In evangelical theology, particularly evangelical Reformed theology, there is a sharp, theological injunction against the idea of ever being able to boast in oneself. Because God is the sovereign author of salvation, making any sort of claim that one bears some responsibility in one’s salvation, including even saying one made a choice to believe, is taken to amount to boasting. Correspondingly, such a theological view encourages self-abnegation, in which it is sinful to notice one’s strengths and choices one makes in one’s lives.
This prohibition against boasting takes its launching point in the letters of Paul. In passages such as Romans 3.27-31, 1 Corinthians 1.26-31 and the three chapters of 2 Corinthians 10-12, we see a couple examples where Paul seems to be denouncing any sort of boasting, unless it is a boast to the Lord. Such a recurrence seems to demonstrate that there is some inherently wrong about all boasting, unless it is a boast in God, that Paul is concerned about. Reading this against the backdrop of a monergistic soteriology, it becomes very easy to read the prohibition against boasting as being against thinking anything one does in one’s life is of any eternal value or merit. God did it, you didn’t, end of story.
Now, certainly Paul is concerned in various parts of his epistles to emphasize the agency of God over human agency. However, the problem with our modern Western lens is that we are inclined to think of the problem of sin and the gift of salvation is principally about the individual, in which individual people commit sin and deserve God’s punishment but the God’s grace comes in to free them to believe and be justified before God and have eternal life. Now, while Paul does not entirely ignore the individual in his account of sin and salvation, as Romans 6-8 is an account of God’s salvation in Christ rather than Torah that focuses upon the experience of the person, the individual is not front and center.
In setting Adam and Christ side by side in Romans 5.12-21, the individual experiences of people are not in view, but the history of humanity is in focus. Through Adam, sin entered into the human world and death through that, with the reality even manifesting itself in human history between Adam and Moses. However, people’s individual experiences do not come into play, but rather we see a discussions about reigns. Romans 5.12-21 cast human history as ultimately under the rule of two different ’empires,’ that of sin and death through Adam and that of righteousness and life through Christ. Human history after Christ is to be understood as the struggle between these two kingdoms. As such, Paul construal of humanity is more social than personal, with history as the backdrop to understanding the change in the fate of humanity.
What does this have to do with boasting? Everything. Boasting is not understood as a positive self-evaluation and self-expression of oneself, as if it is simply about the individual. Rather, boasting is more social, as it pertains to claims to social status and future expectations of victory over and against other people. To boast was to set oneself in a superior position over and against another person, or similarly, to set one’s own people as in a superior position to another people. Hence, in Romans 12.3, we see Paul admonishing people not to think more highly of themselves as they ought. As will be argued, Paul rejection of boast in Romans wasn’t about self-abnegation, but rather social status and social expectations, particularly as it related to expectations of God’s divine intervention in Roman history to exalt Torah-observant Israel while bringing low wicked Gentiles.
In Romans 3.27, Paul provides the question of a hypothetical interlocuter: Ποῦ οὖν ἡ καύχησις? Most translations render καύχησις as an abstract noun in virtue of the article, simply reading as “Where then is boasting?” However, I think it is better to take the article as either an anaphoric article or a well-known article (both of which in context I think functions the same discursively) which would render the phrase “Where then is that boast?” In that is the case, Paul is not giving a discussion on a general practice of boasting, but rather to a specific type of boast that is known by the Roman audience. In Romans 2.23, Paul makes reference to a Jewish teacher who made a boast in the Torah without further explanation, implying that there was a practicing of boasting in the Torah that he and his audience were familiar with.
I would put forward that this boast takes the death-bed speech of Matthias in 1 Maccabees 2 (LES):
49 And the days approached for Mattathias to die. And he said to his children, “Now arrogance and scorn are well established, and it is the time for destruction and raging wrath. 50 Now, children, be zealous for the law, and give your life for the covenant of our fathers. 51 Remember the works of our fathers, which they did to their generations, and you will receive great glory and an eternal glory. 52 Was not Abraham during his trial found faithful, and it was considered righteousness for him? 53 Joseph in the time of anguish, he kept the commandment and became lord of Egypt. 54 Phinehas, our ancestor, in his great zealousness received the covenant of the holy priesthood. 55 Joshua, by fulfilling God’s word, became judge in Israel. 56 Caleb, by his bearing witness before the assembly, received the inheritance of the land. 57 David, by his compassion, inherited the throne of everlasting kingship. 58 Elijah, by great zealousness for the law, was taken up as if into heaven. 59 Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, because they believed, were delivered from fire. 60 Daniel, by his innocence, was pulled from the mouth of lions. 61 And in this way, you should consider from every generation that all who hope on him will not be weak. 62 And from sinful man’s words, do not fear, because his glory will be as filth and worms. 63 Today they will be exalted, and tomorrow they will not be found because they return to their dust, and their plan perished. 64 And you, O children, be strong and courageous in your law, for in it you will be honored. 65 And look, here is Simeon, your brother. I know that he is a man of counsel. Listen to him all the days. He will be for you a father. 66 And Judas Maccabeus, he was strong in might even from his youth. He will be for you a leader of the army, and you will fight the war against the nations. 67 And you will gather among you everyone who observes the law and avenge with vengeance for your people.
It is this speech in 1 Maccabees that can be seen as rallying cry of Torah-observance for the Maccabean revolt, as it expresses the hope that through courageously observing the Torah that the exaltation of the wicked will be replaced with the honor of those who observe the Torah. We can look to this speech as the prototype exemplar of boasting in the Torah, lifting up its value in the eyes of their fellow Jews. Similarly, in 2 and 4 Maccabees, we get two stories about the torture of Eleazar and of the seven sons and their onlooking mother. While both contain the speech of the torture victims who refuse to violate their ancestral customs of Torah observance, 4 Maccabees expands upon their speeches to become ornate boasts about the Torah as they speak words of derision and judgment towards King Antiochus.
That Paul has this specific type of boasting in mind is evident from a comparison and contrast between Matthias’ speech. Firstly, both make reference to Abraham’s justification, with both even using the same word to refer to what Abraham found/gained (εὑρίσκω; Romans 4.1). Just as Matthias commends the zeal for the law, Paul will address the Jewish zeal for righteousness in Romans 10.2. Human glory and honor is a recurring theme in Matthias’ speech, whereas Paul said all have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3.23). The seemingly out of nowhere mention of David in Romans 4.6-8 corresponds to Matthias’ reference to David, with David’s compassion as the means of securing the everlasting throne being contrasted with the recipients of blessing coming through God’s forgiveness. Then, the boasting of Matthias implicitly sets a contrast between Jews and Gentiles, which would have been regularly picked upon by Jews in later time, whereas in rejecting the boast, Paul’s point is that God is God of both Jews and Gentiles. In short, there are many reasons to consider that Matthias’ boast, or at least a similar type of boast, is the target of Paul’s speech about boasting.
If that is the case, then boasting in the Torah was not about someone claiming to obey God and obtain salvation through human effort, as the early Protestant Reformation took it. Rather, the boast Paul is referring to is the exhalation of the Torah, with the expectation that one’s allegiance to Torah will provide an eventual victory over one’s exalted enemies as God also brings peace and glory to the faithful. This type of boasting could very easily have turn into a way of signaling “We are the faithful ones to God and you will rue the day,” much as we see taking place in the Wisdom of Solomon.
This thesis has some critical differences with Simon Gathercole’s thesis in Where is Boasting?, who observes the following about the boast in 3.27:
Fundamentally, the boast in 3:27 is tied up with two things, which in the Jewish mindset are really a unity. First, Israel’s election and gift of the Torah are (rightly) emphasized by the New Perspective. Second is the conviction that God would vindicate his people at the eschaton on the basis of their obedience.
First, the emphasis on the Torah is not principally about lifting up the election of Israel in their history as much as an emphasis on the belief in an imminent social and historical victory of Israel in face of the Roman political power. The story of the Maccabean revolt uses Israel’s past as a paradigm for how faithful Israel will obtain a glory in their present struggle; they are not trusting in the election and gift as much as they are trusting that their imitation of past figures through Torah observe will give them victory. Second, rather than a vindication at the eschaton, the boast in Torah is consider to be instrumental in changing the national fate of Israel on the world stage. Understanding the history of Maccabean revolt itself had no real need for eschatology, as Israel’s national fate was partially secured. Thus, appealing to such a Maccabean backdrop would not promote a concern about the eschaton, but about the present political realities under Roman imperial power and the hopes of changing them.
Rather, it is Paul who emphasizes God’s election of Israel and the eschatological vindication as being purposed towards and realized in Jesus Christ as a different vision of righteousness from a Maccabean-inspired nationalist zeal for Torah. What Gathercole observes about the “Jewish mindset” about election and eschatology as it pertains to boasting does not seem to be representative of all Judaism, or even of the form of Judaism that Paul is addressing, but is actually more so reflective of Paul’s Christ-o-centric Judaism, if one wants to call it Judaism, and what Paul emphasizes in contrast to the boast.
To that end, Paul’s letter to the Romans would be a better contrast to the decades recurring rhetoric amongst conservative American Christians who want to “take back the nation.” While they do not espouse a violent overthrow like the a Maccabean zeal would have inspired, their long-standing emphasis on trying to reestablish the old glory of the “Christian” nation that has been hijacked by “liberals” bears much in common with the social dynamics of a Maccabean-like zeal. Furthermore, insofar as they emphasize public displays of righteousness as the means towards realizing this future, such as prayers in schools, putting public reminders of Christian faith everywhere, their public boasts in God and Christ as part of the plan to win the nation seem to be eerily similar to the boast in Torah, whereas Paul’s boasting in God was of a distinctly different way of life, in which one lived as a living sacrifice like Christ so that one could then come to understand the will of God, rather than boast as if one already knew the will of God and how to bring and restore former glory.