Tag Archives: theological interpretation

Colloquium on Theological Interpretation, Day 1

I am currently in Auckland, NZ, attending the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation at Laidlaw College.

The environment at the conference is excellent, as have been almost all of the papers.

I won’t bore you with an extended recap of the 8ish papers I heard today, but there have been some common threads that ran through several of the things I heard–common concerns that I take as very good signs for the practice of theological interpretation.

Two of the papers today from OT scholars touched on issues of theodicy–and anti-theodicy. One was focusing on Lamentations and exploring the polyphonic nature of the text–there is dire complaint, there is defending of God, there is a repentant man a complaining woman, a narrator.

The questions the paper was exploring pertained to the ramifications of allowing each voice to stand, without resolving any one perspective into the perspective of another. The paper was pressing the question of what it might mean for communal praxis to embody the type of point, counterpoint; theodicy, anti-theodicy that we find in Lamentations. Similarly, a second OT paper wrestled with the viability of OT theodicy from another angle.

Then, three of the papers that focused on the NT were exploring some aspect of the crucified Christ and/or love as a driving force in our readings of scripture. I was angling for the story of Christ crucified as the controlling identity marker, hermeneutic, and ethic; another presenter used the category of love from John 14 as the essential component to the hermeneutic that leads us into all truth; and a third presenter discussed the Spirit in Galatians as the Spirit of the crucified Christ who, as this Christ-Spirit, leads Jesus’ followers into the life of new creation.

The common thread in all this is that the papers demonstrated a common drive toward a praxis that is both theologically and exegetically viable.

Much of what I’ve heard today represents, to me, the best of what theological interpretation can be. It is not a strong-arming of difficult texts so that they fit preconceived ideas of Christian theology. That caricature of Christian readings of scripture was nowhere to be found today.

Instead, it was a series of demonstrations that what these ancient texts say can be, and should be, life-giving for the communities that receive them as scripture. Faithful exegesis, even when it is somewhat destabilizing of our preconceptions about “how things are” or how they should be, perhaps especially when destabilizing, has the power to draw us to not merely saying the right things about God but acting more faithfully as the people of God.

The Church’s Jesus: On Not Overdoing It

Over the next few days I will likely be saying a bit more about the church’s Jesus, as I began doing yesterday.

But before I get deeper into this, I want to speak a word of balance. Yesterday I made some claims about the church’s Jesus being a Jesus that in some ways the academy could never affirm. The church must always stand in the place of rehearsing Jesus not merely as a historical figure but as one who demands that we follow.

And so, in this sense, what the church does with and says about Jesus will always bear a similarity to the Gospels’ original purpose that the “purely academic” study of the Bible cannot, and does not with to, incur.

But…

Where the church’s readings can start to lose their moorings is precisely the place where academic study not only camps out, but even excels and thereby often surpassed the church’s readings.

In a couple of the proposals for theological interpretation I have read, the church’s ideal stance of “obedience” has been held forth as something that places the church closer to the posture of an “ideal reader” of the text than the historical academic readings. But to my mind this concedes too much to the potential response and too little to the historical context.

The first readers of the Bible were not merely worshipers of YHWH or followers of Jesus. They were not merely people who, ideally, would respond to the exhortations or shape their lives in accordance with the narratives.

They were all these things of course.

But they were also Jews living in exile under Babylonian rule. They were also Jews restored to their land in the Persian period and attempting to eke out a living there. They were also caught up in the currents of Roman rule of the Mediterranean world.

To reconstruct the hearing and response of an ideal reader of the text, taking into consideration that such a reader wishes to faithfully respond to God is a necessary component. But it is insufficient. The ideal reader of the text is also situated in a particular historical and cultural context within which the cues, clues, and commands means certain things, carry particular connotations, and aim for faithful response in that historical and cultural context.

The church needs an academy because the academy is always asking what we too often take for granted: “What was this text really trying to say, what response was it truly attempting to elicit?”

For this, we need more than faith. We need history. And for history, we often discover that those without the constraints of prior answers (i.e., an academy that, as such, has no constraint based on an agreed upon a priori right answer) often provide greater illumination than than those for whom history is not the main thing.

So for all that I said, and meant, yesterday about the church needing to say what the academy (as such) cannot, I will not say that people who do not share the church’s faith cannot read the Bible aright. Often, the academy does better with one of the necessary components (a historically viable reading of the text), even while the church’s posture of obedience allows it to affirm another necessary component.

While we in the church say, “God was at work in this history,” we often have to listen to those outside the church to learn better what “this history” is.

The Church’s Jesus and Israel’s God

Last week I had a couple of confessional moments about theological interpretation and the biblical studies academy. My soul, lifted from the experience, now wants to explore a bit more who this Jesus is that I think is worth following–not the academy’s Jesus, but the church’s Jesus.

And it begins with the inseparability of Jesus from Israel’s God.

There are a few things that this could mean. And some of them are (or at least should be) acknowledged by the academy at all times as well. For instance, the connection between Jesus and Israel means that Jesus was a Jew and must be understood (and understandable) as a first century Jew who spoke and acted among other first century Jews. (Though both church and academy have lost sight of this from time to time.)

But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon.

The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.

Matthew invites us to consider what we are about to see in Jesus as the end of the era marked by Babylonian captivity, the fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham, and the realization of God’s promise to David. The whole story of Israel as such is telescoped into a genealogy marked by these three: Abraham, David, Exile… Christ.

The point of the generations is not merely that time has passed or that history is being observed. In Israel’s story these moments are marked by the dramatically intervening hand of God–for deliverance, yes, but even more so for promise of a better future. The claim of the genealogy is that the God of Israel is at work again, and that this Jesus can only be rightly understood as the one in whom this story culminates (or, perhaps, the one who embodies the story within himself).

Analogously, Mark begins his Gospel with a declaration that all we are about to see is in answer to Isaiah’s Second Exodus. The way of the Lord is being prepared by John the Baptist–and that means that when we see Jesus we see the work of the God of Israel, the deliverance and restoration promised through the prophets is coming about.

Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?

We’re talking here about Jesus in relation to God. We’re not merely talking about how to read the books well–though here, perhaps, we could agree even as an academic guild. But we are talking about who Jesus was and what the proper framework is for interpreting his ministry correctly. While “religious studies” must, as an academic discipline, seek to understand Jesus as like unto other turn-of-the-era religious phenomena, the stories of Jesus themselves demand a different starting point.

Jesus, claim the Gospels, is the one thing that the scriptures had prepared us for; he is the one event we were told to expect. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, the great and saving act of Israel’s God.

And so when Luke begins with a declaration that the things he writes are things that “have been fulfilled among us,” when his story begins with an old barren couple conceiving a child and moves on to songs of promises fulfilled–the point in all is that we only know this Jesus rightly when we recognize that in his advent the God of Israel is at work again.

And when John begins his Gospel with the words that start all of scripture (in the beginning), we are being told that to understand this theos who is on the scene, we must first understand the theos who created the world and all things in it, according to the biblical narrative.

So when the church whose stories these are begins its creed with an affirmation of the God who created heaven and earth, they are giving a necessary (if insufficient) indicator of the identity of the Jesus from whom we derive our unique identity as a people. The church’s Jesus is the messiah sent and empowered by Israel’s God, by the creator God.

What the academy can never say is what the church must say first and foremost and most clearly, as Peter does in Acts 2: This Jesus was a man attested to by God.

By the One God.

By the God of Israel.

“Israel” is not merely a context within which Jesus makes sense, but also a narrative within which God was at work prior to Jesus and consummately at work through Jesus. This is the church’s Jesus. In part…

Blogsphere Confessional: I Don’t Worship the Academy’s Jesus

When I pontificate here on the blog, I am at times hard on the church and celebratory of the academy. Sometimes this is tied to how the church’s theology influences biblical interpretation or how the academy impacts our understanding of what the Bible is and says.

On Thursday, I entered my private confessional booth to acknowledge that I am a theological reader of scripture. In other words, when I grumble about ways that I see theology impacting biblical interpretation I am concerned about how that’s being done, not that people are reading theologically in general.

Today, here in the privacy of my living room, just between you and me (and please don’t tell anyone, this is all very personal), I feel like I’ve just got to confess something about the other side of things. You see, I don’t worship the academy’s Jesus (or the Biblical Studies Academy itself, for that matter).

“The Academy” has all sorts of problems. For one thing, at places like the Society of Biblical Literature you can talk about how the Bible oppresses your people, how it needs to be reread in creative ways if you’re from a certain part of the world or from a particular minority demographic, how its themes impact modern movies, how ancient texts that have nothing to do with the Bible talk about things having nothing to do with the Bible. But reading the Bible as a more or less traditional Christian arouses fierce denunciations–this is not the work of the academic guild!

Now, I must say that despite such challenges, the SBL is a much happier place for people who want to do some sort of theological work with the text. There was a Pauline Theology group for a number of years around the early 90s. There is a Pauline Soteriology group that regularly puts together some of the best sections in the program.

More importantly, however, the Jesus I serve isn’t the Jesus of academic reconstruction. One of the greatest weaknesses of scholarly work with respect to the church is that it too often sees the Bible as something to be gotten behind. What’s “really” important in much of scholarship is the world that inspired the text, what it points to outside of itself.

Modernist definitions of “history” have often too narrowly scripted the scholar’s task. During my time at Duke E. P. Sanders made a passing comment once about how he couldn’t understand scholars talking about the things the Gospels tell us Jesus was thinking or feeling at a given moment. To his way of thinking, that is not the stuff of history and is therefore off limits.

Even reading and understanding the ancient text as an ancient text with its own story to tell? Apparently, that’s not historical work. The job of the gospels is, in this way of thinking, to give us a window on the Jesus who lies behind.

But the historical Jesus is not the Jesus who shows us the way to God.

This is not to say that historical Jesus studies are without value. Often they are of great value (as Sanders’ own work often is) in helping us to be better readers of the texts that make up the canon of Christian teaching. But we never bow the knee to the historical Jesus of anyone’s reconstruction. That would be a bowing of the knee to the academic, and the academy, itself.

Indeed, so long our Jesus is circumscribed by the academy we will not be able to say the most important things there are to say about Jesus: (1) that God was at work in this man, testifying to him by signs and wonders (Acts 2); (2) that this crucified claimant to Israel’s throne is, in fact, resurrected and bodily standing in the presence of God the Father; and (3) that this crucified one is now the Lord over all things.

That Jesus–one in whom God is at work, one who rules the world, can never be the academy’s Jesus. The Jesus who is worth studying can never be the object of academic affirmation as such.

For all my celebration of the ways that academic study of the Bible has made us better readers of scripture and shed light on the text that reading and responding in faith on its own could never do, it is in fact the reading and responding in faith that makes one a faithful reader of the texts that we actually have.

God is Free–For Us

What does it mean for God to be free? For that matter, what does it mean for us to be free? What does it mean for God to speak? What does it mean for God to reveal? And how do we know?

For Barth, to answer any of these questions we have before us two possible roads. Either we can start with our own understanding of the world, and find ourselves in the insoluble dilemma of the impossibility of God’s revealing Godself to us. Or, we can begin with the actuality of God’s revelation of Godself to us in Christ.

And Barth, of course, begins with the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ. This event tells us not only that God can be free for us, reveal Godself to us, but how this revelation is possible.

Here we have an extensive exposition of the fidelity of Barth’s project. God can be for us–and we know because God has been for us. God can reveal–and we know because God has revealed. There is a way for God to stand before humans, who cannot behold the face of God and live, such that we might behold God’s glory and live.

That way is incarnation. The word has become flesh and dwelt among us. God has become human.

The first 44 pages of my ยง1.2 are replete with “Yes!” in the margins. Barth’s insistence that we do not first have abstract qualities such as “righteousness” or even “revelation of God” into which God’s own must fit resonates deeply with me. The righteousness we have is the righteousness of Christ; the revelation is in the Christ event. If we could only learn this, then we would take a huge step together in reading Paul better, in reading the Gospels better. What saves is not an abstract quality called righteousness that God demands, but God’s righteous action on our behalf in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

But…

Within this, I found myself repeatedly disappointed with Barth’s reading of the New Testament’s Christology.

In coming to the text with the central conviction that Jesus is revelation of God as God-man, Barth speaks as though this divinity of the man is, itself, the most basic thing the NT has to tell us about Jesus: “knowledge of the divinity of Jesus Christ was the beginning of the way” (21).

Again, I am not against the divinity of Jesus, but Barth missteps as he makes a facile equation between “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is God”; as well as between “Jesus is the Messiah” and “Jesus is divine.”

The foundational Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord”–but this is a bestowal upon the man Jesus of what was not his before, the name above all names (Phil 2). To say Jesus is Lord is to say that he is Son of God–which is a title born also by the kings of Israel (and others) in the Old Testament.

Why does it matter?

In the end, Barth has a very thin and negative account of humanity in this chapter. What it means for Jesus to be human is summed up principally in the word “flesh”–with a series of negative connotations attached.

Much better would have been to say that for Jesus to be human means he is, fully, “son of man,” and to explore how this Human One is granted incomparable authority by God.

Indeed, when Barth gets to the end of the chapter and claims that here he has given the (only possible) answer to the question, Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?) I can only respond: you have not even begun to address that question.

There is a necessity in the story, a role for humanity in the world, that is confirmed by Jesus enacting the Adamic/ Israelite/ Davidic imperative to faithfully rule the world on God’s behalf. To be human is not merely to be perishable or to live in the realm where sin and death hold sway. These things are true.

But to be human is fundamentally to be destined to the glory of God’s world-ruling children. This is what it means for Jesus to be human–not merely to reveal God, but to reveal what it is to be human. Not mere “likeness of sinful flesh,” but faithful reign over the earth.

Blogsphere Confessional: I Do Theological Interpretation

Confession is good for the soul.

I confess, here just between you and me, that I am a theological interpreter of the Bible.

This is why I named my blog “Storied Theology,” in fact–because I believe deeply that theology is important (there’s the “theology” part).

But also because I am convinced that there are better ways to conceive of the theological task than traditional systematic, confessional, and dogmatic theology. There is a theology that trades in the diachronic and polyvalent nature of scripture itself, and that continues to embrace such inevitable change and diversity as the church itself continues to speak over time.

I am, at times, critical of things that are going on in the “Theological Interpretation” circles of the biblical studies academy. Why? What are those criticisms?

Two issues stand out:

First, there is a tendency among some of the theologians involved in the movement, especially, to use theological readings of scripture as a way to bypass critical issues. I am all for theological interpretation being post-critical (where historical criticism in its modernistic forms does not get the last word), but it cannot go back to being pre-critical.

Thus, for example, we cannot simply say, “God is the author of scripture, so Isa 7 was speaking of a coming, virgin-born Messiah all along,” without also acknowledging that for Isaiah and any audience before the first century that this coming virgin-born Messiah was manifestly not in view.

There is a critical issue that can’t be gotten around, even if we then go on to give a second reading that embraces the Christological telos of the biblical narrative.

Second, I am at times grumpy about “the Rule of Faith.”

From the above, you can see that this does not mean that I am against Christian readings of scripture; and I am not even against a Christian hermeneutic for reading pre-Christ material (in fact, I think that this is necessary).

What makes me nervous, and where I think Christian reading of the Bible has not been helpful in its pre-critical manifestations, is where the Rule of Faith, embodied in the Creeds and Confessions of the church, become the hermeneutic by which our Christian readings are done.

Thus, a Rule of Faith “hermeneutic” might always be approaching Jesus in the New Testament as fully God and fully human, wrestling with how this God-man helps us make sense of the story of Mark. Jesus as God-man might become a way to understand how Jesus can forgive sins, walk on water, or feed 5,000 in the desert.

The idea that we use the rule as a hermeneutical lens has a rich history. But in a post-critical, post-modern environment it cannot be the whole story and often, we must acknowledge now, keeps us from recognizing a better one.

A first reading of Mark should recognize that its Christology is not John’s logos Christology. It may very well be that Jesus here is not depicted as pre-existent at all. We have to wrestle with the fact that neither “Christ” nor “Lord” means “divine” in an early Jewish context, whatever their subsequent connotations in Christian theology.

But such a claim that Mark develops a theology of a human messiah also does not contradict the faith of the church, which always maintains against Gnostic tendencies that Jesus is truly human. It falls within the trajectories set by the church’s Faith without using that Faith as a hermeneutic to transform the meaning of the story or Jesus’ identity within it.

The theology I am for is a theology that takes the Bible seriously–and that Bible as we know it is, in part, the Bible as critical scholarship has opened our eyes to it. And what it means for me to be a Christian is to continue to build theology for the church trusting that this Bible we actually have is, in fact, the Bible that God wants us to have.

While resisting the pre-critical moves that I do not think we can make anymore because we are more aware of issues of theological diversity and the like, I continue to affirm that the God who created the world is the God who has acted in the death and resurrection of Jesus and through the Spirit in the church. I continue to affirm that we know all this only through the Bible which is the record of and witness to, the revelation of God to humanity.

Because the story keeps pointing in these directions, I can continue to say with the church of all times, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son…”

I do theological interpretation because I am convinced that the Bible, a theological construct in its own right, continues to tell us what the church’s story is.

Why Do You Say Such Things?!

Last night I found myself in the happy company of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics once again. And he was, yet again, talking about theological method.

In talking about God, the Christian always begins with revelation as the given. What we mean by God, by salvation, by revelation are all reflections on the actual given of the revelation of God in Christ.

We start with the given. And we attempt to explain.

This is what it means to do Christian theology.

We do not begin with our categories of “God”, and attempt to then describe our God such that our God alone fulfills that category.

We do not begin with our understanding of “the possibility of humanity hearing from God,” but from the given of God’s revelation of Godself to humanity.

At this most basic point of theological method, I find myself in profound agreement with Barth. And, this is why I have been engaging this conversation about Law for the past week.

This is one of the most vexing questions of the NT–What is the relationship of the Law to Christian faith and life? It is one subset of the question that has pressed the church to wrestle within itself for two millennia: where is the continuity and where is the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New?

For Christians, it is these two “givens” that make the place of the Law so challenging to articulate: (1) despite what we might have thought from reading, say, Exodus or Deuteronomy, Christians must confess that the Law was not what Christ is: the means of righteousness and life in the presence of God; and (2) though some commands are repeated in the NT, the Christ event, not the Torah, is the defining standard for measuring the fidelity of the Christian life.

These are the givens. What, then, about the Law?

Its place in the story is surprising. It is something waiting to be “fulfilled” (Matthew); not the giver of life but what witnesses to Jesus (John); the parental stand-in, the power that ruled Israel until maturity came (Galatians); the thing that is passing away (Hebrews).

And, it is precisely in this temporary place, in this witnessing beyond itself to the coming Christ, that the Law is God’s, and good, and an inescapable part of the story of redemption, and what is required as the penultimate gift of God in anticipation of the ultimate gift of grace–in Christ.

None of this I say because of what I think a Law should do.

None of this I say because of what the Law itself says it should do.

All of this I say because it is what we must say if the revelation of God in Christ is true. Christ is holy, righteous, good, necessary and ultimate. Law is holy, righteous, good, necessary, and penultimate.

Law in Romans: Not for Law, but for Christ

First, thank you all for continuing the conversation on Law while I’ve been out of pocket this weekend. I’ll jump into the comments a bit later today.

In the mean time, I want to do two things.

First, briefly, a reminder: what I’m trying to lay out in this series of posts is Paul’s view of the Law, as it comes to light in Romans in particular. Many of the objections have been interesting, and pointing toward other ways of conceiving the relationship between Law and the Christ event or Law and the people of God.

But I find that many, if not most, of the objections are to Paul as much as they are to me. That’s fine, you don’t have to like Paul if you don’t want to. I’ll sell you a book on that in December. But I do think it’s important to highlight that the ways several of you have pushed for more continuity have caused you to say, in essence, Paul is wrong (or at least incomplete).

Second, I have one last thing to say about the purpose of Law in Romans: in Rom 9-10 Paul insists that the Law is used wrongly if it is used so as to delineate the things we should to in order to maintain relationship with God (i.e., pursue righteousness), but it is rightly used if seen as a witness to the coming Christ.

He says this three times in parallel arguments.

First, in Rom 9:30-33. The Gentiles who didn’t pursue righteousness obtained it, but Israel pursuing a Law of righteousness didn’t. Why? Because they didn’t pursue by faith but as though by works.

Now, I know that at first blush this looks like there are two different dispositions a person might have in their Torah-observance (the traditional Protestant reading). But Paul tells us more specifically what he means, and the problem comes down, instead, to whether or not you use the Law to cultivate faith in the coming Christ.

They didn’t pursue by faith, but by works–thereby stumbling over the stumbling stone just as it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.”

What Israel does “wrong” is not believe in the coming Christ. Their failure with respect to the Law is Christological. Instead of looking to Christ, they were looking for the Law to establish what righteousness is–and their own within it.

They were reading the Law self-referentially (referring to themselves and the Law itself) rather than Christo-referentially.

Paul repeats the argument, in essence, in 10:1-4.

Yes, Israel is zealous for God, but not according to knowledge. They are ignorant of God’s righteousness (which Romans has already told us, repeatedly, is to be found in Christ, not Torah) and seeking to establish their own, they didn’t submit themselves to God’s righteousness.

So what does this God-righteousness consist of? And how is it different from “their own?” “For Christ is the end of the Law, for righteousness, unto all who believe.”

The problem with how Israel was using the Law was that they were using it as something that establishes righteousness rather than as pointing to another in whom God would establish righteousness. They were reading the Torah self-referentially rather than Christo-referentially.

A third time Paul says the same thing, this time working out the specifics of the Christ-event as the works that bring righteousness rather than the doing of Torah.

This third argument is found in 10:5-13.

On the one hand, there is the “righteousness that comes from Torah”–what Paul was talking about in 9:32 and 10:3 as well–“Whatever persons does these things will live in them.”

But that’s not the righteousness from faith that reveals God’s own righteousness.

That faith-righteousness speaks of the Christ event: don’t ask who’s going to bring Christ down or raise him from the dead, for the word of faith is near you: confess that Jesus is Lord, believe that God raised him from the dead–this is the means to salvation.

In so outlining faith-righteousness, Paul transforms the words of Deut 30:12-14. Those had spoken of doing Torah as the means of salvation; Paul reads them as presaging the Christ-event as the means of salvation.

The result of this is that Israel does not become the place one has to enter in order to be saved–that people and space circumscribed by Torah.

instead of seeking salvation “in Israel,” all may now seek salvation, on equal footing, “in Christ.” Because the Law is not the source of righteousness–it points away from itself, witnessing to Another who is the source of righteousness. That would be Christ, now raised from the dead and enthroned at God’s right hand.

Torah’s ultimate purpose is thwarted when the Law is read as something to be done rather than as witnessing beyond itself to the coming work of God in Christ.

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.

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.