Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Translating" Paul's Deterministic Language

A Christian will often both begin and end with a sense of the immediacy of Scripture.  God said it... that settles it.  There is an immediacy of meaning and applicability.

In between, of course, is a time of learning to read its words in context.  In this phase, the text can become distant because you are beginning to hear it as it was originally, someone else's mail.  Paul's words had first century meanings and his audiences heard first century meanings.

Nevertheless, the goal is a kind of "second naivete" in which you can hear God directly in the words in a dance with the text, loosening it from its historical moorings in a controlled and self-conscious way, intuitively bridging the gap between that time and this time, following currents of continuity.

In practice, most Christians never go through the contextual phase, not really.  In practice, most Christians apply the words directly in a way that makes sense to them (usually with their inherited Christian traditions making the sense) and only when they cannot make any sense of a passage at all do they consign it to "that time" rather than "this time."

However, in methodical circles, we speak of formulating a biblical theology, mapping the individual teachings of the Bible to each other.  We map James to Paul on the question of justification by works.  This mapping requires a focal point, a "clear" Scripture that we use to appropriate the "unclear" one.  And of course the great diversity of Christian churches is a reflection that some groups make their base camp in different "clear" verses than others do.

All this hermeneutical spiel is meant to set background for what this post is really about, namely, formulating a biblical theology of predestination.  We Protestants have historically had a tendency to set our base camp in Paul.  We map Matthew and James on works to Paul rather than the other way around.  Indeed, we have historically tended to give greater weight to Paul than even Jesus in the Gospels.

What I am suggesting today is that we must go the other way around when it comes to Paul's predestination language in Romans and elsewhere.  There are two reasons for this:

1. Paul himself does not follow through with this language philosophically in the rest of his theology and
2. It contradicts a fundamental principle in James 1:13, namely, that God does not tempt anyone with evil.

The second is especially important.  If God literally and directly hardens the hearts of people, then God does in fact not only tempt people but he actually makes them do evil.

When integrating Scripture on this topic, therefore, when mapping a biblical theology on the question of predestination, we have no choice but to consider Romans 9 the "unclear" and the theology of James 1:13 as the clear.  Thus, like the difference between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, we have to "translate" Paul theologically.  He is saying "God does this," but a more precise way to say it is that "God has allowed this for a reason that fits with his sovereign will" or even better, "God has worked within the allowed choices of those who have rejected him to advance his sovereign will."

I see no way for Christianity to be coherent if we do not suppose something of this sort.


Bob MacDonald said...

'coherent' with respect to what? I suppose you mean the inner coherence (what Charles Williams terms co-inherence) that forms itself in us over a life and also falls apart. We have a judgment problem. The kingdom cannot be taken by violence but it is and the violent take it by storm - imposing their 'interpretation' on the text. This has come up in conversation three times today - textual criticism on God Didn't Say that, and a comment on interpreting asheri on unsettled Christianity - a post on the opposite of life. and now in your post on 'determinism' the very component of quantum mechanics that holds the most difficulty for science. I heard recently (on Entangled states) that the Copenhagen interpretation had been disproved. The words for me in my early morning prayers were from my own experience - the kingdom is taken by violence - so maybe I am reading this in to the morning's blog philosophy. :)

Ken Schenck said...

An option is, of course, that the coherence lies outside this creation, that what appears incoherent from the inner logic of this creation is somehow reconciled outside of it.

Nathaniel said...

Well, I think the best "mapping" for Paul's deterministic language, particularly that of election, is to correlate it with his insistence that God's promise to the patriarchs was the "seed" and not the law. That is, it was Christ that was predestined and the Church through Christ. Thus, we ought to understand the "election" of Paul's audience to be about the path of salvation (law vs Christ) rather than about some metaphysical predestination of the individual to salvation or damnation. Salvation in Christ was predestined and salvation via the law was never God's intention. Thus, the recipients of Paul's epistles are elect by virtue of the fact that they have been grafted into Christ and not because they follow a certain set of laws, which were meant to draw us to Christ as a sort of prophecy. This to me places Paul's election language smack in the middle of his context (the controversy over the so-called "judaizers") as well as making sense of the corporate way in which Paul deploys such language (a feature that has been too often ignored).

Of course the brief synopsis of my view above is in no way adequate to deal with the case by case subtlety in Paul, a treatment of which would fill a book. However, that being said, I think Paul's deterministic language is much more closely related to Galatians 3 than to James 1:13 or 2:17. This has often led me to use the dialectic "faith in the law vs faith in Christ" to emphasize the thrust of Paul's teaching. In fact, it is precisely the "old-Paul" view of "works vs faith" (rather than my contrast above) which seeks to recast Paul's election language in terms of James. Thus, I think that when Paul speaks deterministically, it is completely unrelated to James' insistence on works or that God doesn't tempt. The two sets of passages have a completely different telos and comparing them reveals more about Protestant polemical concerns than it does about the author's actual thoughts.

Ken Schenck said...

Nathaniel, I have often pointed out these ameliorating factors:

1. Paul is really talking about Israel. His general language of predestination serves to answer the question of why so many in Israel have not believed in Jesus.

2. Yes, it is corporately focused rather than individualistically focused.

3. Even those God is currently hardened can and in fact will change their current direction, and those who currently believe can be cut back out (this is what I mean when I say predestination language in Paul is an "orphan" that does not connect to the rest of his theology as Calvin thought it did).

Nevertheless, if I am going to remain true to my principle of letting the text say what it seems to say, no matter how convenient, I cannot get away from a fundamental fatalism/determinism to parts of his writings, even though they don't connect with his theology of mission or salvation.

This is my conundrum.

Nathaniel said...

Ken, thanks for the response.

Which passages in particular are you dealing with in your response?

Anonymous said...

If you remain true to your principle of letting the text say what it seems to say, no matter how convenient, how much room do you have to translate Paul "theologically"?

If we leave room for a God who allows something "for a reason that fits with his sovereign will" then why not a God who gives a little extra nudge in order that events "fit with his sovereign will"? If God's sovereign will is of utmost importance then the line between allowing a seemingly evil act and aiding it is blurred. We are hardly in any position to complain. He is in charge, after all, and His ways are not our ways.

Even as we must read the Bible open to individual authorial interpretation, if we take seriously the idea that the scriptures are an accurate depiction of the knowable nature of God, that we have to take seriously that nature, even if it contradicts what we have decided are fundamental principles. The God depicted in the Bible is sometimes not the Nice Guy we want him to be.

Perhaps "second naivete" involves living with a certain amount of incoherence. Those who can't ultimate drift toward the extremes of fundamentalism or unbelief.

Ken Schenck said...

Scott, I will not pretend to have all the answers on this topic. I'll only offer two clarifications to what I'm saying:

1. When I speak about letting the text say what it says, I am talking about interpretation, what it originally meant. Appropriating Scripture theologically and ethically is a distinct step for me, and it is in this step that I speak of "translating."

2. My problem is not that God might determine many things or even that he might work within a person's chosen moral framework. The problem is if God determines whether a person is morally oriented toward or against him. This not only makes God the author of the possibility of evil, which is certainly the case. It makes God the actual author of evil, in fact it makes him even worst than Satan, for God becomes the one who directs Satan's activities.

Christianity becomes incoherent on such a fundamental level at this point that it could not possibly be true.

Bob MacDonald said...

Well how timely - I have just published my brief comments on psalm 55 which I titled - "the inner close combat" because of the six-fold repetition of the Hebrew word QRB. You can see the notes here. It is the first and last paragraph of the personal application that are relevant.
"At base we share the life of this anointed king as well as his troubles. But if one is perfect, one must then take on the imperfections of the other in order to know the reality of mercy. What goes down must come up."

Talking about God outside our reality is impossible. Even talking about the perfect anointed is impossible. Language fails and life is seen as failing. Something strives within us to be named that cannot be named.

The recording of "O for the wings of a dove" at my translation site is lovely.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks as always...