Tag Archives: law

Law in Romans: For Wrath

The Law in Romans, and Paul’s thought generally, is complex.

On the one hand, it is promissory: it looks to the future; it plays the part in the story of prophet. It points away from itself to the coming work of God in Christ.

But on the other hand, Law is tied to sin as what indicates Israel’s own guilt.

And with sin and guilt, the Law brings wrath.

Why must the promise not be realized through the Law itself, but outside the Law in the Christ event? “Because the Law brings wrath, but where there is no Law, neither is there transgression” (Romans 4:15).

By saying this much, Paul reiterates in ch. 4 of Romans what he had said in chs. 1-3: that the Law plays the role of making Israel guilty of what Israel could assume the Gentile world was guilty of: failure to honor and glorify God. And, it puts it in the same position as deserving of wrath that Rom 1:18 tells us is the condition of the Gentile world as well.

In the second half of Rom 5, Paul begins the extensive work of rewriting the Law’s role in the story of Israel.

What came with, apparently, promises of righteousness and life, is at first simply put to the side. What is determinative for the destiny of humanity is not the Law given to Israel but, instead, the actions of two men: Adam and Christ (Rom 5:12-19). Adam’s transgression unleashed the reign of sin and death; Jesus’ obedience inaugurates the reign of grace.

God’s grace, life, the gift of righteousness–all the things that one might have thought the Law was scripted to give, are instead provided by the obedient, dying Messiah.

So what, then, are we to make of the Law if it does not, in fact, work the life that it seemed to promise?

5:20: The Law came in in order that it might increase the transgression.

The purpose of the Law, in this case, is to make Israel a microcosm–not of the saving act of the Messiah in obedience, but–of the failure of Adam.

But here’s the point: though this was a purpose of the Law, it was only the penultimate purpose of God. Into this realm of increasing sin, the grace of God abounded more. In the context, this grace has already been defined: the super-abounding grace of God is what comes in the death of Jesus.

As Rom 1:18 had told us that the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on the revelation of God’s wrath; as Rom 3 had told us that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by Israel’s unrighteousness, so here we hear that God’s grace in Christ comes right to the place where sin was most strengthened by transgression.

The final purpose of this was that the increase of sin was that a new reign might be established in its place: the reign of grace that comes through Christ.

How is it that this “holy, righteous, and good” law ends up playing such a dark role in the story?

In short, chs. 6-7 tell us, the problem is that the Law is a loyal subject, or a weapon. Whoever is lord of its realm, the Law faithfully serves. The paradox of Paul’s gospel message, as it rewrites the role of the Law in the story of Israel, is that to be freed from the Law is also to be freed from Sin (Rom 6:14).

When it comes to a world under the reign of sin, the law is used by that lord to bring about death. To be under Law is to be under Sin, and ultimately to be under Death.

The chart below ( from Unlocking Romans) shows how the very language Paul uses to speak of sin and death in Rom 6 is repeated as he talks about the Law in Rom 7:

The only way to break free from the enslaving force of sin, as it uses the Law for its purposes, is through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 7:1-6). With this cosmic intervention of God comes the Spirit, who enables us to do what the Law was powerless to do: bear fruit for God (Rom 7:5-6).

The bottom line: The Law comes as a Spiritual entity to a fleshly people without the power to make that people Spiritual. Because of this lack of transforming power, it is used by the governing power of the world, sin, in order to work transgression, sin, and death.

But when the Spirit of the resurrected Christ comes, the Spirit who has power even to give life to dead flesh (Rom 1:4), God shows that there is a way to be made righteous, to know life, to escape from wrath. The resurrected Christ performs the role that, one would have thought, was the role of Torah in Israel’s story: life-bringer, righteous-maker.

Law in Romans: For Sin

Paul says things about the Law that seem to stand in stark opposition to each other. Some would say that Paul contradicts himself about the Law and its place in the story of Israel. If this were an easy question it would be no fun to discuss and, more importantly, scholars would have nothing left to write about.

When I want to explore Paul’s arguments, however, I hold off on asserting “contradiction” until every other explanation has been exhausted. So here as well. Somehow, I want to see how the things he says about the negative place of the Law in the story of Israel coincide with the praise of the Law as holy, righteous, and good.

Yesterday we outlined the promissory function of the Law, as Paul speaks of it in Romans. Then I put up some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the role of the law, where he attempts to give an account for the apparently negative things Paul says about the Law’s function–and how those are resolved in the Christ event.

Today we need to visit that negative thread.

As I see it, here is what we need to hold together: (1) the Law is holy, righteous, and good. But to ascribe such goodness to the Law is not to say either (a) what its purpose is; or (b) what its effect is when it comes to a world ruled by sin and death.

This is where I see the conversation in the comments butting up against each other. I have been focusing on questions (a) and (b), and the things Paul says about the effect and purpose of the Law, as Law, in Israel’s story seem to stand in tension with the goodness of the law. But our task is to figure out how and why this good law can come as an instrument of death, as something that causes the trespass to increase so that the power of sin is magnified.

I see the problem with some of the conversation as this: rather than explaining how both are true, a number of folks are clinging to the “Law is good” part in order to deny what Paul says about its function in the story. But this is precisely why he says the good stuff: because he has to give an account of how a good law can play a role other than life-giver and grace-bringer for Israel.

Paul’s starting point is the Christ event. And this is why he can say that if life comes through the Law, if the grace of God is revealed through the law, if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly. So if it didn’t bring righteousness and life, what did it do?

In Romans 2, Paul doesn’t deal with the Law’s purpose per se, but he does chide Israel as Law breakers: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law do you dishonor God?” Again, this is not about purpose, but an assertion about reality as Paul sees it.

In Romans 3, Paul says that having the oracles of God (including Torah, no doubt), is an advantage to the Jews–but one they did not take advantage of. In fact, it is not God’s response to Israel’s fidelity that puts God’s righteousness on display; instead, it is God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here the paradox of Israel’s failure in God’s redemptive story begins to peek through.

As the chapter goes on, Paul draws closer to giving a negative purpose of the Law. He quotes a whole bunch of OT texts about the sinfulness of humanity. And here is his surprise: these texts, many of which bad-mouthed Gentiles, are not written to condemn Gentiles, but to shut the mouth of Israel: “Whatever the Law says it speaks to those under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped”–not just the mouths of those Gentile bad guys–“and all the world may become accountable to God.” The Law renders culpable those who are under it.

As in the beginning of ch. 3, though, so here also, Israel’s culpability under the Law provides a pointer to a new, decisive intervention by God in order for people to be holy and righteous: “But now, without Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested… through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Our unrighteousness puts on display the righteousness of God, Paul had said, and this is where.

As Paul explains how it is that God enters to act where Israel failed, he gives an indication that Israel’s culpability under the Law does not make it especially liable to judgment, despite its transgression: “in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed.” This is an important moment in the argument: while much of what Paul does is aimed at showing how Jews are equally guilty, the added guilt itself becomes an occasion for grace, as God passes over in light of the time when righteousness will be brought about by the Christ event.

Tomorrow we will at last get to that troubling verse in ch. 5 where Paul says that the purpose of the Law is for increase of trespasses. But here already the pattern has been set: the saving righteousness of God comes where Israel’s unrighteousness precedes it.

And this is our hint toward how the negative and positive things hold together: the purpose of the Law can, in one sense, be seen as the increase of transgression–but this is because the Law is only penultimate in the purposes of God. The ultimate plan of God is to bring about saving righteousness in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Side Notes on Law in Romans

There are a couple of loose ends from earlier comment threads that I haven’t been able to wrap up. One has to do with Wright’s claim about the law’s purpose being to focalize sin upon Israel, the other with what Paul means by Law.

In Paul’s summary… the law functions to intensify the sin of Adam… (“the law came in on the side in order that the trespass might increase,” 5:20)… Torah, instead of lifting up Israel to a level above the rest of the human race, simply throws a bright spotlight on the fact that Israel, too, is “in Adam,” is “fleshly,” is “sold under sin.”…

“In the very place where sin abounded, grace also abounded.” Here is the rhetorical argument of the letter in a nutshell. Yes, the Torah simply intensifies the sin of Adam in the people of Israel. No, this does not lead to Marcionism… (“Romans and the Theology of Paul, 46-47)

Wright sees ch. 7, where Paul defends the Torah, as being the point where Paul works things out a bit more fully (pp. 52-53 of the same essay):

  1. Covenant was put in place to deal with the sin of the world. This is, thus, Torah’s ultimate purpose.
  2. Torah came in order that sin might abound (Rom 5:20)–“That is, the divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full height precisely in Israel.”
  3. This is repeated in 7:13: “in order that sin might become exceedingly sinful”
  4. God draws all this sin on Israel in order to pass it on to Israel’s Messiah and there deal with sin once and for all: “‘Sin’ is lured into doing its worst in Israel, in order that it may exhaust itself in the killing of the representative Messiah, after which there is nothing more it can do.”
  5. Thus, the apparently negative force of Torah (to draw in and focus sin over Israel’s head) has as its ultimate purpose God’s final dealing with sin, once and for all
  6. “Israel’s ‘failure,’ therefore, was part of the strange covenant plan of the creator god whereby this god intended to deal with the world’s sin.”

What I have liked about this articulation of things is that it places the dying of Christ within the story of Israel. Moreover, it takes seriously the idea that for Paul nomos in Romans often refers quite specifically to the Torah, the Law given to Israel as such.

This leads to the second point.

Yes, in Paul, Torah comes to play a part in the cosmic story of the powers that govern the earth.

But no, it is not inclusive of the cosmic powers that govern the sun, moon, stars, and Gentile morality. At least, not in Romans.

When Paul enters his complex discussion of Law in chs. 5-8, he begins by telling us that Adam trespassed, and that the thing called “law” comes in with Moses. He has specific events in mind, specific Torah given by a specific God to a specific people–and not to others. Without this piece in place, it becomes impossible to make sense of how Paul’s articulation of the gospel is, in fact, for the Jew first–and even through Israel, which was entrusted with the very words of God.

Put differently, it is not the “law” of the planets in orbit that bears witness to the crucified and risen Christ, but the Pentateuch.

Law in Romans: Promissory

I apologize for taking so long to get here. But when we talk about “Law,” we have to be clear what we’re saying (and not saying). What Paul says about the Law is a subset of what he says about, and how he reads, the rest of the scriptures of Israel. I take these to be his presuppositions:

  1. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the good news
  2. This good news is brought about by Israel’s God
  3. God promised to bring such good news to Israel
  4. These promises are found in Israel’s scriptures

This is little more than a restating of Romans 1:1-7. So, in brief reply to people’s vociferous reactions from earlier this week: No, what I’m about to lay out is not a supersessionist, replacement theology. It is a surprising redefinition of what it means to be faithful to the Law and scriptures of Israel.

There are problems with claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures and the way of salvation–especially when ethnic Israel, by and large, is not receiving Jesus as God’s promised good news. But these are the problems Romans was written to answer.

The first thing to say is this: the purpose of the Law is to witness beyond itself to the coming Messiah. This means that the purpose of the Law was not ultimately either (a) to define the people of God; (b) provide the righteousness requisite for being acquitted as one of God’s faithful people; or (c) tell people what to do for all times and places.

The first indication of this is in the opening verses, where Paul says that the gospel concerning God’s son was prepromised in the scriptures. The stage is set, here, for scriptural references to be read as promissory.

This vein is worked out in several places of the letter:

In Rom 3, after stating the law will not justify any flesh, Paul situates the law with respect to his gospel: “But now, without law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets–the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The law and prophets witness to something beyond themselves: to the coming Christ as the revelation of God’s righteousness.

Similarly, Paul introduces Rom 4 with a statement that he establishes the law. He then goes on to depict the Abraham narrative as anticipating the Christ event in two crucial ways: as Jesus’ death provides for the justification of the ungodly, so too Abraham believed in the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5). And, in the second half of the chapter, the birth of Isaac is depicted as a resurrection–so that Abraham believes in the God who gives life to the dead. This anticipates our own justification as we believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead (4:22-25).

The Abraham narrative shows that the gospel of Christ establishes the Law because it depicts the promises to Abraham, and his justification, as anticipations of the work this same God does now, through Paul’s gospel.

This becomes Paul’s focus as he wrestles with the problem of Israel’s unbelief in chs. 9-10 as well.

At the end of chapter 9, the difference between Israel’s non-attainment of righteousness and the Gentile’s attainment of it has to do with Israel’s failure to read the Law as witness to Christ: “Not by faith, but as though by works–they stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and however believes in him shall not be disappointed.'”

Wrong use of the Law is failing to see it as an anticipation of the coming Christ.

Similarly, in the beginning of ch. 10, the problem with Israel’s pursuit of righteousness is that it did not use the law so as to arrive at Christ. They strove to attain their own righteousness rather than recognizing God’s righteousness which comes through Christ: “For Christ is the telos of the law, unto righteousness for all who believe” (10:4).

In a third pass at the same argument, Paul contrasts the self-referential idea of “doing” the Torah with the Christo-referential idea of the law as witness to the coming Christ.

Law-righteousness, he claims, says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.” Faith righteousness, however, sees in Torah a witness to the Christ event: “Do not say in your heart who will ascend into heaven–that is, to bring down the Messiah. Nor, who will descend into the abyss–that is, to raise the Messiah from the dead. What does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart; that is, the word of faith that we proclaim. That if you confess Jesus is Lord with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from among the dead, you will be saved.”

In this, Paul rewrites Deut 30. No longer do those verses testify to the gift of the Law as the means of salvation, but to Christ as that means.

This is the first line of argument about the Law in Romans: that the purpose of the whole Torah is to bear witness to something beyond itself. It is a diachronic purpose. The law, correctly understood, has a centrifugal rather than centripetal force: it throws you outside of itself to the coming Christ.

Tomorrow we will take up a second line of argument: that the Law comes in in order to ensure that Israel, like everyone else, is recognizably sinful.

Law in OT and New

I was quite encouraged by the conversation that ensued after yesterday’s post on the Law, and reading from solution to plight. Mostly I was encouraged because after articulating how Paul thinks about the law, I was bombarded by all sorts of objections–most of which are the objections of the rhetorical interlocutor who clearly misunderstands Paul in Romans. This leads me to think that I’m on the right track with articulating a Pauline theology of the Law!

Before diving into the details, let’s orient ourselves a bit. I had a professor once upon a time who used to say that every controversy the church had to face for the first several hundred (2,000?!) years of its existence hinged on the question of continuity and discontinuity between the OT and the NT. And it’s not just about whether there is continuity or discontinuity, the question is where, exactly, the continuity lies and where exactly the discontinuity lies.

One of the problems with most of the objections that have arisen here over the past few days is that people are concluding that a surprising function of the Law, as that function is asserted by NT writers, entails a wholesale discontinuity between the God of Israel / Law and the God of the church / the gospel. Again, not to get too cheeky–this is precisely the misunderstanding about his own theology that drives Romans.

Paul proclaims a Torah free gospel, especially for Gentiles. And now he has to deal with the question of both what this sort of message means about the God of Israel and Israel’s scriptures and what it means that the Gentiles are the predominant members of this new would-be Jewish movement. The point is that we have to be patient with the developing of how continuity works between OT and NT, not assuming that discontinuity–or surprise–at one important point means throwing out the whole OT, Israel, God, etc.

At this point it’s important to highlight two other important aspects of this conversation: (1) The general perspective I’m advocating here, that how OT has value for Christians is only with reference to and/or through Christ, is not just Paul’s theology. In John, Jesus tells the people, You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life–but it is these that testify to me! The life-giving value of the Torah is not to be found in itself, but as it bears witness to something beyond itself–to the coming Christ. This is Paul’s point in Romans 3 as well.

(2) When we are talking about the place of “the Law,” as that conversation was spurred by Romans 5, the entity we are talking about was the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. One of the biggest problems with making sense of the law in the NT is when we start equivocating, by calling all sorts of things “Law” that might very well be denoted by the word but carry different connotations. The Law, in Paul’s parlance, is what was given “430 years later” than Abraham. It comes at a particular point in time for some particular purposes.

The surprise that Paul has in store is that, because the Law came into a world where sin and death were in power, its life-giving purpose could not be realized, “and this commandment, which was supposed to result in life resulted in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment deceived me, and through it, killed me.”

Throughout the NT, the purpose of the Law is, in some sense, Christo-referential. While one can say that this is because Christ is what God was up to all along (as NT Wright does repeatedly, and surely he’s correct), such a statement is actually a confession of faith that can only be made by those who believe beforehand that Christ is what God was up to all along–it is not something that can be read “straight” off the pages of the Law.

Or, put differently, life in Christ rather than life in Torah is the telos of the Law.

Tomorrow: more on Law in Romans. I promise.

Law, Contradictions, and Irrelevancies

Saturday’s post about Romans created quite a bit of conversation. Unfortunately, between teaching all day Saturday and otherwise being kept from exciting theological conversation over the weekend, I was unable to engage that conversation in much depth.

The point that drew the sharpest engagement was when I said:

It also seems to me, that as much as I want to avoid it, I keep coming around again to N. T. Wright’s claim that the purpose of the law is to exacerbate sin and death within Israel per se, so that God could disarm them where they were strongest

The barrages came from all angles, so let me start with the most important: what the Bible in general might say about the Law, and what we as Christians have to say about it.

In short, as troubling as this is, Christians say what we say about the Law, and what we must say about the Law, only because we come to the Law with the prior conviction that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are God’s means of salvation. Not law-keeping.

Once we have said this much, we have claimed that we cannot listen to the Law’s own voice about salvation, but must recontexualize the place of the law within redemptive history based on the later voice of salvation in Christ.

This is what Paul did.

In the words of Herman Ridderbos:

… the function the law occupies in Paul’s proclamation must be seen in the light that for him has dawned in Christ on the law and its works. What makes Paul’s pronouncements on the law so deeply moving and powerful, what causes him to attribute this peculiar, not infrequently paradoxical significance to the law, is not to be accounted for from polemical zeal against Judaism, nor from reading the Old Testament, nor even from the words of Jesus transmitted to him, but it is the light that has burst on him concerning Christ’s death and resurrection, the absolutely new situation that has begun with them and which has regard to the relationship in which every man stands to God in the most existential sense of the world. Only then does the nature of man outside Christ become apparent, does his “own righteousness” on the ground of the works of the law emerge at once in all its wretchedness and self-conceit into the light of day, then too does the insufficiency of the law as a means of salvation first become fully manifest…

When in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection Paul came to the conviction that the law cannot be the means of life and the ground of man’s righteousness before God, this is not a dogmatical-theoretical premise or conclusion, but it rests on the redeeming significance of Christ’ death and resurrection themselves, or, as Paul himself expresses it, on the revelation of the righteousness of God in them, by faith and without works of the law…

It is clearly evident [in Phil 3:4f.] that Paul’s repudiation of the law and its works as means of salvation in the Jewish sense of the word is neither a theoretical dogma, nor rests on subjective experience, but is grounded on that which God has revealed and bestowed of righteousness and life in the death and resurrection of Christ. (Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 137-138)

This is an accurate assessment of Paul, one that E. P. Sanders later popularized with his argument that Paul’s thinking and argument work “from solution to plight”: It is in light of the God’s solution in Christ that Paul assesses not only the plight in which humanity finds itself, but the entire preceding narrative of Israel–and the place of the Law in particular.

Tomorrow I will take up some of the particulars for how this works out, and what Paul actually says about the law when he reassesses its place in the story, based on his convictions about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But for now, here’s the implication for how I will argue and what I will say: a “straight” reading of the OT is of secondary importance for a Christian understanding (or articulating Paul’s view) of the Law. For Christian theology, Deuteronomy or Jeremiah will never have the last, or controlling word, for what role the Law plays in the story of God’s reconciling and rescuing the world.

The OT says that righteousness and life and, ultimately, salvation, come when the people of God faithfully keep the law.

The NT enters with a surprising twist in the story. Life and salvation come through the faithful king, dying on the cross and being raised from the dead.

This changes everything.

Including our understanding of the place of the Law in the story of salvation.

So what is this “new understanding” (and, for that matter, the old one)? Stay tuned…

Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

I heard another one of the stories yesterday. A church in a property dispute. Yes, the resolution was one in which there was some reconciliation at the end, it was story of the surprising power of God showing up in an unexpected place.

But the story was still there. A congregation shut down from above. A building confiscated in the courts. Mounds of money spent on litigation. Oh yeah–and (sarcasm alert) all this happened so as to put the gospel on display for the Christian people of San Francisco who clearly don’t need a beautiful witness since they flock to church in droves every Sunday.


Court was the last straw in my decision not to join a church affiliated with a mainline denomination when we moved out to San Francisco 18 months ago.

I was having a conversation with a woman who wanted to appeal a decision of the local Presbytery. Fair enough. I get that.

And so she got together a cadre of like-minded wealthy churches who were going to help spring for the $100,000+ in legal bills the fight would cost.

Ok, I don’t get that anymore. And maybe I shouldn’t have gotten it in the first place.

I’ve been blogging this week about Sam Wells’ Improvisation, a book full of hope that a people deeply entrenched in their drama will be able to improvise faithfully in their ecclesial settings. The problem is, we can’t even play the story right when we’ve got the script right in front of us.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chides the Corinthians for taking each other to court. The beginning of the chapter outlines a series of ways in which such action undermines the narrative of the gospel: the saints will participate in the final judgment, can’t we then judge matters of this world without taking it before the secular courts? we’re going to judge angels, how about matters of this life?

Actually, says Paul, how to deal with the lawsuits is secondary: it’s already a defeat for you that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Cor 6:7).

But no the story of the American dream is too powerful for our denominations. I have a right to stuff. Even if I didn’t put any money into it, it’s mine. Even if I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, it’s mine and I’ll take it.

I confess, that for all my delight in narrative theology, and resonance with Wells’ narrativally derived improvisational ethics, I often find it difficult to believe that much of it is true–because the church so rarely becomes a living witness to the story it claims as its own.

The Story of the Universt–Part 3: The Father-Gardener

Genesis 2-3 has functioned as a veritable treasure-trove throughout the Christian tradition. Here is where we get indications of male-female relations, here is where we indications of rules set forth by God. Here is where things fall apart when people break the rules so that God has to figure out a new set of rules by which to bless people.

For a universe whose basic ontology is law, what is said about this passage? (1) God gives the moral law, summed up in the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (2) This was, of course, the covenant of works by which, had people kept it, we would have had fruition of God as our benefit and reward. (3) The failure of humanity to keep this covenant leads to the institution of the covenant of grace whereby God promises a new way for his of-late-incapable of earning salvation people to enjoy God forever. (4) The covenant of grace is, of course, a place holder until someone can come along and make good on the law that has not gone away–both bearing the penalty for its transgression and earning the reward of its fulfillment.

A law-based understanding of the cosmos, covenant theology, the idea of double-imputation and the active righteousness of Christ, and penal substitutionary atonement are all mutually reinforcing and interdependent. I’ve been chided for taking on too many red-flag issues, and for brushing with too broad strokes in my recent set of series. But the driving questions of how do we articulate the gospel and why are pushing to the surface how our understandings of law, God’s relationships with people, the work of Christ, our participation in that work, ethics, etc. are all mutually interdependent.

To put a finer point on it: even if a strong promoter of, say, penal substitutionary atonement does not believe in the covenant of works, that atonement theory is the bequest of a system of theology within which both were developed and given prominence due to the architectonic principle of law.

So what happens to Genesis 2-3 if we leave the law east of Eden?

We encounter God the gardener. Like Gen 1, there is no sense of an infinite chasm to be bridged in order for God’s presence and blessing to be known–though the story is vastly different. Here, we have God literally planting a garden, working the dirt, creating a specially cultivated place for humanity to tend not a wild place to tame (contrast Gen 1).

Humans are created with special attention and intimacy: God literally getting God’s hands dirty to form a man; God placing his mouth on the man to breath in the breath of life. Like Gen 1, God then calls on the Man to partner in the sovereignty over creation as ‘Adam names the animals. Later, we hear of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day–God come looking for Adam and Eve.

What’s the point of this picture (from which, I know, I have so far eliminated the trees)? Just that there is a relationship here in which people are enjoying a fullness in their relationship with God and are participating with God in God’s work of cultivation and lordship–and that this is a function of a created relationship, not the function of a legal system. The relationship and the shared work and sharing of space is a picture of shalom that does not come from a from the result of a fulfilled law. If I may risk invoking 1 Timothy here: “We know that law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient.”

So what of the trees? There are three kinds of trees: (1) pleasing to eye and good for food; (2) tree of life; (3) tree of knowledge of good and evil.

This has been the source of the idea that here, in fact, is the nascent law in the garden, and also a reward for obedience: don’t eat like God says, and you’ll get to eat from the tree of life.

A couple of thoughts here about why this situation isn’t intended as “probationary.” First, this becomes the vision for eschatological restoration in both Christianity and Judaism. The idea of a garden with a tree of life, etc., is the expectation for the restoration of the cosmos (even if that garden becomes a city in Revelation, the garden imagery is ubiquitous–see also the tabernacle and temple). The point is, this passage is read not only as a starting point, but an ending point. After all is said and done the “benefit and reward” of being in God’s presence is to be restored to this relationship, where God walks among God’s people and God’s people live in God’s presence. This is not the prelude, this is paradise.

Second, notice that God gives blanket permission to eat from every tree except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God does not forbid them to eat from the tree of life or ask them to wait a few weeks.

Finally, I do think it’s important to take the story of undoing seriously. In the course of the story we find: (1) God’s relationship with humanity is ruptured; (2) people’s relationships with each other are ruptured; (3) people’s relationships with the animals are marred; (4) people’s relationship with the dirt is cursed; and (5) life comes through suffering, toil, travail.

What we need in the light of this disintegration of the created order is restoration, redemption, renewal of our relation to the cosmos from dirt to God. Although subsequent narratives will make it clear that we need right standing before God the judge, the story as it is propelled into a world of sin and falleness is primarily a world in need of restoration: a rightful realigning of everything under the reign of God.

And this is why we ultimately need Christ rather than ultimately needing Law. We need someone who will faithfully restore the rule of God–as we see Jesus doing in the Gospels; we need someone who will reconcile rebellious humanity to God–as we see Jesus doing on the cross; we need someone who will subject the opposing powers–as we see them subjected in the death and resurrection; we need someone who will make us one with each other–as we are made one in the new humanity which is in Christ; we need someone who will make all things new–as Jesus brings about new creation through his and our resurrections.

Story of the Universe–Part 2: The Father-Creator

Otherness. Distance. Unbridgeable gap. Creator.

Humans. Proximity. Creatures.

In the world structured by the transhistorical law of the King Who Is Other, we start off in quite a hole with respect to God: all is duty and obligation by the order of creation, and a special act, an added gift is required, if God is to overcome the fact of our creatureliness and allow us to enjoy the benefits of his love and kindness.

If my representation of this seems stereotyped or clunky, here’s another way of putting it: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (WCF 7.1).

On the one hand, I think that this way of putting it displays at the outset a faulty presupposition that the only way to really be blessed by God is by being rewarded for keeping the Law. But putting that quibble aside, the stories of creation are stories of the Father God creating Children–relationships that entail experiencing full blessing appropriate to the relationship apart from an externally imposed covenant to make way for enjoyment of God in return for our servitude.

To confess belief in “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” is not just a claim about the God Who Is Out There, but about God as God stands in relationship to humanity.

Genesis 1:26-27: And God said, “Let us create humanity in our own image and in our own likeness and let the them have dominion…”

1. In creating people, God begets children. The closest parallel text for seeing the connection between the language of “image and likeness” and “sonship” is Gen 5 (likely from the same source as Gen 1): God created Adam in the image of God, and Adam then has a son, Seth, in his own image and likeness. This is relational language: we can have “benefit of God as our reward” not because God imposes something to overcome the creator-creature distinction, but because God has created us to be God’s children. (Of course, the fall changes things, but we’re at the beginning of the story here, so bear with me.)

“Image of God” indicates a functional identity for humans: we are created with the purpose of representing the rule of God to the world. I would say that a truer representation of the story than what we read in WCF 7.1 would go something like: “Although God created all the creatures and ordered their lives for their own good, they would know nothing of the continuing sovereign reign of God were it not for God’s giving them an earthly representation of God’s own rule–which he has done by way of humanity.”

Getting caught up in our need to fulfill God’s rules of the cosmos, in our need to find something yet to come in our relationship with God, we too easily lose sight of the fact that we had everything, and that we were God’s gift to the world. Which brings us to…

2. In creating people, God displays his missional character. Again, I’m looking at how we know God though the dynamic and deeply contingent realities of how God has worked in history. And in this culminating act of creation (creating people) we discover that God sends a representative, bearing his authority, to represent God to the world. Humanity is created to act for God, to speak for God, to rule over the world that is God’s sovereign prerogative to rule on His own. The plan for people, and their unique commission, is to be God’s emissaries.

When we begin the story, we are not on the outside in need of getting in. When the story starts we are not confronted with a cosmic set of structures put in place with the hope of sending us into the orbit of eternal beatification. When the story starts we are not lacking in the benefits of God’s blessing and “reward.”

In the beginning, God creates a family: princes and princesses who are charged to keep up the King’s work of bringing fruitful life and flourishing to the King’s Dominion. In the beginning, God is Father–of humanity. In the beginning God is the Sender–of humanity. In the beginning, God ties Himself to creation not through a legal code or covenant, but through His image-bearing sent ones ourselves.

Story of the Universe–Part 1: A Storied God

(The following is an encore presentation of a post from the dearly departed Sibboleth blog. The series, posted here this week, will serve as an introduction to the project of this particular blog: what it’s called “Storied Theology” and what it means to speak of a “story-bound God”.)

When our idea of the fundamental fabric of the universe is law (as has been the case in numerous traditions throughout Christian history), we end up with saying some strange or, better, all-too-familiar-but-not-exactly-Christian things about God. When we think of God, what really starts to matter are eternal, unchanging attributes; descriptions that articulate in the clearest way possible that God is other; and, as we’ve discussed with law itself, quite earthy depictions of God get catapulted up into the realm of ideal, trans-historical norms.

An anecdote that lodged itself in my mind: a Turretin scholar was doing a presentation to some pastor-types on God’s self disclosure to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” The punch line of the presentation? “This is God revealing to Moses who God is in Himself–this is who God is in His ontology.”

When everything that really matters is outside of space and time (covenants, law, grace) then divine self-disclosure, showing us what really is true of God must also be outside of time. Of course, I find this claim concerning ontology to be ridiculous. But it is a way of thinking about God that fits perfectly within the system. And in this, the Reformed Tradition is not any more or less guilty than any other–it has adopted a large swath of the church’s posture in thinking that what really matters about God is that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, etc.

All of this assumes that we know who God is and that our real challenge is to figure out what God is. The implication, though, is that what God is will tell us what God is like. And once we’ve gotten to that point, I’d argue that we’ve gone down the wrong trail altogether. To find out what God is like, we need to get our minds around who God is.

And here’s the punchline: the most pervasive way of saying who God is in Scripture is tied to this-worldly particulars: YHWH is the creator, but one who creates in a certain way and not in another; YHWH is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole point of the Exodus narrative is to “introduce” Pharaoh to this God that Pharaoh does not know (and to show how YHWH’s power stacks up to the powers of other gods). God is “the Holy one of Israel”, such that the fate of Israel is reflective of God’s own character and standing in the world.

And, as Christians, our confession about God is tied up with the Christ event: we say that God is the One who justifies the ungodly; we say that God is the One who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist; we say that God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We have not spoken of the Christian God when we have spoken of a “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” We have talked about an ideal for a divinity. We speak of the Christian God when we speak of the God who has acted to send His own Son, to give that Son up for us all, to raise that Son from the dead, and to see to it that the message of this son is sent to the ends of the earth. (You may have read something like this somewhere.)

In other words, one of the most important pay-offs for being willing to have our transhistorical theological categories exchanged for the biblical categories is that it creates space to reconceive of the identity of God as put on display in the biblical narrative itself: a God who is relentlessly on mission to draw the world to Himself.