Saturday, October 10, 2015

Adventures in Romans 1 and 2

Looked at a couple theological issues triggered by verses in Romans 1 and 2 yesterday in class.

1. "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (1:20).

This verse gets at the question of natural revelation. To what extent is God discoverable through reason and experience? It also raises the question of those who have never heard of Christ. Is there enough revelation in nature for them to know God?

I never know how to teach the dance with Scripture at points like these. It's easy to do the science of "what was Paul thinking." But surely the Bible as Scripture is more than that. There is a Spirit dance that has been going on for 2000 years.

2. As for Paul, he was likely himself drawing on the book of Wisdom here. Here are some pertinent excerpts from Wisdom 12-14:

"You give repentance for sins” (12:19)… All people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists… but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air… were the gods that rule the world (13:1-2)… Not even they are to be excused… how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things (13:8-9)… The idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication (14:12)… sexual perversion (14:26)."

My sense of what it must surely mean for God to be love and to want everyone to be saved suggests to me that prevenient grace must surely extend to everyone. There is layer upon layer of later Christian theology here, working out the details. Everyone who is saved is saved through Christ, but we vary in the light we have. But this is all gap-filling.

3. Related is the question of what Romans 2:4 means when it says that "the goodness of God leads you to repentance." Several translations add something like "is meant to" or "is supposed to" lead you to repentance. In the case of the person Paul is talking about, it probably doesn't.

You can build a theology of prevenient grace here. The goal is for Paul not to be a Pelagian, where we think we have the free will to come to God in our own power. Wesley dotted this eye with the idea that it is the power of God that underlies our ability to repent.

That's fine theology and I sign up for it. Paul of course probably wasn't thinking all that. Those are later debates. My hunch is that he was more saying that the possibility of repentance is something that comes from the goodness of God. It's not something we deserve or that a Jew didn't need.

Adventures in Romans...

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