Archive for December 3rd, 2009

Campbell Review (final)

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

First of all, please note that I agree strongly with two main things in Douglas’s book that may have been lost since my reviews began:

1. That Romans 1-3, and indeed all of Romans, has often been misread and misused.

2. That Paul’s gospel is inherently apocalyptic, transformative, etc. I said a lot about this early on.

Secondly, please note that Chris Tilling at Chrisendom is graciously allowing Douglas and me to carry on the debate about chapters 1-3, though I suspect that’s about to wind down.

Thirdly, here’s my counter-proposal to Douglas’s reading of Rom 1-3:

The Retrospective Character and Function of Romans 1-3
I have argued that the allegedly “prospective” character of Romans 1-3 should not be confused either with Paul’s basic understanding of the structure of the gospel itself or with the structure of the “plan of salvation” that Paul presented to potential converts. I now want to argue that Romans 1-3, as part of the rhetorical and theological structure of the letter to the Romans—not of Paul’s gospel or preaching— is exactly what Douglas says it is not: a retrospective argument.

In his recent commentary on Romans, Craig Keener shows in two very helpful tables how the language of Romans 2—about seeking (or doing) good, glory, honor, immortality, righteousness, peace, etc., and also boasting, knowing God’s will, and being a light—has parallels throughout Romans 5-15 in Paul’s descriptions of the lives of believers. That is, believers actually do what Romans 2 says people need to do to be considered among the justified and to have eternal life. Keener does not claim, however, that this means that Paul is describing believers (whether Gentile or not) in chapter two. Rather, Keener suggests, Paul is letting us know that believers actually do what humanity as a whole should do but cannot do. This does not imply salvation by merit but rather a profound transformation, a reversal and an empowerment. Furthermore, as I argue in my SBL paper “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” Romans 12-15 is the en-Christed reversal of the “in Adam” situation of Romans 1. (In the question-and-answer session at SBL, Seyoon Kim mentioned to Douglas that he had written an article showing the strong connections between 1:18-32 and the later parts of the letter, asking how that would affect his [Douglas’s] thesis. Douglas responded, “If you’re right, I’m wrong.”)

It is highly unlikely that Paul based his description of believers in chapters 5 and following on his prior understanding of humanity’s condition and God’s requirements. It is, instead, the other way around. Romans 2—indeed all of Rom 1:18—3:20—is, in other words, a retrospective argument, a retrospective reassessment of the human condition, of the problem in light of the solution.

In other words, Paul can only say, and does only say, what he claims in Romans 1-3 on the basis of his conviction, in Christ and the Spirit, that God really does judge on the basis of performance because God really has delivered those in Christ from the realm of Sin and really has empowered them with the Spirit to embody the demands of the covenant and thus “fulfill the just requirement of the Law” (Rom 8:4). This retrospective perspective allows Paul to engage in what many might call extreme hyperbole, about Gentiles or Jews or both, to make a point that he knows only in Christ: that Gentiles and Jews alike are required to love God and neighbor, yet are totally unable and unwilling to do so, excusing themselves and both accusing and misleading others.

So what is the function of Rom 1:18-3:20 when we recognize that it is a retrospective argument made by Paul himself, and not a prospective one made by a hypothetical, underdetermined, Teacher? It has three functions:

1. Leveling the Playing Field: The Common Condition
Rom 1:18—3:20 levels the playing field, not among potential converts—whom Paul does not even address in the letter—but among Roman believers in Rome. This leveling occurs retrospectively, only in light of Christ.

Written by someone in Christ for an audience also in Christ, but of course formerly not in Christ, 1:18—3:20 lets the Roman believers know that they have all—each one and everyone—been delivered from Sin their master (3:9), no matter what their background or particular set of sins. Gentiles may have sinned one way, and Jews quite another—or perhaps not so differently. Paul’s point is that the symptoms may vary, but the disease is the same: addiction to Sin, bondage to Sin. Indeed, it is crucial for Paul to put on display the vast variety of sins in the world and in the past lives of his addressees. Why? So that he may stress his simple and universal diagnosis and his simple and universal solution—bondage to Sin and liberative, participatory justification—which Douglas rightly describes and which Paul hopes will make sense to all the believers at Rome, causing them to recognize their absolute equality before God, not merely as one-time sinners of different types (which invites competition) but as one-time slaves to Sin (which does not). As such, not only the past but also the present differences among them matter far less than the common plight from which they have been rescued and to which their previous lives of varying modes of sinfulness bore witness. In retrospect, the believers should recognize their past, dark commonality so that they may recognize and embody the new, bright commonality they have in Christ.

2. Indicating the Common Goal
In Rom 1:18—3:20 Paul also wishes to point out the common goal that God has for all humanity and specifically, by implication, for the community of believers at Rome. He describes this goal in a variety of general terms: seeking the good, life, immortality, eternal life, etc. Paul never negates these and, in fact (as we have just argued), says they are fulfilled and received in Christ. To be sure, he does negate the alleged means to this goal to which some in Rome may still subscribe (possession of the Law or of “boundary markers,” or performance of certain deeds). But the goal remains intact, and this goal makes its first appearance in 1:18—3:20. Without the statement of this goal in the early chapters of Romans, its (re)appearance in later chapters as the consequence of being in Christ has far less theological and rhetorical force. Paul wants his readers in Rome to know that whatever their different backgrounds, the common grace in which they stand and the common glory to which they are headed (5:1-11) has nothing whatsoever to do with their previous lives of either sinfulness or (supposed) goodness. Everything they have and are is because of God’s transforming, liberating grace given in Christ, made effective by the Spirit.

3. Foreshadowing, by Antithesis, the Common Life in Christ
In Rom 1:18—3:20 Paul also provides us with hints about the very structure of the new life that his liberated Roman auditors are living, or ought to be living together in Christ. It can be summarized as a life of “righteousness” (5:17, 19; 6:13-20; 9:30-31; 10:4-6; 14:7) in contrast to a common condition in which none is righteous (3:10; cf. 2:13). Just as the unique sins of those described in 1:18-32, the unique sins of those described in chapter 2, and the common plight of those two groups, summarized in 3:9-20, are directed negatively against both God and other humans, so also the structure of the new life is one directed positively toward both God (6:11-22; chap. 8; 12:1-2) and others (chaps. 12-15). Furthermore, just as the former way of life involved the entire person—body, mind, and heart—so also the new life involves body, mind, and heart. This relationship of the past life—retrospectively understood and narrated—to the present life is succinctly described in Rom 12:1-2 but also, and more fully, in chapter 6, chapter 8, and the rest of chapter 12 through the middle of chapter 15.

The very structure of justification/salvation as it is outlined in Romans 5-8 requires that the “now” be contrasted with a “then” (6:21 and all of chap. 6) and bridged by a “no longer” (e.g., 6:13). (Similarly, see 1 Cor 6:11.) Without a description of the erroneous way of life, the solution makes less sense, if it makes any at all. Thus the problem, though not known to Paul, and perhaps not to his audience, before entrance into Christ, now needs to be a fundamental part of all believers’ self-understanding and theology.

In Douglas’s schema, we rightly hear that Paul’s soteriology is liberative (e.g., p. 658, with reference to Rom 3:23; pp. 663-65, et passim), but we must ask, “liberation from what?” What does life in Adam (“Adamic slavery,” p. 664) look like? What sins does Sin generate in the human community, and what are the practical consequences of Sin? What is the concrete nature of the “ontological prison” (p. 669) from which we have been rescued? If our friends’ lives are characterized by awful idolatries and/or behaviors that destroy themselves and others, can they be rescued, too? Rom 1:18—3:20 provides the Pauline answer to these kinds of questions.

To be sure, Paul wants his readers/auditors in Rome to agree that no one can be saved by a gospel that speaks of God’s just requirements and coming wrath, yet this is not because these claims are false or inappropriate, but only because they are insufficient; they are not the totality of the gospel. Perhaps sin and judgment do not need to be preached in detail, if at all, in advance of “the good news”; but if we concur that Paul preached about Jesus’ cross and God’s resurrection as the divine means of human liberation and salvation, inquiring minds may want to ask, “Liberation and salvation from what?” If they do, I submit, both Paul and we need to be able to give an answer that resembles the early chapters of Romans. And it might not always be a bad idea, for Paul or for us, to give our retrospective answer to potential converts prospectively, that is, prior to their entrance into Christ, even if that is not what Paul is doing in Romans.

The major difference between Douglas’s reading and mine is that he characterizes his as forensic-liberative (p. 669), whereas I would say forensic-liberative-restorative, and therefore covenantal. This suggests that 1:18—3:20 is in fact positively connected to chapters 5-8 and beyond. Is Paul’s gospel apocalyptic and participatory? Absolutely. But is it antithetical to 1:18—3:20? Absolutely not!

I will conclude my contribution to this conversation by quoting Douglas’s own conclusion about the work of Stowers:

In sum, [his] rereading is simultaneously brilliant, insightful, polemical, and muddled. His difficulties should not be allowed to overshadow his positive contributions (perhaps damning them by association), but neither should they be overlooked. In the quest for a radical interpretive solution, [his] rereading of Romans is an important forerunner, but not the main event. (p. 465)