Searching for a hopeful future in the midst of the present Coronavirus crisis

March 30, 2020

Yesterday, Time published an article by NT Wright on how we as Christians are not given answers as to the meaning of what is happening, but we are given the practice of lament. While I usually agree with much of what Bishop Wright says as he has been a profound influence on me, there has probably been no book, chapter, or article that I have agreed with him as much as this article. At the heart of it, his words express the experience of my faith that has been lived out after being repeatedly stung by the power of death and coming to a sense of near total social isolation. In many ways, my life has been an intensive form of the experience of the fear, anxiety, mourning, and loneliness that so many others are feeling right now.

In the life lived under the oppression of the dark, lingering, ever-persistent emotions that crises and tragedies create, the pain that emerged seem to contradict ever answer and explanation I attempted to formulate as to why what happened happened. In that place, lament was the only the action, the only means of grace that could sustain my faith when nothing else could take that depth of the pain away. Lament offers no answers, but calls forth an honesty to God that beckons forth a faith and hope that God will turn our weeping now into celebration tomorrow. It is there in that place, where all the intellectual explanations and answers for the tragedies of life will seem like straw, where such explanations feel like Job’s friends trying to console Job, that we can begin to discover a new vision and understanding about God and our lives, much as Job heard God by his hear and saw God with his eyes (Job 42.5). Lament doesn’t gives us an explanation, but it offers us a place to rediscover what has either been forgotten and seemed foggy due to the pain and to find something new that had never come to our hearts and minds.

As I echo deeply with Wright wisely reminds us of, I want to add lay one thing on top of what he said. For the Church, the threats of death and tribulation, whether they be from other people or from natural causes, presents an opportunity for the Church to discover its vocation and an opportunity to bring forth the message of the Gospel in ways previously unimagined.

Acts 8.1 speaks of the scattering of most of the believers, except the apostles, from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. The threats to life and well-being presented a challenge that these believers faced with leaving their homes. While some might be inclined to see this as an act of cowardice, what is described then in Acts 8.4 reveals the blessing that happen as a result of the tribulation: these scattered believers began preaching the Gospel elsewhere, such as Philip, who was one of the seven chosen to serve in Acts 6.5, who preached the Gospel in Samaria (Acts 8.4-13), the Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-29), and to various towns until he finally arrives in Caesarea (8.40). It was there in Caesarea that a man named Cornelius that an angel of God directed him to send for the apostle Peter (10.1-33), who had a vision of God calling him to eat what was unclean (10.9-16) that served as a revelation for Peter to understand the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles (10.34-48). While we don’t have a direct connection between Philip and Cornelius, their common location of Caesaraea certainly demonstrates that the persecution of the early believers lead to the spread of the Gospel to the city where it would be revealed to Peter that the Gentiles are also cleansed by faith and recipients of the Holy Spirit. The point being is that tragedy and tribulation are also times for the Spirit to lead us into new vocations, ministries, and activites.

An image to help understand our response as Christians to the Coronavirus is that of lament as we are scattered into exile. To be clear, we aren’t scattered into an exile away from our homes like the early disciples, but we are scattered from our churches, communities, and friends in a way that many people are perhaps barely familiar with. We are scattered because the threats of death have been uttered with power in the spread of COVID-19. In its here, in this place, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ call for us to bear our cross and not shrink away, but to consider how we are to be agents of God’s blessing and shalom as the curse of the illness spread and afterwards.

In 1755, the city of Lisbon was the site of one what was one of the deadlist earthquakes in European history at that time, if not the deadliest, that would go on to set the intellectual questions about God, the world, and suffering that would help define and influence the following centuries. There, the theological response of Christians was unhelpful to the rest of European world. Leibniz’s “best of all worlds,” formulated at the begnning of the 18th century, was derisively parodied by the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. By contrast John Wesley said in “Some Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon:”

And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal? That some thou sand houses, and many thousand persons, are no more! that a fair city is now in ruinous heaps! Is there indeed a God that judges the world? And is he now making inquisition for blood? If so, it is not surprising, he should begin there, where so much blood has been poured on the ground like water! where so many brave men have been murdered, in the most base and cowardly as well as barbarous manner, almost every day, as well as every night, while none regarded or laid it to heart.

Neither of these answers were satisfactory to the society of the European Enlightenment. Furthermore, neither of these answers really emerge from a full understanding of the Scriptural narrative. Leibniz’s optimism diminishes the need for redemption, risking minimizing it to simply God’s attempt to maximize goodness rather than a recognition that the world is not as it should be and that crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the way that a world that has strayed from God’s purposes will be restored. Meanwhile, Wesley’s consideration of judgment, which he admittedly hedges on a little bit, overlooks that God sends prophets to speak of His judgment before it happens. Post hoc reasoning does not reliably reveal the will of God as much as it reveals our own struggles. As Wesley was a man who lived in constant fear of judgment for himself, he himself perhaps projected that fear of judgment as an explaination for the Lisbon earthquake.

While it is perhaps premature to say now, the Coronavirus crisis may be the catalyst for the Church to springboard to a fresh theology, a fresh ecclesiology, a fress evangelism, and a fresh philosophy. But that will come not because we try to reframe the present tragedy into a present good, but because we mourt lament in the midst of our present exile caused by the scattering caused by present tribulation, we may in the future discover afresh parts of God’s Gospel as made known to us in the story of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we can bring to bear for the future hope of life in our world, to transform the world through the One in whom new creation has been inaugurated.

To conclude, while we can not come to some God’s eye view that explains the theological and existential why’s of the Coronavirus, perhaps we can may be able to see and undrestand in the midst of everything the convergance of various strands that testify to the hand of God at work to face and overcome evil in the present form, including through the Body of Christ here on the earth.

The faith that works is the faith that saves: Romans 4, James 2, and the problem of the faith/works dichotomy of Protestant hermeneutics

March 30, 2020

The epistle of James has always presented a thorn in the side of the Protestant Reformation. James 2.14-26 is often appealed to by Catholics in the theological disagreements with Protestantism as an example how the doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong. There is certainly something of substance to this charge at some level, even though it doesn’t mean we should throw our Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith entirely out. Martin Luther famously called James an “epistle of straw” in comparison to the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul, both of which emphasize faith/believe. Elsewhere in his preface to James and Judge, Luther said he did not consider the letter to have an apostolic authority. Luther describes the first reason he does not consider it to have an apostolic authority:

First, because, in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works, and declares that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up his son. St. Paul, on the contrary, in Romans 4 [:3], teaches that Abraham was justified without works, by his faith alone, the proof being in Genesis 15 [:6], which was before he sacrificed his son.

This is not to place to fully delve into Luther’s reasons against the canonicity of James as the other reason he offers is that Christ does not seem to take center place in the letter. However, that James would take such a strong position against the canon does behoove us to ask a question: if Luther saw James contradicting his doctrine of justification by faith, we either need to consider whether (1) that Luther was somehow in error, without immediately resorting to an all-or-nothing stance towards Luther that Catholic polemics encourages or (2) that the New Testament canon of the first few centuries somehow in error. As a Protestant who values the traditions of the Church, particularly the earliest traditions, the second option is untenable to me, leaving me with only the first option.

It is my opinion that Martin Luther right picked upon a theological seem in the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles about faith in Christ that had not appropriately understood and appreciated. At the same time, Luther did not fully mine this seem out, but rather his theology became more of a reflection of his own struggles and journey rather than a deepening exegesis of the Scriptures. In part, though, Luther can be forgiven for this as he did not have access to all the extrabiblical sources and scholarly tools at our modern disposal to help us study with more linguistic and historical precision than Luther. Still, with good reasons from modern scholarship to challenge Luther’s interpretation of Paul, we can simultaneously appreciate Luther and continue what he started by mining more deeply into that seem, while also recognizing that Luther didn’t give us the full riches of what Paul, John, or James were saying about faith.

In order to do this, however, it requires us as Protestants to work against one of the dualism that has pervaded our theological consciousness: the antithesis we set between faith and works. In place of this, I would offer that for Paul and the Gospel of John, faith (1) sets the agenda for the type of works people do by learning from Christ and (2) provides the motivation for doing those specific works through the leading of the Spirit.

For instance, in Romans 4.4-5, the Protestant hermeneutics is habitually inclined to regard “the one who works” as somehow misguided and far from salvation, but the “the who trusts” as saved. However, there is nothing explicit that Paul says that suggests that. That is the way we read the antithesis and a specific type of theological polemic into Paul that provides that. However, if we should prioritize Paul’s whole letter in interpreting the meanings of the parts, ot seems more appropriate to connect the one who works in Romans 4.4 with the people who stand at judgment in Romans 2.6-11, rather than impute a negative characterization on them.

Now, there does seem to be a mild contrast between “the one who works” and “the one who trusts” in Romans 4.4-5, suggested by the δὲ at the beginning of vs. 5. If the contrast is not between the “the one who works” as “unsaved” and “the one who trusts” as “saved,” what then is the contrast between the two? The best contrast to offer is one that connects what has been otherwise stated in the two: they describe two people with two different ways of life. The first one is the one works, who is accomplishing what is expected of them. The second one, however, is a person who is ungodly. Whereas some Jewish literature like the Wisdom of Solomon would ascribe to the ungodly an assured faith of God’s judgment and destruction, Paul says something different: it is through faith that this person can become justified just like Abraham was. The ungodly are justified by God also.

The significance of what Paul is doing is to say that before a person becomes faithful to God in what they do, they first must be recipients of God’s grace received through faith. That it always start with God, so that even when someone is justified by their works, they still can not boast before God (Rom. 4.2). Notice that Paul does not explicitly deny “justification by works,” but rather he questions the inference that “justified by works” leads to boasting. In other words, Paul is questing specific inferences based upon “justification by works,” and the primary inference is that the person is somehow worthy by their own nature as being a righteous person, something the Wisdom of Solomon does describe. The right inference for Paul is that before one ever works, God has been grace to the one has faith in Him.

It is for this reason that a diachronic understanding of faith is important to make sense of Romans 4. Paul is not describing “how does one get saved” but rather demonstrating the pattern of God’s grace and promises in the life of Abraham. Paul quotes from Genesis 15.6 to make the connection between faith and justification in Romans 4.3. However, Paul again quotes the same passage against in 4.22, after Abraham grew strong in faith and received what was promised from God. James quotes the same passage in James 2.23 after describing Abraham offering up Isaac on the altar. It seems, then, that this quote about justification was not used an understood only to refer to what happens at the moment when Abraham trusted God’s promises, but it seems that what is said in Genesis 15.6 sets the trajectory and agenda of Abraham’s life into the future, such that James will say that this Scripture was fulfilled with the offering of Isaac. Put simply, when Abraham believes God, God credits to Abraham a righteousness that will over the course of his life come to define his life, even if early on Abraham did some things that caused great pain and injustice, such as bearing a child through Hagar.

Thus, it seems that what Paul is getting at is that Abraham’s life was always lead by faith in God’s promises and it is this that directs the course of his life. He isn’t trying to set faith against works as if Abraham was justified even if he never did works. No. Rather, Abraham was brought into a whole new way of life because God first graciously made a promise to Abraham that Abraham trusted. Before Abraham was faithful in what he did, before he become “the one who works,” Abraham was “the one who trusted” in the promise of God.

This reading of Paul in Romans 4 can more readily brought into harmony with James 2.14-26. When Abraham offers up Isaac, God says to him “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22.12; NRSV) If we allow that justification (δικαιόω) is a description of one’s relational status with God that can be expressed through other language, then what God says to Abraham after offering up Isaac can be said to be “justification” language also. This seems to be what James is referring to when he said that Abraham was justified by works. Hence, when James says that Genesis 15.6 is fulfilled (ἐπληρώθη), it seems that James understands that Abraham’s initial justification by faith when God promised a son to Abraham sets the course of Abraham’s life in such a way that Abraham became justified by his works.

This diachronic reading of faith through the course of time allows us to resolve the tensions between Romans 4 and James 2 that Luther perceived. The problem for Luther is that even though he embraced a “diachronic” element to his understanding of faith in understanding that people change in coming to faith, he understood it as a “work of God” to change a person and not a human response to God’s revelation. By defining faith as a “work of God” rather than “a human response enabled and caused by God’s revelation,” Luther’s understanding of justification was contained to a singular, prototype event of having and coming to faith. Justification was understood synchronically as a specific even, even if faith itself was somewhat understood diachronically. As a consequence, Luther’s reading of Romans 4 did not allow for justification by faith to be the word of God over those who trust in Him that proleptically pronounces their future trajectory that would come to include justification by works. Synchronically understanding justification as a specific type of action of God that has the condition of faith lead to a perception of dissonance and contradiction with the idea of works also being a part of justification.

What Luther saw was important, but I would say he didn’t understand it perfectly. Faith is the very grounds by which our whole life, including our works, is formed, directed, and motivated. However, to dissociate works from faith would be like to dissociate the love between a dating or married couple and the things they do for each other. The love is expressed in what they say and do for each other, much as faith is expressed in how we acts in trusting obedience to God. However, love and faith have a way of “setting the agenda” of the relationship prior to anything that is done for each other. People can fall in love with one another before they have ever even dating and shared acts of love and affection with each other because they do perceive something in the other person that is good for them, even if that person has their own flaws and imperfections. Similarly, the ungodly and God can come to be in relationship through faith and grace because the ungodly trusts in the good promises of God made known in Jesus Christ, and God sees in their faith the basis of a relationship that will form them to be His people. In other words, while our faith in God does what our works can not do in the Christian life, works is not the antithesis of faith, but it is the means by which faith expresses itself and comes to fruition.

At this point, there is one thing that needs clarifying: what is meant by “works.” When we hear “works” in the Bible, we often hear some general sense of framework of morality and ethics that we are called to conform to. Our notion of “works” has been treated as if it is a set of rules/laws that dictate and govern what is good and bad.

There is some reason for this, as the Pharisees do approach this type of righteousness, where works one is to do is to be dutiful to all 613 commandments of Torah and all the traditions that have be derived from those commandments to apply to various facets and aspects of life. For the Pharisee, holiness is realized by applying the Torah to every aspect of life to the greatest extent that they can apply it.

Christ rejects this program of righteousness and holiness, however. For Jesus, the commandments are meant to serve human life, rather than human life trying to constantly subject itself to applications of the commandments in all sorts of various situations, regardless of the impact such applications could have. Take, for instance, Jesus calling it lawful to heal a person on the Sabbath. Jesus can call His yoke light now because He doesn’t expect His disciples to do what is good, but that He does not put upon them an onerous and increasingly abstruse system of works that they need to follow to be pure and faithful to God. Jesus simplifies the application of the commandments down to the goodness of life, ultimately rooted in the love of God, which leaves people the freedom to breathe and not experience the constant fear of judgment and anxiety. Jesus’ yoke is light, but not without weight, as Jesus does still expect people to follow His commandments to abide in His love.

So, when we understand the language of works in Paul and James’ letters, we need to understand there being different ways that “works” is used. It can be used to refer to works prescribed by the Torah and the traditions that are used to apply Torah. There is another way that works can be used: to describe those things that God Himself instructs people in. The works of faith is this second type: those who have faith in God do the specific things that God calls of them, including through the Spirit who leads them to understand the Torah as God intended it and brings to remembrance the teachings of Jesus.

We see this distinction between different understanding of works in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (NRSV)

Now, the prevailing Protestant hermeneutic often leads us to think works mentioned in v. 9 is the intended contrast with faith in v. 8. However, the emphasis for Paul in vs. 8a is on salvation by grace, which is a repetition of what he said in Ephesians 2.4. “Through faith” (διὰ πίστεως) refers to the instrumental means by which salvation is realized, but it does not describe the ultimately, efficient cause of salvation.

Furthermore, the neuter accusative τοῦτο in the phrase “this is not your from yourselves” (τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν) in vs. 8b would not usually be used to refer to the feminine noun πίστεως in vs. 8a. Nor does it directly refer to feminine noun χάριτί for grace, but likely refers to idea expressed in the whole phrase “by grace you have been saved” that has been stated two. So, when Paul describes this as “not from yourselves,” οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν is best taken to be the contrast with grace. Then, the phrase phrase οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων (“not from works”) in vs. 9 is best understood to be a further clarification of the relatively vague οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν based upon the repetition of οὐκ ἐξ. In this case, works is understand as a contrast to God’s grace in Ephesians 2.8-9, not human faith.

The meaning of ἔργων in vs. 9 without the presence of a modifying adjective is perhaps best understood by what is said in Ephesians 2.15, where Paul says that Christ has “set aside the Torah of commandments (observed) by opinions.” Here, Paul seems to be describing not the nullification of Torah in its entirety, but a particular way that the commands of Torah were being observed: through the series of human opinions (ἐν δόγμασιν) as to how to obey the commandments of Torah were to be obeyed. Unlike the more positive “goods works” (ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς) in vs. 2.10, these works from humans opinions about the Torah’s commandments are simply described as works, without reference to their value when it comes to Jesus Christ and God’s will.

So, when Paul refers to the “good works” in 2.10, this is referring to a different types of works from those described in 2.9. It is the type of works that come from God and Christ Jesus, rather than human opinions about Torah. It is the type of works that God Himself has prepared (προητοίμασεν) rather than developed simply through human opinions.

With a diachronic understand of faith that leads to the emergence of righteous works, we can suggest that faith in God’s promises moves us and motivates us to allow God to set the agenda of what type of works we should be doing that is based upon what we see and known in Jesus Christ, which the Spirit leads us to remember, comprehend, and put into practices. The “good works” in Ephesians 2.10 is different from the “works” of 2.9, describing the type of works believers do when their life is teleologically defined by Jesus Christ, with whom we are proleptically seated with in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2.6). By faith in Christ, the believer’s sense of what God wants from us is defined by Christ.

In conclusion, while there is something important in what Luther discovered about faith for the Christian life and found a seem in the New Testament Scriptures that had been left relatively unmined, Luther didn’t fully mine it in an exegetical sense, even as he robustly developed the importance of faith theologically. The end result is a problematic hermeneutical and theological assumption that faith and works are presented as an overarching antithesis and contrast for understanding Paul. While the faith of Jesus Christ and the works of the Torah are certainly contrasted by Paul, this is a much more specific antithesis between the life of faith and righteousness defined by Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s righteousness and the praxis that emerged from the applications of the Torah to various aspects of life beyond what the commandments originally referred to.

The implicit assumptions of the contrast between faith and works in general has the effect of inculcating a specific sense of soteriology, Christology, Pneumatology, and even ecclesiology and eschatology that ends up having problems fitting with the whole of the New Testament together, and even fitting the Old Testament and the New Testament together. This is what the Catholic employment of James 2 against Protestantism demonstrates. Meanwhile, while a diachronic understanding of faith and justification that allows for the integration of faith and works may have its own places where it has trouble to make sense of certain passages of Scripture, it certainly is much more coherent way to understand Romans 4 and James 2 that can also have benefits understanding the rest of the Pauline corpus, such as Ephesians 2. It is the way I as a Protestant can continue the appreciate what Luther brought to the table, along with John Wesley who Luther influenced, but at the same time, recognize that there is some important exegetical work that is needed to bring our theology and practice into a closer engagement with the faith in Christ as expressed in the Scriptures.

2 Timothy 3.5 and the power of godliness

March 30, 2020

One of the questions that ran through my mind when I was in my psychology degree at Mississippi State was trying to figure out how to allow for free will to believe in God if neural and hormonal patterns determined human thought and behavior. While I have never been able to give a strong answer, other than accept more-or-less Wesleyan view of grace while moving away from the metaphysical concept of “free will” to the less metaphysically burdensome but similar concept of “freedom,” one of the intellectual tasks this question catalyzed was the question about the power of God in human life.  How is it that God’s power operates in human life? Or, can we simply reduce religious faith and impulse to simply patterns of conditioning?

For me, for Christian faith to be real and legitimate, there had to have been something more that contributed to human faith than what psychology could observe, analyze, and theorize about. However, implicit in that was the assumption that God’s sort of activity worked on a purely different level than “normal” psychology. In other words, I had embraced a dualistic causality that made God’s agency had to somehow engage the person by contact at the “spiritual” level, as if Spirit-to-spirit “contact.” In light of this intellectual question, 2 Timothy 3.5 played a role in my thinking, where Paul spoke of people in the last days “holding to the shape of godliness, but denying its power.” Clearly, in my mind, if Christianity was to be true, there had to be something happening behind the vale of materiality to make it so. Now, certainly, I still do believe that the activity of God’s Holy Spirit can not be reduced to material observation and reality. However, at the same time, I had come to devalue the power of what is embodied.

In 2 Timothy 3.5, Paul uses the word μόρφωσιν. BDAG suggests the word refers to “outward form,” but this seems to not make the best sense in context. The contrast with δύναμιν/power does not suggest a outer/inner framing. Rather the contrast between them better fits as referring to two of the four types of causes that Aristotle spoke of: formal cause and efficient cause. The formal cause refers to, essentially, the shape of something, the way something looks and appears. The efficient cause, on the otherhand, is the cause that creates the change in something, which is readily associated with power. If this is the case, then 2 Timothy 3.5 would read more along the lines of “having the shape of godliness, but denying its power.”

The image being conveyed here isn’t a dualistic separation of the outside from the inside, but rather the relationship between what is observed and that which forms what is observed. It is like, to use a metaphor apt for our prsent worldwide crisis, like the relatioship of a symptom to a virus. Both are very real and distinguished between the two, but the virus is considered the cause of the symptoms. Likewise, what Paul is describing here in 2 Timothy 3.5 are people who have a specific shape in their lives of godliness, but they have somehow denied the efficent cause of it. What exactly does this mean?

It is helpful to consider what exactly Paul means by the word ἀρνέομαι, often translated as denying. The meaning of this likely relates back to Paul’s usage of this word back in 2 Timothy 2.8-13:

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him
if we deny (ἀρνησόμεθα) him, he will also deny (ἀρνήσεται) us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny (ἀρνήσασθαι) himself. (NRSV)

Here, in the third line of the saying, the language of denying is pointed towards the person of Jesus, in which Jesus will reciprocate a denial offered against him. The first three lines of this saying is perhaps an echo of Jesus teaching in Mark 8.34-38. If that is the case, then to deny Jesus is to be understood in contrast to taking up one’s own cross to follow him and giving one’s life to to save it, which the first two lines of the saying make refernece to. The fourth line adds a bit more to this, as Jesus’ inability to deny himself is connected to his remaining faithful. In context, it seems to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness to death. In light of all of this, Paul seems to use denial here as someone who refuses to accept the difficult journey in following Jesus to the cross, much as the disciple Peter originally did three times before being restored by Jesus (and may even be a demonstration for the fourth line).

So, when we move back to 2 Timothy 3.5, it makes sense to suggest that the power being denied that Paul is talking about is being will to take up suffering on behalf of the Gospel. This is supported by the fact that in contrast to such false teachers, Paul highlights his own ministry, which includes his persecutions and sufferings in 2 Timothy 3.10-11. He then goes on to say that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Notice that Paul does not say “all who live a godly life,” but he specifically uses the verbal participle to refer to people who want (οἱ θέλοντες) godliness. In other words, it isn’t the accomplishment of righteousness that makes one persecuted, but it is those who actively seek to be godly who will face trials, possibly suggesting that the trials are formative for godliness (cf. James 1.2-4). Meanwhile, those Paul denigrates as wicked and false keep on getting worse. The implication behind this, then, is that faceing the tribulations and persecutions is instrumental in making progress.

Of course, at this point, it bears mentioning that Paul is not lauding some sort of masochistic “one must seek suffering to be righteous.” No. Rather, he is ultimatley talking about taking Jesus as the pattern for being able to live a godly life. Perhaps it is best to suggest that a Christ-shaped faithfulness is the power that is being denied. In seeking to be faithful to Christ, one will face such trials.

The exegetical advantage of this reading is that it doesn’t try to explain the power of godliness by appeal to the Holy Spirit , who is barely mentioned in 2 Timothy asides from perhaps 1.6-7. This Christocentric reading is part of a well-established pattern throughout the letter.

The theological advantage is that it provides a precedent that any explanation for the cause of the Christian life does not have to resort to an exclusively “spiritual” explanation that is compartmentalized from human activity. The Protestant Reformation’s tendency to split off faith from works has the way of treating the Spirit as the cause of all works, thereby diminishing the formative role that comes when people bear their cross. This doesn’t mean that we can explain everything about the Christian life to simply human agency and choice to following Christ; certainly the work of the Spirit plays a role. However, instead of a pattern of spiritual development that splits off human agency from Divine agency in formation, we can instead move towards a type of human agency instructed and directed by Divine agency, both in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection alongside the Spirit who brings to remembrance the teachings of Jesus and leads people to put to death the deeds of the flesh.

Put differently, I have found it is very helpful to think of spiritual formation as empowered by God through God drawing our hearts towards a specific, Christ-shaped telos, with this telos being continuously sustained through our faithfulness in walking by the Spirit. As we are continuously drawn further and further towards this telos through the narrative of Christ and the various leadings and gifts of the Spirit, our hearts and minds become continuously formed by the actions we take.

This contrasts with the standard Divine empowerment model that suggests that humans are given a power to obey God that is innately not part of us. This is due to a form of total depravity that explains human inability to human nature itself that permanently altered in the fall. The above model of spiritual formation does not deny total inability, but it explains human faithless and sin differently as due to a distance of God that was created from human sin spanned back to Adam, which makes us ignorant of Him. Given our limitations, only the God who is not limited can rectify this by drawing near to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the powering of the Holy Spirit into our heart. This nearness and closeness of God provides an image and intution about Him and His purposes which draws us in to come close to Christ, much like the apperance and approach of a missed beloved motivates a person to approach and draw near. It isn’t that God gives us some general ability to obey God, but that it is God who gives us a vision of knowledge of Himself in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit, without which we could not draw near and continue to do so.1

I have never really satisfactiorally explained the paradox I felt between human freedom and psychology, but I have found and discovered something that is perhaps much more valuable from that intellectual journey.

Speculative hypothesis about Protestant theology and faith

March 28, 2020

In my previous post, I presented a case that we should understand faith in the Apostle Paul, and even the New Testament, as being understood diachronically rather than synchronically. In other words, faith is understood about how it leads and guides the person over the course of time, rather than referring to any specific cognitive state of faith held at any one moment.

When one looks at the three most responsible for shaping Protestantism as it is today, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, I would suggest we can see a difference in their theologies that are reflective of this synchronic vs. diachronic manner of understanding faith. Compare these three definitions:

Martin Luther

Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God (cf. John 1). It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active.1

Luther seems to much more attuned to the element of change in a person’s life. He doesn’t explicit understand faith over the course of an extended period of time, but that he includes change in his understanding of faith means he fits more with a diachronic view of faith.

John Calvin

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. 2

In contrast to Luther, Calvin understands faith here more in terms of a very specific state of the mind, particularly as it pertains to the nature of the knowledge a person has. Just as epistemology is usually understood from a synchronic point of view, so too is Calvin’s definition of faith rather synchronic.

John Wesley:

‘The right and true Christian faith is, not only to believe that the Holy Scriptures and the articles of our faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation, through Christ.’ Perhaps it may be expressed more clearly thus: ‘A sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.’3

Wesley is a bit more complicated here. On the surface of it, Wesley seems to have a definition faith that is closer to Calvin’s synchronic construal of faith. This is not to be unexpected, as Wesley considered himself as hair’s breadth away from Calvinism. However, at the same time, there is a slight diachronic element with Wesley’s definition as he makes faith pertain to one’s future fate is being saved from eternal condemnation. This is slight, but elsewhere we do see Wesley express the importance for change in the person of faith:

And however such a man may have behaved in these respects, he is not to think well of his own state till he experiences something within himself, which he has not yet experienced, but which he may be beforehand assured he shall, if the promises of God are true. That something is a living faith; ‘a sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.’ And from this will spring many other things, which till then he experienced not; as, the love of God shed abroad in his heart, the peace of God which passeth all understanding, and joy in the Holy Ghost; joy, though not unfelt, yet ‘unspeakable, and full of glory.’4

While Wesley’s repetition of “a sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God” highlights a synchronic understanding of faith, Wesley relates this synchronic definition of faith with a diachronic recognition of change over time.

What is going on here? Both Luther and Calvin were studied in law, but whereas Luther also studied theology, Calvin did not. This is significant  because law in is usual sense has to think about matters in a synchronic sense, as the application of the law depends on meeting specific definitions about certain types of actions. Law is rooted in provided precise and clear definitions and characterizations of human activities and the rules that govern them. Luther, on the other hand, turned back against his study in law and became a monk, during which a prevailing struggle of his was to be free from the sin that seemed to bind him. When Luther happened upon justification by faith, he experienced a dramatic change in his own life that characterized his understanding of faith and was instrumental in bringing about the inspiration for the Protestant Reformation.

Meanwhile, John Wesley was deeply influenced by Luther’s account of faith in Luther’s preface to Romans, and may we suggest this moving account from Luther about the transformation of the person seem to speak to Wesley, who himself has experienced similar struggles with faith and confidence before God. Nevertheless, Wesley’s studies in logic and affinity for Aristotelian logic in particular made his much closer to defining faith  synchronically, similar to Calvin. To that end, we can say that Wesley was somewhat mixed in how he construed faith: preferring a synchronic definition, he also place an emphasis on the change that occurred in people’s lives, bringing forward a diachronic element to his understanding of faith.

This brings to my hypothesis: given the importance of faith to Protestant theology, the shape of various theologies are strongly influenced by whether faith is primarily understood synchronically or diachronically. I want to take Calvinism as the prime example of this.

On the one hand, Calvinism understands God through a diachronic lens, where God’s decrees of election from eternity past leads to the salvation and perservance of the elect to live forever into the eternal future. However, when they start to think about humans, they favor a synchronic approach of looking at the person’s faith at a specific moment. While perservance of the saints does provide something of a diachronic element to their understanding of believers, they do not tend to define faith itself diachronically. The end result of this relative compartmentalization of diachronic and synchronic approaches between God and humans is that in order to understand how God and humans interact with each other, there is a need to look to specific events where God’s actions from eternity overlaps with human’s response at a specific moment. For Calvin, this specific event in the event of revelation, which pertains to the successful communication of God to the person’s mind and not simply God’s actions to make information and understanding about Himself available.

The end result is that the human journey of faith is consistently understood by what happens in specific events. We see this come to fruition with Karl Barth, whose theology is grounded upon a construal of the event of revelation as a self-contained event, sufficient in itself to bring about faith in the human person.

By contrast, Wesley’s back-and-forth between the default synchronic view of faith and the more diachronic understanding of what happens as a result of faith makes Wesleyan theology somewhat dynamic, speaking positively, or chaotic, speaking negatively. Within the Wesley tradition, the left-wing tends to embrace a much more diachronic version of faith, although one that does not embrace the specific type of faith that Paul talks about that is rooted in specific communication between God and persons. For instance, it was James Fowler, a left-leaning United Methodist, who developed a developmental theory of the development of faith. On the other hand, evangelical-leaning Wesleyans tend to embrace a much more synchronic view of faith, defining it terms of the content of revelation/Scripture, making them look closer to Calvinists in regards to what faith looks like and how it is practiced, even as they offer different theological rationales, than with left-leaning Wesleyans.

Meanwhile, Lutheranism has been largely inclined towards liberal/left-leaning/progressive theology that the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. There is something about diachronic view of faith that presents a radical challenge to political, social, and religious traditions, as one can not neatly fit such a definition of faith into any well-defined conceptualization, as well-defined concepts are almost intrinsically synchronic by nature. By analogy, Marxism’s theory of economic and political emergence of the Communist state was diachronic compared to the often more synchronic. law-like approach of “orthodox” economics, as well as Michel Foucault’s genealogical method, influnced by Nietzsche, was a strikingly diachronic way of addressing changes through history that was often a radical departure from traditional histories.

However, it should be stated that now all diachronic approaches to key concepts, whether it be faith, economics, or history, are the same. Modes of thinking that are influenced by diachronic reflection are highly sensitive to the telos that those engaged in diachronic thinking are focused upon. That is to state that there is a lot more potential for diversity in various forms of diachronic approaches that synchronic approaches do not have.

In my own reflection upon myself, I have come to the conclusion that my theological reflections has been undergirded by a more diachronic understanding of Christian faith, but with a telos directing towards the hopeful realization of God’s revealed promises in Christ, rather than some simply self-constructed idea of what I think God should be working towards, which that makes me look much closer to evangelicals than progressive Christians. For instance, while studying at St. Andrews, I remember trying to figure out what my differences were with Barthian theology, and one of a few things I noticed is that I have a marked preference for understanding revelation as a process that unfolds over time, and not just simply an event, which made me essentially diachronic in my theological reflection. However, due to my drive to keep faith grounded in God’s revelation, particularly via Scripture, I too can embrace a synchronic approach at times that considers how we as people relate to and respond to what God has made known. To that end, I am a lot like what I understand Wesley to be when it comes to understanding faith, as I can go back and forth between the diachronic and synchronic perspectives. Yet, it is my marked preference for a diachronic view of faith, increasingly due to exegetical work and convictions in the Apostle Paul, that means I sometimes rub up against some of Wesley’s ideas, even as if I find Wesleyan theology to be the best of the traditionally Protestant traditions to begin to understand the Scriptures from in my opinion.

In conclusion, I do wonder how much the shape of Christian theology, particularly Protestant theology, is determined by the way each traditions prefers the synchronic or diachronic frames for understanding faith.

Abraham's faith through time and further reflections on "doubt"

March 28, 2020

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate things about the way Protestants can treat faith almost like something we exchange for salvation is that we don’t really give a full appreciation to the development of faith through time. We tend to think of faith synchronically, as something we have at a specific moment of time that God gives us salvation for. By contrast, a more diachronic view looks at faith as it spans across the lifetime, how it is challenged, how it grows, etc. I would suggest this more diachronic view of faith is more suitable for how the New Testament and Paul view salvation: faith aligns us with a journey of righteousness and peace with God, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and realized in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

One of the results of thinking synchronically about faith and practically reducing salvation and faith to an exchange is that such a perspective has a hard time taking in the whole of Romans 4. Romans 4.1-15 is relatively easy to handle in a synchronic exchange of faith and salvation, but how does 4.16-25 fit into it all? There, Paul hammers home the point that God’s promises is based upon God’s grace and depends upon faith for everyone who is considered a descendant of Abraham. How does he make this point? Not by talking about the moment when Abraham originally believed the promise in Genesis 15 as he did in Romans 4.3, but by talking about how Abraham continued to trust and grew in faith in order to eventually receive the promise.

If you think about it, appealing to Abraham’s later life and growth in faith would seem largely a sidebar to a synchronic view of faith and salvation: what relevance does how Abraham growing strong in faith over time have to the reception of God’s promises and salvation? Unless one tries to distinguish justification and salvation as something different from receiving God’s promises (which Romans 4.21-22 does not really allow for), a synchronic view of salvation and faith just does not make sense of what Paul is getting at in Romans 4. Put simply, if the moment we have faith is all we need to have for salvation, what is the point of discussing Abraham’s strengthening faith over time? Ultimately, I think a synchronic view of salvation and justification ultimately deconstructs if one thinks seriously about the whole of Romans 4.

I would put forward that the point that Paul is getting at in the whole of Romans 4 is that God’s relationship with His people, starting with Abraham, works itself out through the course of time and the way His people continue to respond to Him with faith. Faith is the means by which our lives are saved through the journey we take in receiving God’s promises, which is ultimately shaped and realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.1

This view of faith means that we have to more seriously consider how faith leads and guides believers to understand Paul’s account of salvation. For instance, when we read in Ephesians 2.8: “by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul is not talking about giving salvation in exchange for faith, but rather it is through that faith that God’s grace and salvation work itself out in our lives. This makes sense of 2.9-10, as good works in Christ are the telos towards which the life lived in faith becomes realized, rather than treating works as the condition. A diachronic view of faith and salvation also makes sense of the agricultural metaphor of fruit-bearing that Paul and even Jesus uses routinely: people who have faith are being transformed in such a way that they bear much fruit when the season arrives.

Over the course of time, something can happen with faith: it can face events and occurrences that challenge faith. However, the meaning of faith here needs a little clarification to understanding Romans 4, however.

Most of the time when we as Christians talk about faith, we are referring to a generic sense of God’s goodness. If God is a good, then there are some things we would expect to happen, such as prosperity, a long life, contentment, etc. and there are some things we would expect not to happen, such as disasters, tragedies, etc. It is this type of faith that undergirds the problem of evil: if God is loving and is all powerful, how come evil exists in the world?

This is not the type of faith that Paul is specifically addressing in Romans 4, however. This is represents our attempt to God understood through the lens of nature. It also reflects our understanding of God where we have specific conditions God must meet to be worthy of faith, as we imputed to the idea of “goodness” various things we consider good that God must fulfill if He is to be a good God.

Paul’s understanding of faith is much more specific and based upon specific events where God reveals His specific intentions. Abraham did not have generic fath in the goodness of God. Abraham specifically trusted that God would give to him a son in his (and Sarah’s) advanced age because this is what God had said to Abraham. Put simply, Abraham trusted God’s own self-disclosure of His intentions, even though what God disclosed seem incredulous on the surface of it. Faith for Paul is about trusting God about what He has revealed, which becomes ultimately defined by Jesus Christ.

This type of faith is a much more challenging faith than a generic faith in the goodness of God. When one generically trusts in God’s goodness, some people can easily figure out how some event that seems bad may in fact be good. If one has a flexible willingness to change in regards of one’s understanding what is good, then one can readily reframe bad events as good. This isn’t necessarily wrong as we see this type of reframing of past events at the end of the story of Jacob’s sons, with Joseph rising up to be the advisor to Pharaoh in order to both bless Egypt, as a realization of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham, and to preserve his family, including his brothers who sold Joseph into slavery.2 This is not, however, the type of faith that Paul is talking about. Faith in God based upon something specific is a lot harder to speculate as to how it is being fulfilled. God’s promise to Abraham was specific: he would have a son. Such a specific promise that lingers in being realized would present challenges to trust in that promise.

Soon after the promise in Genesis 15, we see Abram immediately trying to figure out and maneuver his way to receive this promise, or rather being willing to be receptive to the suggestions of his wife Sarai. In Genesis 16, Sarai offers Abram her maid-servant Hagar and Ishmael is conceived. Who can blame him, really? If you were of advanced age and you expected to have a child, what would you be inclined to do? And, technically, nothing Abram did violated what God had explicitly said to Abram in Genesis 15. God had not yet informed him that the son would be with his wife Sarai. We don’t get this word from God till Genesis 17.7. 

However, at the same time, we might be tempted to suggest that Abram did not act from faith at this point of time. We might consider that Abram took matters into his own hand and that God’s promise in Genesis 15 was transformed into a guarantee for Abram to take action to receive a child. We see this type pattern elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Eli’s household in 1 Samuel 2, Jehu in 2 Kings 9-10, and even the predilection of Israel to take their election as a guarantee of their status before God. Granted, Abram’s actions were not as severe as these other examples, but they still came with injustice that emerged from Sarai’s jealousy leading to the mistreatment of Hagar.

Furthermore, even after receiving God’s word that Abraham would have a son with Sarai, Abraham tries to lift up Ishmael as the recipient of the promise in 17.18 due to his and Sarah’s advanced age. Abraham did have a moment of doubt when God’s word initially came to him?

Nevertheless, despite this episodes, Paul says that Paul did not skeptically reject the promise due to distrust (Rom. 4.20: οὐ διεκρίθη τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ). How can Paul say this about Abraham? Did Paul miss the episode with Hagar? Paul says that Abraham did not weaken in faith when he consider the condition of him and Srah (Rom 4.19). Did Paul forget that Abraham lifted up Ishmael to receive the promise? Or, should we suggest that Paul intentionally glossing over those episodes to paint a more glossy picture of Abraham’s faith that Genesis actually gives?

This is where a diachronic view of faith overrides the need for these questions. For Paul, it is about how Abraham’s faith lead him to receive what God promised through time. At no point in Genesis did Abraham decide to abandon what God had said and act simply with his own intentions in mind, even if he began to take matters in his own hand and act according to what he thought would be reasonable. While Abraham had a struggles with trusting God’s promise that might look like a momentary lack of faith from a synchronic view, which is more concerned about a specific state belief at a specific point of time, that isn’t what is important for Paul. For Paul, faith in God’s promise is realized through the whole course of Abraham’s life to receive what God had promised. Abraham never abandoned God’s promise, even if he did exhibit some types of monetary doubts throughout. We can suggest, then, that Paul’s portrayal is not concerned about momentary doubts and struggles with what God promises throughout the Abrahamic narrative. Rather, Paul’s contrast of strengthening in faith (ἐνεδυναμώθη τῇ πίστει) with skeptical rejection due to lack of faith (οὐ διεκρίθη τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ) in Romans 4.20 presumes that there are some types of doubt that Abraham faced, but that they lead to strengthening rather than the abandonment of faith. For Paul, it is about how Abraham’s initial faith in God’s promise grew deeper in faith through the difficult circumstances that could have made the promise seem incredulous and incapable of being believed. Paul’s usage of the word διακρίνω in Rom 4.20 refers to a critically negative rejection that Abraham never reached, even as he did feel uncertainty and challenges to his trust in God and what God had promised.

In conclusion, to understand what Paul is getting at when he connects God’s promises and justification with human faith, we need to understand how faith leads and work through people’s lives over the course of time. Salvation is not a momentary exchange of justification for a moment of faith, but rather justification is God’s pronouncement of the trajectory of a person’s life to be the type of people who (a) receive what God promises through faith and (b) become a truly righteous people through whom God’s promises to the world become realized. Salvation and faith are ultimately understood with a diachronic frame for Paul and, I would also suggest, throughout the New Testament.


Rereading James 1.5-8

March 27, 2020

Doubt is one of the most difficult concepts we have to deal with as Christians. We are called to have faith in a God who we can not see and hear on a regular basis like we can other people and yet we do this in a world whose implicit epistemology and ontology values the visible, the measurable, the clear, and the distinct at the cost of that which can not be readily seen, measured, clearly understood, and readily distinguished. Having faith in such a world often leads us to a sense of doubt in our journey of Christian faith. In such a case, it is often tempted to quote from passages like James 1.5-8 that tells us the problems with such doubt: that we will never receive what we ask from God if we have doubt.

However, most people don’t realize that when we treat faith and doubt as being opposites on the same spectrum, we are actually mixing up two subtly different ideas: trust and certainty. Living in a post-Cartesian, post-Enlightenment world, we have had a strong predilection to interpret faith in terms of one’s certainty about God, Jesus, salvation, etc. Faith has been defined, essentially along the lines of Enlightenment terms, especially in conservative and fundamentalism circles who tried to pit the Christian faith against the Enlightenment in the terms of the Enlightenment. If faith is about certainty, then doubt is the opposite faith.

Faith as trust, however, is subtly different in that it operates from a different type of epistemology. Certainty is rooted in the study of measures and information and using that information to come up with the right inference. We derive at certainty according to the way we know things. Trust, however, is more about people. Trust is about what we expect from someone in light of past experiences. To have faith in someone is to expect they will be faithful to one’s expectations and commitments. The way we come to believe and validate our trust in someone, who they are, and what they will do is different from the way we come to believe and establish the certainty about what things are and are not true about the world.

The point is that when we treat the existence of ontological doubts about God, either in general or where God was responsible for a specific event, as the same thing as the lack of trusting faith in God, we actually conflate these two very different ways we make sense the world of beings we relate to and the world of objects we observe and use. We allow the Enlightenment to colonize Christian theology and even our interpretations of Scripture.

Takes James 1.5-8 where James calls people to ask for wisdom from God with faith. Doubt (διακρίνω) on the other hand, invalidates the request to God. As a result of this characterization, it becomes really easy to treat people who struggle with faith in God as if they are somehow unstable. But, I would put forward that this is due to an unfortunate interpretation of this passage. Rather than understanding faith and “doubt” here along the axis of Cartesian-like certainty, we should understand it along the axis of trust and skepticism in the context of a pedagogical relationship of teacher to student.

The Greek διακρίνω doesn’t typically mean doubt, at least in terms of a doubt due to uncertainty. διακρίνω was a cognitive term that related to the process of human thinking and reasoning. As such, διακρίνω was related to the pursuit of wisdom and ethics in the ancient world.

Often times, it referred to the way people made moral distinctions. For instance, in Romans 14.23 it is often translated as doubt to refer to those people who think certain foods are off limits, but it is perhaps better understand this to refer to people who distinguish between some foods as good and some as bad. In 1 Cor 14.29, it is used to refer to the discernment of what is said by the prophets, as if there is the proverbial wheat to sift from the chaff. Then, it is used in James 2.4 to refer to the act of make differentiation between the rich and the poor. διακρίνω was more about making moral and evaluative distinctions about people, things, actions, statements, etc. and determining what was good and what was bad. As a result, διακρίνω could also be used with a subtly different sense of skepticism towards what some has said or done. We see that usage in Acts 11.2, for instance, to refer to being negatively critical of someone.

Now, we do see the word used by Jesus in talking to his disciples in Matt 21.21 and Mark 11.23 where he contrasts faith with διακρίνω. Given the seemingly incredulous request Jesus uses to illustrate the nature of asking in faith, to move a mountain, διακρίνω is more likely referring to a sense of skepticism at a such a seemingly absurd request than simply a sense of uncertainty about the request. 

Now, we can come back to James 1.5-8 with a different perspective in mind. Given it being used in a discussion about wisdom, διακρίνω is likely used to describe a specific mode of reason, particularly as it pertains to be skeptically critical. To engage in an act of διακρίνω to any pursuit of wisdom from God would be tantamount to saying “I am wise enough to judge, discriminate, and criticize what has been given by God.” This is where the source of the double-minded comes from: to simultaneously say “I need wisdom from you God” and then at the same time being negatively critical of whatever wisdom is coming. It is in a sense to act like a pupil depending upon God and then turn around and be skeptically critical of what wisdom comes from God.

James later discussion on wisdom in 3.13-18 is relevant here. He refers to a group of people who are boastful (κατακαυχάομαι), claiming that the wisdom they have is not from above, that is God. When James says the “doubter” ought not to expect to received anything from God, we can perhaps see what he really means: that the one who διακρίνω will instead receive a worldy, earthly ‘wisdom’ from below. To engage in a skeptical criticism in regards to wisdom actually inculcates in that person a sense of competitiveness and arrogance that tears down rather than builds up. In other words, διακρίνω as referring to a style of highly presumptuous criticism overlaps with the boastful arrogance of those who possess earthly wisdom in James 3.13-18.

Allow me to push this further and say the push for certainty actually has the effect of making us engage in this skeptically critical mode of thinking and reasoning, either by making us too confident in our own thinking and thereby highly judgmental of others or make us too skeptical of anything people say. In either case, the pursuit and expectation of certainty has the effect of making us doubters: not so much of the God that we think of, but doubters of God’s wisdom, as we risk vaulting ourselves into the role of discriminator what God would and would not want. Many a philosopher in the ancient day thought this way, and it no doubt could have been imitated by some Christians who wanted to pursue wisdom. Such people do not trust in God even if they ask for wisdom from God, but place their trust in their own wisdom or the wisdom of vaunted teachers of wisdom (cf 1 Corinthians 2.5).

I will close with making a very important clarification here. Firstly, as I alluded to earlier, διακρίνω is not about being in a place of uncertainty. It is about being in a place of personal confidence that erodes teachability. Secondly, διακρίνω is not about questioning and inquiring in to nature of wisdom. James is not saying “Be quiet and just accept what is given to you.” Inquiry is a good thing when done with humility to learn or even as part of a respectful challenge to something one has heard, although inquiry can be a way of expressing a skeptical criticism. Thirdly, James is concern about διακρίνω in relationship to God and not necessarily to human teachers. As James 3.1 expresses, there is a strict judgment that should come upon teachers. In other words, we should not take James warning against a skeptical criticism in seeking God’s wisdom as saying we should never be discerning of what we hear from others, as if they have an unquestionable access to God’s wisdom.

The hidden cost of life in economic crises

March 26, 2020

In continuing the topic of death in recent posts, I want to present some statistical data and some historical information that can help make clear the dilemma we are facing as a nation and the world with our response to the coronavirus about its impact of humans lives through the impacts on “the economy.” My purpose is not to argue that we need to open the economy back up immediately or even by Easter as President Trump suggested, who I think is more motivated by the economic interests of the wealthy and big business, but that we need to recognize the growing costs of prolonged impacts on the economy and the impact it can and can have on human lives, especially those of the poorer and less stable, if we move into a three or four months hiatus in the life of our country.

Economic recession and depressions are no minor thing. They can dramatically change the course of life for the long run, long after “the economy” has gotten settled. Economic recessions and depressions are, to use a metaphor, sociological traumas that can create psychological traumas in people who are hardest hit. They can leave scars on people that can imapct their well-being and health for years to come. This includes mortality.

Let me present to you the case of the 2007-2009 economic recession, when peak unemployment hit 10%. Death rates did not rise in 2007 and 2008.1 Instead, death rates continued to decline as they had been since 1988. However, by 2009, the decline in death rates had stopped and, instead, death rates began to climb as it has done every year since then. Now these numbers are certainly complicated by the fact that it is by this time the largest generation, the baby boomers, had become more mortally frail with age. However, we see a similar pattern occur after the recession of 1981-1982, where peak unemployment exceeded 10%. From 1984-1988, mortality rates started to climb, after they had been going down since 1968. While economic downturns do not usually increase mortality immediately, there is reasons to consider that they do bear a long term cost on people through the trauma they can inflict upon the most vulnerable of the populations.

Now, one might look to the Great Depression and notice mortality rates stayed pretty constant in the years follow.2 However, the Great Depression came upon the heels of dramatic reductions in mortality, as improved living conditions, medicine, hospital care, etc. lead to a dramatic improving the span of life from the turn of the century. What did happen, however, is that the mortality rate following the Great Depression remained relatively constant for many years until the mid 1940s, despite the increase ability to take care of human lives. It was only after penicillin and antibiotics became widely used to treat bacterial infections in the 1940s did we witness a renewed decreased in death rates.

The point of this very brief foray into thanatology, US economic history, and medicine? That the “economy” is not code word for the rich that doesn’t have a very real impact on people’s lives. The “economy” is about people and their ability to provide what they need and want and economic downturns have a way of of appearing to dramatically alter death rates down the line. The “economy” is not just about stock markets and bank accounts, but about people’s livelihoods. If we as Christians are to be like Jesus’ instructs us with the parable of the shrewd servant who ended up using money in service of others, it behooves us to not simply reject the “economy” as idolat to mammon, but to shrewdly, yet also innocently (unlike the shrewd, unrighteous manage), think about how the economy serves people, including the economically vulnerable.

The choices we make as a nation today are not drawn between a objectively clear choice between good and evil. That is our sense of fear of death that leads us to oversimplify the problems our society is facing today. Simplification is good and necessary when a very concrete threat is right in front of you and you yourself must act immediately in that moment, but when understanding the threat in terms of the more abstract (coronavirus, COVID-19, etc.) than in terms of concrete experience (actually having the illness), our fear leads us to overlook and be unconcerned all the consequences of our actions that do not go towards addressing our specific fear. That is how the fear of death enslaves us, and our sense of ethics and morality becomes a way of rationalize our decisions in the face of death, rather than opening our eyes and ears to hear what our actions can do.

We should self-isolate and quarantine for now. No doubt. But we need to see the consequences are actions can have on the years to come also. We need to open our eyes and ears and be willing to face the challenge we are faced with, rather than morally self-assure ourselves of our moral superiority in the face of this threat we still do not really understand and that we can not control. Focus on life and all of life.

Christian faith and death

March 26, 2020

My life has been deeply touched by the reality of death from my childhood. Due to the intuition of a physician, I avoided being my mom’s second miscarriage. When I was four years old, I nearly drowned, but was saved by the intuition and heroic actions of my mother. From 7th to 9th grade, I experienced my first three significant deaths in my family: the death of my grandfather, the suicide of my brother, and the death of my uncle who lived with my family and was like a brother to me. Given the wounds and pains that had built up, I thought of taking my own life late in my high school years, but I avoided repeating the script of my brother. As a result, death has always haunted me and I learned to let go of attachments because death always had a way of taking those who I loved away from me.

While the intensity of tragic deaths would not be so strong in my later years, it was still a persistent force and reminder in my life. Soon after I had graduated college, I got a call that my other grandfather had threatened to take his own life and I was the closest one who could go to respond (he didn’t take his own life, but he would die a few year later after that). A year later, another uncle of mine passed away due to a surprising illness, leaving her at the time 6 year old daughter behind. As I went through one of the most difficult and isolating episodes of my life during seminary, my mother as one of the only people I could really talk to about my problems grew gravely ill for a time period, and I was left basically alone to my thoughts. While I ultimately came to make a decision that I would never choose to take my life, my experience with PTSD and the pervasive made me feel like I was inevitably going to be a burden on everyone that death seemed like a sweet release from a life filled with simply broken dreams. Then in the years afterward as I was trying to recuperate from PTSD, I saw my grandmother slowly become lost to Alzheimer’s.

Death and the feelings of it had prematurely swallowed up so much of life, leaving me feeling so detached and so helpless to the point that I stopped fearing death. This might sound good if you know your Scriptures, as Hebrew 2.14-15 says, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” But, the problem is I was never entirely freed from the fear of death as much as I simply had accepted the reality that death threatens and takes everything away. While many people who have only had to face death briefly and those who never faced so much death as a child fear death but can buffer themselves from that fear, I have long been forced to accept the power that death has over our lives, replacing direct fear that makes one scramble to avoid to an accepting yet despairing dread of it. Meanwhile, as a believer in and follower of Christ, I believed and accepted that death was not a permanent part of our life. The lyrics of Jeremy Camp’s “There will be a day” rung so deeply within my heart for many years, with the chorus having the words of Revelation 21.4 as a distant echo.

It seems to me that my experiences put me somewhere existing between the threshold of slavery to the fear of death and freedom. On the one hand, during seminary I began to notice how so much of our world, our life, and even our intellectual endeavors, etc. had the fear of death as a central motivator, even in ways that we would not directly think it as a motivation. I could understand it at an intellectual level because I myself had experienced that fear and seen how its reality touched the way we think. And yet, I somehow was also intellectually distant from it. Not that my distance from it was the full Christian liberation, but it was a change left in arrested development: neither enslaved to fear of death, as it it was something I had simply come to accept with tears, nor entirely freed from it, as I never had the chance to recover from the losses that death and its threats had inflicted on me time and time again.

The Christian’s relationship to the fear of death is complicated. In Christian circles today, it is often considered axiomatic that fear is our enemy, that fear should have no place in our lives. However, notice that the preacher of Hebrews does not say that the Christian is freed from the fear of death so much as they are no longer enslaved to that fear. In the 1st century, enslavement to fear would not have been referred to any experience of the emotion that we today call fear, but a driving ‘passion’ that overwhelms and controls what we think, do, and feel, as if it is a persistent, never ending anxiety that lights up for the slightest of reasons. Put in modern therapeutic language, we can imagine the enslavement to the fear of death is more akin to a traumatic trigger in which the most miniscule hint or possibility of death drives people into self-preservation and buffering mode. Or, alternatively, the fear of death becomes one of the deepest source of motivations in our behaviors, including in unseen ways.

Death is an enemy that Jesus comes to defeat: the Scriptures are clear about that. And yet, just as we are to eat with sinners and have mercy upon all sinners, including ourselves, even as sin is another enemy, death is an enemy that we embrace in taking up our cross. We experience death in its distant forms and even in its fullest culmination, just as Jesus experienced death in its worst form to free us through our experiencing of death. Death is a part of life. It is only in accepting and embrace the reality of death, however that death is to come, that we can be freed in Christ from the fear of this death.

Meanwhile, those who run from death, who avoid it, who try to escape it at every turn are left in a world where they are enslaved but their illusory sense of themselves and the world has them blinded to its power over them. So readily life is lived in this form of self-deception, where through distraction and avoidance we think we feel the very opposite of the very thing that actually motivates us and drives us. Christ does not fully deliver them because they do not see the need for deliverance. Christ may be a source of encouragement, of hope, of inspiration but because he died so that we can be so simply blessed, so they think. This ‘Christ’ doesn’t really ask for us to bear our own cross, but instead asks us to substitute the difficult, hard, and trying things that can so deeply hit to the core of our survival instinct with other, easier, less costly virtues and habits.

The redemption in Christ replaces death with life as our motivation. As Paul sames in Romans 8.6, the thinking of the flesh is about death, but the thinking of the Spirit is life and peace. To be redeemed in Christ, to experience the transformation from spiritual enslavement to freedom is one where our deepest motivation switches, even if the difference isn’t always easy to identify from the outset. To fear death and to value life can look very similar on the surface in many ways, but yet in so many ways it can drive us to act in very different ways. Valuing staving off death leads us to rationalize all sorts of sacrifices and costs to protect against death. Valuing of life lived in shalom is concerned about the ways our attempt to preserve from death can actually create death and steal peace.

So, if I may suggest, here is a principle that readily draws a line among the body of people known as Christians: is our ethic, our sense of justice, our theology, our motivations, and our values motived by the fear of death or by the longing for life and peace? You can not easily assess this question by simply looking at what moral positions you take and stand for, but one must ask the deeper question as to whether life or death motivates you by looking at the whole.

The truth is, I fear so much of what has been labeled Christian in the West, both in progressive and evangelical circles, has the fear of death as the driving motivation, that this fear of death has been baptized by our theology, ethics, missions, and pursuits of justice. I believe that so much of the transformative potential of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been closed off to us because we have regarded Jesus as simply a source for our ethics, a source for our theology, a cause for our salvation, and a cause for a healing that we access through the reading of Scripture and prayer, substituting in a distant ‘Jesus’ so that we do not see that we need to embrace the crucified Jesus in our own life through the Spirit who leads us to participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection which we realize through our actions lead by the Spirit, informed by Scripture and sought for in prayer.

The economy, the fear of death, and dignity

March 25, 2020

Before starting, I want to be clear that I am presently in full support of the self-distancing and the “shelter at home” orders in many places across the country where coronavirus and COVID-19 has hit the hardest.

However, that said, whenever we as humans face an unknowable and uncontrollable threat, which the coronavirus is at the present time, we have a predilection to morally rationalize the often extreme actions we take by denigrating and misrepresenting alternative options that could be taken. When face with a threat, we often feel the need to somehow present our action as the right moral action to take and we do that by the exaggeration of any views that go against the prevailing opinion. We are witnessing this right now in the United States, at least.

There are deep fears about the economic future of the United States. However, anytime some suggestion is made that the present actions are either (a) overboard or (b) not necessary for the long term future because of economic necessity, you see the principle above go into full swing. Any attempt to talk about the “economy” is straw man into various other things, like money, the stock market, etc. With this straw man in place, the moral dilemma is framed in such a way as to suggest that the sacrificing of lives for such obviously evil or unimportant is a deep moral evil: human lives or money? human live or the stock market? It seems on the surface that the choice is inevitable.

However, here comes the problem: the “economy” is not really about money, even though the money is the water that keeps the boat of the economy money. The “economy” is not really about the stock market, even though it is often one of the most salient indicators of the economy. The “economy” is about human activity and work to acquire people’s needs and wants. The economy is, at its core, about obtaining the things that make human life possible by using our skills and capacities. While we can try to measure and assess the economy in many different ways and these measurements often are more indicative of the circumstances of some people over others, what the economy as a whole is about is part of that which makes us human: human labor.

Hannah Arendt treats labor as necessary but the lowest and least important form of human activity as being based upon our biological necessity. However, this perhaps reflects an implicit “transhumanism” in Western philosophy that attempts to make humans out to be as something more than the creatures we are, distancing ourselves from our biology and creating an increasingly artificial world that does not remind us our of biological limitations. Or, perhaps alternatively, this reflects an elitism in the Western intellectual tradition by those who have the “leisure” time to higher, loftier thinking as looking down on “menial labor” and those who perform them. Given the way they have influenced culture, labor has come to be seen as trudging because we have tasted other forms of activity that seem so much more appealing, that provide us a sense of enduring “meaning” in the world around us.1 The net effect of this, whatever the cause, is to overlook our biological life, apart from the most salient aspects of biology rooted in one of our most powerful instincts we can not overlook: the desire to live and not die.

Now, it is often true the the economy does not function well, leading often to the despair about human labor that philosophers and intellectuals can point to in order to confirm their overarching philosophical and economic points. When the economy does not function well, whether that be with the inability to get people what they need (related to capitalist fears) or a pervasive sense of subjugation (related Marxist fears), human life suffers in various facets and ways, whether it be in feeling of alienation or anxieties about providing for the future.

So. I now I bring up this point: the long pause of our economy that is doe to “flatten the curve” is not simply effecting the creation of wealth or the numbers in the stock market. It is radically altering people’s human lives in various facets and ways. This will have the effect on people’s quality of well being into the future and, in some cases due to being vaulted into poverty, may reduce the lifespan of many people.

I bring this us to say that the choice between containing the Coronavirus or the economy is not a matter of choosing between life and death: it is a matter of choosing the quicker death now for some of the vulnerable in our population, most notably the elderly, or the slower death of many people into the future as the consequences of an economic slowdown will impact them.

I don’t bring this us to say we should not quarantine and social distance. I bring this up to reveal something very fundamental within the Western consciousness: we fear death. We fear death so much that the idea that the choice of viral containment or economic prosperity is about making a choice that will create death for some people, just different as to who and when, would be such a scary prospect to accept that we are highly motivated to frame our moral choice in this time as seemingly clear: quarantine equals life and to not quarantine equals death. The idea that we are exchanging the deaths of some for the deaths of others would frighten many of us.

Now we can say there is a good reason for this: there is a dignity to life that means we should seek to protect and nourish life. Any action that we take that seems to violation and diminish human life is seen as something wrong, immoral, if not outright evil. However, I would put forward that valuing the dignity of life is not the same thing as the fear of death. In fact, I would put forward that these two perspectives may look similar on the surface, but they actually diverge far apart in many situations.

Put simply, the fear of death is an instinctual impulse that makes us favor ourselves and those who we identify with at the cost of other people. The fear of death makes us take drastic actions to stave off death for some people, even when those actions can have severe effects on other people. The dignity of life, on the other hand, is not about trying to prevent death, but rather it is the concept of death that gives life meaning, that we seek to life in such a way that we don’t let life become cheating by a wrongful, unjust type of death. The dignity of life include, among other things, allowing people to live and die well.

In some situations, the fear of death and the dignity of life can make similar judgments. Societal evils such as genocide, murder, abortion, callousness to the desperate, etc. are condemned both by those who fear death and those who give dignity to life. Where they diverge, however, is how far we will go to save lives. The fear of death makes us exhaust every option we can to prevent death, no matter the costs so far as the costs are not immediately apparent. The dignity of life, on the other hand, accepts death as part of life and does not seek to unnecessarily put heavy burden upon others simply for the sake of preserving biological life.

Shortly put, there is another moral framework for understanding the situation the United States, and even the rest of the world, is facing when it comes to the present pandemic and crisis we are facing. Valuing the dignity of life does not say we should prioritize the economy so much as it says that the fear of death should not cause us to value lives now at the cost of lives later. Valuing the dignity of life does not lead one to fear the reality that death will happen, one way or another, but rather enables us to face these choices we have to make with the whole of what it means to be human and to have life in mind in all its biological reality, rather than reduce it to simply to matters of biological continuation and cessation.

Misreading Romans 7 and the myth of the "divided self"

March 24, 2020

Who is the “I” of Romans 7? Many answers have been given to address the reference of Paul usage of the 1 person singular in Romans. Is it Paul himself? Is it someone Paul is impersonating? Does it refer to any person, does it only refer to a Jew? Is it an unbeliever or is a believer? There are a litany of options offered to describe who the person Paul is referring to and what is significant about this person.

The reason for the litany of interpretations is perhaps because Romans 7 is where various theological interpretations get applied to the individual at a personal level. Throughout Romans, Paul speak in collective and generic terms about humanity. Primarily, Paul speaks about Jews and Gentiles/Greeks. Paul does not usually talk about persons qua individuals. Asides from Romans 7, the closest we get is in Romans 2. However, even there, Paul’s purpose is principally to establish the universal nature of God’s judgment against sin that does not exempt a Jew who holds to the Torah; Paul’s sweep remains universal and is not focused on the experiences of individual persons except insofar as it substantiates his broader, anthropological point. So, it seems that Romans 7 functions as the place where we get to see how Paul’s doctrines of Christ, justification, salvation, and sin are are applicable to an individual person, whoever that person it. The pervasive, underlying assumption of Paul purpose in Romans 1-8 is to explicate upon the doctrines of sin, justification, and salvation. So, when we come upon Romans 7, we are inclined to see Paul’s discussion about sin and personal inability as a demonstration of these doctrines, particularly of sin, and as such, the “I” functions paradigmatically for a whole class of people, whether it be all persons, unbelievers, unbeliever Jews, believing Jews, all believers, etc. Particularly within the Protestant streams of tradition, the “I” of Romans 7 is seen to function as a paradigm of human inability.

What if, however, we have been sharply inclined to misread Romans 7 due to a faulty understanding of Paul’s discursive purpose? What if Paul’s primary purpose is not to provide a description of the human reality of sin but rather the powerlessness of Torah?

We are inclined to read Paul’s mention of sin and righteousness as being central because interpreter’s are often concerned about address ethical problems. After all, Paul does use the words ἁμαρτία and ἁμαρτάνω 55 times, which accounts for 68% of the usage of those words in Romans through Philemon.1 A similar 60% percentage is given for Paul’s usage of δικαιόω, δικαιοσύνη, and δικαίωμα, with 53 of the 89 uses occurring in Romans. Compared to his other letters, it seems that sin and righteousness is highly pertinent to Paul’s discussion. It seems warranted, then, to think that Paul’s discussion of sin and righteousness provides the central purpose that brings cohesion to Paul’s discourse. So, when we comes to Romans 7, it is only natural to assume that Paul is providing some paradigm of sin in the example of a person, to which Romans 8 (and Romans 3-6 beforehand) provides an explication of justification and righteousness.

However, the high percentage of the usage of such morally laden language in Paul should cause us to ask a question? If Paul’s understanding of righteousness and sin is crucial to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, why then do we not see a more equal usage of moral languages throughout Paul’s letters?

The glaring answer for many would be that there is something in the circumstances of Paul’s writing Romans that merits such a focus on righteousness and sin. What exactly is it about the circumstance that merits this? When we try to understand Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence, scholars predicate some hot button issue or behavior of the congregations that Paul is focused upon. However, this will not so easily do for Romans as Paul is a relative stranger to the church in Roman; he is not as familiar with them as the churches he helped plant elsewhere. It is unlikely that Paul would have had an in-depth understanding of the situation in Rome like he would have with Galatia or Corinth.

We certainly don’t need to assume that Paul was writing to the Roman Christians entirely blind. However, it is likely that whatever Paul knew about his audience, it would be the type of information that is less unique to the Roman Christians. Aside from Romans 16, we have no clear indication that Paul has an in-depth knowledge of the people and circumstances. Rather, it is more so a working assumption that what Paul writes is relevant to the situation in Rome because that is what he does in his other letters.

A different account circumstances of Paul’s epistle that can account for the moral language while not attributing any specific concern about righteousness and sin that is unique to Rome that Paul knows about. Paul is addressing a wave of zealous Judaism observable throughout the Diaspora, in which various pieces of literature in Second Temple Judaism was regularly used, most notably Wisdom of Solomon and Maccabean literature. In other words, what Paul is writing in Romans is not necessarily addressing a concern unique to the Christians in Rome, but a more pervasive social reality that Paul can safely assume is present in Rome.

In this case, Paul’s moral language can be readily explained as Paul’s attempt to engage with and deconstruct the visions of righteousness and sin discussed in this other literature, with the Wisdom of Solomon as the most obvious culprit. Many scholars have observed the influence of the Wisdom of Solomon on Romans. However, a close comparison of Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon would find more interesting differences than similarities, as most of the similarities could be readily attributable to Paul and the author(s) of the Wisdom of Solomon being Jewish. It seems best to argue that Paul is presenting a different vision of righteousness and sin than the Wisdom of Solomon.

What is the central point of difference between their two visions? That there is a particular group of people who observe Torah that are immune to the power of sin and death and do not come under God’s judgment. For the Wisdom of Solomon, the Torah was the means by which one obtained wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 6.3-11, 17-20). As such, the dividing line between the righteous and the wicked, a common division in Wisdom, and their future is drawn by the Torah. On the other hand, Paul rejects their being any significant distinction between Jew and Gentile based upon the Torah when it comes to God. Rather, the dividing line in God’s judgment is based upon one’s deeds (Romans 2.6-16), with the only assurance of being on the “righteous” side of the judgment is to be redeemed and saved through Christ.

While it is common to emphasize an antithesis of faith and works in Romans,2 it seems the contrast that is more pervasive in Romans (and also Galatians) is more specific in being between the person of Christ and the Torah. From Romans 2.17-8.39, Paul switches back and forth from Torah to Christ as the center of his discourse.3

Therefore, if there is a point that Romans 7 is to be made coherent around, it would more likely be Paul’s understanding of the Torah that takes a greater primacy through Romans 1-8, rather than a generic discussion of the nature of sin. If that is the case, then the identification of the “I” in Romans 7 is not highly pertinent. The “I” of Romans 7 can be seen as an example that many Jews could be familiar with of a person who struggles to obey Torah, deconstructing the power the the Torah was seen as having in the Wisdom of Solomon and the Maccabean literature, including most notably 4 Maccabees. One example of a person seeking to obey Torah but incapable of doing so would be enough to demonstrate that the works of Torah are not sufficient to bring people to the “right” side of God’s judgment. Rather, such a failed observer of Torah is “wretched human” who is under the power of death in the body. The Wisdom of Solomon would describe such a person as under the power of the devil rather than one of the souls of the righteous who do not really die (Wisdom of Solomon 2.21-3.4), deconstructing the power of Torah to make that the Wisdom of Solomon and other Second Temple Jewish literature sought to uphold. In this gap of the weakness of the Torah, one’s confidence in avoiding condemnation comes from Jesus Christ through the poured out Holy Spirit.

If this interpretation is correct, then that means the “I” of Romans 7 is not intended to functioned as a paradigm of human sinfulness, either of all of humanity or a specific portion of humanity. Paul is not intending to describe how sin works in all people. Rather, Paul simply provides the one case that would be recognizable to many that would invalidate the vision of vindication and judgment centered around Torah that was being espoused by some influential Second Temple Judaism texts. The rhetorical purpose of the “I” is to show the insufficiency of the Torah by poking the hole through any assurance one could have of vindication through Torah.

The advantage of this interpretation is that it does not seem to set what Paul writes in Romans 2.13 against Romans 7. If Romans 7 is intended as paradigmatic of all humanity or all Jews under Torah and how sin makes them unable to obey Torah, then Romans 2.13 would almost necessarily have to be taken as a rhetorical hypothetical that no one actually fulfills (a common interpretation of Romans 2). Otherwise, one would have to ascribe some contradiction to Paul. If, however, Romans 7 is a much narrower argument via a singular demonstration to undercut a Torah-centric vision of divine vindication, then Romans 2.13 can be taken as is without taking recourse to hypotheticals or contradictions to explain it. In short, we can imagine Paul to be saying something along the lines of: “Those Jews who obey the Torah will be justified in God’s eyes, but you can have no assurance that you will successfully come to be a person who is capable of obeying Torah by trying to follow a program of works derived from the Torah. A Jew must be freed in Christ and through the Spirit to have such an assurance.”

If all that I have written above is the case, then there is a stark theological problem that has been created: we have woefully misread Romans 7 and as a consequence, have perpetuated a notion of the morally divided self. The “I” of Romans 7 is not correctly described as a person who is experiencing a division between what we might refer to as our head and heart. Firstly, Paul doesn’t construe this division as a “divided self” between good and evil, between angels and demons as commonly portrayed in media and literature, but rather as a person being conquered by a power. The self of the “I” is not “divided” but rather conquered. For Paul, believers are not divided between a fleshy self and a spiritual self, but an individual person who is being tugged between the powers of sin and death in the flesh and the power of God in the Spirit. However, even if the “I” of Romans 7 is actually a “divided self,” the “I” does not function as a paradigm. Paul’s purpose is not to suggest that every person or every believer feels a deep division between the good that God wants them to do and the sin that causes them to go elsewhere. That some people may feel such a split between what Freud later calls the id and superego )perhaps reflecting the moral conventions of his society rather than a pervasive human experience) does not mean that Paul considers this as constitutive of all people’s life, either with morality/ethics in general or in how they seek to be faithful to God. The most general thing Paul will say about Torah and human inability is that people who are engaged in the thinking of the flesh can not submit to God’s Torah in Romans 8.7, but this does not provide an overarching pattern of human experience of sin and the attempts to obey God; it is simply a statement about their hostility to God.

In short, Romans 7 is not a paradigm of human inability to obey God or of a deeply entrenched division felt in all people.  Rather, Romans 7 is an example that demonstrates that the there is no real assurance of divine vindication by attempts to obey Torah to become a righteous person. The Torah does not have the formative power to assure people of a future divine vindication that the Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees made it out to have. Rather, for Paul, that assurance is found only in Jesus Christ, in whose death and resurrection believers participate in by faith and through the Holy Spirit.