Friday, August 14, 2009

what "works of the law"? pt. 2

What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."

That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."
(from part 1)

This interpretation has some interesting and, I think, helpful, implications.
What I'm suggesting means that, as one theologian put it, "Paul was not against the law as such - far less against 'good works'! What he aimed his arguments against was the law understood and practiced in such a way as to limit the grace of God, to prevent Gentiles as Gentiles enjoying it in full measure."

This implication shines a lot of light on the book of Acts.
In Acts, Paul does many things that are hard to swallow held next to a traditional Protestant/Lutheran reading of Romans--one which (and I welcome any correction from within those traditions on this point; this has just been my understanding of the popular views) sees Paul as attacking the observance of the law in favor of 'salvation by grace through faith.'

As James remarks to Paul in Acts 21:24, "you yourself also live in observance of the law." This comes in the middle of James's sending Paul to purify himself in the Temple, in hopes of refuting claims in Jerusalem that Paul "teaches all the the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." (21:21) This is a scandalous accusation that James and apparently Paul both want to discredit.

More striking, I think, is the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This chapter is crucial for understanding the Biblical teachings on Jewish-Gentile relations in Christ.
The council is called to address the situation of Gentiles converting to "the Way". Some, Pharisees in particular, believe that these Gentiles ought to be circumcised (:5)--receive the sign of covenant membership. The apostles conclude that the Gentiles need not be circumcised, but, in their Apostolic Decree, they write that Gentiles ought to follow four commands: "abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." (:20)
These commands might seem kind of random at first, but they are actually pulled from the book of Leviticus. These are commands given to foreigners 'sojourning in the midst' of Israel. They aren't required to become Jews, as Gentile converts traditionally were, but they remained Gentiles and adhered to these precepts.
The men carrying this letter then traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch.

A Paul who was totally opposed to Old Testament law, whom many like to suppose wrote Romans, simply doesn't mesh with this Paul in Acts.
However, a Paul arguing against, not law observance, but an attitude of exclusivism--'God is for the Jews!'--does fit here.
In fact, the Council of Jerusalem decides precisely in favor of what Paul is arguing for in Romans: salvation is available to the Gentiles as Gentiles. There's no need for them to convert to 'outward' Judaism: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter." (2:28-29)

In Romans 4, Paul goes on to draw out how it is that the promise to Abraham may apply to the uncircumcised. (Again, Paul is here arguing against an 'ethnocentric exclusivism': 'Abraham and the promise are not merely for the Jews!')
If we want to understand 'works of the law' in the sort of 'standard' way, where it refers merely to 'works that are supposed to earn salvation', this passage seems to be merely an interesting aside.
But if the 'works of the law' that Paul is attacking is instead 'that which distinguishes one as a Jew', his exposition of Genesis 15 makes perfect sense--indeed, it's critical--right where it is.
'You may have thought that justification comes through Jewishness,' he begins, 'but I'm telling you that justification comes through the promise, and the promise is realized through faith.' Abraham's faith, not his circumcision, is what marks him out as the forefather of the people of God, Jewish or otherwise.

This sort of reading of Romans can have some serious ramifications for our reading of the rest of the New Testament (not least of James). It's also got me convinced that "the fundamental problem with which Paul is wrestling in Romans is not how a person may find acceptance with God; the problem is to work out an understanding of the relationship in Christ between Jews and Gentiles." This is what much of the post-gospels New Testament is about, once we start understanding it in context.

This sort of reading of Romans is also exactly the sort of responsible, informed reading that I think Christians have to be doing of our scriptures. Paul wasn't writing in a vacuum--we need to get to know his context. Jesus wasn't a 21st century westerner--we need to know what environment he was in and speaking to, what his terminology meant to his audiences.

There are a lot of great resources out there to help us along the way. Heck, I can think of five theologians off the top of my head who have lead me by the hand in my (this) understanding of Paul. As much as you can, dig into these studies.

More than anything else, though, and before anything else all of us have here to face our call to read and know the scriptures, and to pray for God the Spirit's leadership and guidance. Study the word, and do it as often as you can. Allow God's Spirit--and whatever tools he has placed at your disposal--to direct you in your interpretation and understanding.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post, Nance. (Hey, wait a minute, weren't we just talking about some of this stuff the other day? Note to myself: follow Nance's blog more closely.) I totally agree with your decription (which was well put, and shows a good approach to the whole subject) of the things Paul is standing in opposition in his "grand dichotomy", except on one point--but it's one which does not contradict your view but rather adds to it (and, if I turn out to be wrong about it, then I am guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill, in which case we should let the thing recede into the realm of "minor points"): Rom. 3.30 speaks of God justifying the circumcision "by faith" (ek pisteos) and the uncircumcision "through faith" (dia tis pisteos). I have had for some time a nagging suspicion that something important is lurking behind the difference in prepositions used there, something related to the idea that in Christ God's righteousness has set things right for all of us in such a way that preserves and restates--vindicates, if you will--the original election of Israel. He has certainly not tossed it aside. There is an interesting article on this whole question by Stanley Stowers in Journal of Biblical Literature 108 #4(1989): 665-674. Stowers argues that Origen was on the right track by thinking that more was going on here than some kind of rhetorical flourish on Paul's part, changing up the prepositions when in fact he meant the same thing in each case ("by faith")--though of course on one level it is the same for both groups. I'm not sure what to make of it, and I'm not sure Stowers does either, but I suspect that Paul may be hearkening back to that prophetic paradigm of Israel and the nations--which I think is where he is taking us in the letter, where he arrives in chapter 15. "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." (15.10, quoting Deut. 32.43) Israel was and in Christ remains (in some ways), the firstborn, the elder brother. There is an honor accorded to the first-born, the one who bears priestly obligations for the family of nations. That's my take on what may be running through Paul's mind there.

We need not be afraid of difference maintained within the body of Christ. I think the world desperately needs to see the interaction of people who are not threatened by differences that exist among them. Am I suggesting that there might be some kind of exaltation of Israel within the economy of God's new creation and whatever God understands by the term "ekklesia." Yes, I believe I am. But the fact that these differences stand--or, if you will, kneel--in the shadow of the cross, safeguards the primary reality, i.e., "let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." Given that, all the differences within the unity of the body can be appreciated for what they are. My take is that in the covenant of God's grace we are, as Douglas Knight puts it, brought under the "tutelage" of Israel--but again, it is Israel under its Messiah we are talking about. And, at the end of the day, we all have our turn, in some measure, to learn the priestly obligation and "bear the iniquity" of the world. (Whether the elder brother has the honor of teaching us or not, Israel's Messiah remains the great High Priest and teacher. He is even in that Israel's representative man.) So, it is in any case "in Christ" and under the confession of his lordship that this relation between and Israel and Gentiles obtains, and I can't really say I know what the thing I'm talking about looks like yet.

Well, this whole subject is fascinating, and my appreciation of your approach to it--especially your unwillingness to read James through Pauline (in the Lutheran sense) glasses--grows. May God give us all some new understanding here.


Stephen Crawford said...

Nance, that really was great. I don’t know if you’ve read N.T. Wright’s Justification yet, but you are very much in line with a great deal of what he says. I just finished it myself, and it really helped me so much. Afterward, I returned to Romans and it all just clicks so much better. I did have a few problems with it though, mostly stemming from his own hermeneutical principles, (1) that every piece of the puzzle has to make its way into the final analysis, and (2) when Paul quotes, he usually has the context of the passage he’s quoting in mind. I want to add also that if any book is to be interpreted in terms of another I think the Gospels should be the most informing. This will come back up, so I’ll just jump on in.

The question Paul is answering is whether or not Gentile converts need to be circumcised. The way N.T. Wright sees Paul as answering this problem (at least I think this is what he’s saying in a nutshell) is the old Jewish nationalism falls because God’s covenant with them was always God’s plan to fix the whole world and to bless all nations. Christianity is the fulfillment of the covenant then in that it is outward seeking. The whole point was the Gentiles would be saved. So Wright highlights the outward moving nature of the covenant from its beginning as resolving the tension between Jew and Gentile.

After reading Justification, however, I felt unsatisfied. There’s so much in Romans about grace, that I have a hard time accepting that Paul’s discussion of it is peripheral. It just seems that everything Wright is claiming is correct, and yet it seems like there’s a thread running through this epistle that has not been sufficiently tugged on. Here’s my suggestion:

I wonder if there are two ways Paul is evaluating the tension between Jew and Gentile. One is the approach Wright explicates. The other, that the covenant was always established by the grace of God. If those in Christ become Jews inwardly, prior to Christ every one (Jew included) is inwardly a Gentile. Because of the universal condition of sin (established in 3) everyone is alienated from God. We are all a foreign people. We are spiritual Gentiles. God in His graciousness brings us in. I think this is most wonderfully illustrated when Paul quotes Hosea 2. In Hosea, Israel is called “Not My People”: Israel specifically in this passage, but everyone else can be lumped in too. Therefore, there is no covenant with God but that of grace. I think the Reformers were right to go after self-righteousness as relentlessly as they did, though the particulars of their exegesis were misguided.

I’m not comfortable with Wright’s stance on “works of the law” either. Yes, Paul is referring to the keeping of Torah, but the concept doesn’t seem to be implemented in a static kind of way throughout Romans. I think Paul is rethinking Torah. More precisely, he’s taking on Jesus’ rethinking of Torah. All the law after all hangs on two commands. Paul restates Jesus’ teaching in chapter 13, that love fulfills the law. The law was always moral in nature. Paul is correcting the prevalent misconception that Torah was simply to mark out the people of God. Quite the opposite, through the law comes knowledge of sin. Paul is saying that the purpose of the law is to expose sin. It flushes the snake out of the hole (Wright takes this same reading of Torah, by the way, but mentions it almost in passing). Why does Paul take this stance? I think this is answered in the centrality of faith.

Stephen Crawford said...

[continuing] A lot of times the importance of belief in Christianity seems weirdly arbitrary. If I believe that some guy rose from the dead I’m good to go? Paul gives a much more practical explanation. “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed (10:13)?” Paul could have also asked how they are to call on the Lord for salvation who don’t think they need saving. Only those who know they’re sick will seek out a physician. Again I think this brings Paul into close quarters with Jesus. Our Lord’s critique of Pharisees, the one’s most devoted to the keeping of Torah, was that they were self-righteous. I’m thinking specifically of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the temple, but it really (I think) saturates the Gospels. The point is that the humble are exalted. I also think this touches on the theme that runs through Romans about our minds being renewed. God can make anyone be loving He wants. They wouldn’t know He was the cause of it, but He could nonetheless (we all have an immediate sense of this at our conversion). That’s the point, though. He is the one who does this for us. He will cause us to live in houses we did not build, furnished with things we did not make, drinking from wells we did not dig, doing loving things we could not have mustered out of our own resources. And we will know that He is the Lord.

I am not trying to diverge from the fact that Paul is obviously arguing against ethnocentric exclusivism. I think he is offering this exposition of the Gospel of Grace in order to say that that kind of snobbery is utterly out of court on these terms. I would also point out that when Paul addresses the relationship between Jew and Gentile in his letter to the Ephesians it occurs right next to one of his most explicit statements that the New Covenant is utterly based on grace. I think that Ephesians 2:11-22 should be read as an outworking of 1-10, or as the character of 1-10 translated, though retaining the same character, in order to address this particular problem. Note the tone and pattern of the earlier passage being reiterated in the passage that follows it.

I think this reading does much to unify Romans, as does N.T. Wright’s reading. All of Wright’s complaints about the Reformed perspective should be satisfied, i.e. Paul’s mention of Abraham is not accidental but essential, chapters 9-11 are the culmination of the argument rather than 8, and everything else that Wright accomplishes in his exegesis can sit very comfortably alongside (or even within) this reading. Moreover, I think this does much to unify Paul’s thought as a whole (think about that looming theme in II Corinthians, that we are earthen vessels so that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us). Moreover, I think this reading does much to unify the New Testament as a whole, bringing Paul in line with a great deal of the Gospel. As for how we square Paul and James, I think both can co-exist without doing damage to either. I think Paul would understand our good works, i.e. our keeping of the law as the outworking of the love in our hearts which God Himself poured into us by His Spirit, as the New Creation that our Lord is bringing about in us, which will be completed on the Day of Jesus Christ. Therefore if this recreation is not visible in your life, your faith is not real, i.e. you have not asked Jesus to move into your life by His Spirit with a transforming presence. Jesus is a good guest. If someone invites you over to their place, always leave it nicer than you found it. And so along the line James is following, if God says to us “Go in peace,” but does not supply our spiritual needs, what is the good of that?

This is all just my reaction to that wonderful book Tom gave us, though. I don’t know if any of this is really credible or tenable. I know I said a lot really quickly, and it’s only a rough sketch of how I see Romans piecing together. Still, I’m anxious for feedback.

Stephen Crawford said...

One last comment: I really wish I could bounce this off of N.T. Wright himself, as I'm sure he would be able to quickly correct me where I've gone astray. Those really are just my impressions, but I still feel presumptuous for straying so far from N.T. Wright. After all, he's N.T. Wright.

Stephen Crawford said...

After thinking more about my post last night there were a few more things I’d like to add.

First, I don’t think Paul is giving two distinct answers to the problem of Gentile circumcision. I don’t think Paul says, “On one hand the covenant was always meant to be through Israel for the world; on the other, no one approaches God but by His grace. Neither of these reasons nullifies God’s promise to Israel, but rather they fulfill it.” I do think that Paul is answering the issue of Gentile circumcision with a unified Gospel, and so these two threads are not separate but really are organically united, being two aspects of the same phenomena that is the Gospel. Romans is both soteriological and ecclesiological. Grace and Church complement one another. This is because God’s grace to us is that He establishes the Church. God doesn’t just heal individuals and then say, “Now go find the others.” He heals us in community.

I really liked Wright’s stuff on justification itself. I hope I’ve understood it correctly, but, as it seems to me, this is the very place where these two themes meet. When we were baptized into Jesus, we were baptized into His death. He becomes our representative, so that what’s true of Him is true of us. Therein, His death counts as our death, so that our sins are reckoned as having been dealt with. That’s the point of contact, where He is our head, and we are His body. And if we are knit to Him in His death, we will also share in His resurrection and vindication. Justification and incorporation are identical. Immediately this makes me think of a couple images. One, in Jesus’ death He truly became like us in every way. He was completely bound up with humanity, as though becoming one flesh. Two, I love that the Lord’s Supper simultaneously represents atonement for our sins, and His flesh and blood becoming ours. If this is the case, though, that justification is identical with incorporation, the church is not something tacked on afterward, a by-product of the fact that God was saving more than one person. It is essential. Being brought into the Church is the same thing as being brought into Jesus.

Second, I want to revisit the issue of James. I think I might have put him into too small a box. I think that God is not only restoring our works, He is restoring us. He us remaking us so that we can again take up the office originally appointed for Adam. We are to be gardeners, whose home is Eden (Heaven or paradise), and we are commissioned to fill the earth and subdue it, bringing Eden out into an unfinished world. This is creative work, and being restored to the image of God means we are called to move in the world creatively. This has been helpful for me to think about recently, because part of taking James more seriously than he’s been taken in the past means we have to realize that our faith is animated by our works. That is, one could conclude from too much emphasis on Paul that we should only wait till God moves us. As one preacher put it, we try to feel our way into an action; sometimes, we have to act our way into a feeling. That sounds bad, but one author notes that Adam named the animals what he wanted to name them. He didn’t timidly beg God to name the animals for him. The really difficult part is living into this freedom while simultaneously giving glory to God. I think it is the mark of Christian maturity, and it rests on a stubborn commitment to this idea that God is utterly responsible for all of this, we exercise our freedom in order to glorify Him and reflect His character, and that we are predisposed to try and steal that glory for ourselves and claim that the accomplishment originates with us.

Again, these are more musings. I hope they are good. (More importantly, I hope they’re not out of line with scripture or even just plain heretical.) I’ve written so much because I’ve been thinking a lot about these things, and I haven’t really had anybody to talk to about them, so it’s good to get my thoughts out there and offer them up for discussion.