The most famous theological controversy of the 20th century I affectionately called the episode of ontological rage. Emil Brunner makes a well-known attempt to try to incorporate a sense of natural theology for Christian theology through making a differentiation of the material and formal aspects of God’s image in human persons. Karl Barth’s even louder “Nein!” was the theological shot heard around theological world, having nothing to do with this sort of business. While the writings of the two delve into other focuses such as the right way to understand John Calvin, the discussion hinged on a matter of ontology: is the image of God entirely defaced and thus incapable of understanding God or is there still something within the person that can give them a point of contact?
It is my contention the Apostle Paul had a similar split with his Jewish contemporaries from a reading of Romans, where he shifts the focus from natural theology as mentioned in Romans 1-2 to Jesus Christ and the Spirit in the rest of the letter
Now, at first blush, this doesn’t seem like a novel proposition. Douglas Campbell in his tome The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul makes a case for a reading of Romans where Paul presents the views of his opposition that he responds to with a different position; Romans 1.20 falls under the views of the oppositional teacher that Paul encodes into Romans. In this case, Paul isn’t portrayed as accepting any natural theology but, by implication, is decisively rejecting it.
The strength of Campbell’s reading is that his close reading of Romans has allowed him to pick up the subtle differences in the argumentation that Paul has in different parts of Romans. However, I would contend the greatest weakness in Campbell’s argument is how he relates these two different theological patterns as
Jerome Bruner succinctly describes the difference between
So, rather than portraying the two different argumentative patterns in Romans in the form of two conflicting teachers and as such being mutually exclusive, I would suggest that Romans 1-8 is an attempt for Paul to direct his audience away from one narrative about human sin and God’s judgment to a more significant narrative about God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. It isn’t that Paul rejects the narrative on Romans 1.18-32 as false; rather, it is not the most important narrative. Instead, Paul takes the beliefs that that narrative represents and then argues in such a way that directs the audience to the alternative narrative of God’s faithfulness.
AS many scholars have observed including even Campbell, there are multiple similarities between Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 and the Wisdom of Solomon. For the sake of brevity, I won’t rehash this here, but only to suggest that Paul seems to show knowledge of either the WoS or a stream of thought that share many similarities with WoS. What is pertinent to highlight a particular constellation of the themes of Gentiles, νομός, and judgement shared between WoS 6 and Romans 2.
|Listen ||When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.5|
Before analyzing these two passages in light of each other, it is important to note the role the Roman Empire played in both passages.
It is also relevant to mention 1.18-32 may be expressing something that could be construed as very veiled swiped at Nero and the imperial court. As Paul’s address of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27 may have knowledge of Emperor Nero’s homosexual activity in the background, and thus 1.18-32 may be a very veiled swipe of Nero and the imperial court. Furthermore, as Nero was trained under the
However, even if Romans 1.18-32 is not in reference to the Roman emperor, clearly, Paul has the notion of empire in the back of his mind throughout the letter. Thus, this makes the contrast between WoS and his statement very significant. Whereas WoS speaks only of judgment, Paul does not specifically express what outcome there will be, but that people could be accused or excused by their thoughts in the day of judgment. Thus, whereas the WoS expresses a very stark, judgmental, Paul ends us expressing a more open-ended view of judgment. If Paul is consciously alluding to the WoS or a similar stream of thought in Romans, then he is now turning the sails from the certain judgment that concludes at the end of chapter 1 to a more open-ended possibility in chapter 2. If this analysis is correct, Paul is neither embracing a wholesale rejection nor acceptance of the Romans 1.18-32
What is held in common by both of these narratives beyond judgment, however, is the criteria of judgment: law/νόμος. While WoS 6 does not use νόμος to refer to the Torah, this “law” and Torah would have a common source. Whereas the rulers are directed to learn this “law” through attentiveness and to wisdom (WoS 6.9-11), Torah was considered by many Jews to be an expression of God’s Wisdom. Therefore, to learn wisdom about the world is to be educated about the things that the Torah also instructs Jews about. Since this wisdom is in part acquired through observations in nature (WoS 7.15-22), the WoS expresses a natural theology that would be a source of similarity between God’s wisdom as disclosed in Torah and human observation of wisdom from creation.
There is a similar view in Paul. The Gentile can be judged by νόμος, which clearly is in reference to Torah here, even though they do not have the Torah. Notice that Paul refers to the Gentiles doing the law with/by φύσις (Rom. 2.14), which is the same word used when referring to heterosexual activity in Rom. 1.26. While the NRSV and other translations render this as an adverbial dative and translate it as “instinctively” or “by nature” and treat this as a term describing a person’s character or behavior, the role of φύσις is wisdom, both Stoic wisdom and the wisdom prescribed by the Wisdom of Solomon7 suggests Paul may be describing the instrument by which one does the law: observations from nature as was mentioned in 1.19-20. Thus, it may be better to render this into English as “does the Torah by natural knowledge.” In this case, Paul is similarly expressing a view of a Gentile νόμος based upon natural wisdom and theology.
But here is where things get interesting: whereas this law/wisdom is how God will judge people in Wisdom of Solomon, Paul does not take this route. Instead, Paul suggests this law will be a source of a person’s own self-judgment: they will evaluate their own actions in accordance
Therefore, what we are seeing here is that Paul is created a gap between Jesus and
However, this gap is more than simply an epistemic gap as my usage of the language of revelation and knowledge might. While this gap would also be epistemic of nature, it is also motivational gap: neither natural knowledge of God nor the Torah ensured obedience to God. In
At stake for Paul is this: this gap
If this gap between God and Torah and nature is filled by Christ, what then of Torah and natural theology? Paul takes pains to make clear throughout that he is not rejecting the Torah.10 If the previous similarities between Torah and natural wisdom hold up here, then Paul would think equivalently about natural theology. Paul isn’t proclaiming an outright rejection of natural theology like Barth does. Whereas the instructions about righteousness
This view doesn’t treat revelation and natural theology as two mutually exclusive sources ala Barth. Rather, as the narrative of 8.31-39 gives epistemic priority of God’s action in Jesus Christ over the painful human experience in
The answer: the life, death, and resurrection Christ provides the
Thus, if my presentation is correct, one partial strand of Paul’s argumentive progression from Romans 1-8 is to provide a different perspective
This contrasts with the Barth-Brunner debate. On the one hand, it sides with Brunner to the extent that one can allow for natural theology. However, natural theology on its own sake does not deliver anything that is necessary for God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. However, Brunner attempts to ground theology in a metaphysics of God’s image and an artificial distinction between the formal and material aspects goes in the wrong direction. Not only is such a definition artificial,
Being inextricably a part of creation that both reflects God’s wisdom and the enslaving powers of death and sin, even if our minds may glimpse some true knowledge about God through nature our hearts are being tugged away by nature.