Thursday, March 29, 2007

Classroom Snippets: porneia and text criticism

Had an interesting conversation with a student yesterday afternoon. He's doing the word study for his final exegesis project on the Greek word porneia, which I would generally translate as "sexual immorality." But the student had heard some interesting arguments that porneia only referred to "extreme" sexual sin, not including adultery.

Often there are underlying reasons behind why people work toward certain interpretations--no one is immune (yes, I know, that includes me too). But I have a hunch in this case that the driving force behind this interpretation is so that adultery is not considered a legitimate basis for divorce. Matthew 5 and 19 only mention porneia as a legitimate basis for divorce.

But that is not to say that the arguments aren't interesting. For example, one of the arguments is the fact that in 1 Cor. 6:9, pornoi (sexually immoral people?) are mentioned in addition to moichoi (adulterers)... thus the argument that adultery is different from porneia. Also in Mark 7:21-22, porneiai (sexual immoralities) and moicheiai (adulteries) are both on the list... thus the argument that porneia does not include adultery.

I'm open, but wonder if this is as if someone put "violence" and "murder" in the same list. Certainly murder is violence, but the word violence includes more than murder.

Anyway, one interesting thing that I had never noticed before is the lay of the manuscripts on Romans 1:29. Most modern translations have something like "filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness (poneria), coveteousness, evil..." But some manuscripts in the Western tradition have "evil, sexual immorality (porneia), coveteousness."

As Westcott and Hort so well described, the "church text" (the parent of the King James) "conflates" the two readings. Some copyist, uncertain whether to go with wickedness (poneria) or sexual immorality (porneia) put them both down, so the KJV has both: "fornication (porneia), wickedness (poneria)."

What happened here is pretty clear. One or the other of these was mistaken by some copyist for the other and from then on one manuscript stream had one; another manuscript stream had the other. Then when the text "normalized," both were kept. The reason modern translations go with "wickedness" is because Vaticanus (300's) has it and this manuscript (in the so called "Alexandrian" tradition) seems generally more reliable than the Western tradition.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Paul from Early to Late

Today in 1 Corinthians we read through chapters 12 and 13 together. I enjoyed it much (although I've decided that yesterday was the low day of the entire semester--it's only up from here to the end).

One point of interest was 1 Cor. 12:13:

"For by one Spirit we all were baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, even all were given one Spirit to drink."

This verse is of course reminiscent of Galatians 3:28, which is also in a baptismal setting. And it is similar to Colossians 3:11, which is in the context of putting on the new person. The evidence is not conclusive, but we can understand why some think some comment of this sort was made as part of the baptismal ceremony.

But what is missing here and in Colossians: "not male and female"! I actually date 1 Corinthians to around the same time as Galatians. But regardless of dating, the question quickly arises, "Why does Paul leave this line out, especially if it is a formula?"

One suggestion, and of course not one we can prove or disprove, is that some of the problems at Corinth have come from women exploiting their new found equality with men in Christ. Perhaps some of the rhetoric in Corinthians, which seems to "put women in their place," is actually Paul's response to a particular problem at Corinth. This is of course the danger of absolutizing the text as it stands and appears to us--we sometimes lack critical information to let us know the proper tone and trajectory behind the text.

So in class I did my usual dual pictures of bodies on the board, one representing the early Paul and the other representing the Paul of Ephesians. The first body is the body of Christ. The second is the body, the church, with Christ as the head. In the early Paul, women are more involved in ministry, there is more prophecy, more charismatic operation. In the Paul of Ephesians and the Paul of 1 Timothy, there is institutionalization and the establishment of a "deposit" of teaching.

These are of course interpretive constructs, but we all have them. These are the theological structures we build alongside the text, particularly as we move toward appropriation of the text.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Bentham and Smith

We discussed Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism a bit today. Pointed out that he had his body stuffed to be present at U of London board meetings (he thought people were too superstitious and needed an object lesson).

On the positive side, he really was trying to level out the playing field so that everyone counted in society, not just the privileged. The pleasure of Willy child coal miner counted as much as that of King George.

Aside from the picture of Bentham's stuffed head I was able to bring up on Google images, the most interesting idea to me was putting Adam Smith's agenda into perspective. Along with Bentham, the idea of capitalism was not to make a few very lucky people filthy rich but to empower everyone in society to be able to have a pleasurable economic life.

In other words, I don't think Adam Smith would have liked at all the unbridled capitalism of the late 1800's, where the worker was as disempowered as ever.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Book Review: Where is Boasting? 1

The topic of Paul and the Law is a torturous one. It is torturous not only for someone trying to sort out all the different ways Paul uses the word nomos, but it is torturous to try to sort out all the different interpretations that scholars have made of Paul.

A book of some significance in Pauline studies in this area is Simon Gathercole's, Where Is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5. It has been on my book list to the right for some time. Gathercole is somewhat critical of the so called "new perspective on Paul," including the doctoral supervisor of this his dissertation and thus of this book, James Dunn. Yet he does not simply reiterate an "old" perspective either. He thus is a kind of "synthesis" in the grand dialectic that is scholarship.

In this post, I merely want to summarize and evaluate one chapter of this book, chapter 6: "Paul's Assessment of Jewish Boasting in Romans 1:18-3:20." This is the first chapter of the second part of the book. In the first part, he runs through Jewish literature to evaluate some of the ideas of the new perspective on "salvation" in Judaism. Now in this chapter, he begins to dialog with Paul.

The argument of this chapter is as follows:

1. The Jew in Romans 2:17-20 is not a specific "Jewish Christian" in the Roman congregation to which Paul is writing (197).

Now if you call yourself a Jew and rest in the Law and boast in God, and you know [His] will and you approve of those things that are excellent because you are instructed from the Law, and you are convinced that you are a leader of the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes since you have the form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law...

2. Rather, this person is a hypothetical dialog partner (interlocutor) who represents the nation of Israel vis-a-vis the Gentile nations (199). We might add further that this person is an unbelieving Jew (200).

3. The boast of this person, of the unbelieving nation, has to do with the eschaton, when all stand before God in the final judgment (201-2). Israel boasts that it will be vindicated over and against the Gentiles by God on the Day of Judgment.

4. Now Simon gets down to the real point of debate in the chapter: What is the basis of this boast? He in effect covers three options:

a. the traditional view (e.g., Bultmann): The boast is the boast of Jews who are faithful in their keeping of the Law. They are boasting in their merit before God. They think they have earned God's favor.

b. the new perspective (e.g., N. T. Wright): The boast is in the very possession of the Law, a kind of ethnic eternal security. We're the elect and you aren't no matter what we do.

c. Gathercole's perspective: The boast is "a Jewish confidence at the final judgment that is based on election in conjunction with obedient fulfillment of Torah" (215, italics mine).

Key for Simon is that Israel has not recognized just how sinful it is. Thus they are not repentant:

"Or do you despise the wealth of [God's] goodness and forebearance and patience because you do not know that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in keeping with your hardness and [your] unrepentant heart you are storing up for yourself wrath on the Day of Wrath and of the revelation of God's righteous judgment, who will repay to each according to his work" (Rom. 2:4-6).

Simon also plausibly connects this indictment of non-believing Israel with 9:30-31:

Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained righteousness, even a righteousness on the basis of faith, but Israel who pursued a law of righteousness did not attain [that] law.

In short, Israel is not nearly as righteous as it thinks it is. It was trying to establish its own righteousness (10:3), but failed.

But if I am understanding Simon correctly, the problem with the traditional and new perspective approaches is that they make the question one of whether the boast is in works (traditional) or election (new perspective) while for Paul it is both.

If I have understood Gathercole correctly, I am with him on the bulk of this chapter, although I am not sure exactly where he is taking the overall argument from here.

Some points where I might differ with him some or want to give some caveats:

1. While I agree that the person pictured throughout this chapter is a non-believing Jew, I fear the kinds of assumptions that we might import into the conversation when we begin to speak of this chapter as referencing the nation of Israel. Some will forget that Paul himself is a true Jew (Rom. 2:28-29) and that there is for him a remnant of ethnic Israel that is the true Israel (9:27). Simon does not seem to fall into these paradigmatic traps, but I fear what will go on in the minds of others.

2. I would say that Paul not only talks about the sinfulness of his hypothetical interlocutor but also this person's hypocrisy (the person indicts the Gentile sinner in Romans 1 without fully realizing the extent of their own sinfulness). I think Simon might agree with this comment, but he clearly de-emphasizes the element of "judgmentalism" in the passage (contra Kasemann), which I would rather call hypocrisy (cf. Gal. 2:13).

3. Simon criticizes the new perspective for its affirmation that devout first century Jews knew that they were sinners. Here I would try to steer a path between Simon and Wright. If you were to ask a first century Jew, "Is God obligated to honor and reward you because of your own merit in keeping the law?" surely they would say no. On the other hand there is the question, "Do you think you have kept the law well enough for God to accept you on that basis?" I think many Jews here would have said yes.

The New Perspective focuses on the answer to the first question without at times recognizing the answer to the second. Traditional views (and it would seem Simon at least in this chapter) focus on the answer to the second without recognizing the compatibility of the answer to the first.

4. Related to this issue, I agree that Philippians 3 is largely Paul's pre-Christian perspective, but I don't think we can therefore dismiss the force of 3:6: according to the righteousness in the law, I was blameless. This statement does not connect well with Romans 7 as autobiography, even as past reminiscences. Nor does it fit well with Romans 2 as a description that Paul might have applied to himself before he became a Christian.

To be sure, in Philippians 3 Paul does not think that any of this makes him worthy of the resurrection. Indeed, he considers his present sufferings part of his movement toward worthiness (3:10-11; cf. Rom. 8:17). But it seems highly doubtful, in my estimation, that Paul was thinking of his pre-Christian self either when he penned Romans 2 or 7. Peter might have been a failure at keeping the Law even in its core sense (Galatians 2:14; 6:13, of the Judaizing Christians). But Paul, even though still unworthy, thought he kept the Law quite well.

5. I disagree with Gathercole a bit (he would have to tell me how much) when he says that "There is very little evidence that gentiles were subject to judgment according to Torah in Paul's theology" (213). My issue with this comment has to do with the article I've been toying around with for about a year (with Mike Cline).

It is true that Paul says,

As many as sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and as many as sinned with the Law will be judged through the Law (2:12).

But if the Law has nothing to do with the judgment of the Gentile, then on what basis can Paul say that they have sinned? What standard does Paul have in mind? I'm reminded of 5:14:

Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses even on those who did not sin in the likeness of the transgression of Adam...

I suppose from Romans 1:21, they sin because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks. They turn to idolatry and God abandons them to all sorts of sins in consequence.

I believe, however, that Paul has two unannounced understandings of Law in Romans (actually he uses the word in more ways than these!): one is a kind of core law that a Gentile might keep even without being a Jew, the other only a Jew could keep because it requires circumcision.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Romans 8-9

In Greek Bible, Romans, today, we read Romans 9, as well as the last part of chapter 8. The primary goal was to improve our skills at reading the Greek NT. But of course these are also the verses where Paul talks the most baldly about predestination.

One of the questions I perennially ask myself of Romans 8:29 is what the relationship was in Paul's mind between foreknowledge and predestination. Paul presents it in a foreknowledge then predestination format, but what is being foreknown and what is being predestined.

1. I do feel relative clarity that what is being predestined is resurrection. The expression "conformed to the image of His Son" evokes images of other passages like Philippians 3:10-11--

"I want to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death if somehow I might attain the resurrection of the dead."

also 1 Corinthians 15:49--

"Just as we have born the image of the earthly man [Adam], we also will bear the image of the heavenly man [Christ]"

The context of Romans 8 in the lead up to this verse is about how the sufferings of this present time don't hold a candle to the glory that is coming (8:18). And Paul has been talking about how we await the redemption of our bodies (8:23). And of course Jesus is the firstborn from the dead (1 Cor. 15; Col. 1), imagery that echoes in Rom. 8:29 when it says that our [later] conforming to his image makes him the firstborn among many brothers [and sisters].

So I feel a high degree of confidence that what God has predestined here is the resurrection of those He foreknew.

2. Of course he has also called, justified, and will eventually "glorify" these as well.

I presented the problematic syllogism:

1. If God completely determines who will be saved.
2. And God wants everyone to be saved, then
3. Everyone will be saved.

The typical Wesleyan and Calvinist both deny 3, which is universalism--everyone will, in the end, be saved. But using the logic of this universe, that means that they must deny either 1 or 2. The Wesleyan-Arminian denies the first. The multi-point Calvinist denies the 2nd.

I did not mention it in this class, but I have suggested as a possibility at other times another option, which I do not embrace but at least consider a possibility. That is that God might be able to reconcile outside this universe what is logically impossible within this universe. When I have drawn this picture, I draw a universe and a horizon above the earth. One dotted line I draw going up at an angle is that of predestination. Another dotted line going up at the opposite angle is free will. Then I draw the two dotted lines meeting above and outside the circle of this universe in God.

Of course we haven't got there, but we will see in Romans 11 that those who were "hardened" in Romans 9 can still be saved in Romans 11.

Greek Romans class, Friday, March 23, 2007

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Holman Christian Standard Bible

Today in Inductive Bible Study class we were discussing different approaches to Bible translations and deciding what the original manuscripts said. Of course I favor the standard process of weighing manuscripts and following the common sense rules of internal evidence, which yields a NT text that looks like the vast majority of modern Bible translations.

We also mentioned the difference between the so called "Textus Receptus" and what we might call the "Majority Text." The Textus Receptus is the "received text" which more or less was the basis for the King James version. Its lineage goes back to the Greek NT that Erasmus edited. Most of the time, it is the same as what we might call the Majority Text, which is the what the majority of Greek manuscripts say.

Just this semester, the Holman Christian Standard Bible has come onto my radar screen. It puts debated passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 8 into the main text in brackets. Only if you look at the notes do you hear that some manuscripts don't have these verses. In other words, despite its preface, the reader gets the impression that these verses were original.

At the same time, the HCSB doesn't have the Trinitarian formula of 1 John 5:7 in the main text. Erasmus only put the Trinitarian formula into the Textus Receptus of 1 John 5:7 under pressure, but it only appears in about 8 very, very late medieval Greek manuscripts.

And the HCSB also interestingly does not follow the "KJV" reading of Revelation 22:14: "blessed are those who do his commandments." This reading is only in the Textus Receptus because Erasmus did not have any Greek copies of this part of Revelation, so he made up his own, working back from the Latin. Almost no Greek manuscripts read this way.

The result of all this is that the Holman translation looks an aweful lot like a translation of the Majority Text, but not the Textus Receptus. It looks like a new alternative to the NKJV, and there are only a couple places where the difference will fly beneath most people's radar.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Absolutism/Relativism

We started ethics today in philosophy. Here are some of the distinctions I presented to give greater precision to the way we talk about these things.

1. Act based ethics is only one approach to ethics, namely, the one that focuses most on what we do, do's and don'ts. The other main approach is virtue based ethics, which of course involves actions but focuses more on character and being, what we are. I didn't mention it today, but of course the ancient Mediterranean world, as the New Testament, formulated ethics more in terms of a virtue based than an act based ethic.

2. We made the important distinction between absolutism in ethics and absolutism in epistemology. These are related, but often blurred together. An absolute truth is a truth that is always true everywhere under all circumstances. An absolute moral requirement, on the other hand, is something that is always right or always wrong everywhere under all circumstances, no exceptions.

I suggested that among others, there were two foundational moral absolutes laid down by Christ: love God and love neighbor. There is no exceptional circumstance where it would be appropriate not to love God or not to love one's neighbor.

3. To make a distinction that is often lost, we discussed the fact that a person who believed abortion was wrong unless the life of the mother is in danger is not an absolutist on the issue of abortion. Similarly, if someone believed it was wrong to lie except, say, if a Nazi at your door is asking if you are hiding Jews upstairs (and you are), then this person is not an absolutist on this issue.

I labeled this position "universal rights and wrongs" (but with exceptions). I pointed out at least one area where this was the appropriate scope for a Christian ethic, namely, obeying those in authority over you. The right thing to do in all places is to obey those in authority over you except when it conflicts with your obedience to God. So Peter and John disobey the Sanhedrin's command not to preach in the name of Jesus. They made an exception to the rule.

4. We didn't get to the next position on my overhead, relativism, but we did mention it. We mentioned head coverings and possibly drinking alcohol as matters of Christian conviction. We then pointed out that convictions are, by definition, points of relativism that are appropriate to Christian life. God might require me not to drink, while God having no such requirement of a Christian in Australia.

This led to a challenge. We cannot dismiss various ethical positions simply by labeling them as "not absolute" or "relativist." There are issues where God's position is apparently not absolute or even relativist. So when a person might say, "Well, abortion is wrong for me, but I can't say it would be wrong for someone else," we have to show that it is wrong to be relativist on this issue. But we can't dismiss the comment because it is relativist. We have to argue that this is not an issue on which God is relativist.

But God is a relativist on some issues, according to the Bible. So Paul: "I am convinced that no food is unclean of itself, but if someone thinks it is unclean, then it is unclean"--Rom. 14:14.

A snippet from philosophy class on Wednesday, March 21, 2007.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Classroom Snippets: 1 Corinthians 10

I think I'm going to start a new category called classroom snippets. The title will make them easy to look for or skip over as desired. For former students, they might bring back memories. For prospective students and outsiders, they will give you a small snapshot of just one prof at IWU.

My choice today (don't worry... I'm not necessarily planning on doing this every day) is 1 Corinthians 10, very relevant of course to our recent discussion. We started by looking back at 9:24-27. We remembered that there were no chapter divisions when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. I argued that, in my opinion, the section that begins at 9:1 goes through 10:13.

At the beginning of the course, I gave the students a choice of reading through Craig Blomberg's commentary (NIV Application Commentary) or mine in conjunction with the class. Blomberg of course is a Calvinist and writes of 9:27: "Paul says God will 'test' (dokimasei; v.13) believers' works and give out corresponding praise or censure... But neither one's salvation nor eternal status in heaven is at stake" (185).

But of course we continued to read into 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul compares believers to Israel on their journey to Canaan. The similarity to Hebrews 3 is striking and I suggested that the author of Hebrews drew the picture either from 1 Corinthians or from being around Paul himself and his preaching.

Here Paul likens passing through the Red Sea as baptism, the visible Christian initiatory rite. The most natural way of taking this imagery is thus that the people Paul is talking about are Christians. For eternal securitists in the class I suggested they might want to argue that these individuals were only baptized, not truly converted.

But of course Paul warns that most of these "baptized" Israelites of the story were struck down in the desert. The allegory Paul is constructing here is pretty clear. Some of the Israelites were idolatrous; some of the Corinthians are wanting to eat at idol's temples. Some of the Israelites were sexually immoral; some of the Corinthians are being sexually immoral. Some of the Israelities grumbled; some of the Corinthians were protesting Paul's apostleship.

We should hear an echo of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 here: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God... neither ... will inherit the kingdom of God." Paul is thus warning the Corinthians that some of their behavior is putting their inheritance in danger.

A snippet from one of my classes on Tuesday.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Discussion Posted

Thanks to OAW for graciously assenting to the compilation of this two week discussion. In ended up being 85 pages worth.

I tried to limit the material to our discussion. However, Craig had some critiques before OAW chimed in, and in a few cases, OAW responded to comments from others in a way that made me think I should include the comment to which he was responding. When OAW didn't really respond, I have omitted those comments for the sake of economy.

Finally, I thought Drury's comment yesterday made a nice preface. So if any of you have any objections to your comments being included, just email or comment here and I'll be glad to remove them. I've just used first names in those few cases, except for Drury.

Thanks to all of you.

P.S. I haven't read through it all, so I'm sure there are still spelling errors and such. The nice thing about the web is that they can be changed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Adventures in Predestination

I am not an open theist. Open theism is the idea that the potentially omniscient God has intentionally set aside His foreknowledge for the time being so that we can have free will. To me, this is simply an Arminian counterpart to multiple point Calvinism, just as "this universe" think. It takes the beef of Calvinism with free will too seriously.

On the other hand, I don't quite get why it ticks so many conservatives off. In some cases, it's probably because the person in question confuses it with process theology (which involves the idea that God is evolving with the world). But, seriously, as far as taking the Bible literally, open theists take the Bible way literally.

"And God repented that He had made humanity" (Gen. 6:6)

Taken literally, this implies that God changed His mind. Open theists take this as it appears. And for this "take the Bible as it appears" approach, places like Huntington College fire a person? I feel sorry for these people. My advice to any budding open theists out there? Don't tell anyone. You're way too conservative for a liberal to hire you, and other conservatives have blacklisted you.

For me, God knew the Flood generation would do these things, and He knew what He would do in response, but He did not force humanity to behave as it did and there is a possible world in which humanity did not. For the Calvinist, neither the changing of His mind or the opportunity of humanity to do differently ever existed.

Now which of these interpretations is most biblical? Answer: the open theist's interpretation. The author of Genesis (I'll respect the text and listen to the fact that it nowhere tells who its author is), writing way before anyone understood omniscience the way we do, probably did think that God changed His mind here.

Now me, I believe that the flow of revelation on omniscience has continued beyond the days of Genesis. It is the consensus of Christendom that God knows all things. He cannot thus literally change His mind because He knew exactly what the Flood generation would do. But the statement, "he repented" is a true metaphor. It is a true expression of the value God assigned to the actions of the Flood generation. For me, God's script was written before the creation of the world outside of time, but He did not write this part of the script for humanity in time. For the multipoint Calvinist, God wrote the script for both Himself and humanity before the creation, before time. God is playing chess with Himself.

Of the three groups, only the first could authentically hold to sola scriptura at this point (but of course would have to abandon it once they moved beyond this verse). I have never claimed it, and the paleo-orthodox Calvinist system, once again, explodes in incoherence. The text itself here does not at all suggest their theology, so clearly it is something outside the text that is driving their appropriation of this text. I recognize these extra-scriptural elements, so I'm still coherent. They deny it, and their theology deconstructs.

But there are passages that, if taken at least in a superficially literal way, seem to imply a straightforward predestination without human choice. What about these passages? Since these are "controlling verses" for the multi-pointer, the Calvinist on these verses does not reinterpret them the way they do verses like Genesis 6:6.

And not only [this], but Rebecca also, having the bed of one man, Isaac our father. For not yet having been born, and not having done something good or bad, in order that the purpose of God according to election might remain not from works but from the One who calls, it was said to her, "The greater will serve the lesser, just as it is written, "I have loved Jacob, but Esau I hated."

What will we say then? There isn't injustice with God, is there? God forbid! For to Moses He says, "I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion."

So then it is not of the one who will nor of the one who runs but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharoah, "I have raised you up for this itself, so that I might demonstrate my power in you and so that I might proclaim my name in all the earth. So then He has mercy on the one He wills and He hardens the one whom He wills.

Then you will say to me, "Why then does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" O human, indeed, who are you who are accusing God? "The moulded won't say to the moulder, why have you made me this way, will it?" Or doesn't the potter have authority over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel to honor and another to dishonor? And [what] if God bore with great patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction to demonstrate wrath and to make known His power and in order to make known the wealth of His glory on the vessels of mercy which He prepared for glory? (Romans 9:10-23).

Wow! Difficult verses! In fact, I have serious questions about your Christianity if you don't find these verses difficult. Why? Because they, at least on an isolated first read, sound as if they contradict the very essence of the gospel: "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

Let's dig a little deeper here though. Like God repenting that He made humanity, there are strong reasons to be very careful about making this the controlling passage on your understanding of God.

1. What is the context?
The context is that Paul has been arguing throughout Romans that Gentiles can be justified before God without converting to Judaism, without engaging in works of law. You can see why a Jew would complain about Paul's theology: "I follow all these rules--they're in the Bible for goodness sakes Paul! Now you're telling me a Gentile can be okie dokie with God just by trusting in what God has done in Christ? That's not fair at all!"

Paul's answer? "Shut up, clay, God can do what He wants." If God wants to declare the Gentiles righteous on the basis of their faith, He's allowed because He's God.

Now I agree with this. Does the Calvinist? Can God give humans free will if He wants? What if God wanting to show His love for the world, gave everyone a chance to be saved? Could He do it? I say yes he could. The Calvinist says no. So I respond, but who are you, clay, to tell God "why have you acted thus?"

Could God have forgiven all humans by divine command, without any sacrifice at all if He wanted to? The Calvinist responds no. I respond, but who are you, clay to tell God what He can and cannot do?

My first point is that the multi-pointer has seized on the wrong point in interpretation. The right point is that God is allowed to will whatever He wills. The Calvinist, instead, seized on the point, "we cannot do whatever we will." My second is that the Calvinist use of this passage is incoherent, because in the end they do the same thing as the clay in a different way.

To be sure, Paul is using OT individuals to make his points (Pharoah, Jacob, Esau), but his point is not about individual predestination here. Paul's point is that God can let the Gentiles in if He wants to, period. He's God.

I deliberately ripped these verses from that context because that's what most Calvinist readers of this passage do. But now let's look at the verses that surround it. For example, the next verse after I left off reads:

"With regard to whom [vessels He prepared for glory] He also called us, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles, as also He says in Hosea, 'I will call the not my people, my people,' ... and Isaiah cries out about Israel, '... the remnant will be saved...'

What then will we say? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness received righteousness ... and Israel, who pursued a rule of righteousness, did not attain the rule.

Paul is thus not laying down a theology of individual predestination here, even if the passage raises those questions for us. Paul is arguing over the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God in the way God is including them.

2. When we place the "naughty verses" in the context of the whole of Romans 9-11, their entire tone changes. Is Paul arguing, "So, yeah, the Jews are toast because God has sovereignly decided to waste them"? God forbid. What is Paul's feeling toward them?

"Brothers, the good pleasure of my heart and petition to God about them is for salvation" (Rom. 10:1).

Notice that Paul does not treat their fate as fixed already here. The tone is one of wanting them to be saved, not of their destiny being fixed.

In fact, Paul believes the currently hardened will be saved (Rom. 11:26). Throughout Romans 11, the possibility of Israel's salvation, of being grafted back in, is present throughout. This does not at all fit the conclusion the multi-pointer usually takes from Romans 9, that God has set all these things in stone before the foundation of the world. Even those who are hardened can become unhardened!

This is not Calvinist theology.

3. Biblical predestination language functions biblically as a posteriori rather than a priori language.
Paul's writings would not say the things they say if predestination language functioned for Paul the way the multi-pointer thinks it does. If the Calvinist "language game" of predestination was Paul's game, then predestination language would have predictive force. We would expect Paul to give up on Israel, because their hardened hearts indicate God did not predestine them.

Certainly if Paul thought the way Calvin did, he would not say, "They haven't stumbled so as to fall have they? God forbid! But by their stumbling salvation [has come] to the Jews to make them jealous. But if their stumbling [was] wealth to the world and their defeat wealth to the Gentiles, how much more [wealth will be] their inclusion."

See, the predestined can be repredestined! How do we know God has hardened Pharaoh? Because we see a hardened Pharaoh. But a hardened Pharaoh can also become an unhardened Pharaoh.

Paul's arguments thus do not reflect the presuppositions of Augustine and Calvin. These theologians connected predestination to a prior determinism--they moved theoretically from before to after. Paul connects this it to a subsequent state of affairs--he moves practically from after to before. This is true of how he uses the language, despite the sound of his words in this part of Romans 9. Augustine is the one who connected before and after using logic. Paul's language of predestination, on the other hand, does not govern the rest of his theology. He does not logically follow some of the comments in this chapter through to a straightforward logical conclusion.

In the words of Inigo Mantoia of the Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

In conclusion, however, I want to remind us that the entirety of Calvinist theology falls apart on one verse (actually, many verses, but who's counting?)

"If we continue to sin willfully after we have received a knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment."

If a person can have appropriated Christ's sacrifice, and then end up facing judgment, then it is possible for a saint not to persevere. But if a Christian might not persevere, then grace is resistable and election is not unconditional, in fact election is changable. And the Calvinist system, so admirable for its logic, unfortunately turns out not to be God's logic.

So in the words of 2 Peter 1:10, "So, brothers [and sisters], be diligent to make your calling and election firm, for if you do this, you will never stumble at some time." But if one's election can be unfirm, then I don't think that word means what you think it means.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Addenda: What I Have Gained

First, CONGRATS TO THE LADY WILDCATS!!! They won for the first time the NAIA, section 2 championship. Woo-hoo! They had a 38 and 0 record. Outstanding! Ausgezeichnet! Tres manifique!

And I thought I would reflect on what became a week of arguing Arminianism versus Calvinism. Thanks to Once a Wesleyan for taking me to task.

What have I gained?

1. I like Baptists, especially if they would say that Christians who become serial killers were unlikely to have ever been Christians at all. I agree with you that it is really, really hard to miss it if you are truly converted. And I believe it surely breaks God's heart for those who "expose him to public disgrace."

2. I really respect Calvin and I respect Barth even more. Calvin was not a double predestinarian. He did not believe that God predestined those who were going to be damned. And Barth made the most sense of any Calvinist I have ever heard. He recognized that if God determines who will be saved and if God wants everyone to be saved then perhaps all will be saved. Barth resisted to his death saying that he was a universalist. But he added, "perhaps God is."

Am I neo-orthodox? I refuse to say I am because I'm not quite sure what anyone would infer thereby that I was saying about myself. There are some similarities between my thought and Barth's, but then again, he would detest other parts of my thinking, perhaps call me a Schleiermacher or a Brunner. I am orthodox, save a few tolerable heresy, according to Bounds.

3. What OAW has particularly catalysed for me is a good taste of how he understands sovereignty. In his view, and I don't know how representative he is, God's sovereignty could never stomach a human even He empowered to be able to disobey him. I am therefore assuming that OAW is a double predestinarian. That those who disobey God do so because God has caused them to disobey Him.

I am also assuming, therefore, that OAW must be a 7 point Calvinist. If God's sovereignty would be threatened by me being able to disobey Him, then it would have been threatened by Adam being able to disobey Him or for Satan to be able to disobey Him.

6. God predestined Adam to fall and
7. God predestined Satan to rebel.

Perhaps some 5 point Calvinists have a slightly different understanding of sovereignty than OAW. But if he is standard, then you cannot logically stop half way. If his understanding is the 5 point understanding, then all 5 pointers must spit on Calvin's effeminate God and become 7 pointers.

But what are we left with if this is true? We are left with a God who could have created everyone to be predestined to serve him completely and absolutely. But, in His sovereignty, He decided to create a universe where He would absolutely destroy almost everything He created. He is a skeet shooting God, who created most things so that He could shoot them to pieces, and He did it purely for His pleasure.

We must now redefine so many words in the Bible.

"And God saw all that He had created, that it was good." Note: good here means good for hunting, good for destroying. Or good for messing up, like a child who stacks a whole bunch of blocks up carefully so he can enjoy knocking them all down.

"God is love." That is, God loves burning things. He's a pyromaniac, but He can burn those houses down because that's why He built them in the first place. On a whim, some days He doesn't burn down the odd or the even ones. Some days he leaves the prime numbered houses stand. The universe is one big romper room of His delight.

What have I learned this week? That I love Baptists.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Bible and Eternal Security

My purpose in this post is to examine the doctrine of eternal security, mostly from a biblical perspective. I'll be nice ;-) Dialog welcome.

Definitions: Eternal security is the idea that once a person has been truly assured of their salvation, they will certainly be saved--in other words, "once saved, always saved." It is related to Calvin's idea of the perseverence of the saints, which presupposed the logic of the so called TULIP (although Calvin himself never called it the TULIP). If humanity is totally depraved, then God chooses whom He chooses unconditionally. His grace is thus irresistible. In consequence, if a person is elect, they will certainly persevere to the end.

I once found John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress puzzling because he was a Puritan. In other words, he was a Calvinist. What puzzled me was the fact that in the story, Christian does not know he will make it to the celestial city until he gets there. Yet he has already received the name Christian! How can this be?

The answer I have (to which I welcome correction if I am wrong) is that Calvinists did not have a sense of assurance of salvation until after Wesley's day. In other words, the Puritans of New England believed that the elect would certainly persevere, but they had no doctrine of knowing you were elect. Some of them lived squeeky clean lives in hopes of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly a murderer demonstrated that he or she was not elect by the very fact that he or she was a murder. Only the godliest of Christian individuals were at all likely to be the elect ones!

Contrast this with the idea of eternal security, which combines the doctrine of perseverence with the idea of assurance. I can know now that I am saved. And if I am saved, then I will be saved. Most Baptists today are what we might call "one point Calvinists"--they believe only in eternal security as a form of the Reformed fifth point.

Strategies: All "interpretive groups"--Wesleyan, Calvinist, etc.--have what we might call "controlling verses" that fit most easily into their interpretive paradigm (these are usually the favorite verses, the ones they have their children memorize in Sunday School). On the other hand, they also always have what I call "naughty verses," verses that at least on the surface seem to conflict with their theology or practice (and these in turn are usually the controlling verses of the interpretive groups with which they disagree). In short, the controlling verses trump and lead to the reinterpretation of the naughty verses.

So you will not be surprised to find that this post, written by a Wesleyan, will focus on verses that are "naughty passages" for interpretive groups that affirm eternal security, while some of these verses are controlling verses on this issue for Arminians. Further, you will not be surprised to find that an educated Calvinist is well aware of these verses and could predict, for example, that I will probably bring up Hebrews 6 and 10. All credible interpretive groups have "interpretive strategies" for explaining difficult verses. Of course we should not assume that all the explanations a group makes for a difficult verse is wrong. Surely some explanations are correct!

A typical Arminian question about eternal security is as follows: "What if a person prays the sinner's prayer, looks to have become a Christian, lives like a Christian for some time, and then becomes a serial killer? Will that person go to heaven?"

You can imagine a variety of answers to this question. Least pleasing is the one that this person will indeed go to heaven. Perhaps God will cause them to die or suffer so that they pay a price with their body, but their spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5), their work will be burned up but they will be saved as through the fire (1 Cor. 3).

Calvin of course would not have bought such an answer. I feel very confident that Calvin himself would have responded, "That person was never one of the elect." Someone today might modify this language slightly, "That person was never truly saved."

I can respect that position if maintained with a real sense of God's revealed nature as love (in other words, one that offers a real possibility of salvation to all humanity). The Christian life expected ends up looking the same. And I can even see some support for it in 1 John 2:19. Here [John] the elder indicates that a group that left them was never "from them" or they wouldn't have left.

On the other hand, what are we then to do with John's later statement that there is a "sin unto death" for which one shouldn't bother to pray (1 John 5:16-17)? I believe some Calvinists argue that this is a Christian who sins so significantly that God causes them to die in consequence. Their soul is saved but their body destroyed.

But if this is the right interpretation, the context gives us no clues to this end. John has said several things about sin in this short sermon. He has indicated that all have sin and therefore need Christ's blood. But he has also argued strongly that those born of God do not continue sinning (3:9; 5:18). I personally think the group that left is a strong candidate for the kind of sins John has in mind throughout (including their "hatred" for John's own group--3:11-15). Surely this imagery that is so abstract to us was concrete for John and his audience.

When we hear of the sins to death and the sins not to death, the simplest explanation is thus that John continues to have the things in mind he has apparently had throughout. The sins not to death are the sins he mentions in 2:1, and clearly Jesus Christ the righteous stands ready as lawyer for John's group (those who remained). The sin to death surely relates in some way to those to whom he has alluded throughout: "antichrists" who deny Jesus is the Messiah who went out from them (2:18), the spirits (read Gnostics) who deny that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2-3), who deny that the Messiah came by both water and blood (9:6), those who show hatred to their brothers like Cain? Without further details it is difficult to know exactly how, but this seems more than possible given the lay of the text.

This interpretation of 1 John 5:16 is constructed out of the biblical materials of 1 John rather than by treating the verse as a memory verse whose words are defined from my existing theology. In other words, I have tried to construct an interpretation from the "Bible alone," rather than one based on the Bible in dialog with my theology (important footnote: the text alone is actually just squiggles. By 1 John alone I mean the text in its original historical and literary contexts, even here a small fudge on the concept).

But if there is a sin to death you can commit and still be physically alive, then it would appear that a person can be "alive" and later become spiritually dead. Like Hebrews, however, John seems to imply doubt that one can come back to life once one has committed it. This interpretation of course reeks havoc with many different Christian traditions, including the Wesleyan. Tough cookies! We need to let the Bible say what it says and then let Chris Bounds work out the problems in theology class.

My point here was not really to start going through Scriptures, although, fine, I did it anyway. My purpose was to show the dynamics of how interpretive groups cope with problem passages. I believe that the only strategy that really has integrity is to admit that our theology is ultimately a superstructure we all build over or alongside the text. We ideally try to prop up the superstructure with as much of the text as we can.

But the most crucial and definitive parts will usually be extra scripturam, outside Scripture. It seems to me impossible to let all the biblical texts say what they seem to say and not run into theological conflicts that can only be resolved in the court of theological arbitration. Denial of this fact results in shoving one passage down another one's throat. Interpretive groups do this in the name of the Bible. But it is done at the expense of the Bible.

So I would argue that if the Reformed interpretive group is to have integrity, it must adopt a view that the NT authors simply did not have a full understanding of harmartiology (doctrine of sin) and soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Reformed theology could be correct as a development of doctrine beyond the Bible, a product of progressive revelation. This will require significant modification to their usual view of sola scriptura, but this is necessary anyway. This would bring greater coherence to their theology.

Barth's Reformed theology actually approaches this, for he does in his own way what I have called "finding the text in the word of God rather than getting the word of God from the text." I think what he lacks is a transferable model of how to identify this broader word of God. He does interact heavily with tradition, especially Protestant traditions. However, ultimately he is the arbiter of the Word of God, the word event for him is the true word event in many respects, at least in providing its broad outline.

Certainly the meaning of the New Testament is not predestined by either the Old Testament or Jewish intertestamental period, or the Greco-Roman world. However, if the NT operated on a significantly different wavelength than these, we would expect it to make such distinctions clear.

For example, in the Old Testament, a person could be expelled from Israel, from the people of God. Apart from Daniel 12:1-3 and a very short list of contested passages, the OT has no sense of personal, conscious existence after death (e.g., Psalm 6). So expulsion from Israel was tantamount to "losing one's salvation" in the NT. So if the NT operated on significantly different assumptions--that once a person was in the people of God, they could never not be in the people of God--we would expect a pretty clear statement somewhere pointing out this clear difference between the old and new covenants. Certainly if a Calvinist were writing the NT, this would be spelled out loud and clear. Where is this?

Secondly, I pointed out in an earlier post that grace language was language of patronage. In the Greco-Roman world, a patron might be forgiving, might give a second chance to a client that disappointed them. But the idea that Lazarus might moon the servant bringing him his daily dole outside the rich man's gate and still get the dole tomorrow. Well I doubt that would have made any sense to someone in the Mediterrean world. If Paul was saying something that contrasted widely with these assumptions, we would expect to hear him spell that out somewhere clearly. Where is this?

In short, the world in which the NT language operated, the dictionaries of the NT audiences, these things set the default expectation of the NT words not to be eternal security. The NT is not bound to hold the same default, but at some point, whether on site or in these books, the NT authors and apostles would have to make the difference clear. Where is this?

Some Naughty Passages
Certainly there are passages where someone might superficially seem to be "in' and then seem to be "out." So Demas forsook Paul after being a key player (2 Tim. 4:10). But it is easy to say, "He was never a true Christian." Or, "even though he sinned here, he was still saved." Judas is a poor example, for he belongs to the old covenant, the age before the Spirit. We cannot really call him a Christian in the first place because he followed Jesus before Pentecost.

The same applies to Matthew's imagery about weeds and wheat that grow up together (Matt. 13) or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25). It is very easy for the Calvinist to say that in these cases, the goats were never sheep and the weeds were never wheat. Of course by now we are arguing over things that were not the point of these parables. We would not be reading any of these parables within their original boundaries and scope to begin talking about them in these ways.

This is a very important point, because some arguments for eternal security are based on metaphors. Once a person is a son, do they ever stop being a son? But where in the Bible do we find this metaphor played out in this way? It is another example of a logic outside the text--it is not biblical logic. We must all alike beware of reading metaphors and figurative language within their intended limits. The point of the Parable of the Unjust Steward is surely not to go and embezzle from your bosses.

On the other hand, if Paul himself could express uncertainty about his ultimate salvation. If he really considered it possible that he could fail to be saved in the end, that would undermine the entire Calvinist system. The book of Acts holds that he did receive the Spirit at one time (Acts 9) and thus that he was truly a believer. He says the same (1 Cor. 7:40). I doubt anyone would doubt his true Christianity.

The reason why this would undermine the entire Calvinist system is because the perseverence of the saints is a direct consequence of TULIP logic. The elect will persevere because grace is irresistance and election is unconditional. If Paul could be truly "in" and then truly "out," then God would have to change His mind with regard to Paul's election for the logic to continue working. But this is surely also anathema. Thus the entire deck of cards comes falling down. 5 point Calvinism would then prove to be very logical, but simply not true.

To be sure, the Calvinist interpretive system immediately suspects at least some, probably all of the naughty verses I have in mind.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

"Do you not know that those who run in a stadium all run, but one receives the prize? So run so that you might receive [it]. Everyone who competes exercises control in all things. Those, therefore, [do it] so they might receive a corruptible crown. But we [exercise control so we might receive] an incorruptible one. Therefore, I myself so run, not without a goal. I so box not as striking the air. But I keep my body under control and I make it a slave lest somehow I myself might become disqualified, although I have preached to others."

The debate between Arminians and Calvinists here is on the meaning of "disqualified." Does the crown here merely imply a prize for being an especially worthy Christian? Paul's afraid that he won't get as many awards as some other Christians?

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul has been talking about the sacrifices he has made while proclaiming the gospel. He has made it clear that he does not have room to boast just because he has sacrificed (9:16). So how could Paul be talking about prizes he might win here for being particularly worthy? He wants to beat all the others so they don't get the prize?

I will not stake the whole cheese on this passage, but it just seems to me that with his talk of preaching to others and the broader context of sharing the good news, surely the most likely meaning is that it is possible that after sharing the good news of salvation to others, it was at least possible that Paul himself might not be saved in the end. I don't think there was ever any doubt, but it is really hard to believe Paul would say something like this if it wasn't at least possible. A Calvinist would not have written it this way.

Philippians 3:12:

"Not that I have already received [x] or have already been perfected. But I pursue if also I might apprehend that for which I was apprehended by Christ Jesus."

What is Paul talking about? It sure is difficult for me to see how Paul is talking about anything but resurrection. In fact, I regularly use this passage to teach how to interpret the words of the text in context. Look at the train of thought:

1. Verse 8: The things I mentioned earlier in the chapter that from a human perspective I might boast about, I count these as dung in comparison to knowing Christ.

2. Verse 9: I want to be found in him with a righteousness from God.

3. Verse 10: in order to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death...

4. Verse 11: "if somehow I might attain to the resurrection of the dead."

It is this verse that occurs right before verse 12: "not that I have received [the resurrection of the dead]." With no expressed object of the verb to tell us what Paul has not received, we have to assume that the object comes from the previous verse.

The context that follows confirms this reading.

5. Verse 13: "Not that I reckon myself to have received. But one thing [I do], forgetting the behind [the human badges he has mentioned earlier in the chapter], and reaching out to what is before, I pursue toward the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.

In other words, the context that follows confirms that it is the upward calling, the resurrection, that Paul has had in mind.

Again, what is the most natural way of reading these words in context, not one that is driven by preconceived theology? It is that Paul reiterates twice that he is not already guaranteed an upward call. He is not already guaranteed resurrection. To read it any differently, you have to want to. The context screams this interpretation.

Some Naughty Ones for Me
Two verses in 1 Corinthians that I personally find puzzling are 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 5:5. The first says that a minister who builds the church out of inferior materials will be saved through fire, even though the work he might build on it will be consumed. The second speaks of the spirit of the man delivered to Satan being saved on the Day of the Lord, even though his flesh would be destroyed.

These are puzzling passages to me, and I will confess that I'm not quite sure what to do with them. But I'm not sure that they are much more attractive to Reformed or mainstream Baptist interpretation either. If I try to imagine possible literal meanings that are not figurative (my preferred interpretations here), I note that Paul at this point in his ministry likely believed that those to whom he wrote would still be alive on the Day of the Lord. An unwelcome but possible meaning might then be that these individuals would face some of the judgment, but that they would still end up as part of the kingdom, which Paul may have pictured to be on earth, since that's where the judgment apparently would take place (1 Cor. 6:2-3).

That would be a kind of security, but it would hardly fit any mainstream Christian theology. I doubt anyone here wants to opt for purgatory, and does anyone really think Paul is talking about the death of these individuals?

I've saved Hebrews because this is where everyone would expect me to go. You know the drill:

For it is impossible for those once having been enlightened, and who have tasted of the heavenly gift and have become partakers of Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age and having fallen away... [it is impossible] to renew to repentance, since they crucify to themselves the Son of God again and expose him to disgrace.

The argument that to "taste" here is not truly to become a Christian is a real stretch. For one thing, it just isn't the way the passage reads. The author is chastising the audience for not maturing to the point they should be. He is of course shaming them--he is persuaded of better things with regard to them, of their salvation (6:9).

But they have done the drill. They have repented from dead works, had faith toward God, have been baptized, etc... (6:1-2). The description of them in 6:10-12 gives us no sense that they are not truly "in." The only reason someone would think that is to get out of the clear implication of 6:4-8. And Hebrews makes no distinction between certain unelect individuals to which these would apply and the bulk to which it would not. Again, the text gives no evidence at all of any distinction like this. They have tasted Holy Spirit; they are Christians.

Another suggestion sometimes made is that these are not really possibilities. They are meant to get the audience to where they are supposed to be, but the warnings could never come to pass. Now tell me, does this make any sense at all? Simply put, no Calvinist would write this and mean this--given how important eternal security and perseverence are to their system, there's not a chance they would write something that could be so easily misinterpreted. Or maybe the apparent meaning is the real meaning!

Remember, if they were to fall away, they would not be able to renew to repentance. That implies they have repented before. And what they would have been doing to come back is to crucify Christ again! The clear implication is that they had already appropriated his crucifixion before.

The image of leaving Egypt and entering Canaan implies exactly the same paradigm.

"We have become partakers of the Christ, if indeed we hold fast the beginning of substance firm until the end" (3:14).

"Whose house are we if indeed we hold fast the boldness and boasting of hope" (3:7).

The entire point of this argument is to continue to Canaan. "Who that heard rebelled? But was it not all of those who left Egypt through Moses? And with whom was [God] angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the desert?" (3:16-17).

The most obvious way to take this passage is as a warning that not all those who leave Egypt make it to Canaan, not all of those who start with the Christ will be saved, particularly those who sin in the manner the author has in mind. A person might bicker with this interpretation if we did not have the other verses. But this interpretation fits hand in glove with the other passages.

So next we look at Hebrews 10:26-27, which picks up this theme of sinning after leaving Egypt: "If we continue to sin willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and of a zealous fire that is about to eat the enemies."

Notice the image of knowledge as we saw in 6:4--"it is impossible for those have once been enlightened." The sense of a sacrifice remaining implies that Christ's sacrifice had been in force. We are reminded of the earlier comment that they crucify the Son of God again.

It does not matter for our purposes what specific kind of sin the author has in mind. He is not simply talking about post-baptismal sin. He has a certain kind of apostacy in mind, not a single act of sin. This is a big deal that has been some time coming. And I do not think that he really believes anything like this is really going to happen to the audience. But unless it is a real possibility, this line of argument is not only ineffective, it is deceptive and manipulative.

But perhaps the scariest verses in the NT are Hebrews 12:16-17:

Watching ... "lest someone be sexually immoral or Godless like Esau, who traded his birthright for one bit of food. For know that afterwards, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he did not find a place of repentance, although he sought it with tears."

I have been rebuked by a reviewer for thinking that what Esau was seeking with tears here was repentance, and indeed, some Hebrews commentaries by authors I deeply respect believe that the "it" here is the blessing. Although Esau sought the blessing with tears, he did not find a place of repentance.

This is possible, but not at all the most likely interpretation. Why? Because the nearest feminine antecedent is the Greek word for repentance. The word for blessing is feminine, but is further back in the sentence. What is even more compelling is the similarity of this statement to 6:6, which says it is impossible to renew to repentance. Once again, only a desire to opt for one's preconceived theology rather than listen to the text explains this interpretive move.

The most obvious meaning of this text, as the most obvious meaning of all these other texts in Hebrews, is that person can have a Christian "birthright" and be a firstborn Son, yet fall away, sell one's birthright. And what is a naughty theology for both Wesleyan and Calvinist is left. It may not be easy to fall away. In fact, it may be doggone unlikely. But if one falls away in the way that Hebrews discusses, one is gone forever.

I'll let Bounds work out this difficult teaching in theology class. But this is what the text seems to want us to hear, in fact the message comes through with remarkable clarity.

I believe that Paul expresses very clearly in Philippians the fact that he did not consider his resurrection to be yet fully assured. In 1 Corinthians he expresses the importance of himself persevering in order not to be disqualified. And Hebrews is extremely clear, even if difficult for pretty much any tradition. The clear teaching of Scripture, as the background to the NT led us to expect, has no concept of absolute certainty of salvation, even after one has appropriated Christ's death and has the Spirit.

Eternal security can make a few small modifications and survive. Namely, one might suggest that it is very, very unlikely that a true Christian will ever fall away. In fact, I believe that myself! But I believe it is possible.

On the other hand, 5 point Calvinism cannot survive the plain teaching of Scripture on these points. And 7 point Calvinism--that God predestined the Fall of Satan and Adam. The God of that system is an evil God. I'll take Grudem every day over them!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Galatians 2:15-16

I was dialoguing with Glen Robinson on the translation of Galatians 2:16 under the post "By Faith Alone." I've spent a lot of time reflecting on this verse and actually have an article coming out this year with CBQ that ends with my understanding of it. I thought I might make this a commentary post.

1. We who are Jews by nature and not sinners from the Gentiles...

As the next statement makes clear, Paul is referring to "we Jewish believers" and although I don't think he is still telling us what he said to Peter, the "we" refers to people like him and Peter--Jewish believers.

Sinners from the Gentiles is not tongue in cheek. What is a sinner if not a law breaker and what other law would be in view other than the Jewish law. Clearly Gentiles don't keep the Jewish law, so sinners is quite literal here. Gentiles are clearly sinners. Paul plays out this idea in the whole of Romans 1:18-32--"Gentiles are sinners."

To some extent, we should think of Paul as starting out with common ground between him and Jewish believers like Peter. As we will see, however, he considers Peter's perspective to be incomplete because Peter only sees half of the equation. Paul will round out the argument when he gets to 2:17--we Jews, even Jewish believers, are sinners too. That is reminiscent to the progression of thought in Romans 2:1-3:20, namely, that Jews have sinned too. In fact, all [both Gentile and Jew] have sinned and lack the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

2. since we know that a person is not justified...

Justification here is a legal term. The issue is on what basis a person might be considered righteous or "not guilty" in the divine court. Perhaps more to the point, the issue is on what basis a person might not face God's judgment. While the question is primarily a judicial question, its most crucial relevance pertains to the Day of Judgment and is thus eschatological.

I remain unconvinced of N. T. Wright's claim that it is also covenantal, meaning that a primary part of the meaning is whether or not a person is a member of the people of God and Israel in particular. Certainly Paul's language should be read as corporately as possible, rather than individualistically ("we" since "we" know "we" have placed faith...). But the Israel angle has not yet "clicked" for me. I don't see it.

3. ...since we know that a person is not justified on the basis of works of law except through the faith of Jesus Christ...

"Works of law" must certainly refer to works of the Jewish law. Paul is still stating common ground between himself, Peter, and other "conservative" Jewish believers. None of them, in fact no Jew at all, would claim that they deserved God's favor. They of course did believe that works of the law were an essential part of the equation, but all would have agreed with Paul that deeds of the law, apart from God's graciousness, did not earn God's acceptance of them.

"Works of law" might have had a strong connotation of the kinds of issues Jewish sects are notorious for debating. Rabbi so and so says that such and such makes the hand unclean, while so and so other rabbi says it doesn't. 4QMMT is a Dead Sea document in which, perhaps, the leader of one Jewish sect argues for his understanding of various temple issues to one of the Maccabean high priests. The title of this document is "some of the works of the law." Accordingly, Dunn argues that while "works of law" likely refers to any deed of the Jewish law, it probably had overtones of the elements in the Jewish law that distinguished Jew from Gentile.

The natural force of the word usually translated as "but" is more naturally translated "except" or "unless" (ei me). Since Paul is still laying out common ground between himself and Peter/conservative Jewish Christianity, this perspective is perfectly natural. Peter believes that the faithfulness of Jesus unto death (in other words, the atonement afforded through his death) is an essential element in justification before God. BUT, works of law are also an essential part of the equation for James and friends.

To take the phrase "faith of Jesus Christ" as a reference to the faithfulness of Jesus and in particular his faithful death is to take a particular position in a long and well documented debate. I personally became finally convinced when I came to a particular conclusion on the logic of 2 Cor. 4:13. That was the straw that tipped the scales for me. However, a more obvious argument is the similarity between Rom. 5:19 and 3:22. The parallel is striking, as pointed out by Luke Timothy Johnson:

"Just as through the disobedience of the one man many became sinners,
so also through the obedience of the one man many will become righteous"

"through the faith of Jesus Christ ... being justified [declared righteous]"

The faith of Jesus Christ here refers to his obedience to death (Phil. 2:8) and thus is a shorthand way of referring to Jesus' atoning death, the redemption provided through the atoning sacrifice God made through Jesus' blood.

4. We Jews ... since we know that a person is not justified by works of [Jewish] law except through the faith[ful death] of Jesus Christ, even we have put our faith in Messiah Jesus...

The novelty here for Paul is to point out that in fact Jewish believers have not only put their faith in God and what God has done through Jesus, they have in a sense put their faith in Jesus as Messiah. We are so programmed to think of faith in Christ that we miss that this is in fact the more unusual way of thinking of faith both for Paul and even moreso for other Jewish Christians. Rather, their faith was primarily in God and in what God had done through Jesus. Romans 4 is all about faith in God, not faith in Christ. And in 1 Thessalonians, in my view before Paul started getting really thick into these debates, he speaks of faith toward God (1 Thess. 1:8). God remains throughout Paul's writings, in my view, the primary object of faith.

But Paul certainly can also speak of placing faith in Christ, as this verse and other places where he uses the verb form pisteuo. We are prone to draw false distinctions between the verb "to believe" and the noun "faith" because they look different in English. But it is the same root: pisteuo (believe) and pistis (faith). To believe thus often means to have faith, although we have to be careful because these words have a range of meanings and should not be translated the same in every instance.

Hopefully everyone knows that the word Christ is the Greek translation of Messiah. Most of the time, the word lurks without Paul drawing much attention to it. But I think it has meaning for him (see, for example, Rom. 9:5) and I think the word order here in Gal. 2 means something. When referring to the faithfulness of Jesus, Messiah, Jesus comes first. But now that Paul speaks of putting faith in him, he puts Messiah first because it is primarily as Messiah, as Christ, that we place our faith in him.

5. ... we have put our faith in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justifed by faith of Christ and not by works of law...

I think Paul is having a little fun here. The expression "faith of Christ" is deliciously ambiguous, as the history of the scholarly debate shows. Is it faith in Christ or the faith of Christ? I think given the lead up it must be both, a clever double entendre. But I think that given his comment to faith in Christ that has just preceded, it has the upper hand. In other words, if I gave the tie to Richard Hays in 2:16a, I'm going to give it primarily to Dunn here in 2:16c.

So Paul sets up a contrast. The balance of the phrases with what are called "objective genitives" speaks against seeing Hays' interpretation here: faithfulness of Jesus and not doing the law. We are justified by trusting Christ and not by doing law. The principle of justification by faith will then play itself out throughout Paul's subsequent argument.

6. ...for by works of law no flesh will be justified.

Here Paul cites and modifies Psalm 143:2. The verse says that no one living is righteous before God. Paul changes "no one living" to "no flesh." Flesh is of course a characteristic category for Paul, as we have seen. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:50). The key is therefore to get out of the flesh ;-), which we can due through the Spirit (Rom. 8:8).

Paul also adds the phrase "works of law" to the quote. In this way again those living can be justified through faith of Christ, even if not by works of law. Just as a final parting blow, Paul's use of Scripture here is the death blow to fundamentalist and biblicist interpretation. As I've argued elsewhere, we cannot use Scripture as Paul if we do not see the Word of God as something bigger than the words of the text. Paul found the text in the Word of God, he did not find the Word of God in the text.

Final Translation
"We who are Jews by nature and not sinners from the Gentiles, since we know that a person is not justified by deeds of law except through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we have placed our faith in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not deeds of law, for no flesh will be justified by deeds of law."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Wesley, Wesleyans, Scripture, Etc...

So the week comes to an end, a week of meanderings largely on developments in Pauline scholarship relative the doctrines of the Reformation. I've dialoged enough here over time on sola scriptura, prima scriptura, etc. that perhaps I need not say much on that topic.

1. Because the books of the Bible were written to multiple ancient contexts, they were not written directly to any of us. To apply the words directly to ourselves without further ado is thus to rip them from their contexts and falsely and dangerously apply them. We are just as likely to distort God's voice by doing this than to hear it.

That means, however, that reasoning is involved with the correct appropriation of Scripture--reasoning beyond Scripture.

2. Because the varied books of Scripture were themselves written to diverse contexts, we must synthesize and integrate their teachings before we can even say "the Bible" says such and such. This again involves a process of prioritizing and connecting that we are forced to do outside the Bible, beyond the Bible, extra scripturam. It involves reasoning.

3. My arguments this week have shown that I believe a good deal of what we think we get from the Bible in fact comes from Christian tradition. This is surely not all bad. Indeed, I believe that close scrutiny shows that Luther did not really get all the way back to the Bible in his pruning of tradition. Instead, he basically pruned off traditions from about 500 on.

Many of the key, even essential beliefs of Christendom--the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the contours of the canon--took on their quasi-current form in the 300's and 400's. The contours of the canon are particularly poignant. The same drive that allowed Luther to resist the book of James also led him to remove the Apocrypha completely from the canon. They had been in use up to his day at least as deuterocanonical, even if they may not have had as full a status as what we would consider the protocanonical books.

In any case, the Bible alone cannot by its very nature cannot identify the limits of what should be in the Bible.

So both in the nature of language in relation to context, given the contexts of the books of the Bible and our different context, and in the very question of what the contours of the canon are, the Bible alone is insufficient to provide us either with a stable meaning for today or a stable set of words on which to base that meaning. The so called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is thus a far sounder hermeneutic. It is, however, more of a trilateral in reality. There are the biblical texts, there is the history of interpretation of those texts by the church, and there is contemporary experience. Reasoning is necessary to process all of these. It is the roundhouse through which all the trains of meaning inevitably pass, whether we like it or not.

But all that is passe stuff I have written often before. I can't see how any of it is even debatable, really. What is more difficult is to identify what Wesleyan theology even is in the first place.

When I ask myself, what was distinctive about John Wesley in his own day, I think of things like 1) the idea of prevenient grace, 2) the idea of the assurance of salvation, 3) his ordo salutis, which was characteristic both in its "methodist" character and particularly in relation to 4) the doctrine of Christian perfection that was a part of it (as also prevenient grace). But the Wesleyan tradition has not been static, even if some of its wandering has been unconscious movement.

So most Wesleyans, as most Baptists and others, have become semi-Pelagian to believe--or at least to operate as if--we have free will apart from some miraculous intervention of God. I'm not convinced it should be called semi-Pelagian, but the current Wesleyan (broad) sense of prevenient grace differs from Wesley's somewhat in that we tend to think of prevenient grace as the grace that makes it possible for us to choose God at any time. Wesley of course thought the opportunity only came on God's time.

Russ Gunsalus had a good "light" metaphor for the current way of thinking, extending my previous metaphors. If for the Calvinist, God turns the switch of salvation on or leaves it off, if for Wesley it was more like a dimmer switch that God at some point turns up enough for us to say we want more light, Russ suggested that the current understanding of prevenient grace is of a switch that God has wired to be hot so that we can throw the switch at any time. In other words, it is prevenient grace that makes the throwing of the switch possible, but we are empowered to throw it at any time. This prevailing understanding is different from Wesley's.

The doctrine of assurance is no longer distinctive. Most believe we can know now whether we are on the way to heaven or not. In fact, I believe the idea of eternal security is a variation on the original Calvinist "perseverence of the saints" in the sense that it brings assurance into the equation. Before, a Puritan didn't know if s/he was saved until s/he made it. But with assurance now, if you know you are saved now and those who are saved will persevere, then once you are saved you know you are going to be saved. It is a kind of one point Calvinism without the logical basis!

My sense is also that most Wesleyans have become very tentative about Christian perfection as an instantaneous experience. Here let me suggest that the following components of Wesley's soteriology remain essential Wesleyanism:

1. The importance of imparted righteousness in the life of the believer. In other words, Wesleyans in the broad sense continue to emphasize the need for victory over sin and the power of God to make it possible.

2. The possibility of losing one's assured salvation. Wesleyans continue to have a sense of sin as a matter of a relationship with God, a relationship that can be offended, broken, and even restored again.

3. Although you don't hear much preaching on sin natures and such these days, Wesleyans would continue to preach the need for entire consecration of oneself to God. And along with this, I think most Wesleyans would still agree that you can not only win over temptation, but you can like it. In other words, that you can be oriented toward doing the right thing rather than sinning.

Beyond soteriology, let me also add that

4. The Wesleyan tradition has increasingly seized on Wesley's method of using Scripture, summarized by Albert Outler as Wesley's Quadrilateral. This is a keeper. Wesley wouldn't have put it quite this way, but we can see him more objectively now than he could have in his day and categories.

This may seem like a watered down list of Wesley-an characteristics. As others have posed, it is a legitimate question as to whether we can even speak of an essence of Wesleyan theology without referencing Calvin and Augustine, to where Wesley's theology is a tweak rather than a free-standing theology. This suggestion bugs me. Chris Bounds also pointed out to me yesterday that my descriptions of Paul might actually be closer to the Eastern Orthodox tradition than to Wesley himself, which also bugs me.

So how might we describe a Wesley-an theology that is systematic in its own right today, not as a variation on Calvinism? I wonder if one direction such a theology might take is a somewhat pragmatist turn, one that fits with the death of conventional metaphysics. Wesleyan theology seems well suited in flavor to make certain theological statements that are in potential tension with each other but which we do not logically try to resolve, assuming the resolution of the tensions is in God.

1. God offers the opportunity of faith to all persons.
2. Those who have faith are elect of God, predestined by Him.
3. The default state of all humans is one of separation from God and the end thereof is death in the dual sense.
4. God's justification of those with faith is gracious and not by any obligation on His part.
5. Reconciliation with God is only possible on the basis of the atoning death of Christ.
6. God empowers those in Christ and thus expects fulfillment of his core ("moral") law thereafter.
7. Continued willful sin after adoption as God's child endangers one's relationship with God and can break it if one wrongs God enough.
8. Final justification will be based on the status of one's relationship with God on the Day of Judgment.

These bald affirmations raise all sorts of other questions, questions that have spawned the "mythologies" of various Christian traditions about natures and such. But it seems particularly appropriate in a postmodern age--and quite amenable to Wesley's practical nature--to leave the gaps.

Any suggestions?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

By Faith Alone

All we need do to show that Luther's "by faith alone" is not the whole biblical picture is cite James 2:24: "so we see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Paul himself never uses the adverb "alone" when speaking of justification by faith. The closest he comes is in Romans 3:28 when he says, "a person is justified by faith and not by works of law."

As we might expect, the meaning of faith and its relationship to deeds in Paul is somewhat complex. We might summarize the landscape as follows:

1. We should not understand faith and works to be mutually exclusive concepts. In 1 Thess. 1:3, Paul commends the Thessalonians for their "work of faith." Also, faith by its very nature "works," as in Gal. 5:6, where Paul says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters--only faith working through love. Eph. 2:8-10 can say from one verse to the next that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, and then say in the next verse that we were created for good works--clearly the two concepts do not contradict each other.

2. Paul does teach that a person cannot merit justification by his or her works--no amount of deeds merits a "not-guilty" verdict. However, since Augustine we are prone to see this as an abstract faith versus works proposition. Paul surely processed the expression "works of law" by way of the Jewish law. And since Paul's primary topic of discussion is the differences between Jew and Gentile, arguing that Jews do not have a different path to justification than Gentiles do, we should primarily think of the phrase "works of law" as a reference to law observances that distinguished Jew from Gentile (circumcision, sabbath observance, food laws, etc...). Paul's point is thus that a Jew did not stand a better chance at justification simply because they were Jews. All have sinned--both Jew and Gentile. All need the faithful death of Jesus Christ in order that their sins might be atoned for and they might be redeemed.

3. The expression "through the faith of Jesus Christ" in Romans 3:22a and Galatians 2:16a is likely a reference to the faithfulness (to death) of Jesus, his obedience unto death. In that sense, the most important faith by which we are justified is not even our own. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And what I now live in the flesh, I live by trust/in the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). The word order suggests to me that Paul wants the audience to hear both connotations. First they hear, "in faith I live" and think of their own faith. Then Paul tacks on "the of the Son of God [faith]" and they think of his faithfulness unto death.

4. But Paul does move the train of thought in both Romans 3 and Galatians 3 to human faith as the principle for our justification. Romans 4 uses the example of Abraham's faith in the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5) and who raises the dead (4:17, 24) as a model for our justification.

The point of justification by faith in Christ versus works of law is thus not that works of law are bad. In fact, we would argue that for a Jew they remain important as part of their ongoing relationship with God. Paul never encourages Jews to stop observing the Jewish law in its ethnic particulars. Only when purity regulations came into conflict with more essential principles like the unity of the body of Christ did Paul "fudge" on aspects of the Jewish law (Gal. 2:11-14)

They simply are inadequate to justify. In fact, Paul explicitly denies that we make void law because of faith (3:31). Faith thus does not even remove the principle of law!

5. While works are not adequate to justify a person, faith expresses itself through appropriate works. On the Day of Judgment, God "will repay to each according to his works" (Rom. 2:6). On that day, "to those who from strife and who disobey the truth and to those persuaded by unrighteousness, wrath and anger..." (2:8). "It is necessary for us all to appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah so that each might receive the things [appropriate] to the things which s/he practiced in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

Indeed, far from faith removing works as a basis for judgment and "final" justification, faith brings the Spirit which enables the works necessary for justification. "Do we cancel law therefore through faith? God forbid! But we establish law" (Rom. 3:31). "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid! How will we who have died to sin still live in it?" (6:1-2). And of course Paul speaks of Gentiles who "demonstrate the work of the law written on their hearts" in Rom. 2:15. These individuals "by nature do the things of the law" (2:14). This language is reminiscent of Jer. 31 cited in Hebrews 8, 10 and alluded to in 2 Corinthians 3. It is new covenant language that pushes us to see these Gentiles as individuals who have the Spirit and are thus able to fulfill the righteous expectation of the law (Rom. 2:26; 8:4).

The confusing part of Paul's rhetoric is that he almost functions with two different conceptions of law here. Works of law have overtones of Jewish particularism and ethnic boundary issues. But in Romans 2 and 8, law seems to refer to a certain kind of core law that a Gentile might keep by nature even though uncircumcised. For our discussion, the important thing to notice is that Paul claims that the person who is unable to keep the law in Romans 7 is able to do so in Romans 6 and 8. And while works cannot justify in themselves, they are necessary for final justification in his thought.

Clearly Paul's thinking here is problematic for Lutheran theology in particular. On this point especially, Wesleyan-Arminian theology is beautifully situated between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism in relation to Paul's thought. If medieval Catholicism did not have an appropriate sense in which grace asks for faith as its initiator, Lutheranism did not have an appropriate sense of how grace asks for particular works--here understood as the avoidance of sin rather than good deeds--as essential for final justification. Wesleyan-Arminian theology correctly holds to both: faith as the only effective solicitation of God's grace and works as a natural (and essential) by product of faith brought through the Spirit, where works are here understood more as the avoidance of sin rather than positive good deeds.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Total Depravity

I consider the doctrine of total depravity to be a near consensus of Christendom. I say near consensus because I'm not sure that the Eastern Church formulates human sinfulness quite the same way as the Western church has under the influence of Augustine (Bounds, are you out there?). Similarly, I'm not sure that the Roman Catholic tradition has always understood total depravity quite as extremely as most Protestant traditions have. Thus I don't think Thomas Aquinas thought that our minds were completely fallen.

But from the standpoint of both Wesleyan, Reformed, and Lutheran theology, humanity is totally depraved and can do no good in its own power. Contrary to popular belief, the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition is not Pelagian and does not believe that humans have free will independent of God's empowerment. The difference between the two traditions is the process of moving from total depravity to salvation. For the Calvinist, it is an all or nothing proposition, like a normal light switch. Either God turns the light on, and you move toward holiness and you are saved, or He doesn't. [I might add that I am a little uncomfortable with the way Protestants both Wesleyan and Reformed alike talk about holiness as something like righteous living, but that's another series]

By contrast, the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition thinks of the movement from depravity to holiness more on the model of a dimmer switch that can be on in varying degrees. At some point in every person's life, God turns the light up just enough for the person to indicate whether they would like more light or not. This is not a point of the person's choosing! If the person does not respond appropriately when God turns up the light, the person may not ever get another chance. There goes putting off repentance until your death bed!

On the other hand, if a person thus empowered by God signals a desire for further light, God will turn the light up further unto salvation. In theological terms, Wesley referred to the "just enough" dimmer light as God's preventing or as we say, "prevenient grace." It can lead in turn to "saving" or "justifying grace."

It is now my task to process these theological discussions in the light of Paul's own categories. I believe that much of our theological language is mythical, if you would, not thereby meaning that it is false, only meaning that we tend to process theological truths by way of metaphorical narratives. My dimmer switch "story" is a good example. I believe I am accurately representing a truth but I am doing it in a non-literal way.

A more palatable way of putting it is to say that all language is ultimately "incarnational" language. So Paul uses certain language in relation to human sinfulness. Augustine used a different set of images. We should not mistake either for the exact reality. But they both point toward the reality. I will try not mistake my own images for reality either, but I do want to try to get into Paul's head on the relevant issues here and then compare them with the head of Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc.

The idea of a sinful nature is, as I understand it, Augustinian. It is not Pauline, and I regularly complain in class about the NIV's translation of the Greek word for flesh, sarx, as "sinful nature." Here are some thoughts on Paul's use of the word flesh:

1. It is related to embodiment. After all, why else would Paul use the word for skin?

2. It tends to have a negative connotation. The word body, soma, does not tend to have a negative connotation. Even though these two words overlap in meaning at a certain point, "body" tends to have a somewhat more neutral sense, while "flesh" tends to have a negative one.

3. Flesh is often related to sin.

"I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh" Rom. 7:18.

"The law is spiritual, but I am made of flesh [sarkinos], enslaved under Sin" Rom. 7:14

Indeed, we might infer from these images that flesh is that part of me that is enslaved to sin.

4. It is possible not to be "in the flesh" in this life. In other words, one can get "out of the flesh" while still on earth.

"Those who are in the flesh are not able to please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you" Rom. 8:8-9.

We see therefore that Paul can use the word "flesh" with varying degrees of literality, ranging from flesh as literal skin to flesh as a metaphor for a state of susceptibility to the power of sin.

Although not all agree [e.g., Dunn], perhaps the majority of Pauline scholars now recognize that Paul is not talking about some current and ongoing personal struggle with sin in Romans 7. The context argues overwhelmingly against such a reading. We have mentioned above both the fact that Paul speaks in Romans 7:14 of someone "enslaved to sin" because they are "made of flesh." Yet in the very next chapter he denies that a person "in the flesh" can please God. These comments would contradict each other if both were meant to refer to Paul's current state.

The dissonance of the "current struggle of Paul" interpretation only increases the more we look at the context. Romans 6:17 is particularly telling:

But thanks be to God because you were slaves of sin but you obeyed from the heart the type of teaching which you have received.

Here the timing of enslavement to sin is prior to coming to faith. For Paul to say that he is currently enslaved to sin would thus imply that he was not even a person of faith yet. Indeed, the wording of this statement is very similar to Paul's resolution at the end of Romans 7:

Who will rescue me from the body of this death? But thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord (7:24-25a).

We should thus read Romans 7:13-15 as a dramatic enactment of the process of going from being a slave to sin to being free from sin. We should have read it this way all along, given Paul's preface to this sequence of thought in 7:5-6:

For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins which came through the law used to work in our members bearing fruit to death, but now we have been released from the law and have died in relation to that by which we were held so that we might serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

So when we now come to the Augustinian imagery of a sinful nature, we recognize a certain skew from Paul's own imagery. The idea of a nature--particularly for us who now process human behavior in terms of DNA--raises questions about physical things inside of me, genetics, brain structure, and such. Before Christians thought about such things, we still found those in the Wesleyan tradition arguing over whether a person's sinful nature might be eradicated or perhaps could only be supressed.

We can see that these discussions are all somewhat wrong headed. Paul does not say that we all have a sinful nature. What he implies is that Sin holds power over this creation. So in Romans 8:20 Paul says that "the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but on account of the One who subjected it in hope." Our flesh is a part of this creation, and its default state in this realm is enslavement to the power of Sin.

But it is interesting to note what this state of affairs did not mean in Paul's own imagery. For example, notice how Paul argues in Romans 7:16-17 in relation to the person without the Spirit:

If I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. But now it is no longer I doing it but sin that dwells in me.

In Paul's formulation, the person wants to do good and wants to keep the law, but is unable to do so because of a foreign power over them. And Paul is not talking about a believer here. He is talking about a Jew who might want to keep the heart of the Jewish law, say the prohibition on coveting.

There is no sense here of depravity of the "I," although we might overlay Paul's own thoughts with our sense of will. Only then can we say that this person has a "bent" to sinning. But for Paul, this person's inclination is not to sin. The person is simply not empowered to do so.

What we find here is a quasi-dualistic sense of a human person. I am not totally depraved in my essential being but I may actually be inclined toward the good in my ego, in my "inner person" (7:22)!

Similarly, while Romans 5:12 speaks of sin and death entering the world through Adam, it says nothing of us acquiring a sin nature. In some way because of Adam, all now sin. But Paul leaves it to us to figure out the mechanism for why that happens. Reading between the lines, the answer that sticks closest to Paul's own categories is one that sees the power of Sin coming on the world and over human flesh because of Adam's sin. At the eschaton we will no longer have such flesh, because "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:50).

Against this backdrop, we can see the Augustinian reading of Paul as an overreading. Sure, Paul does quote the psalm, "There is none righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10 quoting Ps. 14:1-3). To do so, he takes the psalm somewhat out of context because it was originally referring to fools who say there is no God! But note that Paul does not say that "there is no one with any good in them whatsoever" or "there is no one who has ever done one good thing." At the very few points where Paul's language might sound a little like this, we should understand Paul to be speaking somewhat hyperbolically, given his default mode of talking about human action.

As with other issues later theologians are to blame for this body of argumentative death. Paul talks about humans as if they have free will and as if they can desire good. He does not have a worked out theology of how this can be. He does not fit our apparent free will with the idea that we are elect--and to do so is not commendable when it ends up skewing one or the other pole of his thinking! He does not have some dark sense of total depravity. All are sinners, yes. All need God's grace to be saved, yes. No human is worthy of God, yes.

But he apparently does not think of humans as unable to want the good, and he can say of himself before he came to Christ that "according to the righteousness that is in the law, I was blameless" (Phil. 3:6). He doesn't cover his theological tale here by referencing prevenient grace. He is, to put it simply, talking like a Jew. Works do not justify, yes. But Paul talks as if unbelievers can do some good even though they do not have the Spirit.

So, I'll concede to Thomas Schreiner that the idea of prevenient grace is more Wesley than Paul. But in terms of which theology produces a "theological product" that looks more like the NT, Wesley wins over Calvin. Wesley's doctrine of prevenient grace accounts for good done by a person who is not regenerate. Calvin will largely deny it. Wesley's doctrine of sanctification implies that a person can live above sin after the Spirit. Calvin is far more pessimistic and Luther doesn't even want to talk about it (shh, it's God's secret, so Gerhard Forde).