Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Romans and the unity of the church (and churches)

A recent lectionary reading was Romans 13:8-10 (cited below). Roman 13 lies very close to, surprise, Romans 14 and 15. In those latter two chapters Paul, in the “application” part of his great letter, works on a very thorny issue for the Roman church (which means, by extension, both within and across the house churches of Romans 16).

The whole letter, of course, is a letter deeply concerned for Christian unity, because Paul is (theologically if not emotionally) desperate for unity between Rome’s Christian communities and himself, as well as between Christians in Rome at loggerheads with each other over theology and practice, veering confusingly between poles of law and grace, familiar Judaism and fledgling Christianity, Abraham’s true and false heritage and so forth.

Many readers here will be familiar with the trajectory of Romans through Christian history as a book which continues to be invoked in order to nudge (or blast) Christians towards true theological appreciation of the gospel - the Reformation and the Barthian revolt against German liberalism being the most notable examples (which I can think of).

But such nudges or blasts are not typically welcomed with complete collapse of the critiqued as they recognise the clarity of opposition towards them. Stout defences have been mounted (even named as in "the Counter Reformation") and so Romans is subject to debates, theological storms, and general rumblings of an ongoing nature, the most widely engaged present one working with the word “perspective”, as scholars propose and counter-propose “the New Perspective on Paul.”

Out of such debates scholars have had (if we may call it this) fun working out the “centre” or “message” or “target” of Romans. Is what matters in Romans found in chapters 3 and 4? If so, what do we make of Romans 9-11 - a footnote, an appendix or an aside? What if the point of Romans in in chapters 9-11? Or, is it Romans 14-15 - an issue over vegetables/meat eating has driven Paul’s greatest theological essay?

Recently I ordered Scot McKnight’s latest book Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. Its focus is, according to its Amazon page,

"To read Romans from beginning to end, from letter opening to final doxology, is to retrace the steps of Paul. To read Romans front to back was what Paul certainly intended. But to read Romans forward may have kept the full message of Romans from being perceived. Reading forward has led readers to classify Romans as abstract and systematic theology, as a letter unstained by real pastoral concerns.

But what if a different strategy were adopted? Could it be that the secret to understanding the relationship between theology and life, the key to unlocking Romans, is to begin at the letter’s end? Scot McKnight does exactly this in  Reading Romans Backwards.
McKnight begins with Romans 12–16, foregrounding the problems that beleaguered the house churches in Rome. Beginning with the end places readers right in the middle of a community deeply divided between the strong and the weak, each side dug in on their position. The strong assert social power and privilege, while the weak claim an elected advantage in Israel’s history. Continuing to work in reverse, McKnight unpacks the big themes of Romans 9–11―God’s unfailing, but always surprising, purposes and the future of Israel―to reveal Paul’s specific and pastoral message for both the weak and the strong in Rome. Finally, McKnight shows how the widely regarded "universal" sinfulness of Romans 1–4, which is so often read as simply an abstract soteriological scheme, applies to a particular rhetorical character’s sinfulness and has a polemical challenge. Romans 5–8 equally levels the ground with the assertion that both groups, once trapped in a world controlled by sin, flesh, and systemic evil, can now live a life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letter, no one gets off the hook but everyone is offered God’s grace.
Reading Romans Backwards places lived theology in the front room of every Roman house church. It focuses all of Romans―Paul’s apostleship, God’s faithfulness, and Christ’s transformation of humanity―on achieving grace and peace among all people, both strong and weak. McKnight shows that Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a sustained lesson on peace, teaching applicable to all divided churches, ancient or modern."

We will see as this monograph is digested whether it contributes to settling current Pauline debates or fuels their fire!

So, with such thoughts, and anticipation in the background, Romans 13:8-10. I found myself reading this with the radicalness of the passage jumping up and exegetically smacking me in the hermeneutical face!

Here is Paul, citing different laws - well known "ten commandments" but also "any other commandment" - and declaring, completely in keeping with the Lord Jesus, that every commandment is summed up in "Love your neighbour as yourself." Then, Paul says, what this summary, overriding commandment means is, "Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

And the exegetical smack in the hermeneutical face? This: I wonder in our Anglican and other controversies (e.g. virulent if not vitriolic debate in the States over Beth Moore and women preaching to men) if we are exhibiting any reckoning with this passage when we argue over the rules of Christian living.

Is, for example, a woman preaching to a mixed gender congregation doing any "wrong to a neighbour"?

What harm to our neighbours or to the body of Christ is done if a congregation moves forward to receive the eucharist with diverse understandings of the eucharist shared across the congregation?

I could go on.

Comments please on the matter of Christian ethics being driven and shaped by Romans 13:8-10?

Here is the passage, via the NRSV:


Romans 13:8-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Love for One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

If we could agree on Romans 13:8-10, might we find ourselves with a new and solid ground for Christian unity?


Anonymous said...


Brevard Childs explained why the Body has tended to read Romans as systematics rather than as ethics: the canon deploys it as an introduction to the corpus of pauline letters at the heart of the NT. In that position, we read Romans to prepare the mind for chapters as different as Galatians 3, Ephesians 5, and Colossians 1, and also to posit a context for the more pragmatic texts that we know as the pastoral letters. Hence many seeking guidance for life will think of James or 1 Peter before the latter chapters of Romans.

And Western tradition magnifies this speculative reading of the letter by treating its order of topics as a heuristic for seemingly everything. In St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, the outline of Romans is stretched to compass all possible human knowledge of reality. At the Reformation, Philip Melancthon's Loci Communes recycles it to sequence planks of the Protestant platform, and John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion likewise uses it to order a system that he conceived as a prologue to the whole of scripture. As a family of documents, the Protestant confessions are more situational than these treatises, but even they tend to begin as St Paul does with some contemplation of God and to end with some consequences for the life of the Body. Indeed, this is so much the reforming way of thinking that theologians of Protestant churches did not begin to treat ethics as a science distinct from systematics until the C20.

But all of this is pre-hermeneutical. Once you realize that you have not read Romans itself until you have accounted both for its native horizon and for your own as well, some heuristic for reading Romans situationally is bound to suggest itself. Scot McKnight suggests that one start with the disunity of the Body in Rome that is most visible in the latter chapters. Looking to their own horizon, Anglicans in Christchurch might have discovered that way into Romans for themselves. In my own horizon, the wise chapters 5-8 and the apocalyptic ones 9-11 have done more to illumine what it has meant to be in Christ, both in the ancient C1-4 and in the postmodern C21.


Peter Carrell said...

THanks Bowman
May we not read the Paul of chapters 1-11 who places no little distance between the Mosaic Law and the law of the Spirit as offering an interpretation of the Mosaic Law by reference to one of its laws, which is also to the teaching of Jesus, which is also remarkably free and flexible (while constrained against doing harm and hurt to another person)?

Even as we might note the canonical placement of Romans etc as per above, is it ruled out that within Paul's words of "application" there might be a theological lodestone, the full import of which is still being worked out 2000 years later?

Anonymous said...

"May we... read the Paul of chapters 1-11... as offering [in xiii 8-10] an interpretation of the Mosaic Law...?"

Peter, I have not yet found a path from St Paul's *fulfillment* in vv 8, 10 to your own *interpretation* in the above.

One distraction, I suppose, is that *interpretation* was more the business of the houses of Hillel and Shammai, whilst St Paul in his *kairos* was doing something more mystical, apocalyptic, and wise, toward which *fulfillment* seems to be pointing.

"...within Paul's words of "application" might <--> there be a theological lodestone, the full import of which is still being worked out 2000 years later?"

In principle, yes. That's what it means to say that the text is inspired.


Father Ron said...

All this is far above my pay grade. However, I did have to consider the implication - in yesterday readings at Mass - today's implication of Eliezer's martyrdom, invoked by his refusal to eat pork. I found this reading particularly challenging in the context of a midweek service. Of course, we realised that E. was obeying the extant Law, but how are we expected to react to this Scripture in the context of today's world - except to applaud Eliezer's faithfulness to a code that today's Christians do not consider a matter of salvation?

Anonymous said...

Postscript-- My 10:26 is not an objection to the premise of the OP.


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Ron, your always passionate advocacy for the House of Hillel "for the sake of heaven" is an excellent place to begin to explain Eliezer's martyrdom to Jews of today, especially those who relish bacon cheeseburgers between one Shabbas and the next.

On one hand, *martyrdom* is a response to the divine love to which you so often and so rightly appeal. Rabbi Akiva, himself a martyr, said that the holiest day in the history of Israel was the one on which the Song of Songs was given to us. And in fact, the themes of this extended allegory ** of longing, defiance, and union are a perfect account of martyrdom. (That's why we have a book about sex in the Tanakh! If our ancestors had not known about breasts, kisses, etc, we would not have become their descendants. The Song of Songs uses what they obviously knew very well to show them what nobody can know without revelation.) As you well know, most Jewish congregations today are suffocating in a hyper-rationalist secular society too cool to understand any deep or complex love.*** We need to hear about martyrdom; if we do not, YHWH's love becomes for us, as also for too many Christians, a conveniently empty abstraction far from life that we only remember in our arguments.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, you can help those Jews who get stuck on the pork by explaining: (a) the commandments as a whole first made our ancestors-- and so ourselves-- a people and that was the main point of them, and (b) once one is made to disavow any sign of the identity by which one knows oneself, one can be made to do anything.

On (a), Jews sometimes ask how a rule that does not apply to ALL people can be good enough to apply to them personally. Here you need only remind them-- as you so often do on other occasions-- that it is through our unity as a people that God works through us in the world. How do we achieve this unity for the sake of heaven? By doing and not doing the same things. So by not eating pork etc, our ancestors put themselves at God's disposal for his purposes. Why did our ancestors not instead bind themselves to each other and so to God by wearing green socks or by using a secret handshake? We do not know; does it matter?

On (b), you are so eloquent that you have no need to hear anything from me about it. But the rest of the chief rabbi's readers at Ashkenazi Down Under may not see the connection between your advocacy for SSB in our congregations and the reason why martyrs (< Greek *marturion*, witness) prefer to die rather than betray a principle. To our ancestors, we are nothing without our selves, and to deny our selves is an irrational act of self-destruction forbidden in principle by our Creator. Thus the great Hillel says "If I am not for myself, who will be for me...?" When enemies threaten to kill us to compel us to deny what is most precious to us, our refusal even to the point of death is an involuntary and indubitable indication of who we truly believe we are. As you have often explained, a refusal to deny that a person is a spouse in the face of an analogous violence is an analogous indication. To a congregation that understands this, it should be easy to explain Eliezer's refusal to deny who and Whose he was by eating pork.

** The Talmud tells us that the Song of Songs is an allegory. One cannot wade through the deep and wide river of time; one can only cross it with a bridge or a ferry. We read the Tanakh over the bridge of the Talmud, just as the Christians read the same books on the ferry of their New Testament. When estranged Jews return to us, they are usually ignorant of many things. You will sometimes have to explain to them that only an idiot would try to read the writings of our ancestors as though he himself were living with them in the Bronze Age. Both we and the Christians have idiots.

*** To be fair to the legalistic-- and, even today, sometimes annoyingly bossy-- Christians, there are a few among them (eg Franciscans) who do have some concept of a loving God. Even the pope of the Catholic Church that humiliated and slaughtered our ancestors says loving things from time to time because he wears the name of the blessed Francis who loved even birds and animals.


Bryden Black said...

Nice play namwoB - love it!

We all approach things with a degree of preloadedness. Wittgenstein (and now others) showed us this in spades. And so, once we learn that we are all wearing “spectacles on the ends of our noses” (KB) with one form of prismatic effect or another; and that we need to try to get them off our noses (albeit temproaily) to give them a bit of a wipe, then we may start - start - to assess our ‘reading filters’.

For my money, I do have to say that once I had learned of the very existence of a NT Catechetical process (albeit of a form-critical reconstruction kind!), it began to be fairly easy to pick up the threads as one reads just about any of the Epistles, let alone Romans. Just so Rom 6 & 12:1-2 for starters, as in the previous post and comments. For the existing explicit threads in the texts as we have them stand out like tips of an iceberg, the entire berg being the entire NT Catechism itself, above-and-below the waterline. Or; if one may defer to Richard Hays and his glorious text on the Gospels (2016), let alone the earlier Letters (1993), then one gains additional tools for ‘reading’ the texts with a ready eye not just for “figures” but WHY such figures might be being employed at all at all. Just so, my ‘reading’ of Rom 1-4 as an entire block, climaxing with Ancestor Abraham as THE exemplar of Jewish Torah “rewards” (Rom 4:4, echoing Gen 15:1, etc.) versus BOTH OT and NT “faith”, as Story Promise & Fulfilment! (See too therefore similarly Gal 3-4!!)

Stet ...!!!

Anonymous said...

Postscript-- Father Ron asks a reasonable question in his 10:51. My own 10:14 offers a common answer to it.

In passing, however, I could not resist playfully pointing out that some of his most winsome themes are also those of the the school of Hillel, the dominant school of the Pharisees. And indeed the themes with which he usually disagrees are those of the opposing school of Shammai that had less influence on what emerged after AD 70 to become rabbinical Judaism.

Obviously Father Ron is not a Jew, nor are Jews usually Anglo-Catholic or High Reformed. But having affection for both Father Ron and the Jews, I am happy to note their intriguing if limited affinity.


Father Ron said...

May I suggest that those on this blog who really are interested in the subject of sexual difference, and the harm that can be done by so-called 'conversion therapy', might read my latest blog item on - kiwianglo - the subject of 2 clergy of the C. of E. discussing their own experience of being gay and the deleterious effects on their mental and physical health in their experience of conversion therapy'. I personally knew one of these priests before he became a Franciscan Brother and then a priest in the C. of E.

Anonymous said...

So far as I can tell, Father Ron, so-called Conversion Therapy is extinct both here and in the UK. Down under, are they still doing that or using leeches to balance the four humours?

From about the mid-1970s, licensed mental health professionals up here have not done anything about sexual orientation unless a client sought them out and paid them out of pocket to do something. More narrowly, the use of aversive conditioning (eg images associated with electrical shocks) to change sexual preferences has not been practiced by the said professionals for around two decades. It did not work; the assumed psychology is discredited; in most places it is illegal or liable.

Meanwhile, even Anglicans in the CoE who take a conservative view of That Topic have cited the findings of an American Psychological Association task force on what it calls SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts).

Simply-- data do not show that psychologists can change a client's sexual desires, but data also do show that they can and may do other things that enable him or her to live well with an ethic or worldview that is discordant with it. This finding is not inconsistent with anything learned about the embryology and physiology of sexual arousal, nor with the testimony and observation that a rare few experience bewildering *spontaneous* changes in their preferences well into adulthood. And it is consistent with a postmodern ethos in the mental health professions that retains a modern accountability to facts about the mind, but disavows a modernist suspicion of religion and other ideas around which persons freely order their lives.

Of course, this serene centrist ethos has no influence on unqualified or marginal quacks, nor on clients suspicious of accredited professionals. And happy warriors who need perpetual polarisation in the Body, either for their identity or for their strategy, will resist all reconciliation on That Topic until another fight as tactically useful to them comes along.

But for most people with the charity and sense to take evidence-supported advice from people not quite like themselves-- for the good and the wise-- it looks as though peace has broken out on this front of Sex War II. The history of C20 *queer culture* is a part of the mosaic of human experience, but that seems to be the only context today for discussing what was once believed to be *Conversion Therapy*.


Glen said...

Hi Ron,

Would you care to share your qualifications in psychology?

Jonathan said...

I doubt if "conversion" therapy is extinct, rather it is likely to be discreet if the social climate demands it. There is a 500pp book in the Otago University library,published last year, in Africa, arguing that it should be at least permitted. I have friends who, I suspect, think it should be permitted. I suspect Joseph Nicolosi jr does too. But on the topic of Romans, next time I go there I will be experimenting with reading it in the light of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to reply belatedly, Jonathan, I am only just now seeing your interesting comment.

What was called *conversion therapy* (CT) is extinct where therapists, like other medical professionals, are licensed to administer treatments that have been shown in randomised clinical trials to be effective (they do something) and efficacious (they solve the presenting problem). Up here, for instance, insurance will not pay for CT, and those with the license and equipment to administer electrical shocks may not permit that use for it.

Where persons have claimed that some CT has worked for them, that can be very interesting for other purposes. But professional review boards in such places do not accept self-report and self-assessment as positive evidence that a treatment has had a replicable causal effect on disorder. And if the data continue to suggest a coherent molecular embryology of same sex attraction, the tendency to see this as a physiological condition rather than as a psychological one will make it ever harder to prove that therapy can do something salient.

Of course, exorcists, shamans, and amateurs may have more latitude under local custom and law, and by definition, quacks everywhere take unprofessional liberties. A medical anthropologist might say that. although such interventions do not dependably rectify the physical *disorder* (medical construct), insofar as it is that, they could conceivably address a patient's own personal experience of being *ill* (personal construct), having the social status of being *sick* (social construct), or both.

When describing persons who are unwell, the canonical scriptures attend to all three categories of the anthropological triad-- disorder, illness, and sickness. We can see this in the stories of Jesus's miracles of healing, as well as in the fascinating law of *metzora* (Hebrew. One who is not well.) in Leviticus xiv 1- xv 33.

Those who still trust CT seem unduly suspicious of medical science and ethical revision. But if they-- like some cancer patients-- are, at bottom, struggling less with disorder per se than with its coincident illness and sickness, they may recognise that nothing so depersonalising can help them. Do they call for the elders of the church to anoint them (St James v 14-16)? If not, why not? If so, how do they interpret the results?