Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Untangling the Book of Romans

In 2015, David Bentley Hart wrote a blog post entitled 'Traditio Deformis,' in which the 'deformed tradition' is Calvinism. About a year later, Pete Enns blogged his piece in response to Hart's post, expressing fundamental agreement. What you're reading now is my synthesis of highlights from the two posts together with my own perspective on the text of Romans. 

The New Testament Book of Romans has inspired religious faith and sparked revivals throughout the common era. Martin Luther and John Wesley are among many others who have had conversion experiences through it. Augustine based many core points of his theology on it, which is unfortunate, because he got it wrong. Reformation Christianity picked up on his ideas and carried them forward, bound to a deeply medieval vision of hell, sowing confusion and angst as much as anything. Modern evangelical Christianity depends on original sin, heaven and hell, and substitutionary atonement in order to win converts and foster church growth. 

What I've singled out for review from the two above-mentioned posts is as follows:
  • Role reversals in the Hebrew Scriptures
  • Corporate (not individual) election in the New Testament
  • Universal Salvation
Reading the Book of Genesis you might notice that there is some repetition. This has to do with how it was stitched together from different legends and mythological stories. Some of the stories are nearly identical but involve different people and others contradict one another. Above that is the editorial work done to create themes out of these disparate sources of material. One prominent theme is that of infertility, in which a woman is unable to bear children until she finds God's favor and her 'womb is opened.' Another is that of role reversal.

Throughout the book of Genesis, the pattern of God’s election is persistently, even perversely antinomian: Ever and again the elder to whom the birthright properly belongs is supplanted by the younger, whom God has chosen in defiance of all natural “justice.” This is practically the running motif uniting the whole text, from Cain and Abel to Manasseh and Ephraim. But—this is crucial—it is a pattern not of exclusion and inclusion, but of a delay and divagation that immensely widens the scope of election, taking in the brother “justly” left out in such a way as to redound to the good of the brother “unjustly” pretermitted. This is clearest in the stories of Jacob and of Joseph, and it is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. For Esau is not finally rejected; the brothers are reconciled, to the increase of both precisely because of their temporary estrangement. And Jacob says to Esau (not the reverse), “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s.” Hart

This theme is incredibly important to keep in mind while reading the theological treatise that is Paul's letter to the Romans, and brings us to the concept of corporate election, rather than individual election.

And so Paul proceeds. In the case of Israel and the Church, election has become even more literally “antinomian”: Christ is the end of the law so that all may attain righteousness, leaving no difference between Jew and Gentile; thus God blesses everyone (10:11–12). As for the believing “remnant” of Israel (11:5), they are elected not as the number of the “saved,” but as the earnest through which all of Israel will be saved (11:26), the part that makes the totality holy (11:16). And, again, the providential ellipticality of election’s course vastly widens its embrace: For now, part of Israel is hardened, but only until the “full entirety” (pleroma) of the Gentiles enter in; they have not been allowed to stumble only to fall, however, and if their failure now enriches the world, how much more so will their own “full entirety” (pleroma); temporarily rejected for “the world’s reconciliation,” they will undergo a restoration that will be a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). Hart

In this understanding of Romans, Paul is saying that while the Gentiles are the favored children of the moment, the Jews will also be blessed and included. Esau was never fully rejected by God, and neither will the Jewish people be. 

What lies at the root of the doctrine of original sin is a misinterpretation of Romans, such as the following:

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned" Romans 5:12 NRSV
 Augustine’s reading is that death spread to all because all sinned in him [in Adam]. In other words, death spread to humanity because all humanity was somehow “present” in Adam’s act of disobedience. Enns
We had a few different dogs on the farm as I was growing up. The first that I remember, though not the first my parents owned, was a border collie named PJ. He should have had a long tail, but didn't, because when he was born the owner bobbed the tails of all the puppies. The man apparently didn't understand how heredity worked, believing that by cutting their tails, the dogs would go on to have puppies born with short tails. It's like thinking I should have the physical scars of one or both of my parents. Upholding original sin seems to be something similar. The belief is that all are born 'in sin' and destitute of the grace of God. This contributes to belief in infant baptism, and makes me wonder how Baptists ever convince themselves that an undefined 'age of accountability' could spare their unbaptized children from hell if they die. 

In other words, a bad reading of Romans 5:12 has led to the notion that all humans are as culpable (guilty) as Adam for what Adam did—all humanity sinned in him

Augustine’s reading is what many Christians believe Paul actually said, and which is why Augustine’s notion of “original sin” is defended with such uncompromising vehemence as the “biblical” teaching. But neither Romans nor Genesis supports the idea. Enns

As for me, I discarded original sin while in college when my beliefs became aligned with those of conservative Stone-Campbellism. Instead, I came to believe that sin entered the world through the actions of the parents of our species, and was transmitted by their example and subsequent actions. Now I don't hold to any of that, which is neither here nor there for this study of Romans. 

In the well-known stories about the birth of the Protestant Reformation, many of which are at least partially legendary, the selling of indulgences is prominent. In order to raise money the pope promoted the sale of indulgences. Contrary to the idiotic stories I heard told at Bible camp, people weren't being called to pre-pay to sin. Instead, they were paying to get time off their afterlife in purgatory, or to speed up the release of their dead loved ones from purgatory to heaven. Either way it's pretty terrible, exploitative, and without foundation in the ancient orthodoxy of the faith or the text of the scriptures. Martin Luther notoriously protested this and other abuses, calling for major ecclesiastical reforms. Instead, he was condemned and driven into hiding, becoming the inspiration for a nationalist movement in the Germanic regions of central Europe. 

When Luther read the New Testament and saw Paul talking about 'works' and 'the works of the law,' he couldn't help but associate it with his former monkish ways of penitence and self-denial, seeking God's favor. He also saw in the popularity of indulgences the people reaching out for relief from the fear of sin and death. 

When Paul contrasts “works” and “faith” he is not saying, “You are such vile creatures that there is nothing you can do to please God—so works are worthless. Stop trying to earn your way into heaven.” 

That is not Paul’s topic in Romans. Rather Paul is talking about the Law of Moses and its function of setting apart the people of God (Jews) from Gentiles (Greeks and Romans). Enns

With the foregoing in our thoughts, as we move through Romans we can get a significantly different picture of Paul's theology from that which has dominated Western Christianity since the Middle Ages.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. — Romans 8:28-29 NRSV 

Who are the “those” Paul is referring to? Individuals, who happen to have a conversion experience, invite Jesus into their heart, convert to Christianity? 

Or does it refer to the shocking truth, now revealed, as Paul claims, by God through him, that Gentiles now are in Christ and therefore every bit as “elect” in God’s mind as Israel? Enns

We aren't talking about people being singled out for salvation, but rather that the Gentiles as a whole that Paul has been writing about so far can be saved. I see far more than that in Romans, though. When we remove the Lutheran and Calvinist templates from the text, we suddenly find quite a bit of universalism. Here's one striking example, connected to the concept of Jews and Gentiles as groups.

"For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all." Romans 11:32 NRSV

This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if,” the clarion negative: There is no final “illustrative” division between vessels of wrath and of mercy; God has bound everyone in disobedience so as to show mercy to everyone (11:32); all are vessels of wrath so that all may be made vessels of mercy. Enns
While I don't take any part of the Bible as 'inspired' in the sense usually meant, I certainly don't think that the historic Paul had a notion of endless hell for sinners, and much less for small children and infants. The very notion would have likely been as offensive and alien to him as it is to many modern people who weren't raised with such beliefs. If you've read this far, you're clearly more interested than most would be, so why not take a little time and read through Romans with this alternative lens? You might just be surprised by what you find.