Questions about Paul

I've tried writing about Paul's view of the law, but I'm finding it very difficult. When I think I've come to understand something about his understanding of the law, I discover something I had previously overlooked that contradicts it. I'm quite willing to accept that Paul contradicted himself, but for now I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that I've misunderstood him.

One series of statements that he makes has struck me as rather curious.
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— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5.12–21)
I've italicised the last two verses because it's these that struck me as odd. Paul says in a number of places that the law increases sin. For example:
While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (Rom 7.5)
He is careful to say that he is not directely blaming the law for sin:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Rom 7.7-8)
It's not the law that is responsible for his sin, but sin (understood here, apparently, as a kind of malevolent cosmic power) used the law to make him transgress the law.
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom 7.9-11)
He seems to be saying that the law, which he acknowledges comes from God, was given despite the fact that the malevolent cosmic power of sin would only use it to make people sin even more.

This would seem to raise the question, why would God give the law if it was only going to increase sin? Paul answers this, kind of, in Galatians:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. (Gal 3.19)
In the same letter he says "the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came" (Gal 3.24). But if the law was supposed to act as a "disciplinarian" (paidagōgos, someone involved in the education, discipline, etc., of children), and so presumably given in order to decrease sin, does this mean God didn't know that the opposite was going to happen? It is difficult to imagine Paul thinking that.

Granted, he made these conflicting claims in separate letters, Galatians first, and then Romans. It is apparent that his thinking changed over time. This would explain the conflict between Galatians and Romans, but it doesn't leave the weirdness of Romans unresolved.

For instance, he writes:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8.19-21)
And later:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Rom 11.32; cf. Gal 3.22-23)
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Paul thinks it was God's will that humans sin, just so that God could later save humans (i.e., through Christ).

I find this impossible to accept. But there is one thing about this idea that I think is of value, namely the idea that what Paul calls "sin," which is what we experience as estrangement from God, is not something unintended by God.

This is something I'll have to explore further in the future.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Religious Beliefs

I've been rather amused lately to read the latest attempts by conservatives to co-opt Dr. King's legacy by claiming him as one of their own.

I wonder how many of them, if they knew what he really believed, would even consider him a Christian.

Anyone who doubts that Dr. King was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive needs to read "King's God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." by Be Scofield.


Paul on "living according to the flesh"

[Note: It has occurred to me that, if I pursued my previous plan of providing background information prior to my reflections on Paul, I would take a long time to actually get to Paul himself. Instead, I'm going to jump right into what I think needs to be recovered from Paul, and I'll provide background information along the way, as necessary.]

One of Paul's most important terms is sarx, "flesh." He uses it some 72 times in his undisputed letters, and some of the time he means what you would probably think he means. But often he means something quite different.

For example, he frequently contrasts living "according to the flesh" (kata sarka) with living "according to the Spirit" (kata pneuma):
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8.5-8)
It's not difficult to see why Paul is often interpreted dualistically, as if Paul was privileging the immaterial "Spirit" over the material "flesh." But this is not what he has in mind.

Living "according to the flesh" means living according to merely human standards. Indeed, the phrase kata sarka is often translated "according to human standards," or something similar (see how the NRSV translates 1 Cor 1.26; 2 Cor 1.17, 10.2-3, and 11.18). He is referring to how much of what we do in life is geared toward living up to other people's expectations, or living according to merely human inclinations. We easily get caught up in this, and lose sight of what is truly of value. Why does this happen? And why are merely human inclinations deficient?

Paul's answer is "sin." But he does not simply mean that people do bad things, or violate divine commandments. Paul's understanding of sin is quite distinctive. When he says "both Jews and Greeks," by which he means everyone, "are under the power of sin" (Rom 3.9), it becomes apparent that he thinks of sin as something more than a wrong action.

It might be difficult for us to hear that we "are under the power of sin" without hearing that as a moral judgment, but that is not what Paul means at all. Sin, for Paul, is simply part of the human condition.

It seems to me that what Paul understands as "Adam's sin" effects us in two ways. One is external, and pertains to the broken human world we are born into and in which we are socialised. We are "conformed to this age," as Paul puts it (Rom 12.2).1

The other is internal, and refers to our individual human weaknesses: our minds are "darkened" (Rom 1.21), obscuring our vision of what is true and good; and even when we know what is good, we often fail to do it (Rom 7.15ff.).

When you think about it, these external and internal factors are mutually reinforcing. The social world in which we live, being the product of human weakness, sells us a false vision of what life is about, of what is true, and of what is good. And, being weak ourselves, we buy into it. Having bought into it, we pass this on through our participation in the socialisation of others, not least our children.

We see this today in modern consumerist culture, which is a particularly stark example of "living according to the flesh," when that phrase is correctly understood. The values that drive consumerism are not enlightened values. Most people will agree with this, but it doesn't mean they haven't bought into it.

But it would be a mistake to think that this applies only in the secular world. Religion, too, is easily corrupted when minds are "set on the flesh." Those in positions of power will conceive of and promulgate doctrines that support their power rather than lead others to truth, and those subject to them will fail to recognise this, because it's more comfortable to avoid thinking about it. So the blind lead the blind, as Jesus said (cf. Matt 15.14).

Paul's critique of some of his fellow Jewish Christians' understanding of the law will shed some further light on this.

I'll probably write about that next.


[1] The NRSV translates tō aiōni "world" rather than "age." James D.G. Dunn says this verse "indicates recognition of a power or force which molds character and conduct and which “this age” exercises; Paul in effect recognizes the power of social groups, cultural norms, institutions, and traditions to mold patterns of individual behavior" (Romans, WBC 38B, 712).

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As I've been preparing my series of posts about Paul, I've found myself having to provide a lot of background information that isn't specifically about Paul. I've decided to dedicate this post to the necessary background information, and will get to Paul after that.


One problem with reading the Bible in translation is that the connections between words in the original languages can be lost. This is true of a particular group of words that are very important in the letters of Paul. So while it is not clear in English translations that the words "righteousness" and "justification" have much of a connection at all, it is quite clear in the original Greek words, dikaiosynē and dikaiōsis, respectively. I will eventually want to say something about Paul's doctrine of justification, so it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word "righteousness."

So what is "righteousness" (dikaiosynē)? It's not a word we often use in everyday speech, and for a lot of people it has a somewhat negative connotation, probably because of the more commonly used term, "self-righteousness."1

In Greek secular usage, the term "righteousness" was primarily a legal term. The righteousness of a judge, for example, would consist in the justness of his decisions. So, in a legal context, dikaiosynē would be understood as having something to do with justice. Paul's use of the term has often been understood in this sense. But scholars have become increasingly aware that Greek-speaking Jews would also have understood the term as having a religious meaning which was rather different from the secular one. For Greek-speaking Jews, the term "righteousness" would also be understood as a relational concept. "Righteousness," as James Dunn explains, pertains to "the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is a part."2

The Righteousness of God

There is some debate over the meaning of Paul's phrase "the righteousness of God" (dikaiosynē theou). Some scholars interpret this to mean "righteousness bestowed on others by God," which would refer to the justification (dikaiōsis) of individuals. But more and more scholars have begun to interpret this differently, as a characteristic or activity of God.3

The phrase "righteousness of God" can be understood in both the legal and the relational sense. In the legal sense, it would refer to God as a fair judge, which is a common enough way of understanding God. But, understood in the relational sense, it would refer to God's faithfulness to the relationships in which he plays a part. For Jews, this would most obviously be the covenant between God and Israel. But, more broadly, it would also refer to God's relationship with all of creation. In this case, the righteousness of God would be understood as God's faithfulness to his plan for the universe. Both of these ways of understanding the "righteousness of God" will be important when we get to Paul.

God's Plan for Creation

Virginia Wiles, in her book Making Sense of Paul, explains this part very nicely. She writes,
God's goal for the cosmos is shalom—peace. Peace can be described as the absence of enmity: The lion and the lamb lie down together (Isa 11:6); warring humans "beat their swords into ploughshares" (Isa 2:4). Stated positively, shalom is that existence in which everything fits together—a good place for everything, and everything in its place. Shalom is order; it is right-relatedness; it is wholeness. Shalom is the integrity of the whole—of the whole created cosmos, of everything that is.4
[One meaning of] God's righteousness is God's active bringing together of the whole of the created order. God's righteousness is God's shalom-making activity. This assumes that the world is not in peace, is not at peace. And God intends to put the world at peace, to "peace" the world together.5
Wiles notes that, upon hearing this way of describing God's righteousness, we are confronted with a bit of a problem: namely, that God does not appear to be doing this very well. This, she says, is something with which Paul and other first century Jews would have agreed.6 This brings us to the next meaning of the "righteousness of God."

God's Covenant with Israel

The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe first the creation of the universe, followed by a story of things falling apart. Clearly humans are making a mess of things, but God does not give up. He decides to do something unprecedented in the hope that things can get back on track. He tells Abraham (then Abram),
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12.1-3)
So God's promise is made to Abraham and his descendents, but it ultimately includes "all the families of the earth"; indeed, God will later tell Abraham, "by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves" (Gen 22.18). From this, as well as various promises made by God throughout the Bible (particularly the Psalms and the prophets, like Isaiah), we can see that God's promise includes far more than just the people of Israel. It includes all people, and, for that matter, the entire cosmos.


James Dunn, in his book The Theology of Paul the Apostle, describes the relational (or "covenantal") understanding of righteousness as "through and through Hebraic/biblical/Jewish in character," and understanding it this way "is a key factor in gaining a secure hold on Paul's teaching on justification." In light of the historic tendency among Christians to see Paul as a Christian in opposition to Judaism, it is not surprising that Paul's use of the term "righteousness" has not been understood this way until relatively recently. However, although many scholars have come to acknowledge this sense of the term, "the ramifications of the insight have been too little appreciated in much discussion of Paul's theology."7 I'll discuss this some more when I get to Paul's doctrine of justification.

Before I do that, though, I need to say a few more things about the covenant, and specifically the Law. That will be my next post.


[1] Virginia Wiles makes this point in Making Sense of Paul, 24.

[2] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 341.

[3] Dunn, Theology, 337.

[4] Wiles, Making, 24-25.

[5] Wiles, Making, 25.

[6] Wiles, Making, 25.

[7] Dunn, Theology, 342.

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I think I need to write about Paul

A lot of progressive Christians (which would mean most people who read this blog, I suspect) are not big on St. Paul. Marcus J. Borg has noted this in one of his books, and I think his explanation for this widespread dislike of Paul is basically correct:
A number of factors feed the negativity regarding Paul. Some people (including some historians) see Paul as the perverter of the gospel of Jesus, someone who turned Jesus of Nazareth into a divine being and distorted Jesus' message into a complex and convoluted abstract mythological-theological belief system. In the view of these particular critics, Jesus is good, Paul is bad. Certain other critics see Paul as a puritanical moralist preoccupied with sin and guilt, sacrifice and atonement. Still others are put off particularly by passages about gender and sex. The most negative statement about women in the New Testament is found in a letter attributed to Paul, and other passages commonly attributed to Paul speak about the duty of wives to submit themselves to their husbands. Paul is frequently quoted negatively about homosexuality and even about sexuality in general. Moreover, Paul's letters are often difficult and obscure, opaque rather than luminous.1
I agreed with many of these criticisms of Paul myself after taking an introductory New Testament course as an undergraduate--and I would still agree with some of them--but my mind was changed considerably the next year when I took a course specifically dealing with Paul. I became convinced that Paul can be an important ally in the push to define a progressive and authentic form of Christianity, and I believe that even more today.

One important thing I learned in that Paul course--something that has not penetrated into the mainstream Chrisitan consciousness--is that Paul has been vastly misunderstood throughout Christian history. Some people scoff at this idea, and accuse the scholars who argue this of being arrogant for questioning two thousand years of tradition, but there is a compelling explanation for why this is so: for almost all of Christian history, Paul has been read as if he was a Christian writing against Judaism, when in fact he never considered himself to be a non-Jew. Even worse, most Christians have read his writings with a defective understanding of Second Temple Judaism, which is hardly surprising given historical Christian attitudes toward Judaism. If you misidentify a person's religion, and misunderstand the religious context in which they wrote, you cannot hope to understand their theology without serious distortions.

Some important developments in the last century have changed things dramatically. Most importantly, the Holocaust forced many Christians to seriously reexamine the theological roots of the poisonous attitudes Christians have historically harboured toward Jews. Additionally, archaeological discoveries, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, have allowed us to understand Judaism (particularly in its Second Temple varieties) much better than was ever possible before. It is also the case that much-improved relationships between many Christians and Jews has resulted in greater interaction between scholars of the two religions. Improvements in methodology, advances in technology, and a whole host of other things have contributed as well.

Now, in the last couple of weeks I've been (re-)reading a number of good books about Paul, as well as carefully reading several of his letters, and it has inspired me to devote some time to writing about Paul, while connecting some of his important and frequently misunderstood insights to some of the other things I usually write about on this blog. I've already written a bunch of material. If I can wrestle it into shape, I should be able to post several times this week.


[1] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 228. In a couple of endnotes pertaining to this passage, Borg notes that many of the offensive passages are in books that are not widely considered to be authentic among scholars, and that others can be read in more than one way (258nn.1, 2). Only the most conservative scholars, usually Evangelicals, think Paul actually wrote the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. A substantial majority would add Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians to the list of epistles not written by Paul. I've written about some of the implications of this here.

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Secularisation: Not the problem

Heidi Schlumpf posted this on NCR:

I have to agree with English Bishop Kieran Conry, who recently questioned Pope Benedict's creation of a new evangelization council because it seems to imply that secularization--rather than the church's own failures--is at the heart of declining numbers of Catholics in Europe and elsewhere.

"My own personal opinion — I would stress that this is a personal opinion — is that I am not entirely convinced by this secularization argument. It suggests that the church's problems are external, in other words society has gone wrong, but the church is fine," he told the BBC on Sunday.

Evangelization, or spreading the Good News, is the whole point of the church, he said, but the church isn't doing it very well. It needs "to become a little more tolerant, accessible, welcoming, compassionate. All the things that, for many people, it is not."


I would have to agree with that, too.

It really perplexes me when people complain about secularisation. I've become quite convinced that people who complain about secularisation don't really know what they're complaining about, or what they would "replace" it with. (I would even argue that it has been good for religion in some ways, in that it has forced a lot of people to grow up spiritually. That is the problem the magisterium needs to address, but doesn't want to, or can't.)

What convinced me of this was Charles Taylor's massively important book, A Secular Age, which I read earlier this summer. I haven't gotten around to writing about it yet--it's 776 pages of very dense prose, not including the endnotes, so it's not the easiest book to review--but I'll try to say something about it soon.



Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? by James D.G. Dunn

In the introduction to his latest book, James D.G. Dunn writes:
The title of this book is of course controversial--intentionally so, because the issue itself is unavoidably controversial--Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The immediate answer that most Christians will want to give is, 'Of course they did.'
Such Christians might well be surprised--possibly even disturbed--by the answer Dunn gives in his conclusion. The book is brief--only 151 pages, not including the bibliography and indices--but his examination of the evidence is very thorough, and his conclusion is well argued. He frequently interacts with the work of two other British scholars who have paid considerable attention to this question--and answered it in the affirmative--Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.

One problem that confronts anyone who seriously engages with this question is the meaning of the term "worship." Dunn suggests that, whatever else it might mean, it amounts to an affirmation of the deity of the one worshipped. His first chapter considers the language of worship in the New Testament, which clearly demonstrates the problem. The most common word translated as "worship" is the verb proskynein, which generally means "(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully," according to the authoritative Bauer-Danker lexicon. Often the word is indeed used to denote an action directed toward God. Other times, however, these same words simply mean bowing down or prostrating oneself before a superior, as when Jacob bows down before his brother Esau (Gen 33.3 LXX), or when a slave in one of Jesus's parables falls down on his knees before his master (Matt 18.26). So when proskynein is used to describe an action done toward Jesus, which is it? An affirmation of his deity (worship), or merely bowing down before a superior?

Other terms are similarly ambiguous. The ones that are not--such as the verb latreuein and it's corresponding noun, latreia--describe actions that are always directed toward God, never to Jesus. As far as the language of worship goes, the answer to the question would seem to be, as Dunn puts it, "'Generally no', or 'Only occasionally', or 'Only with some reserve.'"

Dunn next looks at the practice of worship, which is divided into four categories: prayer, hymns, sacred places/times/meals/people, and finally sacrifice. With the exception of sacred meals, where the "Lord's dinner/supper" (later, the "Eucharist") seems to reflect "a devotion to Christ that at least is not far from worship," there is little that would change the tentative answer reached by the end of the first chapter. Dunn finds that the distinctive practice of the earliest Christians might suggest that the question itself is misguided. He suggests instead that we should be asking whether early Christian worship was possible without reference to Christ, and also whether such worship was in part directed toward him, or only to God.

Dunn takes the next several chapters to answer these questions. He looks at how early ways of expressing "high christology" compare with Jewish ways of conceiving the immanence of God during the Second Temple period, for example, as Spirit, Wisdom, or Word. Since early high christologies appropriated these ideas, the question of whether they were ever considered the proper object of worship is quite relevant. He also questions whether the NT writers thought of Jesus as sharing in the "divine identity" of the one God of Israel, as Richard Bauckham maintains, ultimately concluding that they did not.

Dunn concludes his book with his final answer to the question. He notes that
there are problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. For, if what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This struck me as quite an honest admission from someone who is apparently an Evangelical (something I've had difficulty confirming). But this will not surprise anyone familiar with Dunn's work. I have always found him to be an honest and rigorous scholar.

I really enjoyed this book. Dunn, a Scot who taught for many years at the University of Durham, always writes in an engaging and accessible style. He is quite thorough in his investigation, and I think he weighs the evidence carefully and fairly. I sometimes wondered if he wasn't being a little too thorough, considering "evidence" that would scarcely make a difference regardless of how it was evaluated, but this is a minor quibble. The implications of his basically negative answer are not insignificant, but I imagine this will be most true for those Protestants who are loathe to admit any serious post-biblical development to their understanding of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, this book raises some questions that every thoughtful Christian should think about, and I highly recommend it.

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