Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Do we make Romans too complicated?

Somewhere in the midst of all Anglican troubles and tribulations is the very important question of whether God is judge of the world or not. Will there one day be a day when we will be called to give account for our lives to God or not. We do not talk much about this, indeed it has the feel of a prohibited subject - one dare not talk about judgment in the church of the twenty-first century, but the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old Testament) talks quite a bit about it, in both Gospels and Epistles. Indeed much of the Bible revolves around God's forthcoming judgment. If there is a day of judgment then, like an exam at the end of a course, or an appraisal after a time in employment, or an election in a democracy, or even an appearance in court to answer a charge (see, we humans have quite a bit of experience of judgment!), being able to pass muster is - presumably - important.

If God is not going to judge the world, perhaps because, as atheists allege, there is no God, or there is no possibility of anyone failing God's judgment, as universalists propose, then a whole lot of issues have something of a different perspective on them. But if God is going to judge the world then that might - to give but one implication - inspire us Anglicans to take Scripture more seriously as the chief means by which God has spoken to us. After all, Scripture gives us a clue or three about how to prepare to give account to God!

At the epicentre of Scripture's talk about judgment is the Epistle to the Romans. It is right and proper that one of the major storm centres of biblical scholarship today concerns how we understand Romans (and Galatians). Great arguments - as reported on this site once or twice before - are reverberating around the Christian world about whether Paul meant this (the Old Perspective) or that (the New Perspective) or something else (some mixture of the two). One question I have is whether we make Romans too complicated. It is a dense piece of theological work, and it contains many verses over which one can ponder much, indeed write a whole doctoral thesis on a phrase here or there. But, reading through it as a whole, rather than verse by verse, I wonder if some things emerge more straightforwardly than appears to be the case reading current Romans scholarship? I put this thought forward very tentatively!!

Reading this morning in Romans 3 I noticed these words in verse 19:

"... the whole world may be held accountable to God ..."

Looking up the Greek we see that the word translated in the RSV/ESV as 'accountable' is upodiko which is, literally, 'under judgment'. It is a word found only on this one occasion in the New Testament.

Romans and the debates about it are often worked out in terms of the word 'justification'. Who or what justifies us? How may we be justified before God, or by God? Are we justified by righteousness given by God, or belonging to Christ? In any case, what is 'righteousness'? The focus on 'justification' has yielded a great controversy over whether justification is something 'imputed' to us or 'imparted' to us, with a great deal of suspicion falling on any Protestants who sign up to a less than 100% commitment to the imputation version.

But (it seems to me) it is possible that we could think, slightly differently, that Romans is an attempt to work out how we might give account before God at judgment, that is, what answer might we give to the charge against us that we are not righteous (3:10), have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (3:23), knowing that the wages of sin is death (6:23)? Then (and here my suggestion that we read Romans as a whole comes into play) we find that Paul develops an answer, or an account which we might give to God which is satisfying as a whole, but not in its parts. For in the flow of Paul's writing subsequently we find talk of justification, righteousness, faith, faith of/in Jesus Christ, 'reckoned to him', 'justified by faith', peace with God, free gift, demonstrated love, 'baptized into Christ', 'old self was crucified with [Christ]', 'set free from sin', 'no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus'.

These are the parts of the answer, and Paul never stops long enough with any one of them to nail down which is definitive (to our incontrovertable satisfaction, at least). But the whole of the answer is clear by the end of Romans 8: if we account for our lives by claiming in faith what Christ has done for us through his death on the cross and rising again from the dead, which includes Christ being in us, and us being in Christ, then we are safe: absolutely nothing 'will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (8:39). In summary the account we give to God which will pass muster is simply this: Christ!


Howard Pilgrim said...

"...we find that Paul develops an answer, or an account which we might give to God which is satisfying as a whole, but not in its parts."

Brilliant, Peter! This post of your has sat there for a couple of days without anyone responding, so I want to break the silence by commending you for the profundity of this insight. Is it original? If not, who is developing this solution within current debate on Romans, where most scholars seem to be searching for a single principle to unite the whole epistle? Does it have older historical roots, and if so where would we find it within post-Reformation discussion of Romans, or of justification in general? If it is your own, be encouraged to take it further.

I think you have nailed the heart of Paul's confidence in God: it flows naturally from his wholehearted but multi-faceted response to the grace he has found in Christ. If it was something that could be captured in a simple formula, Romans would only be half as long and much less interesting.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Howard
I have no idea if this is an original thought or not!