What is the meaning of meaning? How words mean

January 8, 2020

Have you ever considered what the meaning of “meaning” is? If you were to look at a dictionary definition for ‘meaning,’ it would likely direct you to the verb ‘mean,” which might give you a definition like the following: “intend to convey, indicate, or refer to (a particular thing or notion); signify.”1 That doesn’t really seem to be entirely helpful. One could make a recourse to the philosophy of language to try to understand what meaning is, at least in the case of language, but there has never been an account that has not been met with serious objections. There are more traditional, reference-based understandings of words that refer to something in the real world. There are usage-based understandings of language from philosophers like Wittgenstein and the field of cognitive linguistics.

I would posit that part of the problem with defining linguistic meaning is more so in the way we analyze words than it is how words mean to use in conventional, non-reflective use. When you read a sentence and you understand all the words, grammar, etc., there is just an intuitive sense of what the words mean. One does not have to think about it. However, if you don’t know what the words mean, or you decide to want to really explore a sentence more deeply, then you try to imagine what a specific word means. At this point, one is actually changing how you are cognitively relating and responding to the word, changing how you construe the way the word “means.”

The meaning of “cat” in the sentence “the dog is chasing the cat” when one is watching a corresponding scene is different from trying to think of what the meaning of “cat” is. “Cat” is used to refer to a specific animal given that label, and the meaning word conveys is the specific cat that is being referred to. T This is the source of reference based approaches to language. On the other hand, the word “cat” would convey the meaning of a specific cat. There is a difference being meaning in communication and meaning in a non-communicative context, such as reflecting on the meaning of a word in a general sense. In other words, as inspired by Wittgenstein, the way the word is used determines how it means. The meaning of “cat” in the sense and the meaning of “cat” in a general sense are different uses of the same word.

This does not mean, however, that there isn’t anything important about reflecting on the meaning of a word outside of specific communicative contexts. There is certainly something that ‘carries over’ between different uses of words. This is what we are generally trying to get at when we try to give a definition of a word such as cat. The usage of ‘cat’ in “the dog is chasing the cat” while such an event is being witnessed can be intelligible and convey meaning because we have a sense of what ‘cat’ means. Because ‘cat’ has a specific semantic sense as a word, our brains uses that semantic sense to help narrow down the specific animal in a scene. In other words, even though “cat” in “the dog is chasing the cat” would bring to mind the cat that is one’s visual field, imagination, etc., the word can only accomplish this because there is a semantic sense that helps regulate our attention (‘seed’ our imagination with a specific type of animal).

In other words, there is a mutual relationship between the sense of the word and the reference of the word, both of which are significant to the meaning. But this relationship is not simply one way, from sense to reference, but it can also flow in reference from reference to sense. When parent points to a cow and says to their child “cow,” the perception of the cow combined with the associated word “cow” gives the word “cow” a referential function that will develop a sense of the word as the child matures. Or, when one is reading the Bible for the first time, the various scenes that the Gospel portrays about Jesus becomes references for the words Christ, Lord, etc., that then can lead to refining and reforming what those titles mean.

However, the meaning of the word can not reduced to just sense and reference and the way they mutually influence each other. There are at least three other relevant factors in how words give meaning.

Firstly, there is the ‘context’ of the word. According to cognitive linguistics, words have an encyclopedic knowledge that allows us to make sense of what the words are meaning. When talking about the cat in “the dog is chasing the cat,” not only do we have the standard sense of what a cat is and the specific reference, but there is also implicit knowlede about the cat that thelps inform the scence. For instance, it is known that cats are reguarly chased by dogs, and it is this piece of encyclopedia knowledge that helps refine the sense of meaning of the word cat, especially in the sentence. Or, when Paul speaks of confessng Jesus as Lord in Romans 10.9, there is not just the semantic sense of the word in play, but also the way κύριος is used in the Septuagint at the Greek translation of the Tetragrammaton. The wider context of a words usage, which spans beyond the specific sense of a word, provides a range of material that can impact the meaning of the word when uses in the relevant contexts that makes those understandings salient.

Secondly, there is knowledge of the grammatical function of a word. We know that “cat” and “cow” are nouns, that “run” is verb, that “and” is a conjunction, etc. These grammatical funtions, while often taken for granted, are often critical for making sense of words in sentences. We know that “cat” as something. This might seem rather insignificant, but consider how often times words are used in multiple ways. For instance, a gerund “running” can be used with a noun or a verb, which changes how the word means in the sentence. This specific grammatical knowledge impinges on how words mean.

Thirdly, there is the actually sensory experience of the word itself, which is known in structuralism as the sign. Words, especially when spoken have a potential contribution to understanding the meanings of the word, especially in unique contexts. Asides from onomatopeia’s, which words whose sounds are an approximately represent of non-linguistic sounds, the sound of words becoming significant for meaning in non-conventional uses. For instance, imagine a dating partner or spouse who has a predilection towards puns and their partner affectionately refers to them as “Puney,” as a portmanteau of Pun and Honey. Or, to press on beyond that, sometimes the sounds of names can be used in unique ways, such as my name Owen could be used as a game chant to win a game.

The overarching point here is in normal language usage, the meaning of a word comes from, to use a previous metaphor, various streams that come together. Meanings can not be reduced to semantics sense and real-world references, and the interaction between those two. There are multiple streams that when they come together influence each other. Sometimes these streams are weak so as to be irrelevant, such as grammatical function and the sound of the word, and sometimes these streams are not really knowable apart from the specific context, such as the encyclopedia knowledge. While sense and reference are usually the most powerful streams and are thus given the greatest emphasis in the philosophical and study of language, this does not diminish the way these other, various streams can be be relevevant in giving a word a different meaning.


A provocative proposal

January 5, 2020

Throughout the late 2000s and early 21st century, it has been a common refrain to say “There is too much sex in television and movies.” The popularity of Games of Thrones, which was essentially a mash-up of various forms of fantasy, including soft-core pornographic fantasy, is certainly evidence of the deep pervasive that sex has in the entertainment industry. Why? Because sex sells. It always has and it always will. Saying there is too much sex in entertainment is like saying there is too much greed on Wall Street and too much politics in Washington D.C. Tell us something we don’t know.

At the same time, how we as Christians have tried to respond to the inundation with sex has proved counter-productive. The response has been to increasingly treat sex as a taboo, to purify and sanctify television with “family friendly” television. After all, a good Christian doesn’t really think about and talk about sex. And when we do, there is some sort of “holy talk” that is often a form of “managed avoidance.”

But I have a question: what Bible have these Christians been reading? If we treat the Scripture as we did “family friendly” TV, there would be large parts of the Bible that would be censored. We wouldn’t get two chapters into the Bible until we would have to start censoring Adam and Eve’s naked, not to mention the possible double entendre of the ‘serpent’. And as move on further in the Bible, we would have to remove a whole book from our canon. Then, we would need to remove this little bit from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians that needs only a little imagination: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?”

There is, to be clear, a very real and very important difference between sex in entertainment and sex in the Bible: the former is more direct and graphic in its depiction of sex, whereas the latter is more indirect and often suggestive in its portrayal. But this indirect, suggestive manner is not the same thing as making sex taboo. Nor is it suggestive in the sense of some sort of suggestive sexual propositions to another person.

The indirectness of the Scriptures about sex is reflective of the assumption that experience of sex is a part of intimacy between husband and wife, just as Adam and Eve ‘know’ each other. There is a ‘secret knowledge’ that is shared between husband and wife of a deeply personal manner. Sex is a very real and very important thing in human life, and it is so important and so essential that it is something that should be handled with care. On the other hand, there is a public knowledge about sex as a reality of human life, and the Scriptures have no scruples about speaking about the public understanding about sex, including in indirect, suggestive ways. The Song of Solomon is evidence of this, as anyone who has the willingness to recognize the metaphorically laden depictions of romantic love can tell you.

My ‘provocative proposal’ is that we Christians learn how to recover this public knowledge of sex in such a way that does not, simultaneously, break into the domain of the private, and thus leering towards the pornographic. Far from trying to shield young eyes and ears from sex and reserving it for the parents talk about the “birds and the bees” and specially crafted Christian curriculum as a a Christian form of “sex education” (both of which are still VERY important, by the way), we learn how to use a public, Scriptural language about sex that trains people, young and old, about it. We should have Christians artists talking about the public aspects of sex. We should have Christians eagerly knocking on the academic doors towards becoming sex therapists. Of course, this means such people should become ‘intimately’ familiar with sex in the Scriptures, both in the good and the badness of all of it. We should have Christians trying to bring about a theology of sex, like Faithful written Beth Felker Jones.1

However, in seeking to “purify” family friendly media and Christians circles of sex talk, we have been unwittingly doing something: giving more power and influence to the cultural liturgies of the wider society, letting their voices be the first and most regular voices people hear about sex. For the young in the churches and families, sex is reserved for those awkward talks, which are only awkward because we don’t know how to address them. And, as I myself experienced, the awkwardness we can feel about the ‘conversation’ leads it to never be discussed, leaving an understanding about sex to be a patchwork of other cultural ‘liturgies’ along with a little bit of sprinkling of the all-too-common Christian teaching that sex is bad and scary, so save that for marriage.2 To the old, sex is something we dodge around and don’t address directly to the point that when some sexual transgression has happened, we lack the real language and conviction to speak about it. As a consequence, the taboo-ness of the subject has given power to attempts to keep sexual problems and, may God have mercy on us, sexual offenses in the dark by making people inordinately comfortable with the even public conversations about sex.

Instead, we have treated the topic of sex as if it is something that if brought up, would unleash a contagion and pox upon the church, as if people are just waiting for any excuse at any moment to engage in all sorts of indecent and grossly immoral sexual behavior. Instead, our silence has taken away our ability to speak forth, bring, and hear God’s Word as a healing balm to the illness that has spread. Instead, and most grievously of all, our silence has betrayed our lack of faith in the power of the Word and Spirit to form our hearts and minds to keep our desires appropriately directed.

Sex will be a part of the lives of Christians and the body of believers. It is inevitable. Sex will be part of the lives of society and all humans. It is inevitable. But, the best way to fight a fire that has raged and burned out of control isn’t to try to escape from it and hope it won’t reach you, because it is very likely get to you and burn all you own, with or without your help, but rather to find the water to contain the fires. And, fighting a wild, raging fire is not a battle that can be accomplished over night, but it takes a lot of time and dutiful care to bring the fire under control.

Restoring the "good" in Christian thinking

January 3, 2020

There has been an almost unavoidable historical trend in Christian theology that emerged from the Enlightenment: an overemphasis on questions of rightness, at the cost of our sight for goodness.

In ‘evicting’ God from the universe, or at least any orthodox sene of God in Christian faith, the emerging Enlightenment-scientific worldview replaced God with a pursuit of ‘truth.’ In pursuit of truth, the conception of truth began to be dominated by a conception of truth as representation. Our thoughts are true insofar as it rightly represented what was observed in the world. The critical question that began to direct and move thinking was questions of right and wrong: does our thinking rightly reflect the reality of things? Over time, this lead to the attempt of the Positivists to try create an account of a seamless connection between empirical experience and scientific beliefs to be able to right distinguish between all propositions, which they ultimately failed in.

As a cultural competitor for the hearts and imaginations of the people in Western Europe and, later, in the Americas, Christian theologians began to try to engage in the cultural fight on the same intellectual grounds of the Enlightenment: seeking to discern the right beliefs that match the reality. However, instead of ‘reality’ being the world around us, ‘reality’ was the Scriptures. The Scriptures were essentially the substitute for scientific ’empiricism,’ but beyond that, this brand of Christian thinking attempted to outdo the Enlightenment as its own game. While this way of thinking began to define Christian Fundamentalism, the predilection towards theological and exegetical ‘rightness’ has remained a hallmark of “conservative” Christianity in the West. This preoccupation with rightness has contributed to what is often perceived as the “heartlessness” of Christian doctrine and traditional ethics.

Meanwhile, the strands of the Christian tradition influence by this intellectual attitude became highly allergic to anything “post-modern” as ruining, in their minds, the foundations of truth. In making this comment, I don’t wish to contend that post-modern was a good thing wholesale. In a century or two, after the present say political hostilities have been replaced by new issues and historians look back on the “post-modernity,” whatever this label means, it is my guess that their opinion of this movement in the mid-to-late 20th century and what it gave birth to in the decades that followed had a decisively negative impact of social life, contributing to all sort of intellectual and political movements, on the right and left, that contributed to the violation of people, peace, and the environment through unleashing the unbridled forces of social emotions unhampered by any moral and intellectual framework, which providing the cultural space for the justifications of heightened economic expansionism, sexual objectification, rise of tribalism on the political right and left, etc. Nevertheless, despite my disdain for what I believe to have been catalyzed and enabled by “post-modernity,” the reasons that the conservative branches of Christianity objected to “post-modernity” should not be reduced to simply defending some sense of moral and intellectual order through a theological understanding of God: there was a deep aversion to addressing questions of ambiguity that comes when the very ways we have become so routinely accustomed to think through social reinforcement and praise becomes challenged. The legitimate concerns about the intellectual and ethical dangers of post-modernity largely distracted from attention the psychological aversion to challenge not necessarily one’s worldview, but the very way one’s intellectual imagination was considered to be legitimately and rightly understood to work. Post-modernity was an intellectual bomb that threatened to damage our conceptions of truth by radically challenging our cognitive habits by throwing our sense of right and wrong into disequilibrium.

Now that we in the West live in a society that has become a post-modern ‘dream’ even though the label “post-modern” has now become something cliche and most forgotten, conservative Christianity has not been able to escape this radical challenge to its sense of truth and knowledge.

As a consequence, discipleship among younger people who have been raised as children of post-modernity has becomes increasingly difficult. The intellectual concern about “rightness” that so easily predominates conservative Christianity has very little persuasive appeal to the new generations, who, echoing James K.A. Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom, have been trained by cultural liturgies that highlight our sense of our selves as emotional, desiring creatures. Who cares what is “right” or “wrong” according to something when it feels good or bad? A sense of goodness, motivates the younger generation’s sensibilities, however undeveloped an understanding of what the good is.

The sentiments of Luther Ingram’s classic 1972 song comes to mind as expressing: “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” I would suggest that romance is a perfect metaphor for grasping what has happened in our modern world. Throughout history, there have been stories of love and romance that have been “forbidden” and “impossible.” Romantic love challenged the way the world understood conventions and customs of social class and obligations. Love challenged what was deemed to be “right” and “appropriate” in traditional societies. At the heart of romantic love is not so much about what is right or wrong, but desire and care, the sense of goodness of another person.

It it this sense of desire, care, and goodness that increasingly inspires and motivates people today, whereas duty, obligation, and rightness have increasingly less currency. However, whereas the convention-flouting nature of romantic love is typically limited to social status, class, and sex, the cultural shift of this West in this present-day has extended this sense of desire, care, and goodness to almost everything, with minimal concern about right or wrong, responsibilities and obligations, as these are readily perceived as simply means of “oppression,” especially by white males.

However, there is a value for rightness, duty, and obligation as these sort of virtues provide a sense of consistency that allows us to trust our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, etc. The rhetoric of rightness, duty, and obligation is still powerfully nostalgic for older generations because it generates a sense of trust and faithfulness that orderliness creates.

However, at the same time, such rhetoric often masked where the reality of wrongness, dereliction of duty, and failure to meet obligations when the victim was someone of lesser status or class. This is not to mention how those who have little recourse or influence are readily criticized for doing things wrong and piled up with various duties and obligations that others aren’t. For instance, just look at the level of criticism the poor received for being where they are, while they are met with repeated needs to justify their need. When rightness, duty, and obligation is generally held by all, it is a great good that allows people to trust each other and thrive without having to repeatedly turn a blind eye to all the false promises and broken dreams. But, when it is very selectively applied, even if the people applying it are largely ignorant of their selectivity, it can certainly be heard and experience as “oppression” as it deprives those who are burdened by bearing the brunt of such expectation of what they deem to be good while seeing others enjoy the same good.

My hope and dream, them, is to figure out how it is as Christians that we can bring back together a sense of goodness with a sense of rightness. The vision of God’s blessing the nations through Jesus Christ as Abraham’s descendants is first and primarily a statement about God’s goodness to the world. There is a need for concerns about rightness we it comes to Scriptural exegesis, as the storehouses of faith and wisdom for the Body of Christ, and also for theological orthodoxy, to recognize and hear the Christians voices of the past whose experiences have been disseminated into the tradition as fountains of awareness and insight. But rightness is subservient to goodness.

I had a dear friend who taught me and inspired me about this, even though I suspect she had no clue about where it would go at the time. I used to be inundated with a sense of ‘rightness’ in trying to get everything right and precise, but she taught me through her example and words that there is something better than being right. There are goods things in the world, and we need a sense of rightness to guide us to perceive and understand the goods things of this world that do not have a short-half life, but that they last and linger to bear blessings to many generations and, by the love and power of God, into eternity. Goodness without rightness will leave us lost into the throes of desires and emotions of the moment, whereas rightness without goodness will leave us blind to human life. However, a vision of goodness as pedagogically trained by a sense of rightness has potential for Christian thinking and teaching into the future. In this, God’s creation of human life with desire with the revelation of God’s Word to lead us in paths of righteousness come together to form our hearts and minds, to direct our desires and commitments, so that we can live out God’s vocation for us in being made in His image.


God as the ultimate means and ultimate end: Rightly ordering life through blessing

January 2, 2020

A very common theme among Christian preachers and teachers about how we relate to God and prosperity is that we should not see God as a means to something else that we enjoy, but as the ends of our joy. In the spiritual struggle against various forms of prosperity faiths, whether they are explicitly the prosperity ‘gospel’ or not, it has become a key point to help people to see that God is not simply an instrument for our blessing, our status, our happiness. I want to largely affirm everything that these teachers are saying and wholeheartedly affirm the goodness of the reasons they have for saying such.

What I want to suggest, however, is that there is a problem with how the the ethical language of means and ends is employed when it comes to God. There is the suggest that one could either treat God as a means or an ends, but not both. We either are using God, or we are valuing God Himself without concern for anything else.

This mutual exclusivity of means and ends is not intrinsic to ethical reasoning. Consider, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative about persons: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”1 Kant doesn’t attempt to deny the fact that we, for the lack of better term, ‘use’ people, but that ethical reasoning should recognize that people should never be simply a means to other ends, as simply someone to use without concern for themselves as an end.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a happy relationship between people where one person always treats the person as an ends, but never themselves as a means for their own sake. At least, if such relationships do exist, they would be extraordinarily rare in the form of a person who exclusively finds joy in making other people happy, perpetually irregardless of what they feel, but that doesn’t make it praiseworthy or ethically right. Most long-term and happy friendships, marriages, etc. have something that is commonly referred to as the give-and-take. If I were to attempt to describe what I understand to be the practical reasoning that takes place in the most exemplary relationships, even if it is not formally understood that this is what is happening, follows along the lines of two principles.

People in relationship can happily treat each others as means insofar as the other person feels they are also treated as an end.

That is to say that the person who is being ‘used’ can accept being ‘used’ insofar as it does egregiously violate their own sense of well-being, either in the short run or the long run. For instance, consider a person who is moving asks their friend to help assist in the moving of furniture. This friend does not serve to benefit from this act, except maybe a change to hang out and form a better friendship, but it will instead take some time out of their day, they will get tired, etc. In this immediate moment, the friend is a means to another end, to move more quickly and easily.

This isn’t a problem in most cases. In most cases, there is no need for an immediate quid-pro-quo that immediately treats the friend as an end to make up for it. Healthy relationships have a ‘relational buffer’ that allows one party to ask something of the other party without having to immediately ‘repay’ back. So far as the relationship continues the way as it has been prior, the ‘relational buffer’ will naturally restore over time. The continuation of what makes the relationship good and healthy over time is usually sufficient to keep the person from not feeling that they are being used in the worst sense.

Put simply, in relationships, most people are unconsciously, and occasionally consciously, gauging whether we expect that we will be valued and treated in a way that we want to by the other person, which is what usually call trust. For flexible people, this expectation does not simply change with whichever way the wind is blowing in the moment. For instance, making a personal sacrifice for another, a disappointment, or the experience of a mild conflict doesn’t immediately erode all positive expectations for them. They can still trust that they are important to the other person.

When the ‘relational buffer’ has been depleted by feeling like one has been used (or forgotten), the “seeds of mistrust” begin to develop that needs to be addressed to prevent from growing.

Many relationships hit a hard point where questions begin to be ask “do they even care?” While a person with little ‘relational buffer’ will constantly be plagued with mistrust, such as a spouse easily incited to jealousy, in most instances this phase can actually be a good opportunity in a relationship if both are willing to engage in the conflict and discussions in a healthy way.  If a person feels like they are becoming ‘used,’ that they are simply a means to an end, then they will begin to express it, either directly or indirectly. If successful communication can be had so that it is understood why the person feels that way and the other person is seen to be sincere in treat the other better, then trust will begin to restore and the relational buffer will restore.

While most relationships do not have explicit conditions, we can consider relationships to work much like covenants works, where there are a series of expectations that are laid upon both partners. While not a contract with precise stipulations as to what should be done, when, where, how, etc., covenants and most relationships work under the principle that one person fulfilling their expectations while the other party is unfaithful is unacceptable. In this case, complaints can be brought in the relationship that seeks to bring to mind these expectations. So, if one party feels misused or forgotten, they can bring their complaint forward and if the other person recognizes the reasons for the complaint, then the relationship begins to restore. This relational renewal or restoration has the effect of keeping the parties of the relationship being treated as an ends, even as they are sometimes also means.

The point of these two principles is that good relationships are defined by both means and ends, but that for good relationships there is certain relational corrective mechanisms in place in case a person is being treated excessively as a means and not a end.

So, when we think of God, we can think of our relationship to God as both means and ends. This is essentially what a covenant is, where the expectations given to both parties makes them a means for the ends of the other party. Insofar as both parties make themselves a means for the ends of the other, the relationship thrives and grows. But the covenant provides the basis that each other can legitimately offer a grievance against the other if they feel the relationship is not being matched by the other party.

So, trying to suggest that we don’t treat God as a means makes it hard for us to understand the covenantal relationship that God has with Israel. Israel is expected to submit to God’s instructions, but at the same time, God is called to be a blessing to the people. When Israel fails in their relationship, God brings complaints to them through the prophets, reminding them that God has been faithful but they have been unfaithful. On the other hand, when God is seen as not upholding his end of the ‘bargain,’ Israel also makes petitions and complaints, especially in the form of the lament psalms. Through this covenantal regulation and complain, God and Israel are to both be means to each others ends, but should that not be the case, attempts to correct this relationship will me made.

I would suggest that there is a better way to avoid prosperity ‘gospels.’ What underlies prosperity gospels is the lack of Divine freedom, either in God’s power or in obligation, for God to bless and give as He sees fit. Prosperity ‘gospels’ imagine very specific ‘blessings’ that people want and that they imagine that there is some law or rule that obligates God to provide it. A person wants a great new job, they should pray with faith and God is obligated to give them that specific desire. It is as if God is a covenant with people to do as they request, rather than a more open-ended freedom of God to be a blessing to His people. The problem with prosperity ‘gospels’ isn’t that we somehow see God as a means to our well-being and happiness, but rather that God is the means to realize very specific outcomes, especially in such a way that pushes off any sort of responsibility off of the person.

As I remember it during the 2000s, one of the most prevalent forms of the prosperity ‘gospel’ among high school and college age Christians was the dating prosperity ‘gospel.’ (It could still be the case now, but I am not as aware as what is happen in the culture of ‘college Christianity.’) I am reminded of when I was in college and I imagined people wanting God to bring them their future spouse, but they weren’t necessarily willing to be the type of person that their dream spouse would want. They wanted God to fulfill the dream, but at the same time, they weren’t concerned to be a dream themselves. The end result is that they could be readily disappointed when the man or woman of their ‘dreams’ when they first met turned out to have a lot more flaws and scars than they recognized. Meanwhile, they could grow either despondent or angrily entitled when the person of their dreams came along, but they weren’t wanted.

The problem of the “dating prosperity gospel” in college wasn’t that they wanted God to bring them a spouse. It wasn’t that God was a means to finding and having a good marriage. The problem was the way they had in effect tried to bind God, and through binding God also life, others, etc., to expectations that no one had agreed to. And as the despondency hit, they would then be tempted to try to make bargains with God, such as “if I am obedient,” you will bring me someone. God was a means to fulfill very specific expectations.

As a result, they set themselves up for having unrealistic expectations that they could then throw onto potential partners. Meanwhile, they also had unrealistic expectations that this person should just accept them as their boyfriend or girlfriend without themselves concerned to be a dream for their partner. Without realizing, they shirked personal responsibility to seek to become the type of person they idealized, not so as to simply hook someone in, but so as to be the type of person that could be a blessing to others in the way that they themselves would want to be blessed. In other words, the ‘dating prosperity gospel’ caused people to overlook the words of Jesus, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7.12) While not a roadmap for relational success, it embodies a mentality and a mindset that when deeply formed also happens to make one a potentially charming partner that ones would want.

It is the way that God is obligated to specific expectations while we simply shirk any responsibility that undergirds all the various prosperity ‘gospels.’ While not offering a “God helps those who help themselves” type of thinking, it is more of, “God freely blesses those who are freely faithful to Him.”

One overriding narrative of the Scriptures is that God seeks to be a blessing to the world. However, this concern for blessing isn’t simply for the person themselves, but for others. God promise to bless Abraham, but at the same time through him to be a blessing to the nations. Abraham’s blessing and the blessings to the nations come to fruition through Isaac, both in a partial fulfillment as Isaac’s grandson Joseph becomes a means of blessing Egypt and, as those who believe that Jesus is Lord, a fuller fulfillment in Christ as the Savior of all creation. In so doing, God treats the people he blesses as both means and as ends. Abraham is simultaneously given a child and blesses the world. Joseph is simultaneously raised in authority, after multiple injustices, and he becomes a blessing to Egypt (and his brothers). And, most fully, God’s Son Jesus is given the name above all names, while at the same time blessing the nations through His own sacrifice.

What is happening here? Allow me to suggest that God’s form of blessing is different than what many people consider to be a blessing. Worldly blessings are things that make us happy. They aren’t inherntly bad, but nor are they inherently self-reproducing of further blessing; they have a small half-life. God’s blessing are those things that when given to us bring life and joy, also provide a holy form of life and joy to the world. In a world marred by the desolation of sin and death, God’s blessings is God’s work to reorder human life, and even creation itself, from the excessive disorder that tears human life and all of creation apart. God’s blessing is God’s means of bringing a longer-lasting new order to creation.

God did not create us to simply be beings who enjoyed God as God in isolation from everything else. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 that calls everything good suggests that the creation is also an end to be enjoyed; it isn’t reduced to an instrument that simply mediates God’s goodness, even as it does that. God created us to find joy in the world around us, in eating and drinking, in working and playing, in loving and making love, and so on. Not in some excessive, hedonistic manner in which these other ends drown out our recognition of God’s role in our lives and creation, nor in a way that we forget other people as ends, but that in these ends we also have gratitude to God as our ultimate end and other people as also enjoying the same things that God created for their ends. This type of blessing and sharing in blessings is the vision of human life God created us for.

The problem is, however, in how the excessive disorder in God’s creation has caused us to forget God and others, and instead treat the immediate and full fulfillment of our desires as our ultimate ends. The problem is that we are resistant to becoming a means to those blessed ends while wanting a blessing ourselves. We don’t want to be used, but we are willing to use. There may be a willingness to compromise a little so as to manipulate our appearances enough so that we can get what we want from others, without concern for faithfulness after we got what we want. Then, in the midst of all of this, there are those of us who have been used and are scared to become a means to use so that others can get what they want without us also being an end.

In the midst of all of this, God is the ultimate means who is also our ultimate end. By ultimate, I don’t mean exclusive means and exclusive ends, as there are many other means and ends to enjoy in life. Nor do I simply mean that God is the most important means and the most important ends. Rather, God is the ultimate means and ultimate ends who orders all other means and all other ends in our life when we as God’s end for blessing also become a means of blessing for others.

Seeing our way through in the form poetry

January 1, 2020

I’m not an avid reader or writer of poetry. I have a few books of poems from people like Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, and Wendell Berry along with a couple anthologies of poems that I will open up a few times a year. I have also over the years gone through phases where I would write a poem here or there. All told, I have probably written 10 poems in my life, most of them forget lost in time.  Nevertheless, I am interested in poetry and how it “works,” in part due to my reflections in linguistics and hermeneutics and in part due to latent creative aspirations I have. Questions strike me, for instance, what it is about poetry that makes it so different from prose? Why is it that the Hebrew prophets speak and write so much in a poetical form that defied the conventions of Hebrew prose? What is it that gives poetry its power and why is it only some get poetry?

To illustrate the answer I have come to, I could try to analyze another piece of poetry, but there is always the reality that such an analysis is underdetermined if we wish to include the original author of the poem into our understand. We have no direct access to the mind of the poet, and so any attempt to reconstruct their thinking that formed the poem would leave us always asking: is that the poet or the analyst? We could decide to simply focus on some combination of reader and text centered approaches to reflect on how poetry makes meaning to us. There is nothing to stop one from proceeding that way. However, in doing that, we lose the communicative potential that poetry has to bridge two minds, if not hearts, together and, in addition, fail to have an adequate way to comprehend the significance of the poetry of the Hebrew prophets.

So, instead, I will offer a poem that I wrote a couple days ago, giving some of my own thoughts on my own poem. It is relatively crude by many standards of poetry, but it will suffice to get the point across:

Leaving behind everything
All I have is yours
Under the beauty of the night
Real hope awakens
A dream long forgotten
Impassioned and whole-hearted
Life makes no promises
Only we can do such things
Valuing each other
Eternally foreseen
Yet chosen in time
One from the two
Under the beauty of the night

As a caveat, I won’t give everything away as analysis of poetry is a tenuous thing. An analysis of a poem can function like a “cipher key” to unlock the potential of the poem, but over-analysis can kill a poem as the power of poetry is not just in gaining some meaning from the poem, but the way the meaning is had from the specific way the poem says it. That is to say, the function of the poetry is irreducible connected to the form of the poem, whereas the the descriptive purpose of most prose is readily accomplished by many forms. Over-analysis risks taking away the significance of the form by giving an alternative, substitute form to provide the meaning. So, my analysis won’t exhaust my poem, but it will provide enough of an understand to perceive what goes on with poetry when it is hoped to have a communicative purpose to convey specific thoughts, feelings, images, etc.

So, the first thing to note is this: this poem is polysemous in its construction. There are two distinct meanings that are simultaneously being communicated: a theological picture and a romantic picture. The blending of theology and romance is not an uncommon theme in art and religion. Turn on the radio to a Christian contemporary station and you are often left asking: is this a song about God or about a woman the man loves? While I haven’t researched where the origins of this phenomenon comes from, I would imagine it comes from the combination of the way God is framed as a jilted lover through the words and life of Hosea and also passages such as Ephesians 5.25-33 where Paul frames husband’s love for his wife in terms of Christ’s love for the Church.

One salient example from the decade of the 2000s written by John Mark MacMillan and popularized by David Crowder called “How He Loves,” which very consciously plays upon this blending of theology and romantic love. His song starts off:

He is jealous for me, Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

Here, we see the blend of nature, or more specifically creation, and love. Jealousy, beauty, and affection is brought together with images of storms and a solar eclipse. Then, later in the original version of the song, it describes the union of creation in heaven and earth like “a sloppy wet kiss,” although the moral scruples from Christians concerned about about “sexualizing” worship songs lead to it being changed by Crowder to “an unforeseen kiss.” In the end, this song is describing the redemption that comes from God’s grace, where as vision of God’s grace comes from the blending of the language of creation and the language of romantic love.

However, whereas a lot of Christian music is intentionally directed towards God, and so the romantic language is subservient to the theological purpose, the poem I wrote was not intended to make the theological nor romantic reading subservient to each other. They both exist, operating in conjunctions with each other at the same time, as if what is done on earth is reflection of what is done in heaven, to appropriate something Jesus told His disciples about forgiving but for a different purpose.

The “theological” reading of my poem consists in an image of a person answering a call to follow God in the midst of trial and struggle. “Under the beauty of the night” flips the construal of tribulation and difficulty, calling it beautiful even as it was originally a terrifying darkness, echoing James 1.2-4. This submission to God’s leading doesn’t happen because of some fate woven into the fabric of human life leads us to a promise to commit to god, nor because life as human life compels a person to do such, but that it is the person who responds to the invitation of God. Only the call from God and the affirmative response in the following brings the relationship to its realization, as both parties value each other are committed to each other by their own promise. Nevertheless, it isn’t a forced choice by God, but God simultaneously sees into the future and yet calls and chooses them in time, as opposed to the Calvinist emphasis on the eternity of God’s election and decrees that simply work themselves out in history and time. The end result is that the two parties, God and person act as one, where the one who answers the call can act on behalf of the One who calls, much like Paul considers himself an ambassador for Christ because he has embodied God’s righteousness through Christ who embodied human nature, including sin yet without sinning (2 Cor. 5.20-21). All that is happening can be understood as the bringing forth of the a dream long forgotten, God’s purposes in creation that awakens in the heart of the person and gives themselves wholly to this task.

On the other hand, the “romantic” reading of the poem portrays a somewhat similar yet all too human scene: that of an engagement of a couple as they sit under the stars of night. Much of what is said to define the relationship between God and the person following God also typifies the relationship between the woman and man who promise themselves to each other. There is nothing in life that made this choice happen, nor was there any magical law of life that compelled the two to be together, but it was the way they valued each other and so their promise is to make them one, echoing the description of the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.23-24.  This relationship is one that had been hoped and longed for, but as circumstances would have it, marriage had become forgotten as anything realistic for them, but now they have someone whom they can share all their life with as they leave behind the past that made love feel like a distant dream. While this scene is primary about the engagement of the man and woman, God is still implicitly portrayed in the scene, seeing all that was happening that lead to the moment.

Two readings, each of very different scenes that can not be “reduced” to each other and yet two scenes that can be simultaneously found in the form of the poem. What is it about poetry that allows this to happens?

It is the way that language functions to convey meaning. When people are talking to each other in a friendly chat or reading what another person says, we are left under an illusion that language is a clear vehicle of communicating meaning. We are almost entirely ignorant of the way that various realities outside of what is said that impacts the interpretation of what is said, such as common perceptions, shared attention, and mutual memories. There is also non-linguistic information we perceive in communication, whether it be the body language and facial expressions in face-to-face conversation and/or the perception of a person’s ethos and pathos in a speaker’s monologues, like a sermon, or in an author’s writing. The list of potential factors that impinge on our interpretation of language can not be wholly encompassed with a list, as our brains are developed so as to adapt to a wide array of situations and circumstances that we perceive through the vast array of our sensations. Then, there is different degrees of awareness about all this “information” that variously influences how the “information” influences interpretation, like a female’s switch to a low-toned sultry can lead a man to be seduce as they are only subliminally aware of it and instead interpret the words in light of the implicit connotations of that voice, whereas it can produce a very different response if it grabs the focused attention that short circuits the seduction, leading to different interpretations of the words.

All these factors influence how we can read and interpret what someone is saying, but we are be default unaware of these factors. The end result is that our experience with using language can give us the illusion that communicative meaning is wholly determined, if not overdetermined, by the words and grammar. This illusion is not without some merit behind it, as there is often a redundancy in language such that the meaning of a communication has multiple, overlapping semantics “streams” through specific word usage and grammar that allow us to unthinkingly narrow down what a sentence means. For instance, the sentence “I eat food” has two overlapping, partially redundant sources to narrow meaning. Through word choice, our understanding of ourselves as humans who need nourishment, the act of eating, and food as something we find nourishment provides on stream of meaning. This stream of meaning from word selection is often sufficient, because if we were to imagine someone saying “food eat I,” we would likely come to understand it has the equivalent meaning to “I eat food.” However, it would take us a second to decipher “food eat I” because the usual, second stream of meaning from grammar is not as it is usually expected. In the conventional use of speech, “I eat food” has two streams of meaning that come together like tributaries to a river to provide a strong flow of meaning that makes its way into human thought and consciousness. And, because these two steams of meaning, word selection and grammar, are the primary constituents of communicative meaning and regularly overlap and join together to provide a robust, coherent meaning as in “I eat food,” it actively inhibits other “streams’ from non-linguistic sources from have a salient, noticeable differences in the meaning we derived from “I eat food.”

There is thus a good reason why we come to the illusion that language itself is a clear vehicle for communication, as the redundancy that comes through the streams of word selection and grammar, and sometimes other streams from the language surrounding the sentence we are interpreting, make its such that we have a clear, overwhelming sense of what something means. This experiential phenomenon experienced again and again can also lead us ot the conclusion that language as a “single” meaning, or if we are willing to be somewhat open to a wild. adventurous ride on the wild streams of semantic meaning, we allow for polysemy but with the sense that each sense is discretely separate from the other potential meanings.

However, poetry, and other forms of non-prosaic speech, function to convey a form of meaning, or meanings if you will, by abandoning or flouting the various linguistic conventions, including most notably word selection and grammar, that function to cognitively restrain meaning to being a singular, fixed sense. In my poem, I never explicitly encode who the persons are in what is happening. This encoding would happen in prose, narrowing down the possible meaning, but in poetry it is absent, allowing the flexibility for it to be God and a person, a boyfriend and girlfriend, or any other combination one might could imagine. The consequence of this is that poetic meaning becomes derived from non-linguistic streams, such as people’s own memories, perception of their current circumstances, etc. that provides different tributaries that come together in the flow of meaning. They fill in the semantic gaps created by the absence of specific linguistic conventions that usually constrain the production of the cognitive processes of meaning-making. For instance, this poem is filled in by my own experiences, as this is a poem that is partially autobiographical, expressing both my own sense in seeking to live out a calling from God while at the same time expressing a wish for myself in the midst of the trauma and broken heartedness of the past. If a person who knows me and my story, they might read the poem similarly, whereas a person who is ignorant of me and has not read the analysis would likely not pick up on these forms of meaning.

This leads to the second feature that gives poetry its power: the way successful communication of a specific meaning between author and reading relies upon a range of possibilities that are not entirely likely for any individual person to understand. The successful propagation of linguistic and semantic conventions among a language community, such as the meanings of words and the appropriate use of grammar, means that the successful communication of meaning through prose primarily relies upon a factor that many people are likely to have: proficiency with the language. By flouting these conventions to various degrees, poetry inherently reduces the range of people who can successfully pick up a meaning that was intended in the communication. Successfully picking out the authorial intention and comprehension will rely on factors that many people will not have, but it close to a secret “cipher” that only a few people would have.

If I had not given an interpretation of the poem I wrote, you would be hard-pressed to figure out what exactly I was referring it. It wouldn’t be impossible, mind you, but in the process of trying to triangulate what I meant, there would no feedback or model sufficiently independent and distinct from the processes of reconstructing meaning that would help the person to rightly determine whether their interpretation was the correct one or not. The odds are the person would either be unsuccessful and yet be confident that they were correct, or they would remain un-confident and leave the poem as a mystery to them, both of which would have the effect of obscuring the meaning from them.

Consider, for instance the impact of Jesus’ parables, which while not poetry is closer to poetry than prose. The Gospel of Matthew explains Jesus usage of parables were to obscure Jesus’ meaning from the audience, at least the vast majority, while providing an understanding to a very narrow group of people, his disciples and followers. Jesus’ parables were like a bottle that a message was put into, thrown into to sea, and only those who find it can get the message, except Jesus is in control of the proverbial motions of the sea and to whom the bottle gets to. Everyone else would miss the message of the parables because they didn’t have the right mindset to understand it.

Consider, for a second, Jesus usage of the image of a mustard seed, both used in the parable of the same name and Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about prayer. Lets assume for the sake of argument that the appropriate meaning of the parable is to be deriving by understanding the significance of the mustard seed, but for the vast majority of the population, they focus on the towering mustard tree or the mountains being moved. The salience of what is big, wonderful, great, etc. would lead them to think the point of Jesus’ parable and words was simply to talking about how greatness will become theirs; they will not linger in the woods of the semantic forest of the smallness of the mustard seed, but they rush to get a big tree, they rush to have power to move mountains. Such people engage in the power of magical thinking, often reinforced today by the implicit theological understanding that God’s “supernatural” agency is really close to magic. They don’t, rather, seek to understand the significance of what being a mustard seed is, in its smallness and its necessity to being planted and grown. However, as a result of their pedagogical training by and relationship with Jesus, they have a latent potential, thought not a pre-determined outcome, to see a different meaning in what Jesus said that emerges from the often overlooked smallness of the mustard see.

Something very similar happens in poetry. Maybe not necessarily with the intention of blinding others from the intended meaning, but as something that conveys meaning in an atypical fashion that only a narrow range of people can get who are willing to be engaged with and by the poetry, who are willing to bring themselves and their heart to the poem. However, because the poem does not immediately signal all its meaning, the poet is left in relative obscurity if it is not picked up. In the end, knowing the meaning of the poem is conditioned upon the relatively unlikely conditions that the other person will be or become someone who can understand what the poem says. As such, most poems except the most transparent, like some of Frost’s poetry, are not usually intended for mass consumption but for a smaller, more select, niche audience.

Here then we can maybe begin to reflect on the significance of the significance of the poetry of the Hebrew poets. In 1 Peter 1.10-12, Peter intimates that the prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ, but yet they did not comprehend everything they were prophesying about. Rather, it was for a later generation to pick up and know. Jeremiah, for instance, was a prophet whose ministry was met with abject failure as his words more repelled than drew in, but later in Christian faith, his voice became a prophetic light shining the way forward to God’s new covenant in Jesus Christ. But now, in the present day, people can now understand them through the “cipher” of the gospel being preached by the Holy Spirit; it was so concealed that not even the angels, longing to understand the will of God, understood and knew what was happening.

According to this theological interpretation, in the poetry of the Hebrew prophets, there was a message “encoded” that was to be grasped by those who had been given the eyes to see and the ears to hear by the Spirit. But, far from these eyes to see and ears to hear being some secret, esoteric knowledge that would stoke the jealousy of Gnostics, who could regard Jesus as some grand teacher of big, huge spiritual ideas that was the expression of their own hearts that had not been formed by the pedagogy of Christ, it was a message of the love of a man who gave His life as a servant for others. The Servant of Isaiah as part of God’s call to Israel became the story of the Israelite Jesus, through whom others are beckoned into this very specific form and model servant-hood through the same Holy Spirit that conceived Jesus and came upon Him at baptism. Only with those who had the eyes to see and the ears to hear  that the person of Jesus in all His fullness is the one sent from God could pick up what Isaiah’s words and speech were pointing to, even as the understanding that Isaiah has was more like a man who had switched from blinders to really blurry glasses. Isaiah, according to the words of Peter, had the Spirit of Christ and as such, had a glimpse in his own life, but it was for others removed from him in space and time to really see and pick up.

However, there is one final point I will leave here: the lines between prose and poetry are not always so clearly defined, as these two categories are more so prototypes in our head of how prose and poetry work. For instance, this blog post is itself a blending of the features of poetry and prose, both in the inclusion of a poem but also the way I formulated the prose. To be able to do this and recognize it is a gift that I think that I picked up, dare I say, by the leading of God through some difficult circumstances that required a verbal craft and skill to navigate that I didn’t naturally have but upon looking back, I had the beginnings of without a real conscious recognition of it. Even if not, it is my recognition that the lines between poetry and prose does not actually exist except as an idealized prototype of different types of writing, but all that really exists in the act of communication is the writing/speech that has various degrees of encoding and the people who make sense of them, both the author/speaker, the readers/hearers, and in cases of Divine inspiration, the God who brings molds the speech to convey a meaning that even the author doesn’t necessary understand but that may be perceived by others. Rich is the gift of language, latent with multifunctional potential and powerful in diverse ways!

Paul in contrast with 4 Maccabees

December 31, 2019

In a series of posts, I have been implicitly advancing an overarching thesis that the theological content in Paul’s letter to the Romans is largely a response to the influence that some Second Temple Literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees could have had on some Jews to embrace a more ethnocentric nationalism in response to Roman imperialism and oppression. While I have not provided the entirety of my evidence in my blog posts, my reasoning for such rests upon (1) similarities between Romans and these texts that can are best explained by direct influence from the STJ literature on Paul’s discourse and (2) as a consequence, how the ideas and narratives given in these texts can be employed to provide both a plausible and coherent account of Paul’s discourse. If these two reasons are sufficient reason to argue that Paul’s discourse is a response to both the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees, then we have possible evidence that can be used in favor of arguing that Paul has other STJ literature in mind.

With this in mind, I think it can be similarily advanced that Paul’s discourse was also influenced by 4 Maccabees, a philosophical treatise that uses the persecution of Eleazer and of the seven brothers by Antiochus to demonstrate that reason obtained through the Torah has control over the emotional passions. 4 Maccabees can be best described as the combination of Stoicism and Jewish devotion to Torah. When wisdom is defined by “The knowledge divine and human matters and the causes of these things” (4 Maccabees 1.16), this is the same definition of wisdom offered by the Stoics (SVF 2.35; Seneca, Letters 89.45; see Long and Sedley’s The Hellenistic Philosophers, 26A and 26G). However, whereas Paul more directly seeks to refutes and directly challenge the ideas that are supported by Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees, it is argued that Paul’s response to the ideas contained in 4 Maccabees can be understood as more as a correction than refutation.

The best textual evidence for Paul’s engagement with the ideas in 4 Maccabees is Romans 3.25. There, Paul describes Jesus death as a ἱλαστήριον. Similarly, the death of the seven brothers was described as a ἱλαστήριον in 4 Maccabees 17.22. The similarities go further. Both Jesus’ death and the death of the brothers are referring to by the metonym of blood. The significance of their deaths is considered to confer benefits upon others (Jesus’ death is a release in Romans 3.24 [τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως]; the seven brother’s death is a substitution of life [ἀντίψυχον]). Their death is understood to be necessary due to the sins of others. For Paul, everyone’s sin has made them fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3.23) and the death of the seven brothers helps to restore the observance of Torah (4 Macc. 18.4) that has been stopped by Antiochus (4 Macc. 4.15-261). The conferral of benefits to others is necessitated by the presence of faithlessness and sin. Finally, the “divine Providence” (θεία πρόνοια), a common way the Stoic’s understood divine causality, is said to have worked through Antiochus witnessing the endurance of the seven brothers (4 Maccabees 17.33). In the same way, Jesus’ death is described as a public demonstration (προέθετο). The shared features of (1) ἱλαστήριον, (2) the metonym of blood for the death of a martyr, (3) martyrdom conferring benefits to others, (4) the faithlessness that necessitates such benefits to others, and (5) public demonstration of the martyrdom, suggests it is very probable that Paul in Romans 3.21-26 has 4 Maccabees in mind.

However, even with many of these similarities, there are noticeable differences. Whereas the blood of the seven brothers is said to be the instrumentally effective part of the divine Providence through the usage of the preposition δία, Jesus’ blood is spoken of as being the cause/source of the ἱλαστήριον by the preposition ἐν. It would be consistent with there subtly different construal of the relationship between martyrdom and God’s deliverance for Paul and the author of 4 Maccabees. This is further evident by the fact that the benefits conferred to others is describing differently: the martyrdom of the brothers evokes an idea of substitution of life, whereas Paul describes the benefits in terms of freedom. Also, whereas the benefits of the martyrdom in 4 Maccabees is conferred onto the nation as a whole, the benefits from Christ are conferred upon “all who believe” (3.22). In other words, even as the degree of similarities between 4 Maccabees 17.22 and context with Romans 3.25 and context is highly suggestive of direct familiarity on the part of Paul, the various differences in Paul’s description of Jesus’ ἱλαστήριον would suggest Paul has some disagreements in the portrayal of ἱλαστήριον in 4 Maccabees.

Assuming Paul has 4 Maccabees in mind, what then is it about 4 Maccabees and the portrayal of the martyrdom of the seven brothers does Paul reject? Is it simply that it isn’t Jesus? Is it that Israel simply wasn’t delivered by the brother’s sacrifice? Or, is there a deeper reason?

I would contend that the best explanation would be the way that the narrative of 4 Maccabees finds it as a validation of Stoic philosophy. The overall purpose of what the author is writing about in 4 Maccabees 1.6-11, where the stories of Eleazar and the seven brothers serve as an account that demonstrates (1) that reason rules over the emotions and (2) this reason gives perseverance that can overcome tyrants. In other words, reason’s control over our lives is the tool of resistance. This reason is obtained through the love of wisdom (4 Macc. 1.15) that is found Torah as the source of the wisdom (4 Macc. 1.16-17). In the end, the hearing and study of the Torah gives people reason that empowers Eleazar and the seven brothers to faithfully resist Antiochus.

While not a prevalent theme in Roman Stoicism, overcome the control of tyrants was occasionally given as a situation that distinguished those livng their lives by wisdom from others. For instance, the Stoic Epictetus said:

‘Perhaps not, but Caesar has the power to take my life.’

Then tell the truth, you wretch, and instead of bragging as you do, don’t claim to be a philosopher, and don’t fail to recognize who your masters are, but as long as you let them have this hold on you through your body, place yourself at the beck and call of everyone who is stronger than you.  Now Socrates had learned to speak as one ought, to be able to speak as he did to the tyrants, to his judges, and in prison. Diogenes had learned to speak as one ought, to be able to speak as he did to Alexander, to Philip, to the pirates, to the man who bought him as a slave. Leave these matters to those who are properly prepared for them, to those with courage. As for you, turn to your own affairs and never depart from them. Go and sit in a corner, and construct syllogisms, and propose them to others—‘ In you assuredly there is no captain of a state.’2

It is this resistance to tyrants that is given as an explanation as to how the brother’s control over their emotions as they faced death courageously overcame Antiochus on behalf of the nation (4 Macc. 17.22-23). However, a closer look at 4 Maccabees can show us that the events that took place does not seems to neatly fit into explanation that the martyrs were a mercy seat/atonement for the nation. The author’s argument essentially suggests that Antiochus solider’s were emboldened (4 Macc. 14.24) as a result of their examples and that because Antiochus could not get the Jews to give in on their ancestral custom, he diverted his focus to war with Syria, that is the Parthians (4 Macc. 18.5-6), when in fact Antiochus diverted to Syria because the Parthians began to take advantage of his weakness. In short, 4 Maccabees seems to go to great extent to try to fit his Stoicized view of Torah, reason, and wisdom as an explanation as to why Israel prevailed over Antiochus,

Paul, however, does not share the confidence reason through the Torah that the author of 4 Maccabees does. In fact, if one compares their two accounts of how a hearer of the commandment about not coveting from Exodus 20.17, it becomes clear that Paul does not think that the Torah enables a person to be wise.

Romans 7.7-13

What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

4 Maccabees 2.1-6:

And why is it amazing that the desires of the mind for the enjoyment of beauty are rendered powerless? It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime for intercourse, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of the passions. Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of sexual desire, but also over every desire. Thus the law says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or anything that is your neighbor’s.” In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires.

Whereas the author of 4 Maccabees believes the commandment against coveting is evidence that reason can control human desires, Paul presents it to be the opposite case: the Torah is good but it does not indicate anything about the power of human reason and volition over the passions (see further in Romans 7.14-25). The Torah provides a person the capacity to recognize and understand something as sin (Rom. 3.20; 7.7), but it doesn’t empower them. Instead, the passions are overcome through the believer’s baptismal union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6.1-14).

This helps us to begin to comprehend what the distinction is between Paul and 4 Maccabees when it comes to the ἱλαστήριον. For 4 Maccabees, the brothers function as a ἱλαστήριον ultimately by being a demonstration of the wisdom of the Torah amidst the cessation of Temple service and Torah obedience. Through their example, the capacity to control one’s life in accordance to the Torah is witnessed and observed. One could say that in a sense they are seen as functioning as a substitute for the Temple, as ἱλαστήριον was used in the LXX to refer to the mercy seat, the golden plate on the Ark of the Covenant. By contrast, Jesus does not exemplify the wisdom of the Torah, but rather God’s righteousness. In Christ, God reveals Himself in such a way that the people themselves can come to be empowered to live righteously in Christ through the Spirit (Rom. 8.1-4). Jesus is not instrumental (δία) in being a ἱλαστήριον, but rather it is in His sacrificial death (ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι) that people are united and formed to overcome the passions that lead to sin. Jesus as the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, into which God’s people are united through baptism. Jesus is the Temple that believers are located in through the Spirit.

In summary, then, Paul’s letter to the Romans may be considered to address some of the ideas expressed about Torah, wisdom, and martyrdom in 4 Maccabees, in addition to other STJ literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees. By comparing and contrasting sections that have similar language and content, it can be argued that Paul om Romans 3.21-8.39 is primarily focused on uprooting a certain view of Torah that saw it as enabling people to be wise and to overcome the passions. In the cognitive gap that Paul portrays between Torah and the righteous life, Paul sees Christ bridging the gap for Jewish Christians through the leading of the Spirit. The Torah helps people to recognize what in their life is resistant to the will and purposes of God, but the Torah itself is not a source from which people can find the strength and resources to find power over sin, much less death.

At the heart of awakening

December 31, 2019

If there is one thing I have learned in the past couple months in my study and work on Romans along with 1 Corinthians while at the University of St. Andrews, it is that there is a peculiar social reality that is envisioned by Paul that comes about under the shadow of the cross. For Paul, the calling from God is not framed in terms of an either-or scenario, where to be on God’s side, to be part of God’s people, you can’t be on the other “side.” For Paul, the calling from God is a work of God to orchestrate the lives of specific people to play a special part in the redemption of the world, with Jesus Christ as the “Temple plan” to fit all the called people together into through the power and pedagogical instruction of the Spirit.

Firstly, it is helpful to state that this group of people is not, properly speaking, the Church that we Christians know of today. This calling of God’s people includes Abraham and specifically chosen descendants of Abraham that came before Christ. In Romans 8.29, Paul speaks of those who were foreknown, which for Paul includes many Israelites prior to Christ as in Romans 11.1-6, as being predestined to be conformed to Jesus Christ. Not all of them understand or even see the fruition of their work, as the author of Hebrews state in 11.13 about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob along with Abraham’s wife Sarah: “All of these died without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Going back a verse to Hebrews 11.12, Abraham was one such person whose life was specially called to be a part of God’s promised plan for the world. This calling spans the long distance of human history. This calling that spans history means the called in Jesus Christ in today’s age have more in common with a nomad and his wife from many millennia ago who seem to have no children in sight than they would with the neighbor who lives next door when it comes to consider how they are at work in God’s plan.

I say that to say that God’s vision for the world did not suddenly get off the ground when Jesus Christ came into the picture. It was going on long beforehand. But what happened in Christ coming into the world is now the vision of what God is doing made visible before human eyes, knowable through the testimony of Scripture. As Romans 3.25 says, Jesus Christ was “publicly displayed as a mercy seat,” describing Jesus as the golden lid on the Ark of the Covenant, where atonement was made and above which stood a pillar of smoke representing the presence of God. However, Paul does not say Christ died and therefore all is simply well, but rather those united in Christ are being brought to a new life in the pattern of Christ (Romans 6.1-4). The revelation of Christ provides the vision of God’s redemption of humanity that becomes realized in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit, by Whom the condemnation of sin in the body of Christ becomes realized in people to live out the true righteousness that God had been teaching (Romans 8.3-4). The calling of God is not a call to simply flee the wrath to come, but it is the call from God to be God’s secret force equipped from heaven, sent to fight a spiritual war by being the first spiritual combatants to land on the beaches of the unredeemed kingdoms of this world, who fight not with weapons that pierce flesh that takes life, but with the Word that can wound the heart to give people life anew.

From there, the called come together in colonies among the world, by which others can come to hear and in the midst of the hear, hear a calling and come to faith. When Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles, writes to the largely Jewish Christian congregation in Rome, he says he wants to come to get some fruit among them (Romans 1.13), it isn’t to reap from Jewish believers as people, but rather, it is almost as if the presence of believers in Rome were planting seeds, some of which would be harvested. They had made a colony of God’s Kingdom, finding the opportunity to plant seeds among the fields of people’s hearts, to which Paul comes as one who is specially trained to be one of the harvesters, whereas others lacked the gifts to effectively cross the boundary between Jew and Gentile.

What is important to understand here is that God’s calling brings people to bond together with others similarly called as part of a larger mission. People are not called as individuals to find a new way of doing religion and spiritually that suits them, but that they are brought together to be part of a newly formed people, calling them from among the diverse peoples. These people are not called to abandon their present identities however, as Paul does not tell Jews to cease to be Jews, nor does he tell Gentiles that they must live as Jews. Rather, each are called to submit their past way of life the would be expected for those who were members of that social identity to now be accountable to and empowered from the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but not calling them to forget everything that made them who they once were. An African American who hears the call of God is not called to stop being black to be part of God’s People, but he is to live his life as a black person with the dignity and significance that Jesus Christ gave to them, as He died for them. A gay male powerfully called by God is not called to cease to forgot his past, but he is called to submit his life to the Lordship of Christ to be a beacon of His word. A woman unsure and uncertain of her place with others and in the church, remains a woman but finds her calling as a woman of God to go where many men of the world would not allow her to tread. A white, heterosexual male who hears and dreams a calling from God doesn’t have to cease to be who they are, but in Christ they are called to understand what those like him have long forgotten. The calling of God does not lead us to abandon all our identities and become simply “Christian,” but rather the call of God calls us to live into our old identities with new significances and purposes as God’s people, point forward to new creation, where in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, where there is neither marriage nor being given in marriage, even as in the present day these identities and statuses still have purposes.

This is what awakenings look like: people awakening to a new purpose and way of life that Christ calls them to, as God proleptically brings His future into our present through the Spirit giving us the foretaste of the age to come. However, the world, even the Christianized world, can hinder awakenings because of the difficulty that comes with seeing the new creation stemming from the way our social identities can perpetually hinder a vision of God’s future. The world can only see the future through the lens of the past, whether to rebuild it once was or or tear it down to build something to replace it. As a result, people’s identities are constantly being fit into the ways of the past, while changing more in response to the conflict than for some greater purpose. Incredulity and disbelief that “those sorts of people” could be favored by God; anger and rage when a member of tribe steps out of line to follow the call. But for those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, a calling from God into the vision cast forth in Jesus Christ lay in front of them.

In the midst of this past, the liminal transition from seeing the future in terms of the past to seeing the present in terms of God’s future goes through the practices of repentance and forgiveness, for the sins of the past to be simultaneously acknowledged and let go, so that people can move beyond the past and follow the calling of God to live as part of God’s future that He has brought into our present. Jesus Christ, His cross, His ministry, and His teachings are a pedagogical training give to us that, when followed, brings about our transformation from this old way we have left behind with repentance and forgiveness, so through bearing our own cross in faith, we can see in the midst of the desolation in the present, there sits the Son of Man on His throne in the Kingdom of God right in the middle of the kingdoms of this world and, even to this day and is expanding to this day, and that the gates of hell will not prevail over it, even as the kingdoms of this world crumble.

One of the hopes I had had if the day were ever to come to be a scholar, professor, and/or writer was to write a New Testament theology. It is this that I would put forward as perhaps a partial, organizing theme for how to understanding the New Testament as a vision of how God’s redemptive awakening in Christ through the Spirit takes place, works, and is realized. If, by chance I am on the right direction, then this tear stained fabric of my life in the 2010s may have served a purpose, as this is the fruit of my journey in this decade and the decades past. But, even in this, there is something further to come to comprehend: love and the refreshing rest that God gives in the midst of the desolation.

Provoking Israel to jealousy in Romans 11.11-16

December 30, 2019

In terms of trying to break down what the emotion is about, jealousy is an interesting emotion. It usually isn’t a good thing, to be sure, but jealousy is interesting because it an emotion that is highly specific. Most emotions, such as sadness, grief, anger, happiness, etc. can arise for a variety of reasons. Jealousy, however, happens in a very specific condition: where a person feels they are entitled to something that should be only be their privilege. It is most common in social relationships, where one person (a) wants the attention, recognition affection, sex, etc. of another person but (b) goes further than simply desire and includes some some belief that they should have this relationship rather than another. What makes jealousy jealousy, and where it can become such a problem, is that some of the reasons people have for believing they should have the exclusive privilege amounts to nothing more than they want something, without regard for having any sort of commitment for establishing that relationship.

It is this nature of jealousy that I want to bring to the table when looking at what Paul says in Romans 11.11-16 about Israel and his hope regarding them. While Paul did not have such an analytic analysis of jealousy in mind, this framework can be useful for provoking further questions in seeking to understand why Paul thinks Israel might be moved to jealousy, specifically, because of the Gentiles.

Robert Jewett describes some problems with translated παραζηλόω, including the traditional translation as jealousy:

If the traditional translation “jealousy” is elected, the “fantastic” improbability in believing that envy could lead to salvation along with the inherent unworthiness of envy as a motivation for conversion are hard to deny. In view of the fact that Jewish legalists viewed the early Christian proclamation as heretical, no satisfactory explanation has ever been given to explain why they would have been “jealous” when Gentiles accepted this allegedly mistaken doctrine. Moreover, the links with the earlier argument of Romans are weakened by the traditional translation, because ζηλόω has the sense of religious zeal and rage rather than jealousy in 10:2, as generally acknowledged, and also in 10:19, as argued above on contextual and poetic grounds. If “emulation” is selected, Bell has a hard time explaining how “jealous anger,” preferred translation for 10:19, could have been thought to shift into the positive desire to emulate the behavior of the previously hated Gentiles. If one selects “provoke to zealous rage” or “make make zealous,” thus providing the best continuity with the probable connotation of παραζηλόω in 10:19 and the certain meaning of ζηλόω in 10:2, it remains puzzling that such religious hostility could be thought to lead to their salvation, for which Paul hopes in 11:14. Perhaps he as the model of his own conversion in mind, namely, that when his zeal reached its violent climax in the persecution of the believers in Damascus, the risen Christ was revealed to him and his desire to destroy alleged evildoers turned into its opposite, a desire for coexistence with those whom the Messiah had chosen to accept. Zeal to exclude hated Gentiles turned into a comparable zeal to include them as part of the people of God. It appears that Paul hoped for some similar process of conversion for current Jewish critics of the Gospel.1

There are two problems with Jewett’s analysis. Firstly, Paul does not seem to be arriving to a belief that Israel will be provoked to παραζηλόω because he has developed some specific strategy in mind that he thinks will work. Rather, as the language recalls back to Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32.21 back in Romans 10.19, it is more reasonable to think that Paul thinks God is the one who is going to move Israel to jealousy and that Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles will be instrumental in that.

Secondly, Jewett’s comments focus more on the feelings of hatred that some Israelites held towards the Gentiles. As such, it might seem hard to imagine how an object of hatred and contempt could motivate jealousy, if you are looking at things only through a sociological lens of relationships between social groups.

This is where a theological interpretation provides an extra dimension to the reading: it isn’t that the Gentiles as an object of derision will magically change the mind of the hardened Israelites, EXCEPT on the grounds that the belief that God was blessed the Gentiles would spur hardened Israel to think their special relationship with God had been encroached upon if not even broken by God. As a nationalist brand of Judaism could have strongly established the belief that Israel has a special privileged relationship in God in virtue of birth, circumcision, and Torah, the very thought that God was blessing the Gentiles would poke a whole in this false preconception.

Put more specifically, the hardened Israelites could be moved to jealousy in virtue of the belief that corporate Israel had an exclusive, privileged relationship with the God of the patriarchs. At stake here is a belief that stands at the intersection of social identity and theology: as Jewish identity is tied up with beliefs about the nation of Israel’s special relationship with God, the blessing of the Gentiles would light a fire under the hardened Israel. In Paul’s view, their belief about their privileged relationship is false, but nevertheless, this false belief can be used to bring them to God.

As an analogy, imagine a long lasting dating relationship where the relationship had grown stale, partly due to the complacency of the male, taking his relationship granted. Say the female decides to ask for some space to figure things out. The male interprets this not as breaking up the relationship, but simply a time apart. However, the female means this more that she wants to explore other relationships and decides to go out with another guy. The male has a mistaken belief about the nature of the relationship. Then, news arrives to him that she is seeing another guy. How would he respond? There are many ways he could respond, such as recognizing the relationship is over and moving on. But, one potential response would be to think she moved on because he didn’t show here enough affection, spend enough time, etc. and so he offers to step up his game. In the midst of the breaking thorough the illusion of what he thought was the continuing of the relationship, he realizes if he doesn’t change he will lose who he cared for. What is going on here? The male receives news that shows him that he view of the relationship is mistaken. Now, he realizes that he needs to be more engaged and involved if he wants to keep the relationship.

I would suggest this is much closer to what Paul is envisioning here, with a few caveats. The first caveat is that Israel’s perceived relationship to God is not framed in Romans in terms of romance and marriage, but rather in terms of social status and hierarchy. For some Jews, Israel is supposed to be on the top of the food-chain in God’s economy. God’s rich blessing of the Gentiles would show that Gentiles are occupying the favored position that they as Israelites believed that themselves should have had for themselves. Secondly, whereas exclusive monogamy remains the social norms and conventions for dating and marital relationships, Paul’s conviction is that God does not have an an exclusive, special relationship with one people.

With these two caveats in mind, we can perhaps have a way for understanding what Paul is saying in provoking Israel to jealousy. In their religious activities, many Israelites were not properly engaged in seeking God’s righteousness, but they had established their own righteousness by reducing righteousness down to matters of obeying Torah (Rom. 9.30-10.3). As a result, they could not embraced Jesus as revelation of God’s righteousness. Jesus didn’t fit into their religious praxis. So, while they may believe that God has special favor for them as Second Temple literature such as Wisdom of Solomon would express, Paul’s argument is that they are self-deceived about their relationship with God in seeking God’s righteousness. There has never been a special, exclusive relationship between God and Israel *as a corporate body,* but membership in God’s special people has always been a matter of God’s grace to elect descendants of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom. 9.6-13; 11.1-10). Additionally, the political mythology that would develop from the Maccabean rebellion that God rewards Israel political victory by its exclusive, zealous devotion to circumcision and Torah as the heritage of Israel is also mistaken as God was never concerned about the circumcision of the flesh, but that of the heart as reflective of their life (Rom 2.25-29).

However, for Paul, what can happen upon realization of God’s inclusion and blessing to the Gentiles is that Israel can realize that they have been living under false pretenses about their relationship to God. God is going to make the Gentiles become a people who spur Israel to renew their relationship with God by realizing that they were not being truly faithful to God in the first place. It would spur them to a new sense of zeal/ζῆλος, but one with knowledge (cf. Romans 10.2) that is in actual accordance to the truth about God and His relationships with humanity through faith rather than believe that Israel’s had a more or less automatic and exclusively privileged relationship with God that puts the halakhic traditions, which would focus more or less exclusively on Torah, at the center of Israel’s response to God.

However, to be clear, it isn’t that this new zeal would suddenly make the harden Israel included again in God’s chosen people. Paul maintains it is God’s gracious election. Paul doesn’t explore the relationship of God’s mercy and hardening of Israel and the jealousy they would experience, but Paul simply implies and assumes that Israel’s being provoked to jealousy would lead to their inclusion because God has a special love for the descendants of the patriarchs that will culminate in Israel’s full inclusion and salvation (Rom. 11.25-32). What this suggests is that God’s hardening is not intended as an eternal condemnation as per double predestination, as if salvation history is simply the manifestation of God’s salvation to all of the personally elected and judgment to all the personally condemned. Instead, Paul believes what happens salvation history of God’s work among His elect has an actual on the non-elect such that they may be included at a later point. Paul does not further expand upon this point, as Paul is not trying to address modern theological metaphysics about the relationship of God’s action to individual salvation, but rather is trying to address questions of Jewish social identity and their future, even as much of Israel had rejected Jesus as their Lord. This becomes evident in Paul’s understanding of his own ministry. He believes by letting the world know about his ministry to the Gentiles, his own apostleship would be instrumental in salvation history to bringing forth the partial inclusion of corporate Israel into God’s elect people (Rom. 11.13-14).

In summary, what is at stake in Paul’s beliefs about provoking Israel to jealousy is that the visible blessing and inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people would poke a hole in the mistaken notions about corporate Israel’s exclusive, privileged relationship with God. Paul hopes that they would be woken from their stupor and that they will realize they have been mistaken about God and His righteousness, so that they will rightly come to know Jesus as their Lord as the Gentile inclusion shows that their beliefs about God were not from God, but from themselves.

Romans 10.5-8 as the summation and fulfillment of Torah

December 30, 2019

Romans 10.5-8 is a perilously difficult passage to make sense of. On the one hand, scholars have pretty clearly identifies the Scriptures in the Old Testament that Jesus is pulling from in Leviticus 18.5, Deuteronomy 8.17, 9.4, and 30.12-141 On the other hand hand, determining what sense Paul’s discourse would have had to his intended audience is a whole other matter.

Douglas Moo reads Paul’s argument in Romans 10.5-13 to be the division between law, that is what God gives people to do, and gospel, that is what God does for us: whereas vs. 5 is about law, vss. 6-13 is about the gospel of faith. According to Moo, Paul finds this division in the Old Testament Scriptures. 2 While a contrast between human and divine agency is perhaps merited in the background of Paul’s discourse, Paul is not intending to provide a strong contrast that the sharp Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel suggests. Paul does not use the sharper άλλα to make a decisive contrast between the righteousness of law in vs. 5 and the righteousness that comes from faith in vss. 6-13. Instead, he uses δέ, which Stephen Runge, disagreeing with BDAG, “does not mark the presence of semantic discontinuity… Contrast has everything to do with the semantics of the elements present in the context.”3 In other words, if there is a contrast between Romans 10.5 and 10.6-13, the nature of the contrast should be understood based upon the differences specifically given before and after the δέ.

What contrast, if any, is Paul providing? Not of some abstracted understanding of law and gospel, but rather of two different communicators. In vs. 5, Paul quotes from Lev. 18.5 as coming from the hand of Moses (Μωϋσῆς… γράφει). On the other hand, in vs. 6, it is not Moses but the righteousness from faith (ἡ… ἐκ πίστεως δικαιοσύνη). Furthermore, this ‘righteousness from faith’ does not write as Moses does, but rather he speaks (λέγει). While we who have becomes very accustomed to the written word as a common vehicle of communication and as a result can read and use the verbs “write” and “say” interchangeably, we should not assume this of Paul. Paul will regularly refer to the written medium (γράμμα) of the Torah, seeing it as powerless and even can kill a person (Romans 2.27-29, 7.6, 2 Cor. 3.6-7). To describe Moses as writing what he quotes from Leviticus 18.5, Paul is make a more specific statement about the mode of communication. Meanwhile, Paul says the righteousness of faith speaks, and assigns to this figure what amounts to a interpretive paraphrase of Deuteronomy that comes from passages such as Deuteronomy 8.17, 9.4, and 30.12-14. Rather than presenting a contrast between Law and Gospel, Paul is presenting a contrast between two distinct communicators: Moses and the “righteousness from faith.”

However, because Paul does not use άλλα, we do not need to assume that Paul is trying to pit the figure of Moses against the “righteousness from faith,” as if the two are opposed to each other. Rather, the opposition is given just prior as being between those who did not submit to God’s righteousness and those who believe (Rom. 10.3-4). What happens with what Moses writes is that many read Moses words in Leviticus 18.5 and interpret it as a basis for giving a whole system of interpretive traditions and applications that people should follow. In other words, they take Moses words to saying the pathway to righteousness comes through the establishment of various halakhic principles and regulations (τὴν ἰδίαν ζητοῦντες στῆσαι: Rom. 10.3). Paul considers submission to these principles have lead them to ignore God’s own righteousness (ἀγνοοῦντες… τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην: Rom. 10.3) expressed in Torah.

Therefore, it seems the contrast that Paul is giving is not between Law and Gospel, but rather those who interpret Moses’ words in Leviticus 18.5 as legitimating the submission to a specific moral program that isn’t the Torah itself with what the righteousness of faith is communicating.

In order to validate the idea that Paul quotes Leviticus 18.5 to provide a “proof-text” for a specific program of righteousness through halakhic prescriptions, a closer consideration of the relationship of Romans 10.5-8 with Romans 10.4 is helpful. It is common for commentaries and translations to treat Romans 10.4 as the end the section/paragraph that starts in Romans 10.1. However, upon closer examination, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to treat Romans 10.4 as the end of a section, as there is different content in 10.1-3 that focuses on Paul’s understanding about many Israelites who failed to believe in Jesus. Vs. 4 can then be understood as an explanation for why they failed to believe: their actions to try to establish their own righteousness failed to take into account that Jesus is the τέλος, variously consider to be end or goal , of the Torah.

Another explanation is that Romans 10.4 is the beginning of the section that extends to 10.13. I would put forward that vs. 4 still functions to explain why the unbelieving Israelites were mistaken in their zealous pursuit of righteousness, but the verse is not intended to be understood to be an explanation on its own, but as it is expounded upon in following verses. This can then provide a sense of the significance of Paul’s usage of τέλος. Whereas Paul quotes from Leviticus in 10.5, Paul’s employment of the passages in Deuteronomy in 10.6-8 and that he reads these passages in light of Christ suggest that Paul’s usage of τέλος refers to the way Christ is a fulfillment of what comes at the end of the Torah from Moses. Romans 10.4-8 is suggesting that one should understand the Pentateuch as a whole and that for Paul, Christ is, quite literally, understood as being pointed to at the end of the Torah. In other words, τέλος is not functioning as some sort of statement of theological epistemology about the source of the Torah in relationship to Christ, but rather a specific reference to where Christ is understood within the Torah: at the end in Deuteronomy 30.

If this is the case, then the function of Paul’s quotation in Leviticus 18.5 is to start to give an account of righteousness as explicated in the Torah. This passage by itself could have serve as a legitimating proof-text for righteousness based upon halakhic traditions that seek to apply Torah. However, Paul’s account pushes further to take Leviticus 18.5 in light of what comes in Deuteronomy. The essential effect of the contrast between Leviticus 18.5 and Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy is not to state “the Torah is now useless for righteousness” as it often the interpretation of Paul, ignoring what Paul says in Romans 7.12. Rather, it is to argue that one can not pursue and develop a program of righteousness based upon an understanding of Leviticus 18.5 alone, but one has to understand what comes at the end in Deuteronomy. We see a similar pattern in Galatians 3.12-13, where Paul contrast the quote from Leviticus 18.5 with follows in Jesus’ curse on the cross as a ‘fulfillment’ of Deuteronomy 21.23. For Paul, one can not understand the pursuit of righteousness based upon Leviticus 18.5 alone, but one must set it in context of how Christ is a fulfillment of what comes in Deuteronomy.

This would make sense of why Paul supports faith as the basis of righteousness through Deuteronomic quotations in contrast to Leviticus 18.5 standing for righteousness based upon upon. Deuteronomy as a whole could be understood as encouraging Israel to be obedient to God’s commands based upon faith in God’s future blessings. So, in appealing to Deuteronomy, Paul is finds the overarching theme and concern of Deuteronomy to be in support of righteousness that comes through faith.

This isn’t to suggest that Paul is setting Leviticus 18.5 over and against Deuteronomy but that a program of righteousness based upon Leviticus 18.5, which only discusses righteousness in relationship to the Torah regulations, has failed to take into account an understanding of righteousness as it is expressed in the “faith-saturated” Deuteronomy. Just as an account of Christian soteriology should not be based upon John 3.16 along, but should incorporate the wider concerns of the New Testament canon, an account of righteousness should be formed with the whole of the Torah in mind, including the faith in the future of blessings for a faithful nation that Deuteronomy points towards.

So, this brings us back to Romans 10.5-8, seeing vs. 5 and vss. 6-8 as differing communicators, one from Moses and one from faith, but not contrasting ideas strictly speaking. Furthermore, because Deuteronomy is saturated in faith, Paul has a reason to assign the language of Deuteronomy to the communicator of “righteousness by faith.” However, more that than, because the faith of Deuteronomy is connected to the future fulfillment of God’s blessing, Paul can rework the Deuteronomic passages in light of Christ as the fulfillment.

Therefore, what appears to be happening in Romans 10.5-8 is that Paul is giving a Torah-wide vision of righteousness, which is ultimately realized in Christ as the fulfillment of the Deuteronomic hope. Avoiding what we might consider the “proof-texting” approach that would see Leviticus 18.5 as a potential legitimization of the halakhic traditions to obey the regulations of Torah, Paul see the righteousness of the Torah as a whole pointing towards Christ.

Those who have rejected Christ as guilty of developing a program of righteousness that is closed-off to only concerns about obeying the regulations of the Torah, rather than a vision of righteousness that looks forwards to God’s fulfillment of His promises. They have embraced a very narrow account of righteousness based upon a proof-texting approach. As such, they have trouble placing Christ into their understanding of righteousness.

Social status, identity, praxis, and theology as the "cognitive midground" of Romans

December 28, 2019

In his propositio for his letters to the Romans in 1.16-17, Paul briefly describes two key themes that are salient throughout his letter: (1) salvation through faith as not being an exclusive privileges of Jews as mentioned in 1.16 and (2) this salvation is universal because God has revealed of His righteousness through faith. However, in reading Romans 1.16, there can a tendency to downplay the centrality of Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι in Rom 1.16d.  For instance, in recounting the argument of Romans 1.15-17, Schreiner does not even mention Paul’s reference to the Jews and Gentiles.1 Rather, he places the emphasis on the universality of salvation in his commentary, with 1.16d being a description of Paul’s missionary strategy.2

However, this tendency isn’t universal among the scholarship. There is often an attempt to make sense of 1.16 along the opposing themes of universality and particularity. Douglas Moo believes that an appropriate understanding of Romans rests on how one brings the universalism and particularism together in 1.16.5 Similarly but without the abstract language of universality and particularity, Ben Witherington perceives a balance between the “all” of 1.16c and “to the Jew first” in 1.16d.6

However, there is a problem with interpreting Romans 1.16 in terms of the theme/counter-theme set of universalism and particular. The abstract themes of universality and particularity is largely a modern, Enlightenment preoccupation that is mapped on top of the more subconscious theme/counter-theme set of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, there is an inclination to construe universality in terms of inclusivity and particularism in terms of exclusivity. There are no doubt some reasons for drawing this connection as there is a general association between universality and inclusivity, as there also is with particularism and exclusivity. As a consequence, reading Romans through post-Enlightenment lenses can lead to a reading of Romans as about the universal inclusion, as opposed to particular exclusion. While it is certainly a legitimate theological interpretation of Romans to recognize that the Gospel is God’s universal gift to all humanity as there are parts of what Paul says that is consistent with a specific brand of universality, whether Paul was communicating in these categories is more suspect.

When Paul mentions both Jews and Greeks immediately together in Romans 2.9-10, 3.9, and 10.12, Paul establishes that there are no significant differences between the two peoples. They are judged and rewarded equally, they are equally under the power of sin, and God’s make no distinction between them when they call on him. In each of these three places, the concern about differences is principally about status in relation to God’s mercies and judgment. Even in 3.9, the significance of the statement that both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin, which is then demonstrated through a catena of OT Scriptures in 3.10-18, is that the whole world is accountable to God as stated in 3.19. Paul’s concern to place both Jews and Greeks as having an equal status before God connects with various other themes and language throughout Romans, such as boasting as a matter of claiming higher social status, shame (Romans 1.16, 6.21 9.33, 10.11), access to God (προσαγωγὴν: Rom. 5.2), slavery in chapters 6-7, subjugation and victory in 512-21, 8.37, 11.12, etc. In other words, Paul’s concern about the Jews and Gentiles does not amount to modern concerns about universality/particularity and inclusion/exclusion, as much as those may occasionally be a concern at select points, as much as matters of social status and hierarchy. 

It seems then Romans 1.16 gives a taste of what Paul is going to address as to how Jew and Gentiles are socially integrated into the “all” who believe. But mentioning the Jew comes first, Paul’s language appears on the surface to be suggested is that there is a hierarchical priority of Israelites over Gentiles in God’s salvation. One way a Jew might read Paul to be saying is that “Everyone is included in God’s Kingdom, but Jews have priority.” However, Paul argument goes decisively against this, instead saying that the graciously chosen Israelites as being the first people whom God “knew” (προέγνω: Romans 11.2). Jews are first in terms of salvation history, rather than first in terms of social standing before God. If this case, one of Paul’s discursive purposes in Romans as briefly given in Romans 1.16 is to define the status of Jews in relationship to Gentiles.

Furthermore, given that social status is tied up with a sense of people’s and group’s identity, especially for Israel whose self-definition was grounded in their relationship to YHWH, Paul’s putting forward matters of status as part of the purpose of his letter ties into matters of Jewish identity. As I have argued in my last post, Romans 9-11 seems to be about dissociating the inherent connection between the identifies of Israel and God’s people such that they can not be considered synonymous and coextensive upon a look at Israel’s Scriptures. In other words, matters of social status are intrinsically tied to matters of identity.

The correspondence between status and identity becomes most salient in Romans 2.17-24, where a figure whose characteristics are those of a Jewish sage is said to boast about their relationship to God. However, in fact their behavior is inconsistent with what they teach to the point that the Gentiles blaspheme God as a result. While one might interpret this to be an act of hypocrisy as if a teacher is saying “never commit adultery, “never steal,” etc. and then goes and does the very specific thing that goes against his prohibitions, another explanation is that Jewish sages are very selective and inconsistent in what they condemn. Considering matters more relevant to Jewish matters more important, they cast judgment on Gentiles for violating matters important to Jews, while they fail to then apply any sense of consistency to other matters that are less immediately relevant to them Jews. As Wayne Meeks notes, “Most individuals tend to measure themselves by standards of some group that is very important to them-their reference group, whether or not they belong in it-rather than by the standards of the whole society.”7 In the celebration of their own Jewish identity and faithfulness to they Torah that they consider to give them a special relationship with God, God, who the Jewish sage teaches about, has becomes treated with contempt, thereby undermining the very status the teacher so sets themselves up to have. This Jewish sage has acted in a way that appears deeply inconsistent with what they teach. 

So, while we see the interconnection of social status and identity in Romans 2.17-24, we also see an additional, third theme at play that makes sense of the whole: praxis. Romans 2.17 provides specific instances of identity, praxis, and social status in being a Jew, depending on Torah, and a boast of their relationship to God.

It it these three themes of social status, identity, and praxis that can be used to make sense of Romans 1.16. Most salient is the language of social status through a relationship to God: the language of shame, power, salvation, and the Jew as first all convey notions of social status. However, reference to Jew and Greek also contains reference to social identity. Finally, believers as the recipients of salvation becomes a key theme in describing the Pauline praxis, as faith is contrasted with the works of the Torah.

Most attempts to understand Romans, including Romans 1.16-17 try to make sense of Paul’s letter by reference to specific words such as faith/faithfulness, salvation, and righteousness. This would certainly seem plausible as one would expect Paul’s letter to be understood in terms of what has been said. Nevertheless, texts becomes meaningful discourses because there are concepts and worldviews that stand in the background, rarely explicitly mentioned, that allow what is explicitly written or said to become meaningful. What is said is only meaningful in light of specific background beliefs, knowledge, and assumptions that are present. If words and grammar are the visible flesh of a meaningful discourse, then background beliefs, knowledge, and assumptions are the bones that holds the flesh together and give it the specific shape it has. Put more analytically, the relationships of the various parts of Paul’s argument are not to be described by and found in simply the language that is used, but specific concepts and ideas in their Jewish and Greco-Roman background that Paul’s language would bring out background and more so into the “midground,” operated somewhere between the conscious foreground and the otherwise subconscious background, where it isn’t explicitly expressed but it is nevertheless understood.

This midground is conjunction of various cognitive structures and schemas. The midground can include theology and worldviews, as per NT Wright, but it also includes shared knowledge, personal circumstances and perspectives, etc. What is necessary for some cognitive schema to be in the midground is that it is (a) thinkable by the communicators and interpreters, (b) is encoded in their memory, whether long-term or short-term memory, (c) the words and phrases used in communication have significant associations with these schemas and (d) there is minimal amount of explicit reference to these schemas. So, on the one hand, Romans should be understood along the lines of more circumstantial and social concerns, such as social as per Philip Esler.

Nevertheless, because theological beliefs can match (a) and (b) as necessary conditions of midground schemas, and we can argue that much of what Paul said in Romans can be considered connected to theological schemas about God without them being regularly expressed, it can be argued that a good, coherent interpretation of Romans must take into account theological matters in order to make sense of it. The connection of Romans 1.16, as containing associations with social status, identity, and praxis, with Romans 1.17 through the conjunction γὰρ suggests that the theological schemas related to God’s righteousness and revelation suggest that we need to include theology as a fourth theme to make sense of Romans.

In other words, for Paul, concerns about social status, social identity, and praxis were all understood to be situated around a theological center: the revelation of Jesus Christ as the righteousness of God. Before God, all human boasted is found to be sorely mistake. Before God, there is no favoritism for Jew or Gentile. Before God, there is no ethical substitutions for faith that seeks to comprehend God righteousness in Christ except through the Holy Spirit. For Paul. the revelation of Christ, while consistent with and the fulfillment of God’s purpose as told in Israel’s Scriptures, is not tame, regulated, or determined by any preexisting hermeneutical commitments that outlines a specific way of life to be faithful, which incorporates status, identity, and praxis, but instead, one’s way of life should be found to be a part of one’s service to the Lord.

In conclusion, I put forward that to make coherent sense of Romans, there are four over-arching conceptual domains of social status, identity, praxis, and theology into which Paul’s discourse can be understood. Of course, these four domains are not free floating domains from which anyone can pick whatever knowledge they have in those four domains to interpret Paul, but there are specific schemas and themes that cognitively belong to each of those domains.