to the moral fabric of human life. To people with such a mindset, to suggest that the Torah leads to an increase of sin while suggesting righteousness reigns through Jesus Christ would have seen down-right contradictory to their moral ontology.4

In response to this perceived paradox, if not contradiction, Paul carefully explains this alternative moral ontology. Jesus’ own righteous behavior that brings life and justification to everyone (Romans 5.18) comes to fruition through the baptismal union with Christ (Romans 6.2-11). At the same time, Paul careful nuances how the Torah can not free people from the Adamic pattern (Romans 7). Instead, it is the Spirit who inspired the Torah (Romans 7.14) that allows the experience of Christ’s death and resurrection to become to realization in people’s lives (Romans 8.1-17). In other words, it is the revelation and presence of God that is responsible for human redemption and righteousness, not the Torah.

This reflects a different understanding of Paul’s understanding of God’s grace. Rather than mistaking God’s grace as simply a form of personal favoritism towards a specific people that some Jews would have thought God to almost exclusively have for them (cf. Romans 2.3-5, 11), God’s grace is objectively realized in people’s lives through their own experiences that are brought into conformity to Christ’s death and resurrection through the Spirit. In other words, God’s grace is phenomenologically realized in people’s own experiences and life, such as the cry to God as Abba and Father (Romans 8.16), rather than simply an ideological assumption about one’s standing before God. However, to the Jew who has understood God’s mercy and grace as a form of personal favoritism, they would not have been apt to understand Paul’s description of God’s grace exceeding that of sin as something experienced in the present life, but more so as an expectation of a future exoneration at the judgment.  The question of Romans 6.1 reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s doctrine of grace as favoritism in the future, rather than a phenomenological experience of the death and resurrection of Christ in the present life through the Holy Spirit.

Consequently, when we understand Paul’s meaning about grace to be reduced to simply some sense of favoritism as representing in forgiveness, we are at risk at falling into a similar type of mindset to that which Paul is arguing against. Like the hypothetical Jew Paul portrays, we risk misunderstanding Paul’s argument in Romans. Many modern readers today tend to differ from this hypothetical Jew in that we don’t struggle with the deeply ingrained assumption that the Torah IS the means of righteousness, which causes Romans 6.1 to be construed to pertaining to moral permissibility rather than moral ontology. Nevertheless, I would invite you as a reader to consider Paul’s question in Romans 6.1 as a question of moral ontology, with the implication that Paul is portraying God’s grace as having ontological and phenomonological implications in the present rather than entirely reducing grace to an ideological presumption of favoritism through the giving of a forgiveness that exonerates from punishment. Romans 6.1-14 is about the divine reality in Jesus Christ that frees us from the power of sin so that we are empowered to live as God calls us to live.

δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as an Essentially Contested Concept

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October 21, 2019

In his commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo outlines three possible options for the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Romans 1.17: (1) An attribute of God, (2) Status given by God, and (3) an activity of God.1 In Moo’s judgment, the third option garners the most support from the Old Testament, taking it ot refer to God’s saving activity.[/note]Ibid., 72.p[/note] However, there is not real agreement that this is the actual sense of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. Ben Witherington disagrees with Moo, suggesting it refers to “[God’s] fairness and and faithfulness to his promise” on the grounds that God’s righteousness and saving activity are not equated in the OT, but merely associated.2 Robert Jewett takes a position closer to Moo, thinking that the “missional context” of the letter suggests that the phrase refers to “God’s activity in this process of global transformation.”3 Richard Longenecker believes that the phrase is used in multiple senses that would satisfy each of three of the options presented by Moo:

For “the righteousness of God” that Paul speaks of in these passages is a righteousness that is both (1) an attribute of God and a quality that characterizes all of his actions (the attributive sense) and (2) a gift that God gives to people who come to him “by faith” (the communicative sense). It is a type of righteousness that enables ables God to be both δίκαιον (“just”) and διακαιοῦντα (“justifier” or “the One who justifies”), as the confessional material of 3:24-26 affirms at its close in verse 26b.4

Trying to determine the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ has major implications as to how one interprets Romans. The phrase occurs eight times in Romans, whereas it only occurs one more time in the rest of Paul’s epistles in 2 Corinthians 5.21.5 Because of its place in the propositio in Romans 1.16-17, we can safely say that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is a critical concept for understanding Romans.

However, I want to suggest that there is something of a mistaken linguistic assumptions being used in trying to determine the meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. In the commentaries surveying, the assumptions is that there is a clear meaning of the phrase for Paul that we ourselves are ignorant of and that we simply need to reconstruct by looking at the uses of the phrase in the Old Testament and the literature of Second Temple Judaism. However, what if there wasn’t a clear, unanimous understanding of δικαιοσύνη when used in reference to God in the first place. Much like modern theological uses of the phrase “God’s love” to refer to very different ideas that can be mutually exclusive sometimes, what if δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ has a similar dynamic. I would put forward that it is this ambiguity that provides a background by which we can make sense of Paul’s different portrayal of God and the different usage of διακιόω between Romans 1.18-3.20 and 3.21-8.39. 

Analytic philosopher W.B. Gaille puts forward the idea that there are concepts that are essentially contested between different users of the concepts. Gaille observes that:

We find groups of people disagreeing about the proper use of the concepts, e.g., of art, of democracy, of the Christian tradition. When we examine the different uses of these terms and the characteristic arguments in which they figure we soon see that there is no one clearly definable general use of any of them which can be set up as the correct or standard use. Different uses of the term “work of art ” or ” democracy ” or ” Christian doctrine” subserve different though of course not altogether unrelated functions for different schools or movements of artists and critics, for different political groups and parties, for different religious communities and sects. Now once this variety of functions is disclosed it might well be expected that the disputes in which the above mentioned concepts figure would at once come to an end. But in fact this does not happen. Each party continues to maintain that the special functions which the term ” work of art ” or ” democracy ” or ” Christian doctrine ” fulfils on its behalf or on its interpretation, is the correct or proper or primary, or the only important, function which the term in question can plainly be said to fulfil. Moreover, each party continues to defend its case with what it claims to be convincing arguments, evidence and other forms of justification.6

While we can not go back and directly see if there were any disagreements on the understanding of God and His righteousness, we can certainly surmise there must have been some disagreements about what righteousness is and how it was demonstrated or obtained. This seems to be at the core of what Paul describes in Philippians 3.9 as a conflict of two different visions of righteousness. The conventional Pharisaical relationship of righteousness to the Torah was contested by Paul. This contention would also impact how one also understood God’s own righteousness, as God’s righteousness was occasionally connected to God’s commandments and ethical instruction (especially in Psalm 119). Also, insofar as God’s righteousness is related to the way God delivers His righteous people, there would have been various disagreements as to the understanding of God’s righteousness and who were the recipients of God’s mercy. For instance, the Damascus Document portrays God’s deliverance as coming to those who are “anointed by the holy spirit” (CD 2.12) that distinguished the remnant of Israel from the rest of Israel, whereas the Psalms of Solomon vision God’s righteous judgment being levied against the Gentiles who desecrated Jerusalem (Ps. Sol. 2.15-21).

To that end, it is perhaps best to leave Paul’s usage of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as relatively undefined in Romans 1.17. Certainly, we can say that it refers to something we know about God and also God’s activity, but to push with much more specificity than this general sense is, in my mind, to risk missing the purpose of Paul’s discourse to describe and explain what God’s righteousness is according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In favor of this is how both Romans 1.18 and 3.21 share a somewhat similar syntactic structure to Romans 1.17: Paul seems to be explicating upon two different visions of what God’s righteousness is. In 1.18-3.20 Paul deconstructs one understanding of God’s righteousness as a future vindication of the righteous Israel against her pagan oppressions, suggesting that such a view fundamentally misunderstands the way God will judge the world. While still recognizing the place of a future judgment, how God in His righteousness works to save people is fundamentally misunderstood by *some* Jews according to Paul’s argument. Meanwhile, Romans 3.21-8.39 further reflects on the nature of God’s righteousness as not simply occurring in some distant, future apocalyptic judgment of the world, but is also being demonstrated in the present time (νυνί; Rom 3.21) through Jesus Christ. This vision of God’s righteousness harkens back to Abraham as the prototype of faith and God’s vindication. God’s righteousness made known in Christ (Romans 6) and realized through the Spirit (Romans 8.1-17) rather than Torah (Romans 7) eventually culminates in the future redemption and vindication of God’s people even as they face the trials of the present time (Romans 8.18-39).

What Paul presents, then, is an understanding of God’s righteousness that is not just a future act of redemption from those hostile to God and His people, but it is an act of God in the present time to prepare people to be the recipients of this future redemption and mercy in the future. Put differently, in Jesus Christ, God’s righteousness is demonstrated throughout the life span of faith from coming to faith, just as Abraham did in receiving the promise, to endure in faith, just as Abraham did in receiving the promise (cf. “from faith to faith” in Rom. 1.17). The salvation that comes from God’s righteousness spans human life and human history, transforming people from disobedience to obedience, rather than being reduced to a punctiliar point of time in the future.

In conclusion, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ makes sense of only if we leave it as rather ambiguous in its meaning except insofar as Paul explicates on what God’s righteousness is. While some preliminary semantic observations are helpful, this provides false confidence that I would suggest overlooks the ambiguity that the term would have had in virtue of being an essentially contested concept between various Jewish sects and groups. But with this ambiguity in tow, we can begin to make sense of the development of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-8.

The problem with the popular personality profiles

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October 16, 2019

During my time at seminary, I remember going on a long drive with a couple of friends. On hour plus drive, I proceeded to talk to my friends about the Myers-Briggs personality profile, although my friends probably felt more like they were held hostage by my ramblings. Often reserved and introverted owing to my INTP profile, if I got into a topic I was hyperfocused on, I could give a long ‘lecture’ about it. I had become passionate about the Myers-Briggs as an insight into human personality. Having gone through trauma during my youth and in college, the Myers-Briggs offered a way of trying to make sense of myself when I was left often unsure about myself and the reasons I felt often disconnected from other people. Being an “INTP,” I had a good explanation for some of my patterns of thinking and how that could create a felt sense of distance between myself and others.

It seemed credible because it was “scientific.” In fact, Myers-Briggs was a combination of some basic insights into some parts of human psychology but was never found to be valid scientifically. In hindsight, I can recognize the credibility I gave to the Myers-Briggs was also rooted in how it made me feel about myself and giving me a set of ‘answers.’ After I had begun to distance myself from the Myers-Briggs because of its problems, I noticed another friend began to get really defensive quickly when I started to mention the limitations of it. From what I knew about them, they were someone else who seemed to have been trying to figure out themselves and their place in the world.

There is something quite powerful on a personal level about many personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. On the one hand, the very way they categorize people and explain each of the profiles can give the impression of depth and understanding that can make people think “they know what they are talking about.” Furthermore, as our description of our personalities is made up of the various things that make us human, such as cognition, emotion, motivation, relationships, activities, aspirations, etc., they seem actually applicable to our life. Add in any appearance of being rooting in some other authority, such as science, spirituality, etc., and we are inclined to believe they are reliable sources to understand ourselves.

And, to a degree, they can help to illuminate something about ourselves. When I discovered my profile as an “INTP,” I began to notice the way I endeavored to be logical in my understanding of the world. Our personality profiles can be like a mirror that we peer into and notice the handsome and attractive features of ourselves, or, if we are comfortable seeing our weakness or have a terrible low-self regard, we may even see some of the metaphorical smudge marks, pockets of skin and fat, and the scars that make us feel unattractive. Insofar as the personality profiles help us to discover what is already there: they can be of some use.

However, in a post-modern societal paradise of contradictory paradigms and confusions about what we should consider being true, we are often left with a sense of an unclear and incoherent sense of our selves. Particularly those of my generation were not encultured to have any one central identity that holds all the rest of our self-perceptions and identities together. Consequently, we look to personality profiles to serve as more than mirrors to look at ourselves. They became more like virtual reality that we don’t realize is a virtual reality; our personality profile gives us a certain skin that we then think we are and play as in accordance to the expectations we generate from them.

Being an INTP, I often told myself that I was a logical, analytic person, which was often the case. But at the same time, there was an aspect of myself that I was increasingly overlooking: that I was naturally deeply sensitive and empathetic. Instead, I increasingly took on the persona of an INTP because thats who that is who I ‘am;’ people even subtly reinforced this perception of me by focusing on and only see  Something that was partly descriptive about myself became subtly and implicitly normative: I am to be as this profile says that I am. The process of answer questions for a profile can be likened to creating a relatively simple character1 in a video game. We may create a character that resembles some aspect of who we are, such as a virtuous, law-abiding hero or, and thinking that idealization which is sometimes the case is always the case. The difference is that we don’t come up with the character, but the personality profiles slots us in a category based upon how we respond to specific inquiries. Whereas we can usually recognize the limits of our own imagination, if we allow our imagination to be directed by an ‘authoritative’ personality profile, we can put on the profile as if it is a ‘skin’ in virtual reality but think this is really who we are.

Now, here is the real kicker: because our own conscious self-perceptions and identities are formed from both personal memories of ourselves and experiences and external, social categories and expectations, we can never really be sure if we are using personality profiles like a mirror or as a skin in virtual reality. Further complicating matters is that the personality profiles can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by our belief in them, leading us to submit ourselves to a mental ‘plastic surgery’ that fits in the skin that has been assigned to us that we will then eventually see in the mirror.

In other words, personality profiles can help us to identify something that is there or, alternatively, they can form us into the image of the creator(s) of the personality profiles that we submit ourselves to. It largely depends on the makeup of ourselves when we use them. If we have a relatively entrenched sense of who we are that is reliable and not built upon some sense of denial, then personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram will be like a mirror. However, if our sense of self is highly fluid and unsure, our own self-perceptions are going to be more influenced by what the profile tells us we are, making it more like a skin in virtual reality that can eventually turn into psychological plastic surgery.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of playfulness, exploration, and openness to trying out different personas that the personality profiles can guide us in, insofar as we recognize that we aren’t finding our true ‘essence’ by doing so. Where the real problem is when we give these personality profiles an authority to reliably help us to see who we actually are. In this case, we are being formed into the image of its human creator(s) fashioned from their own selves that they ‘projected’ onto their understanding of human personality, along with other people who use and propagate the various personality profiles.

From a Christian angle, a simply playfulness and imagining ourselves based upon the personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram isn’t bad or wrong. Insofar as we as humans are formed into the pattern of God’s image, our own thoughts about human life can reflect the image of God. If our own sense of our self is relatively secured, then the personality profiles can help us to identify something about ourselves that is true to how God made and formed us.

However, insofar as the image of God has been defaced and erased in ourselves corporately and personally, the image of humanity imagined from the creator(s) of the personality profile will reflect their brokenness and sin, both corporately and personally. The impacts of the brokenness and sin can be hidden in the ways the creator(s) and propagators divide up the human life and personality into ways that separate different motivations, traits, cognitive patterns, etc. from others that can reflect the way they divide the world up. Put differently, personality profiles rely upon our cognitive dissociation of the various aspects of human personality from each other to be able to provide in language a clear and coherent account of human personality. Their own humanness, both in its glory and its shame, is embedded into the very way their thoughts on personality is communicated used. As a consequence, when we submit and unconsciously surrender ourselves to the authority of the human creator(s) and propogaters of the various personality profiles, we risk inviting the brokenness and sin of their lives into our own lives. In addition, insofar as we consider ourselves able to understand and use these profiles for self-awareness, we can also exacerbate our own brokenness and sin within our lives by filling in the gaps with our own brokeness. If we are not careful, the end result is that we can come up with an extreme, distorted personality that we have created by our psychological plastic surgery, taking us further and further from God’s given image.

More scientifically rigorous personality profiles have many hedges against this form of unconscious self-mutilation. Personality profiles like the Big Five and the MMPI have specific definitions that constrain the significance of the findings. The scientific processes used to determine how reliable the tests and results are and why they are reliable means that their usage is less susceptible to the fancies of an undisciplined human imagination. Their often technical, less evocative language offers hedges against the misunderstandings that other personality profiles can readily fall prey to. While not perfect, more scientific personality profiles keep their imperfections more contained.

Furthermore, the scientific nature of these profiles reminds us that we are by nature more ignorant than we are knowledgable and that the truth about something as complex and frequently hidden as the human heart only comes through sustained learning and reflection that allows itself to be falsified and challenged. However, the usage of other personality profiles (or even the more scientific ones when their original intentions are not well understood) offers us an illusion of our own self-understanding and expertise about other people. They can engender within us an illusion of epistemic confidence about who we are ourselves and, if we are not careful, even others. The blindspots of an exaggerated sense of self-awareness will reflect the motivations of our heart and our own ideals, subtly blinding us and denying within ourselves the very things that go against the ideals laid within our hearts. To that end, personality profiles can also offer us a way to escape from learning about ourselves, to escape from things that we worry or even feel are true about ourselves.

My own understanding of being an INTP, as true as it may have been in part, was also a way of escaping the deeply sensitive and empathetic part of myself that had been scarred over from bullying, from the suicide of my brother, and from the violation of my significant personal boundaries. It offered an escape from the burdensome realities that I didn’t want to believe and accept as the way the world is, or the way the world could be. Insofar, as I was rational and reasonable, I could continue see the world as a reasonable place. My own exuberance from the Myers-Briggs reflected a person wanted to solidify a sense of self and identity that would drown out the howling, shrill pitch of the ghosts of past trauma. It helped to create a sense of myself as a person that ultimately became increasingly susceptible to the emotional breakdown that came when faced with other difficulties. Insofar as the Myers-Briggs is actually rooted in the psychological theory of Carl Jung, who himself underwent an episode of psychotic breakdown, could one say that my exuberance for the Myers-Briggs lead me to ultimately be formed into the image of Carl Jung? Maybe that is taking it too far, but maybe there is something to it.

The value and limitations of sociology in New Testament studies

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October 14, 2019

In recent decades, there has been an increased interest in interpreting the Gospels and letters of the New Testament in light of sociological theory. Pioneering scholars like Gerd Theissen and then later scholars such at Wayne Meeks paved the way for the use of sociological models in the study of the New Testament. Nearly two decades ago, Philip Esler in Conflict and Identity in Romans helped pioneer the use of social identity theory in New Testament interpretation. More recently, Francis Watson in Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles interprets Paul’s discussion about justification as part of offering an ideological explanation for the split of Paul’s apostolic mission from Judaism, turning Paul’s mission from a reform movement into a sect. 

As I have read parts of Theissen, Meeks, Esler, and Watson, there is no doubt that sociological/socio-scientific studies on the New Testament can bear some great fruit in helping up to understand the early Christians. For instance, if I had a PhD and were a professor teaching a more advanced NT exegesis class, I would tell every student that they need to know a little bit about social identity theory. Knowing how our sense of shared identity is constructed and impacts daily life and our interactions with others is a source of incredible insight. While I don’t ultimately agree with Esler’s interpretations of Romans, many of the issues Paul raises can be helpfully understood using social identity theory.

Nevertheless, I am left finding that the use of sociology in NT studies is also deeply problematic. As I am working through Watson’s Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, I am struck by how he suggests the combination of denunciation of opponents, the usage of antitheses that differentiate good and bad, and the act of reinterpreting something different from another group is evidence of a sect, which Watson takes to refer to a (religious) group that is pessimistic about society. Do these combinations of three behaviors really serve as evidence of separating and disconnecting from others? Or, can they be more appropriately understood as evidence of a stark conflict? Many conflicts revolve around people denouncing the behaviors of others, contrasting thems and the others in terms of the antithesis of values, traits, practices, etc., and disagreements about how to interpret events, specific actions, texts, etc. While certainly a sect will probably engage in a combination of denunciation, antitheses, and reinterpretation, there can be other social causes for the behaviors of conflict and disagreement. As Watson does a quick overview of Qumran, Johannine Christianity, and Paul in light of these three behaviors to say each of these three groups are sectarian, I am left to think that Watson is unconsciously engaging in the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

What is happening here? The problem is that whereas social reality is complex, the science of sociology is unable to adequately represent this complexity. There are multiple causes for any sort of social behavior.  For instance, hostility by one group of people against another can be caused by a sense of unmet entitlement, a desire to remedy injustice, an attempt to protect oneself from oppression by the others, serious disagreement on matters that are considered significant, etc. Hostility can even be caused by a combination of these causes. Any theory I can formulate to explain hostility between social groups is going to inevitably privilege certain types of explanations over others in order for the theory to be actually usable. For a sociological theory to say “it is complex and we can’t explain it” may be good reasoning, but it isn’t a usable theory or explanation. Rather, sociology, as with many other forms of science, have to regular need to place explicit or implicit limitations on what type of phenomena their theories do apply to and explain.

While some scientists understand this, albeit not all, even fewer people who appropriate science would understand that there are limitations to application. As a consequence, whereas an expert in sociology may have a refined intuition as to what circumstances familiar social theories can apply to, non-expert appropriators of sociology may unconsciously treat sociological theory (a) as sociological laws that (b) explain all or most phenomena one can imagine the theory to apply to. The end result is that we can be left with what ultimately amounts to interpretations that engage in the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Is a specific set of behavior predicted by a theory? The inclination is to regard that theory as being a successful application in that specific instance. However, if a set of behaviors can be explained variously, one may be going down a rabbit trail away from the true explanation.

The point being that sociological theories value isn’t in how it helps us to interpret specific parts of the New Testament. Rather, it’s value is how it can allow us to make connections throughout the New Testament and our understanding of the history of the time period. For instance, I would propose the social theory of Terror Management Theory can be used to help make a connection between Paul’s description of baptism into Christ in Romans 6.1-12 and that one must suffer with Christ to be glorified with Christ (Romans 8.17). Paul’s discourse about the participation in Christ functions in part to alleviate the sense of anxiety and fear that comes to Jews who would live as second class citizens in a city and society that negatively stereotypes them and regularly expels them from Rome. To persistently fall under the judgment of the Roman Emperor would have been a source of fear of death, leading to the rise of sin in Paul’s understanding. As such, Paul’s discussion of participation in Christ invites the Jewish Christians in Rome to see their relation to Christ as more than simply the inheritor of David’s dynasty (Rom 1.3), but that by being united to Christ one dies in his death so they may be rendered free from the bondage to sin and death that holds them back to live a new, transformed life.

In proposing the applicability of TMT, I am making a connection between four things (1) Romans 6.1-12, (2) Romans 8.17, (3) my interpretation of Romans being addressing to deconstruct the theological narrative that taught that the vindication of the righteous Jews would come through God’s judgment of the evil Gentiles, and (4) knowledge of how ethnic tensions caused by a group with greater power being threateningly used against another group can contribute to the increasingly severe moral denunciation by the socially weaker ethnic group. I imagine that TMT can be used to help bridge connections between other points.

Furthermore, in drawing the connections between other observations and explanations, I am minimizing the extent to which my usage of sociology contributes to making my interpretation of Paul an etic description from my own modern, social perspective, rather than moving towards an emic perspective. While Paul’s discourse can be understood as helping the Jewish Christians in Rome manage their terror under the hands of the Roman Caesar (Nero at the time), Paul is not consciously thinking about trying to help them manage such terror. He is not a modern psychologist. Rather, he presents his understanding of the Christian experience of being in Christ as a response to the fear and hostility that he supposes to have been felt in his audience. The usage of TMT is simply used to help us recognize that the management of fear and terror is a common motivator for various behaviors and beliefs that seek to address these problems.

As a consequence, focusing on simply making connections minimizes running the risk of reducing Paul’s understanding of participation in Christ to a set of beliefs about one’s own self-esteem to mitigate fear, which TMT theorizes about. There is a good reason to consider that Paul’s account of union with Christ is due to the combination of his Damascus Road experience and the outpouring of the Spirit, but in Romans, he uses the theme of participation to address the specific circumstances in the primarily Jewish Christian audience living in the center of Roman power. Etic descriptions often risks reducing causes and sources of people’s thinking and behavior in another culture in terms of our own expectations, explanations, and values. However, as the complex of social life also includes many causes co-contributing to a single effect, focusing simply on making connections does try to use sociological theory to offer the most significant explanation for a specific type of discourse in the New Testament.

In summary, the application of sociological theory should be limited by the recognition that there are explicit and implicit limitations on the applicability of theory to specific phenomena, particularly something as complex as social life. Rather, the value of sociological theory can bring is more so in bridging connections in what we already have and believe/know. Put differently, we should be wary in using sociology to try to construct explanations and interpretations of the various parts of the NT, but we can more safely use it to try to offer a coherent account of what we do have in the NT.

The future of evangelism and the Church in the West

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October 3, 2019

Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, posted an insightful blog article yesterday on the future of the Wesleyan movement. Describing the “crystallization of discontent” of many of us United Methodists over what we consider to be serious problems facing our denomination, Dr. Tennent advocated for a serious revision to our denominational Discipline that is more missional, with a strategy for church planting over the next decade.

In reflecting on his post, I have been led to think more broadly about the challenges that the Christian faith has experienced within Western culture, most particularly in the United States. It is well understood that people are decreasingly identifying as Christian and that many denominations are quickly dwindling in size, such as my own United Methodist denomination or the Southern Baptists. While those churches that are holding steady or growing tend to be evangelical, the gradual decline of the Southern Baptist denomination reveals that it isn’t evangelical doctrine that guarantees any sort of church growth. The denominations that are experiencing the most growth in recent years tend to be (a) evangelical off-shoots from historically mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church of American (from the PCUSA) or the Anglican Church of North America (from the Episcopal Church), (b) smaller denominations with a Wesleyan background like the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarenes, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church and (c) charismatic/Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).

In looking at these three categories of denominations that I outline, it is hard to draw any single principle that explains all of their growth in an increasingly post-Christian era. Nevertheless, I think there are a few principles that may define the future of Christian faith in the West if it is to spread on a wider-scale. While these thoughts may in the end be more reflective of my own spiritual and intellectual journey than coming in contact with something closer to the heart of church renewal, I offer these as food for thought for others.

Evangelism will move from persuading to believe to story-telling

Much of the evangelism that has taken place in the United States have largely relied upon some motivation for people to believe. Whether it be escaping eternal judgment or finding God to be a source of help for a person’s personal struggles in one’s marriage, career, etc., evangelism has largely been a persuasive endeavor. However, in an age of secularism, the traditional means of persuasion will no longer have the force they did in the past. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, one is not persuaded to become a follower of Jesus Christ. This is even true in a society that has a deep sense of skepticism towards anything that smells like smuggling fear or a sales-pitch.

It is my conviction that evangelism in the future will be more like evangelism was for Apostle Paul, when Christian faith was more suspect in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Paul endeavored to tell the story of Jesus Christ in ways that people could readily comprehend, rather than trying to directly persuade people to believe. Far from Paul’s sermon in front of the Agora in Athens being some attempt make the Gospel “relevant” that it is often made out to be, Paul used the type of language and concepts the Stoics and the Epicureans would have understood. Before getting interrupted by the scoffers, Paul began his story-telling by using the ideas on an unknown God and the idea of being made like God to lead up to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. However, Paul didn’t think his evangelistic task was to persuade people based upon what the audience valued and expected (1 Corinthians 1.22-23). Paul’s main evangelistic task was to tell the story of what happened to Jesus Christ and how this was part of God’s story testified to in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2.1-2, 15.3-8).

Evangelistic persuasion will be more dependent on the Spirit and people’s personal experiences

This is the flip side of the focus on story-telling. Rather than trying to describe and provide motivations for coming to faith, effective evangelism will focus more so on the signs of God’s work on people’s behalf and in their lives. In a day of skepticism of sales-pitches, people want more first-hand experience of what it is that they commit to. Evangelism will become more like guiding people on tour of a college campus rather than outlining all the accolades of the school and the benefits of choosing to attend. Paul believed that it is ultimately the demonstration of Spirit that was responsible for persuading people to faith (1 Cor. 2.3-5), not his own preaching.

Churches that grow will focus more on the small than the large

In the past few decades, megachurches have discovered that one of the keys to church growth and retention have been vital small groups. Most people don’t come to faith and remain in faith due to attending one service on a weekly basis where one person is part of a large crowd. While traditional worship and preaching will still have a place in churches in the West, the center of Christian life will make an even more decisive shift towards the small and personal. The conventional church and its staff will be focused more so on encouraging and providing basic oversight to small social connections in the church, with less emphasis on big program ministries and large gatherings aside from weekly worship.

This is in part because the organization and maintenance of that which is large, complex, and with many moving parts primarily relies upon those who have special training and pedigree (i.e., clergy) and the motivated few (i.e., super-spiritual lay Christians, the clergy’s favorite laypeople, laity seeking to boost their reputation, etc.) whereas the small and less formal is more inclusive of responsibilities and roles of its various participants (i.e., laity as a whole). In the 20th century, churches could grow due to the more to the efforts of “specialized” evangelists and “professional” teacher; it was easier to speak a Christian message that could resonate with the people due to the culture being more uniform and the Christian having a default plausibility and recognition. However, in a pluralistic world without a default recognition of the validity of Christian belief, “professional” Christians will no longer be critical to evangelism. Evangelism, discipleship, and church growth will be the task of the various gifts of the laity in a smaller, less formal setting.

We can think of this move analogous to the early Jewish believers retaining a connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, but the center of evangelism and teaching about Christ happening in the “smaller” settings of homes. In fact, the shift towards the smaller and more communal over the larger and more social tends to be the pattern for renewal movements that culminate in broader, evangelistic growth. The earliest Christians were seeking a reformed Judaism in light of the teachings of Jesus that lead them to gather separately. Similarly, the Wesleyan revival in England placed a greater emphasis on the small in terms of meetings in bands and personal conversations, while they still retained their involvement in the churches.

Churches will focus less on capital campaigns and focus more on planting campaigns

How did churches in the 20th and in the turn to the 21st century try to support evangelistic growth? Build a bigger sanctuary with more parking space. Build a large meeting area or activity center such as a fellowship hall or gym to house various program ministries. Insofar as the Christian message had a de facto credence with people, churches could try to engineer church growth by simply making more space and providing more activities to get involved. However, the net effect was to grow churches bigger and bigger.

But in an age where bigger isn’t better, churches that want to fulfill the Great Commission will focus less on growing big and more on helping plant other churches. There will still be some churches that grow larger facilities because they will have a natural reach to a large population or they will operate as a central station for some traditional ministries of the church such age-level ministries and program ministries that supplement other churches (more on that in a moment). However, individual churches that grow big will grow big more out of necessity than ambition.

Instead, churches that successfully contribute to evangelistic growth will have more focus on giving birth1 to new church plants. It isn’t enough that church planting becomes the purview of a centralized decision-making process of a denominational bureaucracy, but that local churches are actually the primary agents in church growth.2 We are already witnessing the early signs of this trend with larger churches moving towards multi-site models of churches. This trend can be modified and transformed into a practice of support church plants by churches that lack the overhead and staff to support a multi-site model.

Of course, a question needs to be asked: why would churches be motivated to plant other churches? Churches that have developed a culture of church-planting might develop this as an instinct, but what about the already established churches. Why would they be motivated to do that? Firstly, for many established churches that have shown no signs of growth at this point, it can provide an alternative to trying to change what the people are presently familiar with. While from my observation it seems that the “worship wars” of the last 20th and the early 21st century have largely become a cease-fire, there are still strong emotions attached to not messing with “what we have. Second, for churches with large facilities and the corresponding bills to pay but no longer having the number of people to make use of the facilities, partnering with a new church plant provides a way to ameliorate the cost. Thirdly, aiding in church plants can be a way to help “dying” churches a way to die well with spiritual dignity in passing on to the next generation. Rather than fostering the feelings of fear and crisis of a church death, it can be seen as a time for passing on to a new church while they still have the resources and energy to support one.

Many of the traditional age-based and program-based ministries will be done through small churches partnering with larger churches

While the age of the small may be arriving for churches in the United States, there will still be a need for some of the traditional ministries that larger churches have provided. Specifically, week-to-week programs for children and youth will still have a place. Yet, optimistically, I would think these would be accomplished more through a partnership between churches, especially with churches who have similar theological traditions and commitments. The effect of this would be fewer resources being dedicated by smaller churches to reproduce what other churches who are more economically empowered to do in a much more efficient and effective way. This will, however, require much more trust and collaboration between churches, which means that would likely be the case in church networks where the people share a strong sense of shared identity and theology.

The relationship between clergy and laity will neither be monarchical  or democratic in form, but rather work more as a covenantal partnership

In the present time, we are witnessing two great problems with various Christian denominations. On the one hand, in those denominations where there is less wide-scale accountability, such as the Southern Baptist church, we have heard many, many horror stories of sexual harassment and abuse defiling the halls of the church. With little accountability, abusers are able to move from one place to another with little real reporting or discipline. On the other hand, a less morally evil but a problem that nevertheless threatens are denominations that are more traditionally lead from the top-down have experienced greater dilution of denominational identity and greater degree of conflicts between Christians. In the United Methodist denomination, we have witnessed how many of my fellow “professional” clergy have used their positions to actively subvert our ‘covenant’ in ways that the ‘covenant’ does not otherwise allow for3 because the local churches and laity are not able to hold them accountable for their duplicity and manipulation.

In both monarchical and democratic forms of governance, there tends to be one center of power that other people are accountable to. In the traditional episcopacy, the leadership makes the decisions that determine the direction of the churches. In the congregational model, the people of the local churches tend to hire/fire their ministry ‘leadership.” Because there is only one center of power, both models are highly susceptible to charmers, charlatans, and manipulators who can effectively play and navigate the one source of power.

A more genuinely covenantal model of church governance, where there is a greater separation and distribution of responsibilities and resources between the clergy and the laity that allows both some freedom but both some ability to hold the other side accountable is a way navigate away from the heinous evil of sexual abuse and the less heinous ecclesial hijacking that also presents a challenge to American Christianity. How that would be realized is up-for-grabs, but it is necessary if we wish to fight against both problems that our denominations are facing right now.

Theology will become less about abstract reasoning and more based upon reasoning from well-taught and well-understood narratives

For evangelism and discipleship to occur through more decentralized and smaller churches and groups, it will be necessary that the theological teachings of the church be more widely understood and disseminated to the laypeople. In other words, the culture of our churches needs to be more formed by our theology. While a return to catechesis can be instrumental in decentralized evangelism, the problem is that the way we typically engaged in theological reasoning in thinking is a massive road-block. The implicit assumption that the normative way to do theology is by understanding various conceptual doctrines about God, Jesus, the Spirit, etc. that you then apply to life, we effectively divide comprehension and application in such a way that only the more cognitively elite and trained can really participate in. Theological concepts that require a high-degree of abstractions and disciplined imagination4 to master, use, and teach are less accessible to people. Such theology is the theology of professionals (i.e. clergy and religious academics), not the amateur (the laity).

However, a theology that takes narratives, not concepts, as the primary source material for theological reasoning is much more accessible to a wider population. Most people can more quickly understand and reason from narratives. This would equip more people to engage in evangelism as presented in the first principle I outlined as they are not responsible for knowing all the “hidden theological meanings” of the cross, but proclaiming the story of death and resurrection. 

However, the move away from abstract reasoning can be very messy. There is a reason the early church prior to Nicea faced so many different threats from the formulation of various heresies. While there is still a place for traditional theological formulations, for a messier narrative base of  theology to remain orthodox, it would need to be a theology based upon a small, repetitively, and well-waught set of highly significant narratives (that is the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and other prominent narratives in the Scriptures such as Abraham, the Exodus, Pentecost, etc.) that are also provided a rather uniform understanding of their central, but not exclusive, significance (such as, Jesus Christ’s death is a death for people’s sins, Jesus’ resurrection is the overcoming of the power of death, etc.).

Liturgy provides one avenue for teaching such narratives, although liturgy alone without other acts of narrative pedagogy and instruction will simply become mindless rote. Catechesis is another resource that can be used, although the traditional forms of catechesis that I am personally familiar with still seem to work from a more paradigmatic, abstract mode of instruction rather than a narrative form of reasoning.

The role of the clergy will be focused more on teaching theology (as outlined above) and responding to the crises and challenges of life and community and less on the regular maintenance of day-to-day function.

Presently, due to the professionalization of churches due to the demands of the “big,” pastors are expected to wear many, various hats in serving churches. We treat pastors as “professional church people” are our hired to who provide the services in the church that others don’t provide, such as preaching, teaching, counseling, administration, etc., etc. If you are in a church big enough, multiple pastors may be hired to provide each of these individual services, but in moderate size churches with one or two pastors, they become treated as do-it-all types. However, with the dramatic shift towards the small, pastors and other clergy will be freed to take on a more apostolic role in terms of teaching and instructing people in the Gospel and tackling the challenges that require specially trained skills to effectively address (such as various life crises).

However, to produce a church and denominational culture that engages in evangelism and theology in the manner previously outline as described above to be accomplished, it would entail clergy becoming the chief story-tellers of the Gospel who ensure the proper transmission and comprehension of these narratives.

I offer these either principles of churches in the future to imagine how evangelism and discipleship may need to adjust into the future in order for the Chrisitan faith and churches in America and the West to have the capacity for a powerful and clear witness in a post-Christian culture. Again, these may be more due to the way my own lenses used to understand the Church has shifted through my own personal story and change, so treat them with all due caution and deliberation.