The obscurity and significance of Romans 3.1-8

December 2, 2019

Throughout the commentaries, there is a sense of puzzlement that is apparent when interpreters come to Romans 3.1-8. From Romans 1.18-2.29, Paul’s rhetorical style resembles the Cynic-Stoic diatribe as Stanley Stowers helpfully expands upon.1 However, in 3.1-8, Paul’s rhetoric becomes a series of rapid-fire questions that has provoked a discussion as to whether this passage can be legitimately be called a diatribe.2 Stowers regards 3.1-8 to contain a series of objections and false conclusions from a hypothetical interlocutor, along with various other verses such as Romans 6.1 and 6.15.3 Nevertheless, the rapid-fire question and response of Romans 3.1-8 is in contrast to the more extended response to the objections on Romans 6. Why is Paul’s rhetoric so ‘hurried’ so as to lack a clear explanation?

I want to put forward the premise that if Paul is addressing a form of Jewish, nationalistic zeal that has a deep, latent hostility towards Rome and her imperial power, then we may be able to explain the style of Romans 3.1-8. If such a Maccabean-like zeal is present among Jews, and particularly Jewish Christians in Rome, Paul can not safely make a direct reference to such hostility in a letter that is going to the heart of the empire. What if someone deeply sympathetic to the Roman power, perhaps among the Gentiles that are in the Roman church, were to hear of signs of a revolt against the empire as Paul’s letter is read in the churches in Rome? Even as Paul seeks to rebut such militaristic and nationalistic zeal, he can not speak fo it directly. Jews were previously expelled from Rome under Claudius. Great care must be taken to not stoke the fires of suspicion. So, Paul could not make such a direct reference, nor could he spend much time expanding upon it.

Romans 3.1-8 may be Paul explaining the failure of the view that God’s righteousness is demonstrated through God giving political and social power to the righteous. The rhetoric at the conclusion of Romans 1.18-32 saying that the people committed the various sins deserve death could be interpreted by the more militant as a justification for religious violence against the Roman world. Paul’s rhetoric in Romans cuts against such rhetoric, reminding that even the wisest of Israel are not immune from many of the same sins that the self-professed wise among the Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. Jew and Gentile are not different in terms of their innate moral character, as Paul will go on to powerfully argue in Romans 3.9-20 that the Torah address the sinfulness of the Jews that echoes the condemnation thrown onto the Gentile world in Romans 1.18-32.

Just prior in Romans 2.25-29, Paul reminds the audience that the value of circumcision is in the heart of the obedient Jew, not in the flesh. While containing a Deuteronomic echo in Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6, amongst other passages, it may also contain an ideological echo of the story of forced circumcision during the Maccabean rebellion as told in 1 Maccabees 2.45-28:

And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly (ἐν ἰσχύι) circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. They hunted down the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. (NRSV)

This forced circumcision was in response to the attempts by Antiochus to eliminate Israel’s distinctiveness by forbidding the covenantal life of Israel in their obedience to Torah and circumcision, under the penalty of death (1 Maccabees 1.41-61). As such, Matthias’s forced circumcision of the boys was simultaneously an act of obedience and an act of political rebellion. Among the more zealous and militant, circumcision could have come to be valued more for its marker of social identity in distinguishing Israel from the Gentile nations, with an expectation that God will deliver them because of their circumcision. Additionally, this act of forced circumcision leads Matthias and his men preserving the books of the Torah, which were being torn and burned (1 Maccabees 1.56). In this event, the act of corporate circumcision (and not personal being circumcised) functioned as a national symbol for the preservation of the Torah in its written form. The relationship of circumcision as a personal symbol of Torah obedience is transformed into a socio-political act of preserving the written Torah. The Maccabean narrative could be interpreted as treating the act of physical circumcision as a “socio-political sacrament” that would give Israel victory over her enemies.

It is this subtle yet critical disconnection of circumcision with a faithfulness that Paul corrects in Romans 2.25-29. In Deuteronomy 30.1-5 God promises to restore Israel to the land after exile when they obey God. This promise is based upon the promise that God will circumcise Israel’s heart and then God will send curses upon Israel’s enemies as Israel lives in obedience as given in Deuteronomy 30.6-10. Here, the circumcision that delivers Israel is not Israel’s own physical circumcision, but God’s own circumcision of the person’s heart that leads to obedience and then deliverance.

However, Paul’s argument assumes knowledge of the Deuteronomic promises, as the paradoxical description of a circumcised Jew as uncircumcised, and the uncircumcised as circumcised, would echo the circumcision of the heart to any Jewish who was familiar with Torah and Deuteronomy. But by waiting until vs. 28-29 to make a more deliberate reference to the spiritual form of circumcision, Paul’s argument is structured so as to first focus on the faithfulness of the very opponent of the Maccabean narrative, the Gentiles. If an uncircumcised Gentile who keeps the righteousness (δικαίωμα) of the Torah acts like one who has been a recipient of God’s circumcision of the heart, they would be the ones who should be the recipients of God’s deliverance in virtue of being truly circumcised in the heart. This would flip the script on the narrative that connects physical circumcision with God’s socio-political deliverance. Paul appeals to the very type of person who would be considered odious to a Jew that was particularly militant, nationalistic to shame them into realizing they are not in any better position before God than the Gentile is. Paul is making moves towards demonstrating that God’s salvation is for the Jew AND the Greek (Rom 1.16) by presenting an uncircumcised Gentile a potential recipient of God’s deliverance. This would have the effect of undercutting the sharp, exclusively narrow distinctions drawn between Jew and Gentile among the more nationalistic, militant, and zealous.

If this reading is an appropriate interpretation of Paul’s discourse, then we can imagine that Romans 2.25-29 contains an indirect echo of the Maccabean narrative. Paul can’t address it directly, but any Jew who was immersed in the Scriptures, Israel’s recent history, and the socio-political hostilities of the present time would be familiar with the idea of circumcision having implications of nationalistic and ethnic loyalty and conflict. Paul can address this understanding of circumcision by echoing the Deuteronomic teaching about circumcision of the heart, without making direct reference to passages such as Deuteronomy 30, as the language of verse 7 could be interpreted as applying to the Romans in Paul’s day.

However, to become more detailed than this would risk triggering Roman interference and investigation.  He can’t safely expand it to say that the value of circumcision is as a “political sacrament” to ensure Israel’s deliverance from the Romans. Hence, Paul’s discourse becomes even more limited in Romans 3.1-8, as Paul shifts to reframe how it is that a Jew should understand their own history.

Firstly, the benefit of a Jew’s status and circumcision should be found in salvation history with God entrusting His sayings to them (Romans 3.1-2). Jews can understand the significance of their life by looking to God’s purposeful actions in history to make His will known to Israel to then pass it on, rather than trying to derive some future socio-political expectation. As N.T. Wright notes:

The word ‘entrusted’ is always used by Paul in the same sense that it bears in secular Greek: to entrust someone with something is to give them something which they must take care of and pass on to the appropriate person. Paul was ‘entrusted’ with a commission, according to 1 Corinthians 9.17; with the gospel to the uncircumcised, in Galatians 2.7; with the gospel, according to 1 Thessalonians 2.4. In no case did this commission or this gospel relate ultimately to Paul himself; it was given to Paul in order that it be given through Paul to the people for whom it was intended. This, indeed, may be why Paul speaks, uniquely for him, of ‘the oracles’. God’s purpose, he believed, was that through Israel the gentile world might hear what, to them, would appear to be ‘divine oracles’, even though Israel would have known they were more than that. The whole sentence, and the whole drift of the passage ever since 2.17, is not primarily about ‘Israel’s guilt’, but about God’s purpose, through Israel, for the world.4

While Wright perhaps overstates the discursive significance of God’s purpose for Israel in Paul’s whole argument, we see God’s purpose for Israel being brought to the foreground briefly in Romans 3.2 to try to reframe the way the Jewish Christians in Rome understand the importance and purpose of their way of life.

However, whereas Wright considers verse 3 to continue to refer to God’s purpose for Israel’s as contained in the Abrahamic and Isaianic vocation,5, the focus on some people who refused to believe (ἠπίστησάν τινες) may be more appropriately taken to be in reference to the Jews who assimilated into the Greco-Roman culture and left their ethnic heritage behind, much as many did under Antiochos. 1 Maccabees 1.52-53 portrays the unfaithfulness of many Jews in forsaking the law as contributing to the marginalization of the (faithful) Israel from power and into hiding. In this light, the question of Romans 3.3 may be comprehended asking a question about the tension between political assimilation that takes away the power to resist militaristic and social incursions and God’s promise to Abraham to give the promised land to his descendants. If the faithful few’s zealous devotion to circumcision and protection of the Torah is not what brings about God’s deliverance, does that not leave Israel’s future susceptible to the weakness of those who cease to remain believe and remain true to God’s word to Israel? Isn’t Israel weak for exploitation, conquering, and destruction if the faithfulness of a few does not evoke God’s response to deliverance against Israel’s enemies?

This explains Paul’s response in quoting from Psalm 51.4b in Romans 3.4. While directly quoting the passage about God’s rightness in his status as a judge, the psalm makes multiples references to God’s deliverance and protection of David and Jerusalem (Psalm 51.14, 18-19). God is capable of delivering and protecting His people, even in the midst of people’s sin, such as David’s mentioned in Psalm 51.1-4a. God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic promise is not conditioned upon Israel’s faithfulness, but in fact God protects Israel simply based upon God’s own forgiving response to faithlessness.

This then leads to the question of Romans 3.5 that expresses an objection to such an understanding of God’s deliverance. If God acts to deliver and protect is evidenced and brought out (συνίστημι) in response to Israel’s faithlessness, then doesn’t that mean God is actually wrong to punish people for their faithlessness? The simultaneous punishment and deliverance of faithless Israel, which paradoxical reality expressed throughout the prophets, seems to be unjustly contradictory and capricious. Paul’s response to this object is to remind the hypothetical interlocutor in 3.6 that God’s deliverance does not undercut the necessity and importance of God’s judgment of the world. Paul’s argument here works not by some logical chain of reasoning that demands the conclusion, but rather by seeking to rhetorically persuade a militaristic Jew that God’s judgment of the evils of the Roman world, very indirectly referred to by τὸν κόσμον, is still a part of God’s plan, even if He simultaneously delivers Israel because of their faithlessness.

The final two objections expressed in 3.7 and 3.8 are essentially such absurd reasoning against Paul’s argument that it reveals the wickedness of anyone who would dare to make such an argument. Both objections are rationalizations of doing evil: the former that it is wrong for God to punish sin since God delivers in response to faithlessness and the latter that it is actually beneficial to do evil so that God will deliver. These objections do not merit much of a response from Paul other than to simply express that those who think in such a way deserve to be condemned. They represent in Paul’s mind the dead-end of the nationalistic zealot who is intent to reject everything Paul presents with a fallacious form of a reductio ad absurdum that has fallen deep down the slippery slope.

Up to this point, I have argued that the best way to make sense of Romans 3.1-8 is Paul’s abbreviated rebuttal of a zealous Jew who can’t wait to see the uncircumcised Gentiles to “get theirs” in lines with the Maccabean history. It represents the conclusion of Paul’s argument in Romans 1.18-3.9 that seeks to deconstruct a Maccabean-like zeal against the Greco-Roman world. Whereas Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 would evoke a strong emotional desire for judgment and violence in any zealots in the audience, 2.1-24 undercuts any sense of the substantial, theological difference between Jew and Gentile. Romans 2.25-29 would then undercut the ‘mythology’/’ideology’ attached to circumcision that empowered such vitriol by interpreted an uncircumcised Gentile who obey’s God’s will through the lens of the Deuteronomic vision and purpose for circumcision. Then, Paul gives a response to the objections in Romans 3.1-8 that he imagines might be lobbed against Paul’s “de-politicizing” and “de-militarizing” of circumcision. Romans 1.18-3.8 is structured so as to gradually but decisively reframe the way Jews should understanding of God’s judgment and deliverance in light of Israel’s Scriptures and history.

Having rhetorically vanquished the interlocutor up to this point, Paul moves to giving the ‘prolegomena’ in Romans 3.9-20 that is necessary before understanding Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness: Israel is not ethically superior to the Gentiles in virtue of having the Torah because the Torah testifies about the sinfulness of those living under Torah. As such, Romans 3.9-20 represents a marked shift in Paul’s argument from Romans 1.18-3.8. While there are thematic connections to the previous discourse, it serves more so to transition to the vision of God’s righteousness found in Jesus Christ rather than to continued the argument of 1.18-3.8. Now that he brush has been cleared by rhetorically undercutting a militaristic vision of God’s deliverance against the ungodly Gentiles, Paul can transitioning towards expressing the theological, historical, and eschatological significance of the Gospel that he preaches. To that end, I would argue that Romans 3.9-20 should be understood as a transitional section prepares for 3.21-26, which means that objections in Romans 3.1-8 should be considered the end of Paul’s rhetorical confutatio.

Remembering our history: Salvation Army, Disney, and boycotts

November 29, 2019

Evangelical and traditional Christians across the United States had arms up in outrage a couple of weeks ago at the news that Chik-Fil-A would stop donating to the Salvation Army and other organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Having been under fire from LGBTQ activists with persistent boycotts, in addition to influencing various cities and venues to refuse to do business with Chik-Fil-A, such as the San Antonio airport and the Oracle mall in the city of Reading in the UK. While Chik-Fil-A’s actions may be understood to represent a “capitulation” to the LGBTQ advocates, at the same time, they are trying to branch out into the international market and their initial reception in the UK was meet with vociferous resistance. If they were to expand their operations to Europe, they had to address some of the political baggage that comes from their charitable contributes in the past.

Now, before continuing my main point, let me say one thing: Firstly, the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and other organizations do not have a right to charitable contributions. It is a grievous incident based upon a false portrayal of the Salvation Army and the work they do and their non-discriminatory support of the homeless including the LGBTQ, but as a charity, they are not automatically favored over other charities that do the same thing. The question is certainly up to see how Chik-Fil-A directs their charitable donations in the future in ways that make up for the loss to the Salvation Army, but the SA, while a clearly visible and well-known charity, do not have a right to Chik-Fil-A’s support. Nevertheless, while SA does not have a right to the CFA, the smearing of the SA for a larger social movement is a momentous injustice.

However, we Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic might be tempted to think the LGBTQ activists who put pressures and boycotts based upon this smear campaign are the source of the problem. We might believe that they are aggressive deceivers and propagandists who are out to support their political agenda. We very well might be correct in that assertion. And yet, there is something we as Christians might be tempted to forget. Much like the hypocrisy of politicians that can criticize the behaviors and traits of their opponents while forgetting it when it is true of their own members, we can risk falling into hypocrisy if we forget how right-wing Christians in the United States have also tried to pressure corporations to boycotts based upon their perceived support of homosexuality. Anyone remember the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney until they stop promoting homosexuality? (Click the following article if you forgot: For what: for having a day that allowed gay people to I am reminded of these words from Jesus:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matthew 7.1-2; NRSV)

Far from the misquoted verse that people use to say we should not think negatively about what other people are doing, this verse warns more so the ways in which people actively seek to discipline and fix perceived ethical wrongs may come back to bite them.  The following verses in Matthew 7.3-5 show that the context of these verses is better understood against the backdrop of how some teachers in Second Temple Judaism would try to correct the moral wrongs and evils they saw in others. Jesus’ words were a warning that what you give may come back to you; the way you treat others can become the way you get treated.

Bothers and sisters, what is happening to Chik-Fil-A is nothing more than the page out of the playbook of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 20th century. And, unfortunately, because the SBC took pains to try to be a representative of Christian moral values on the nation, including those who did not share the same moral values, we see the fruits of this as Chik-Fil-A, who as a corporation does not share the same values as LGBTQ activists,  has now come under a similar pressure. The one difference: there are greater social and political affinities with the LGBTQ activists than there were the SBC, and so Chik-Fil-A has undergone greater social pressure than Disney did.

I am reminded of the words of Paul in Romans 2.17-24, who upon criticizing the Jewish sages who stood as the prevailing representatives of Judaism in his day, tell them that they are responsible for the Gentile’s blasphemy against God. Likewise, the SBC and the Moral Majority of the late 20th century are responsible for what we are witnessing now.

It is majorly unfortunate that so many Jews in Paul’s day faced the stereotypes and injustices they did in the Roman Empire, in part contributed to the way the reputedly wise stood as representatives of the Jewish faith. It is likewise very unfortunate that wonderful charities like the Salvation Army and the corporations like Chik-Fil-A that have supported them have come under fire.

How then should we as Christians who stay true to the Scriptures respond? Hear Paul’s words in Romans 12.19-21:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)

We can perhaps hear in Paul’s words an echo of Jesus Christ. Soon after rebuking the judgments of people who try to fix other people’s sins, he commends his hearers to the following:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7.12; NRSV)

To be clear, Jesus, nor Paul after Him, are saying you shouldn’t call a spade a spade or speak up about what is false and wrong. So don’t hear my words as a call to say “Shut up and don’t complain because we are getting what we deserve. Just be nice” That is not the point. The point is that the way to respond in the face of such a social crisis is not to try to further correct the problems we see in our social opponents nor to try to get revenge against ‘them’ as they did against ‘us,’ but to act to creation the good relations that we wish we they would have with us. All too often, we say we want peace with those we disagree with and yet our actions suggest we treat them as our enemy. Perhaps we should reverse this, allowing our words to speak of the unfairness and injustice but at the same time bringing an offer to share a new way of engaging with each other by our words and actions that try to create peace.

It is my hypothesis that some of the Jewish Christians in Rome did not heed Paul’s advice very well. As put forward in previous posts, I have argued that Paul is deconstructing a portrayal of Jewish faith and practice as expressed in some literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon that took a decidedly negative view towards the pagan, Gentile world. Some of the rhetoric of the Wisdom of Solomon borders on the rhetoric of hatred, and this hatred seemed to extend to everyone beyond faithful Israel living under God’s wisdom and Torah. An outsider might consider such a harsh, dualistic worldview that has a viciously narrow exclusivism would be seen as a hatred of humanity. And what is it that we see Christians accused of after the burning of Rome in 64 AD? Of “hatred towards the human race” as recorded by Tacitus (Annals, 15.44). Perhaps after the burning of Rome, some Jewish Christians influenced by the bitterly judgmental rhetoric of the Wisdom of Solomon started to celebrate the fire as God’s judgment against the Roman world, seeing in it the beginnings of a new Exodus. From this bitterly negative judgment, the early Christians as a whole may have suffered a false and grievous injustice because some in the name of God judged all humanity and celebrated the burning of the Meditteranean’s center of power.

Similarly, if the religious teachers in Judea had heeded Jesus’ words, the Jewish revolt of 66 AD would not have occurred, or at least would not have received such a strong support, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So, let us learn from our history, sisters and brothers. Let us see a new way forward to seek to bring God’s shalom, alongside the word of God’s truth, to cultivate something that can make spiritual war against the rhetorical aad political wars against flesh and blood that we have been fighting.

The Jewish sage of Romans 2.17-24

November 28, 2019

With the earliest leaders of the Protestant Reformation, we can see a trend in their interpreting Paul’s letter to the Romans as a general criticism of Judaism and Jews. In his preface to Romans, Martin Luther comments that

In chapter 2, St. Paul extends his rebuke to those who appear outwardly pious or who sin secretly. Such were the Jews, and such are hypocrities still, who live virtuous lives but without eagerness and love; in their heart they are enemies of God’s law and like to judge other people.

John Calvin notes about Romans 2.17:

Having now completed what he meant to say of the Gentiles, he returns to the Jews; and that he might, with greater force, beat down their great vanity, he allows them all those privileges, by which they were beyond measure transported and inflated: and then he shows how insufficient they were for the attainment of true glory, yea, how they turned to their reproach. Under the name Jew he includes all the privileges of the nation, which they vainly pretended were derived from the law and the prophets; and so he comprehends all the Israelites, all of whom were then, without any difference, called Jews.

A couple of centuries later, John Wesley understands Romans 2.17-24 addressed towards Jews as a nation in his Notes on the New Testament. If Paul’s message of justification by faith was understood to be in contrast to any usage of the Jewish Torah, then it would seem ‘natural’ to understand Paul’s language in Romans 2 to implicate Jews as a nation for hypocrisy. 

However, with the emergence of the New Perspective on Paul, recent scholarship has attempted to replace their generic criticisms, if not stereotype caricatures, of Jews with an attempt to understand the target of Paul’s criticism as being more specific than a generic criticism. The primary interpretive shift has been to suggest the criticism is to suggest a mistaken notion of pride and understanding of Jewish privilege. For instance, James Dunn thinks the passages “is not intended as an accusation of wholesale Jewish profligacy, but as a pricking of a balloon of Jewish pride and presumption that being the people of God’s law puts them in a uniquely privileged position in relation to the rest of humankind.”1 Even more recent commentators who are still sympathetic to the traditional Protestant interpretation of Paul, such as Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner, see Paul’s rhetoric directed towards Jews wrongly understanding their privilege and standing in the covenant.2 Undergirding this interpretation seems to be the idea there Paul refers to a mistaken, if not self-deceived, sense of a Jew’s own privilege with God in virtue of their ethnicity.

On the surface, this interpretation of Paul’s criticism seems plausible. After all, Romans 2.17-24 does portray the focus of Paul’s criticism as someone who simultaneously personally appropriate the privileges God has given Israel while at the same time being morally inconsistent with what they teach. Such a portrayal is consistent with our understanding of pride and arrogance. However, I would contend that simply because Paul’s language is consistent with our modern understanding of pride, hypocrisy, and self-deception does not mean that Paul’s primary discursive is to criticize pride. I don’t think Paul is giving primary psychological critique. Echoing Krister Stendahl’s criticism of the introspective “Paul,” my primary concern is how we treat the psychological factors as the primary, most important factors for making coherent sense of Paul’s discourse and communicative purpose. Certainly, concerns about the psychological status of affairs can be relevant to Paul as even a cursory overview of Romans 7 can show. That doesn’t mean, however, that Paul’s ethical criticisms are primary levied against the wrong psychological states such as pride and self-deception. Just because an idea can offer feasible explanations for our perspectives into what Paul is saying does not mean we have found the most coherent understanding of what is being communicated.

Other ways of handling Romans 2.17-24 exist. NT Wright argues that Paul is subtly highlighting the failure of Israel to fulfill its vocation to be a light to the world.3 While I think such an idea may certainly exist in the background for Paul, I would suggest the indirectness of portends to similar criticism as one offered against the psychological interpretation: offering a plausible explanation for why Paul thinks does not necessarily mean we have found a coherent understanding of the discourse.

I find Richard Longnecker’s point about Romans 2.17-24 to be the best direction to take. It is not directed towards Jews in corporately and universally, but rather towards a specific type of person:

The referent throughout this second part of Rom 2, as it will be in 3: 1-20, is certainly the Jews of Paul’s day. It is probably not, however, to be understood in terms of Jews generally or Judaism per se. Rather, the referent is most likely some type of proud and censorious, but entirely inconsistent, Jew who viewed himself as a moral teacher of pagan Gentiles, but who caused the name of God to be dishonored among those same Gentiles because he himself failed to live up to the moral standards of the Mosaic law.4

Similarly, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God sees Paul’s discourse in 2.17-21 similarily:

For now, it suffices to register, on the one hand, a dominant Jewish figure who is clearly committed to the law, meaning here probably the Jewish Scriptures as a whole, although they were doubtless centered on the Pentateuch… This figure will bring the illumination, wisdom, and maturity of the law to those who currently lack it.5

Campbell further notes that the charges of 2.21-23 are “difficult to integrate into any sensible reconstruction or critique of Judaism in general.”6 Both Longnecker and Campbell recognize a specific figure as the target of Paul’s discourse, rather than a generic description of Jews.

However, I would contend that Longenecker’s and Campbell’s explanations fall short of adequately explaining 2.17-24. Longnecker suggests that this Jewish figure considered himself a teacher of the pagans. However, this designation does not fit well within Paul’s broader point about uncircumcision Gentiles who obey the righteous regulations (δικαίωμα) of the Torah without having the Torah (2.14, 26). There is nothing in Paul’s discourse to suggest that Paul considers this Jewish teacher to be a teacher of Gentiles specifically.

Meanwhile, Campbell believes this figure that Paul describes is an actual flesh-and-blood human being that is working as a counter-missionary “Teacher” against Paul’s Gospel.7 However, the characterization of this teacher in Paul’s diatribe more closely resembles the literary portrayal of the wise figure of Solomon in Wisdom of Solomon 7.15-22a:

May God grant me to speak with judgment,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for he is the guide (ὁδηγός) even of wisdom
and the corrector (διορθωτής) of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. (NRSV)

Previously, it is said that the wisdom this Solomonic figure is connected with their keeping of God’s laws in Wisdom 6.17-20:

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws (νόμων),
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom. (NRSV)

If we take these two passages together, we see the interrelation of five motifs: (1) the possession of wisdom, (2) pedagogical authority, (3) Torah/νόμος, (4) boasting of a relationship with God, and (5) immortality. The first four of these motifs occur together in Romans 2.17-20, with the fifth one of immortality being an important theme in Romans 2.6-16. The constellation of these five themes in Romans 2.6-20 that are also together in Wisdom of Solomon 6-7 suggests that Paul is addressing Jewish sage as typified in the Wisdom of Solomon, and in addition, also 1 Maccabees (I will offer support for this in a moment). The figure of 2.17-24 is better understood as a figure whose characteristics are drawn from Jewish literature rather than Paul’s knowledge of a specific flesh-and-blood Teacher that Paul is engaging in an argumentative conflict with.

This potential derivation from the Wisdom of Solomon would offer further insight to the relationship between Romans 1.18-32 and 2.17-24: Paul indicts the Jewish sage of 5 sins things that are present in Paul’s indictment of the Gentile sage figure in 1.18-32, whose portrayal contains echoes from the Wisdom of Solomon 13-14. Both portrayals share pedagogical failure (1.32 and 2.21a), stealing (1.29-318 and 2.21b), adultery (1.26-279 and 2.22a), sacrilegious cultic behavior (1.23-25 and 2.22b), and boasting the possession of knowledge (1.22 and 2.23). I would put forward the hypothesis that this is best explained by Paul trying to subvert the influence and authority that Jewish literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees would have in created an ethnic divide of the Jews from the Gentiles based upon moral and ethical superiority in virtue of Israel’s relationship to God, Torah, and circumcision. Both the pagan and Jewish figures of wisdom are caught in moral trespass: even the most revered Jewish teachers are not immune to sin and unrighteousness that is portrayed occurring in the Greco-Roman world. Paul essentially shows that the Wisdom of Solomon’s portrayal of the wise figure is essentially self-deceived and overlooks the reality of things.

This is where 1 Maccabees comes in. One of the charges against the Jewish sage is that they commit ἱεροσυλέω in 2.22b. The precise behavior that Paul is referring to here has been debated. Longenecker describes two possible options here: sacrilege of the temple of Jerusalem and stealing from heathen temples. While noting that Jewish religious leaders were often accused of the desecration of the temple, Longenecker favors the latter option without any evidence in support except the reference to John Chrysostom in the 4th century AD.10 However, I would argue that Paul has an understood reference to a particular type of sacrilegious offense in Jewish history: the way that the Maccabean cleansing of the temple went against the regulations Torah. In 1 Maccabees 4.41-51, priestly students of the Torah were put in charge of cleansing the sanctuary after the Gentiles had defiled it. They decided to tear down the altar, took away and stored the defiled stones elsewhere while they made a new altar of unhewn stores according to the Torah. However, in Leviticus 8.14-15, Moses used the blood of a sacrificed bull to cleanse the altar. If this would have been considered a sacrilegious offense of the Torah’s purity regulations surrounding Torah, such a mistake from priestly authorities familiar with the Torah could no doubt be seen as indicting these actions, especially by those critical of the Hasmoneans. This specific event would explain Paul’s usage of the word ἱεροσυλέω, as it was primarily intended to describe vandalism of a team through plundering it, with the act of removing the defiles stones that should have been purified would be considered an act of sacrilegious removal.

There are other reasons to consider that Paul makes other implicit references to 1 Maccabees elsewhere in Romans. Paul’s discussion about Abraham in Romans 4.1ff echoes the speech of Matthias in 1 Maccabees 2.51. Furthermore, if Paul is repeated criticism of the cleansing of the Temple as described in 1 Maccabees 4, then we may have an answer for why Paul transitions to discussion circumcision in Romans 2.25-29. The narrative of 1 Maccabees may be considered to portray the act of circumcising the boys living in Israel as being responsible for allowing their work to oppose the arrogant and protect the Torah from the Gentiles to prosper (1 Maccabees 2.45-48). If the Maccabean narrative had been told in such a way as to extol the power of circumcision and zealous protection of the Torah as a way to ensure the success of nationalist endeavors, then Paul’s reminder that circumcision is only of value if one obeys the Torah, which echoes Deuteronomy 10.16 and other Deuteronomic passages, is a way of deconstructing a nationalistic myth as given in 1 Maccabees. Hence, Paul’s language about the advantage of being a Jew and circumcision in Romans 3.1 is a question from a hypothetical interlocutor that sees the social advantage of circumcision and Torah to provide God’s assurance of success against imperial overlords. Paul appeals to God’s salvation history as sayings of God as an act of revelation Israel was entrusted with as the benefit, rather than any militaristic power embued within Torah and circumcision.

In conclusion, I would offer up the hypothesis that in Romans 2.17-24, Paul crafts a picture of a Jewish sage that is cobbled together various pieces of Jewish literature that could have been used in support of Jewish nationalism resistance to Roman imperialism. Whereas this nationalistic picture would have portrayed the injustices and evils of the Gentile world to their intrinsically sinful nature that makes them hopelessly and unchangably lost and mired in their wickedness as portrayed in Wisdom of Solomon 12.3-11, Paul charges that the disregarding of God in the Greco-Roman world is more the responsibility of this Jewish sage in causing the Gentiles to blaspheme God, with Paul quotations of Isaiah 52.5 in Romans 2.24 offered as a Scriptural prick against the pride of this literarily-crafted Jewish sage to delegitimate the narrative that blaming the Gentiles for their own disregarding of God in Romans 1.18-23. Whatever responsibility wise of the wise figure Greco-Roman society may have had in the literary portrayal of the Wisdom of Solomon, the Jewish sage is also complicit and responsible in some degree for the idolatry of the Gentiles. To that end, NT Wright’s remarks that 2.17-24 describes the failure to successfully uphold Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations can be said to be present in the background, along with the ascriptions of pride offered by Dunn, Moo, Schreiner, and others.

However, at the center for Paul’s discursive purpose in Romans 2.17-24 is the deconstruction of the idealized figure of Jewish wisdom (much like he does briefly in 1 Corinthians 1.18-25) drawn from Jewish literature. Real-life versions of these literary figures, including both traditions derives from Jewish sages of past and teachers in Paul’s own day, would contribute to a division between Jews and Gentiles being cast and legitimate by their interpretive applications of the Torah, that the works of the Torah, which would create a division on many lines, including through dietary conventions (Romans 14).11 The literary portrayal of a Jewish sage would be a sufficient stand-in for the traditions of the elders that would have given various prescriptions for how faithful Jews could obey the Torah and be confident that they had a place in the age to come. As Paul’s portrayal demonstrates these pedagogical figures and students of Torah in Israel’s past didn’t successfully obey Torah themselves, the shocking conclusion is that the Torah is not able to make people righteous. This explains the movement we see in Romans 3.11-20, as Paul goes from the particular failures of the Jewish sage to a recognition that being locked in sin is endemic to Israel’s history told in the Scriptures. If the Torah leaves people in sin, then the tradition of the elders as referred to as the works of the Torah (which would later become known as the Oral Torah and Halakha in post-70 AD Rabbinic Judaism) is of no power to bring God’s righteousness, because even the wisest of the Jewish teachers are caught up in the sins they taught against.

So, while we can perhaps say that Paul’s discourse in Romans 2.17-24 can be considered a literary stand-in that represents the Jewish sages of Israel’s recent history, Paul is not leveling a general critique against all Jews individually or corporately, but rather pointing out the weaknesses of the Jewish leaders and teachers who are reputedly to have helped Israel to obey the righteousness of Torah.

A closer look at Romans 1.26-27

November 25, 2019

Last week, I made an overarching argument that the “homosexuality” passages in the Pauline corpus are actually expressing Paul’s condemnation of married men who abandon their wives and substitute them with other males. For years, I was in support of the interpretation that Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9, and 1 Timothy 1.10 all referred to any sexual intercourse between people of the same gender. However, last week, I changed my mind. What leads to that change of mind?

There are three parallel reasons. Firstly, at the level of critical thinking, I am aware that in various social conflicts, there is the tendency to appeal to authorities that legitimate our perspective and to develop a rigid understanding of those authorities. In other words, in Christian conflicts on matters of theology and ethics, there is a pronounced tendency to see specific Scriptural passages as supporting our theology and we tend to become rather resistant to reading those passages in different ways. We overlook some of the details in a passage that may challenge our interpretations so as to keep our views fixed.

This is true across the board and not simply a statement against evangelicals in regards to homosexuality, because I witness it just as pervasively on the progressive wing of the conflict over sexuality. In fact, to be forthright in my opinions, I think progressives minded Christians may be more susceptible to trying to do this. While appealing to Scriptures about love and justice, they developed a way of interpreting the “homosexuality” passages that avoided two ideas that provided the most likely foundation for understanding those passages: the resemblance of the gender language in Romans 1.26-27 with Genesis 1.27 and the resemblance of the term ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10 with Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13.1 Even the best argument I saw for a reinterpretation of the “homosexuality” passages failed on these two points. Claiming that Paul was talking about pederasty was not sufficient to make sense of the language Paul used: Paul uses the gender language of Genesis 1.27 and Leviticus 18.22/20.13, rather than the language that would have conventionally been used to describe pederasty. Paul addressed this sin from his Jewish background in the Scriptures, not as a Greco-Roman expressing contempt for pederasty. These are important exegetical details that I feel confident in saying that they should not be glossed over, but they rarely are present in the arguments I have seen by those who sought to reinterpret these passages as not addressing homosexuality.

Nevertheless, even if people in the other “tribe” become rigid in their interpretations, it doesn’t take away from the reality that my “tribe” does it or that I do it too. However, it is next to impossible to identify the way we become rigid in our interpretation in such a way that we overlook important details when we are in a state of rigidity. We are not conscious of most of the cognitive processes of construal and interpretation, nor are we consciously aware of how we unconsciously devalue and ignore the details that would challenge our present thinking. The best we can do is be aware of this reality and seek to be open to adjusting and changing when solid warrants are presented in favor of changing. This entails us paying close attention longer than we might otherwise be inclined to do so because we think we already know the truth or see the error because most of the time our entrenchment in a specific way of thinking and interpretation is unconsciously reinforced by feelings of anger, derision, incredulity, arrogance, etc. that would lead us to stop directing attention in a way that we are open to learn more deeply: instead, our attention becomes directed as figure out all the problems with those people or that interpretation. However, besides this, we can’t know from the inside where our errors might be; we can only try to push work against those feelings that instinctual arise in a way that exceeds actual harm that would keep us entrenched in our line of thinking.

Secondly, at a personal level, I have some degree of empathy with Christians who have an exclusive same-sex attraction and nevertheless feel a commitment to celibacy. While I am opposite-sex attracted, due to personal trauma, I have experienced the emotional pain of being unable to even form emotional intimacy, much less see anything approaching marriage on the horizon. This is a pain that can largely be experienced in a Western society that has hypersexualized us through music, film, advertisements, and politics, which supersaturated our society with appeals to sex that has the power to grab our attention, sell products, and trigger emotions useful for political movements. In such a society, there is an extreme pain that can from being celibate, straight or gay/lesbian, even as we recognize the theological goodness of such a path of life: we experience the conflict of culturally heightened desire with our celibacy and the social judgment that comes from being celibate in a society where a heavy importance is laid on our sexual identities and experiences. In addition, the response from evangelicals to this hypersexualization has been to try to “purify” themselves more and more from sex, without a lot of success I might add, which meanwhile leads to the harsh judgment of even those same-sex attracted people who are celibate because of the type of desire that they have. I have long felt there had to have been a better reading and understanding of the passages on sexuality that they were often given in some evangelical circles.2

This brings me to the last and the most important reason when it comes to Biblical interpretation: what ultimately lead to the change in my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 was my research on the intertextual between Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon. Many scholars have observed there are a lot of similarities between Paul’s language in Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon, especially in Romans 1.18-32. One of my research goals was to find all the passages in Romans that we could argue has echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon in mind. Over time I found many of them. However, I could not find any passage in the Wisdom of Solomon that resembles Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27. The closest I could find was this in Wisdom of Solomon 14.22-31:

Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. For it is not the power of the things by which people swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous. (NRSV)

The overriding focus of this passage is adultery and the disruption of marriages. While the language of “sexual perversion” (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή) and “debauchery” (ἀσέλγεια) may be applicable to what Paul describes in Romans 1.26-27 and Paul uses the similar term μεταλλάσσω to describe what the women, there is a dearth of gender language for Paul’s gendered discourse to echo. Instead, it seems to me that Paul’s gendered language is better understood as simultaneously echoes Genesis 1.27 and the judgment expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon 14.24-26 against marital infidelity and disorder.

This observation and interpretation is strengthened by the fact that each of the five sins attributed to the hypothetical Jewish sage in Romans 2.21-23 are mirrored in Romans 1.18-32, except in reverse order. The failure of the Jewish sage to teach themselves appropriately is paralleled by the reputedly wise of 1.18-32 to teach others to do things that deserve death by applauding them in 1.32. Then, the concern about the sage stealing echoes some of the sins in 1.29-31, particularly those related to theft such as covetousness and envy. Additionally, many of the other sins listed in verses 29-31 were instrumental in the ungodly oppressing the righteous our of greed as described in Wisdom of Solomon 2.6-20, further strengthen the connection between the sage’s sins in 2.21-23 and the condemnation of Gentiles in 1.18-32. Skipping the adultery for the moment, we also see that the abhorrence of idols and sacrilege of the temples in Romans 2.22b can be considered to correspond to the idolatry condemned in 1.23. Finally, the Jewish sages’ boast in the Torah in 2.23 is reflected in the boasting of wisdom in 1.22.

With these four aforementioned correspondences between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23, this would suggest that the charge about the Jewish sage’s potential adultery in 2.22 corresponds to 1.26-27. If Paul’s concern in 1.26-27 is about expressing condemnation of homosexuality in all forms, this would not fit with the concern about adultery: adultery was about the violation of the marital covenant, not simply any sexual sin. If Paul (a) is drawing a parallel between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23 and (b) was directly speaking about homosexuality in any form, then the parallel between the two would suggest the language of fornication in 2.22, not adultery. Therefore, if the parallel between the two passages holds, it is more plausible to suggest that what Paul describes is one way in which marriages in the Greco-Roman world would have fallen short of the Jewish ideal of marital fidelity and integrity. Add on top of this (1) the routine echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon that focus on marital infidelity and (2) the usage of the word ἀφίημι in 1.27 that could be used in terms of marital isolation and abandonment, we have a strong basis to think Paul is portraying the way in which marriage has been devalued in the wider society, particularly in Rome.

Rather condemning solely on the grounds of saw between males, what seems to take the focus for Paul is to describe the way that the change in sexual behavior and passions of the reputedly wise reflects their fall into idolatry. In 1.24, Paul describes them as (1) exchanging (μετήλλαξαν) God for the lie and (2) as their hearts in worship being drawn to these idols. These two ascriptions are reflected in the female’s exchange (μετήλλαξαν) in 1.26 and the male’s passion for other males in 1.27.

Additionally, while the language of nature used here (φυσικός) in 1.26-27 could be used by ancient philosophers to describe the order of the world, in Second Temple Jewish literature it was more commonly that the word for nature (φύσις) was used in connection with the emotional, behavior, and cognitive impulses of humans, animals, and maybe even God (Wis 7.20, 13.1; 4 Mac. 1.20, 5.7-8, 5.25, 13.27, 15.13, 15.25, and 16.3). Therefore, instead of describing the violation of a specific gender-order in creation, Paul describes the change of the natural desire that husband and wife have for each other for other sexual activity and desires.

Taking this all together, a Jew hearing Paul’s discourse in 1.26-27 would have been much more likely to hear Paul condemning the devaluation of the marital bonds rather than our modern concerns about homosexuality. The language of the discourse and the various echoes present evidence that is closer to adultery was being described.

That said, it is important to know that this interpretation does not simply explain away the sexual intercourse between two men as mentioned in 1.27 as simply being incidental to Paul’s discourse. Paul says that reputedly wise have degrading (ἀτιμίας) passions in 1.26 that reflects the degrading (ἀτιμάζεσθαι) of their bodies mentioned in 1.24. Degradation is a term of dishonor, which puts one in ill repute for one is doing and has done. The language suggests that in general, the men and women have brought a social dishonor upon themselves for what they have done. Given that shame was connected to a social hierarchy of status, such language suggests that these women and men have actively lowered themselves in their status by the specific behavior attributed to them. They didn’t simply violate the marital bed, but they did it in a way that was beneath who they were. Such language from Paul does not simply describe the sin of adultery, but focuses on the very manner in which they were devaluing their marriage bed.

This language of degradation probably echoes the idea of “abomination” in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. The Greek term for “abomination” in the Septuagint in those passages is βδέλυγμα. This is the same term used in the Wisdom of Solomon 12.23 to describe the torment God brings upon people for their own “abominations” (βδελυγμάτων). While the Wisdom of Solomon uses such language as a description of people’s idolatrous behavior here and in 14.11, it has a consequence in trapped people in sin. Paul’s language about the men’s own actions bringing punishment upon themselves in Rom 1.27 echoes this similar idea. While the evidence here is more spotty, there is certainly grounds to think that Paul considered the degradation of the body in idolatry and of the degradations of sexual passions to correspond to each other, just as the language of idolatry in Wisdom of Solomon and in the Leviticus prohibition in 18.22 and 20.13 share the similar language of βδέλυγμα. If that is the case, Paul is not just concerned about marital infidelity, but the very way the marital infidelity has occured.

A close look at the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 would be in support of this particularly egregious form of marital infidelity. While most translations of the Hebrew render those passages in a way that the gendered phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה (Lit.: “bed/couch of a woman/wife”) in an adverbial way that is used to describe the way a man lies with a male (“as with a woman”), this is neither necessary reading of the Hebrew nor the natural way the Greek Septuagint would read. In Genesis 49.4, the similar Hebrew phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ (Lit.: “bed of your father”) is used to describe the way in which Reuben violated the sexual boundaries of his father Jacob’s relationship with his concubine Bilhah previously mentioned in Genesis 35.22. Such a phrase is used to describe the violation of a sexual boundary, which can support understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as the violation of the marital relationship between husband and wife. However, for our purposes here in understanding Paul, the Greek Septuagint is more important as the usage of cognates to describe the sexual transgression (κοιμηθήσῃ and κοίτην) suggests that the accusative κοίτην is the grammatical direct object, meaning that the principal focus of the action in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 is how a man wrongly lays upon the “bed/couch of the woman/wife” (κοίτην γυναικός). Rather than function as an adverbial phrase, it is the principal description of the action, whereas the prepositional phrase μετὰ ἄρσενος (“with a male”) provides additional information as to how this action is performed. In other words, Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 could have, if not likely would have, been read as a form of a violation of the marital relationship in both the Hebrew and the Greek by a married man having sexual relations with another male.3

If Paul has Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 in mind in Romans 1.27, especially if he interprets those passages as describing a particularly egregious form of marital infidelity, then intercourse between two members of the same sex is not just a throw-away bit of information that is largely irrelevant to what Paul says except as a way to describe a form of adultery, but that this specific type of marital infidelity is particularly degrading. However, this form of degradation would be best understood against the backdrop of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, where the “natural” attraction of male and female is rooted in the way God created humanity. The point being here is that while Paul does not express a condemnation all of what we refer to today when talking about homosexuality, his language and the possible echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures make the best sense only if there would be considered something deviant about sexual relations between two people of the same gender. At the risk of using somewhat sexually objectifying language, the two genders are not considered equivalent substitutes in terms of sexual partners.

To conclude, this interpretation of Paul in Romans 1.26-27 leaves us in an ambiguous place in regards to our modern discussions of sexuality. On the one hand, Paul is not talking about we refer to as homosexuality. Yet, on the other hand, there is still a pronounced “heteronormativity” that is central to how Paul understands sex and marriage. To say that Paul would only be concerned about marital infidelity would be to force an interpretation on the discourse that does not make good sense of the details of the discourse in Paul’s social, historical, and religious context. In this case, what we would be left with are texts that are not as clear as we traditionally leaning Christians have made them out to be in addressing the modern question of how churches and denominations are to view sexual intercourse and/or marriage between two people of the same gender.

Nevertheless, despite the ambiguity, there are some things any church or denomination that believes the Scriptures are authoritative when interpreted in terms of their original discursive and literary intentions would be able to say. If correct, this interpretation would still strongly reject the push against the idea of “full inclusion” as there is no equivalent substitute for the marriage of a husband and wife for those who take the whole Biblical narrative and texts about marriage and sex seriously. However, at the same time, we would also be able to conclude that Paul does not have in mind people with same-sex orientations, but those men whose sexual passion for their wives changed towards other men *as a result of the idolatry they engaged in.* People who are lesbian or gay absolutely and unequivocally do not deserve to be punished for their same-sex attraction or sexual activity, nor should they be humiliated, harassed, and mistreated. Since the interpretation offered above would also explain Paul’s usage of ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Paul’s language is not saying that people who consider themselves gays or lesbians are going to hell.4

New Testament studies as history, literature, and theology

November 25, 2019

In the recently released introduction to the study of the New Testament, The New Testament in its World, N.T. Wright (along with Michael F. Bird) dedicates the first section to the question of what the New Testament properly ought to be considered, especially by Christians. Imagining how prominent figures of ancient Greek, Rome, and Judaism might understand the New Testament, Wright offers the following:

In the end, however, their conclusions would probably converge around three things: history, literature, and theology. These writings, they would recognize, claim to be based on real people and real events. They employ different styles and genres which have at least partial analogues in the wider worlds of their day. And they all assume the existence and living activity of a creator God, the God of Israel, claiming that this God has now acted decisively and uniquely in the man Jesus. There might be other categories, too: philosophy, politics, and even economics come to mind. ‘Religion’, to repeat, is too muddled a category to be much use. History, literature, and theology, held together in a new kind of creative tension, are the best starting-points to help us understand what sort of thing the New Testament actually is. (Emphasis my own)1

As he goes on to observe in the conclusion of this chapter and the next three chapters that covers the place of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament, the place of each of these three is not uncontested nor universal, even among scholars. For instance, it is well known the aversion, if not sometimes distrust, that some biblical scholars who are concerned highly about the questions of history have about history. Wright references Wayne Meek’s distaste for the phrases “Biblical theology” and “New Testament theology.”2 Additionally, the way we understand the New Testament as literature is variously debated. Do we seek to understand the intentions of the author or the implied narrator, or should it be understood primarily by reference to the response it evokes in readers? If our own interpretations and response to the Scriptures are what is important, then what place does history have in grounding how we interpret the New Testament? 

This is not to mention the messiness that comes into play by trying to work history, literature, and theology together. Each three as specific fields of intellectual inquiry and study have very different cognitive, epistemological, and hermeneutical principles that determine (1) how the inquiry should proceed and (2) how one can rightly extend the extent of one’s knowledge. (What follows is a general description of the common approach taken in each field, but it is meant to more provide the prototypical manner in which the fields of inquiry work, but not to be a definitive account of all such inquiry).

Academic history relies upon a high degree of historical evidence to ground one’s claims about history, and as such is often implicitly foundationalist in its epistemology. Especially in forms of historiography influenced by the Enlightenment, historical evidence is interpreted separately and in isolation from other historical evidence and then those various pieces that are brought together into a historical reconstruction. As a result, an understanding of history is developed that relies upon certain fixed points we know of that is then put together into a coherent account.

Literary studies are concerned with the way a text reads as a whole, which tends to operate more with a coherentist epistemology (even if it is not formally expressed in literary studies). One can not rightly understand one part of a work of literature without reference to the rest. Context is king, but we can’t be really sure whether the specific passage in question should be reread in light of the context, or the context should be alternatively understood in light of the passage. This leaves every reading underdetermined, leaving it such that other readings may be just as legitimate.

Insofar as Christian theology contains particular beliefs about God who is known to us but is different from us such that He is not knowable in the traditional forms of knowing, neither foundationalist nor coherentists account guide theology, but it becomes an externalist account that relies upon the Scriptures somehow being inspired, that is reliable, source of understanding about God. As a consequence, theological knowledge is conditioned to our knowledge being formed by the object of our knowledge,3 whereas history and literary studies reconstruct and create understandings, respectively.

You can imagine, then, the messiness that comes from trying to bring these three fields of inquiries together that can lead to different readings. A historical reading might focus on the relationship of Paul’s discourse to Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome based upon key historical data points in the works of the book of Acts, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio in probably the late 40s AD and its chronological nearness to Paul’s letter in the mid-50s AD. However, a literary reading of Romans may come to the judgment that Paul’s rhetoric is protreptic in nature by taking the structure of the letter as a whole, which finds its origins in Hellenistic philosophy as a form of “conversion” literature. Then, a theological interpretation about Romans may think that Paul is addressing how people can have confidence that they may find life and peace with God through Jesus Christ. Each of these three readings could suggest a different “purpose” for Paul’s letter[/note]addressing Jewish hostilities towards Rome and the Gentiles; converting the Roman Christians to a specific way of thinking; helping people to find and know God’s love and forgiveness[/note] arrived at by paying attention to different information in Romans and pertinent to it, processing it differently4, with differing purposes for the interpreters. Trying to blend these three readings of Paul based upon those three modes of inquiry could potentially lead to more disagreement than cohesion between them.

However, it is important at this point to recognize that there is an important difference between an etic analysis and emic comprehension. As we approach a text with a critical, analytical rigor, we have a tendency to focus on specific words, concepts, structures, purposes, meanings, etc. that we observe within the text so as to understand the text. In so doing, our attention marshaled for the purpose of the analysis is focused on making the contents of these ideas clearly understood and employ these ideas for making further inferences. Consequently, such an analysis necessitates the reduction of cognitive ambiguity to perform these tasks as we focus on some salient property of the text and/or our interpretation of it. In such a case, trying to bring together three different portrayals of Paul’s letter to the Romans can lead to tension between the three portrayals because they would each fight for primacy and attention that would lead to some or all of the readings to become more blurry and ambiguous in order to bring them all together; all three can not be the primary purpose of Romans that is constituent for Paul’s meaning at the same time.

However, an emic, insider understanding of a text is not concerned with analytic clarity and precision. Rather, for people competent to understand a particular communication based upon having (1) a common language, (2) similar culture, and (3) overlapping understanding of the circumstances, they will usually comprehend the communication naturally and intuitively with only the occasional need to analyze and critically assess what has been said. They just understand much of the communication in its various facets, how it relates to the circumstances it is intended to address, and how the structure of the communication flows and fits together. Amidst this, communications are multi-functional, producing various construals and understandings, which when individually taken under the cognitive-reflective microscope of analysis would appear to be distinct and different from the other construals and understandings, but in the specific event of communication and comprehension, they are just understood in such a way as they fit together.

When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not have a natural comprehension of his communication as a whole. We may have enough of an understanding to extrapolate some important historical matters, or to give a description of the structure and form of Romans, or to have a sense of what it means to be a Christian in light of Romans, but we don’t have an emic comprehension that would give us a higher-definition comprehension of each of those matters in isolation and blended together. And if we seek to make progress towards that type of high-definition comprehension, we have to start by analyzing it from what knowledge we believed we have in history, literature, and/or theology and proceed from there to push further. This mode of analytic inquiry is a necessity due to the epistemic gap that exists by being separated by 2000 years with a different culture and life experiences than Paul and the Roman Christians at the time.

Nevertheless, if we are not careful to distinguish between the way we understand something due to the analysis of the outsider from the way we would comprehend something as an insider, we can have problems synthesizing together the findings that come together from different modes of inquiry. Instead, we may be tempted to reduce the meaning of Paul’s letter to the Romans down to the purposes and meanings that are more relevant to our preferred mode of inquiry, rejecting or relativizing the rest away.

But, if Wright is correct that the New Testament would have been understood as history, literature, and theology together, then we may become impoverished of meaning due to our intellectual inquiries, as they may keep us locked into very specific patterns of textual construal and interpretation. The very thing that is necessary to cross the threshold of basic awareness about the text to a comprehension of the communication may become the very thing that locks us away from comprehension; intellectual inquiry and analysis may be a necessity, but it certainly isn’t sufficient.

However, any attempt to try to give specific intellectual prescriptions to change the three fields of inquiries as strangers and opponents in a debate into friends who share with and change each other would miss the point: I can not tell you how to get to a deeper comprehension by reference to anything that comes outside of that comprehension: I may have a nugget of insight here or there that is helpful along the way, but in the end, I can not provide any guidelines for how they should be combined that would not already assume a certain meaning in the first place. At that point, I would simply be encouraging you to see history, literature, and theology come together in the way that I would think they should come together.

However, a specific metaphor may be useful to help people break down the cognitive antinomies that can exist by bringing together different fields of inquiry. Imagine a house, whose foundation supports the exterior walls (and the roof also) and the inner walls of the house, which in turn determines how the living space feels and can be arranged and used for personal use. While there are multiple ways the walls can be arranged upon a foundation, for a specific floor plan to be put in place and remain there is the need for the foundation. However, at the same time, the floor plan is developed with the purpose of humans inhabiting and living so that that the foundation is planned and laid with that floor plan in mind.  The setting and usage of the foundation, walls, and interior space are all a function of each other. In terms of physics, the foundation determines the walls, which shapes the interior life, whereas, in terms of human life, the purpose of the interior determines the walls, which determines the foundations. If we imagine history as the foundation, literature as the walls, and theology as the interior, we can comprehension through metaphor the interworkings of the three fields together.

Beyond this metaphorical image for the blending of meaning, a second way forward it to have a different rationale for our intellectual inquiries into the New Testament. Often times, academic inquiry works on the premise of discovery, finding something that was unknown and/or innovating to create something previously unimagine or unimplemented. The drive for novelty makes intellectual inquiry proceed by going from the known to the unknown. However, let me suggest a different vision of New Testament studies that finds its intellectual inspiration in Wittgenstein: an academic inquiry into the New Testament is more about repairing our own reading and our own comprehension more so than it is about directly giving to us the meaning of the New Testament texts. We are fundamentally in ignorance and error about the meaning of the New Testament (from a Christian perspective, we can push this forward to see we are spiritually and morally blind to its meaning due to sin), although to what extent we are in error we can’t know just by looking at the Bible. Nevertheless, we can identify some interpretations as being much less realistic and not having as much fidelity to the texts, being much more like a cheap, bootlegged knock-off of New Testament than an adequate representation of its meaning. While we may not know exactly what it is we will find, we can identify something that doesn’t work. We may be able to repair our understanding through different forms of historical, literary, and theological inquiry that can help us to sift the wheat from the chaff, to know what wounds in our own comprehension need mending and rest or even emergency surgery to repair and heal. While the intellectual inquiries will not directly deliver to us the meaning of the New Testament in all its historical, literary, and theological significance, we can recognize their tremendous usefulness while recognizing their fundamental limitations in not able directly able to provide us an emic understanding of the New Testament.5

It is this recognition that allows us to engage in Wright’s hermeneutics of love, where love is “the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other.”6 If we recognize our inquiries into the New Testament are more about self-repair than discovery, our attentive engagement with the New Testament, or even our whole-hearted engagement with the God the New Testament witnesses to, can help us to see where we are in need of repair so that we can receive the other as they are, rather than as something we wish and expect them to be. It is there that the blending of the understanding of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament can come together where our intellectual inquiry was ill-equipped to do so.

The New Testament and “homosexuality”

November 19, 2019

As a Christian in the West and as a United Methodist elder, I have been faced time and time again with the question about homosexuality that permeates the wider social and political discourse. On the one hand, I recognize much of the pain that lesbian and gay people have experienced over the years in the forms of bullying and fear of being condemned and hated by God. I can only attribute such harm done by what I attribute to two different yet interrelated and occasionally overlapping sources.

Firstly, there is an arrogance in Western culture, and especially in American culture, that is based upon the drive to superiority that forms bullies to cowardly target those who have less status, which people with “deviant” sexualities have been considered to have. This brings me to the second source, a dominant form of evangelical theology that has had an particular, long-term influence in the United States, although to be clear here my judgment is not directed towards all evangelicals or evangelical theology. Essentially, this dominant strand focused on behavior and belief management through an exaggeration of the idea of hell and eternal that goes far beyond the actual Scriptures, to the point that the idea of hell has been read into the phrase “will not inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, wrongly in my mind, that has been used against people who are gay and lesbian. The unfortunately all-too-common interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s great sin being that of homosexuality only add’s fuel to this destructive fire. This is only exacerbated by the fact that this prevailing stream of evangelical theology has developed a view of sex that can be summarized as “any stimulation of the sexual organs or the thinking of such an act except when a man and woman is married is a sin.” Far beyond what I take to be the basic concern for sexual restraint and sanctity of the marriage bed in the Old and New Testament, they see an exaggerated, overgeneralized understanding about sex that then places a gay or lesbian person as some of the most egregious violators of these sexual norms. brings Combine the cultural predilection towards arrogant dominance with exaggerated ideas about judgment and sex and you have a deadly cocktail that would deeply harm people who are suspected of being “sexually deviant.”

And yet, on the other hand, despite my awareness of these problems, I am left with another fundamental point of truth: the Scriptures are decisively what we might label today as “hetero-normative,” in that they testify to a vision of sex and marriage being shared between a female and a male. Whatever else we might say about the sexual coupling of two people of the same sex, it would in no way be considered the same or equivalent to the vision of husband and wife joined together. This is such an important part of the Scripture narrative that when God creates humanity in His image, the only way God’s image is described is in humanity’s maleness and femaleness in the context of being fruitful and multiplying so as to subdue God’s creation. While we who believe in Jesus as the Lord of creation can know that God’s image is not essentially sexual because Jesus was never married and was celibate, nevertheless God creates humanity such that His image as humanity’s vocation is ti be realized in the partnering of men and women. Given the prevalence of the image of God and of new creation in the New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles, we can’t just perform some sort of intellectual magic to pretend that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is a relic of days long past without ripping New Testament Christianity out from its Jewish context. Whatever else we can say about the understanding about sex in the Bible, the Scriptures are uniformly heteronormative. This is true just not in a conventional way, but in a theological way.

However, it is at this point where I feel like the understanding of sex in Christianity’s history and the Scriptures begin to dovetail from each other in a subtle cognitive way that would have tremendous societal implications down the line. For the West, we have historically thought about good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood in terms of mutually exclusive categories in which something is either one or the other, which is known in logic as the law of the excluded middle. While this logical law is tremendously helpful in trying to ascertain matters of fact about essentially discrete possibilities, it’s usefulness for understanding other matters, including ethics, is not as clear. However, this law of logical reasoning began to become part of Greek philosophical thinking, with the end result of that we reason out various matters in terms of the mutually exclusive binary. And, as this form of thinking in Greek philosophy had a greater and greater influenced on the development of Christianity as it became a more predominately ‘Gentile’ religion, it would contribute the ethical reasoning that deviance from the male-female prototype describing in the creation narrative would be considered categorically wrong and sinful, including homosexuality.

Now, if you are at all familiar with progressive ‘critiques’ of the Christian understanding of sexuality, this criticism of binary thinking would not be unfamiliar to you. Propagators of progressive sexuality often use “binary” with a hint of contempt, often with an implied sense that such an idea is so intellectually unenlightened and regressive so as to automatically invalidate almost everything Christianity has historically said about sex to be entirely suspect. For them, this error of “binary” thinking is a justification for a broad-based criticism of Christian ethics about sex. I am not, however, embracing a broad-based criticism but rather a much narrower criticism: this blending of the broad contours of the Biblical teachings about sex and this mode of binary reasoning has lead to a particular hermeneutic about what specific texts about ‘homosexuality,’ particularly in the New Testament, are talking about. Passages such as Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, and 1 Timothy 1.10 are referring to people who engage in wrong type of sexual activity, a deviance from the model of sexual life between a husband and wife solely in virtue of the two sexual partners being the same gender.

On the surface of it, this type of reading is credible. The Greek word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10 is ἀρσενοκοίτης, which is an incredibly rare term that is best explained as being derived from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22. That Paul, a Jew, uses such a term that is otherwise incredibly rare but strongly resembles the preferred Greek translation of the Old Testament is very powerful evidence, albeit not entirely indefeasible, that Paul is in some way thinking about Levitical sexual prohibitions in those two passages. And since Leviticus 18.22 seems on the surface to be pretty cut and dry in our minds, the traditional reading suggests Paul is giving what may be said to be a blanket condemnation of all sexual activity between two people of the same sex.

If, however, Paul’s own reasoning and understanding of Torah is not constrained to a binary view of mutually exclusive categories that regards all deviance from a set ideal and standard to be in error, sin, etc. but rather is a form of prototype reasoning in which some degrees of deviance may be ‘acceptable’ but that there are certain thresholds of deviance that deviate far too much, which is the more natural way we as humans reason unless we learn to embrace a more deliberate, analytic approach that makes sharp, mutually exclusive distinctions, then Paul’s rhetoric against ‘homosexual’ behavior may be understood to be based upon something more than just the deviance of gender. Rather, I want to suggest a much more plausible way an ancient Jew would have understood sex is that they held the ideal prototype of a man and woman in deep intimacy together, but the type of sexual deviance they feared was not a mixing of the gender but the utter disregard of that bond of intimacy and family.

If we look at the later Jewish Talmudic commentary on the Mishnah, we see very little concern about “homosexuality.” The one text in the Talmud that interprets Leviticus 20.13 (Sanhedrin 54a) is part of an attempt to offer an interpretation of the Levitical sexual prohibitions in which they describe in legal terms the type of activity that would make men guilty of breaking this regulation. But aside from that, there does not seem to be much anxiety in ancient Judaism about homosexual intercourse. When the sins of Sodom are expanded upon in Sanhedrin 109a-b, the list of offenses attributed to them includes various forms of evil and injustice but there is no concern to try to suggest Sodom came under judgment due to male sexual intercourse with men.

It is here that I want to focus on Romans 1.26-27. Paul’s usage of the less frequently used ἄρσην and θῆλυς to refer to a male and female, rather than ἀνήρ and γυνή suggests that he is using the language for a specific reason, which I think most likely to be echoing the language of the creation of humanity in LXX Genesis 1.27 to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, at this point, we as Western Christian influenced by the heritage of Greek reasoning permeating out understanding of Christian theology and ethics has us focus on the language about nature φυσικός and think that homosexuality is against the nature of God’s creation, where nature is male-and-female and unnatural is the confusion of this gender coupling. While certainly, Paul is talking about some sort of sexual activity that goes God’s creation, it seems the language of nature is used not to provide a strict outline of how creation must work but part of Paul’s attempt to echo the creation narrative.

However, it is important to note at this point that we never see Paul explicitly state that homosexual activity is “unnatural.” It is only said that women exchange the natural for what is not natural, whereas Paul is more specific when talking about men engaging in sex with each other. We are naturally inclined to fill in the blanks and that Paul is describing the homosexual activity for both men and women, but this may be a misleading hermeneutic habit. Why is Paul not more specific when it comes to what the women did when he is willing to do the same for the men? Also, PAul uses different verbs to describe the women exchanging (μεταλλάσσω) the natural for the unnatural and the men abandoning (ἀφίημι)women as sexual partners. Furthermore, Paul’s statement about the penalty of sin is only directed at the men, and not the women. We may be inclined to assume that the women and men described engaged in equivalent behaviors, but that is an assumption that isn’t explicitly clear in the text. In fact, the evidence is there to suggest that the “sins” of the women and men are different because of the different descriptions of the offending behaviors and only the men described as receiving a penalty.

Whatever the women Paul is talking about did, it is only said to be against nature. Only if as assume that Paul is using the language of nature to describe the fixed gender order in creation rather would we take it to refer to lesbianism. However, Paul’s language may be considered a suggestive euphemism to some other type of sexual behavior that didn’t involve humans at all. Out of propriety, I will leave for you the reader to research ancient portrayals of sex for Roman women if you need to know more, but I will that I am not implying zoophilia as there is no historical evidence for that being it. Whatever it is the women did, Paul connects it (ὁμοίως) to what the men did as they “gave up the natural relation with women” and burned with a sexual passion for other males.

What I think is critical here is that Paul’s language is not more evocative of the transgression of specific norms about gender, but rather the violation of the sanctity of the marriage bond. The verb ἀφίημι could be used in the context of the breaking of a marital relationship, such as by divorce or death. While not a technical term for divorce or a dissolvement of a marital covenant, it certainly can be used to connote a sense of martial isolation or abandonment. Here in Romans, I would suggest it is likely a reference to the sexual abandonment of one’s wife in favor of other males. This was an occasional reality in the ancient Greco-Roman society, where husbands would prefer the pederastic relationship with a young boy over sexual intercourse with their wives. In such a case of abandonment, the women would likewise resort to other forms to satisfy their libido that are against nature and, as a consequence, the men are understood to be punished for their error.

If my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 is correct, then what is of primary concern in Paul’s description is the abandonment by men of their marital ‘duties.’ This suggests that what is most wrong about their error is the violation of the sexual coupling that exists between husband and wife. Paul does not have in mind our modern conceptions of “homosexuality” as someone who is gay or lesbian and only seeks sexual relations with people of the same gender. Whatever else we might say about that from a Biblical understanding of sex and marriage, this most likely not the practice that Paul is referring to, nor is Paul’s language about “nature” intended to be descriptive of a universal, fixed sexual order in creation, but rather the relational and sexual bond between husband and wife. In other words, what Paul describes of the men is much closer to what we would categorize as adultery today.

It is this type of substitution within the bonds of marriage that I think Paul is also referring to by the word ἀρσενοκοίτης 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10. Rather than understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as an indirect description of a specific type of sexual act as can be seen being described in the Talmudic interpretation of Leviticus 20.13, the Levitical image of lying with a man as with a woman is understood more so in the substitution of the martial relationship with sexual intercourse with another male. ἀρσενοκοίτης would them be used to refer to Roman men who engaged in pederastic relationships with boys as a preferential substitute to sexual relations with their wives. While we can not directly verify that this is how Paul understood the Levitical passages, we can certainly surmise it as a reasonable interpretation that coheres with (1) the interpretation I provided of Romans 1.26-27 and (2) a common practice in Greco-Roman society.

The suggestion I am trying to make here is that Paul, as the only source in the New Testament that directly talks about ‘homosexuality,” does not understand the account of humanity’s creation as primarily being about the right gender for sexual coupling. Rather, he understands the creation narrative to describe the important relationship between males and females that is necessary for humanity to fulfill their vocation in being as God’s image. As such, the sanctity of the marital bond is the primary narrative significance, not some universal order for sexual activity. What is considered to be an egregious sexual violation is sexual activity that violates that basic bond between a husband and a wife. A legitimate theological employment of Paul’s understanding of sex and marriage in the context of the Jewish canon of Scripture would unapologetically be “heteronormative” because the particularity of the sexual partnering of a husband and wife that is necessary part of humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image in creation can not be replaced by other types of bonds of sex and intimacy, even if not every individual must be married, sexually active, and having children to participate in humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image. However, at the same time, I would argue that the Pauline passages, and even the Old Testament passages that we construe to be talking about “homosexuality,” were not written to address the idea of a gay or a lesbian person who is ‘oriented’ towards people of the same gender.

While the progressive ‘spirit’ that seeks to change the historical and traditional teaching of the Church on sexuality would lead to a massive divergence and ignoring of the significant particularity of the creation narrative that undergirds the various Biblical understandings about sex, how we as part of the Body of Christ seek to incorporate gay and lesbian people into the life of our fellowships is something that I would suggest is more discernment than the unequivocal no that is commonly given to them. What some call for in “full inclusion” that in effect seeks to get the Church as a whole to testify to the functional equivalence of same-sex coupling with opposite-sex coupling is in my mind too strong of deviance from the Biblical and creation narrative; it smells too much of cultural appropriation of a historical religion for other wider socio-political agendas. However, what it is that we would say about an exclusively same-sex attracted person who seeks a marital union may be open to some degree of accommodation at some level without sacrificing what the Scriptures testifies to the *corporate*, not individualistic, the vocation of humanity to be in God’s image.

To conclude: I would suggest that the Church throughout history and tradition got the big picture correct. However, due to the unintended influences from Greek styles of reasoning and gradual growth in the numbers and influence of Gentiles that beckoned a movement away from the emic understanding of the Jewish ethos about sex and marriage, some of the details of the tradition may not be truly present in the Scriptural witness. I say this with theological humility, however, as I am by no means an expert on the whole tradition. I only have some strong confidence in my exegetical argument, whereas I am more hopeful that there are more ways to allow gay and lesbian people to feel at home in the Body of Christ while not capitulating to visions of alternative sexuality that would fundamentally dismiss and overlook what has pivotal importance in the Scriptures.

“Works of Torah” as the halakha

November 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 3.27-31:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 2.14 and community

November 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther and the works of Torah

November 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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