Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Abraham: Father of Righteousness Apart from the Law

Paul has been arguing that a new righteousness is possible apart from the law. This is a bold claim on Paul's part. In an earlier post, I noted the objection that Paul's fellow first century Jews likely would have offered to what Paul says in Romans 2:26:
"So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law...."
We don't even need to finish the sentence. Paul's contemporaries surely would have found the premise itself to be contradictory. They likely would have asked "How can one be uncircumcised and keep the law when circumcision itself is a key component of the law?" In order to answer that question, Paul returns to the very origins of circumcision.

In Romans 4, Paul supports and illustrates his claim that righteousness apart from the law is possible by recounting the story of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Israel. God promised Abraham that if he followed God then he would be made the father of many nations and that all the people of the earth would be blessed by his offspring. As such an important figure, Abraham serves as a sort of paradigm for all of Israel. There is a sense in which what is true for Abraham is true for God's people. He is not merely one example among many Paul could have utilized. Abraham, more so than any other individual figure, is really the example when it comes to the identity of Israel. And it was with Abraham that circumcision became an identifying mark of Israel. God commanded Abraham to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham. God commanded that all of Abraham's descendants be circumcised as well as a sign of their participation in this same covenant.

Here we begin to get a sense of why circumcision, which probably seems an arbitrary and inconsequential thing to us, was of such great importance to the Jewish people. It was commanded by God and it was a sign of God's call to Abraham, the very beginnings of Israel. It was a sign of God's promises to Abraham and his descendants. It was a sign of Israel's continued participation in that very same covenant. It was nothing less than a symbol of God's faithfulness to Israel and Israel's faithful response. It is probably not an overstatement to say that circumcision was synonymous with what it mean to be Israel, to be God's people. Abraham is precisely the figure that Paul's opponents would have cited (and did, if Galatians is any indication) as the reason why one must be circumcised in order to keep the law and participate in God's covenant. It is because of Abraham, they would have argued, that one can not keep the law and remain uncircumcised.

It is a demonstration of Paul's keen mind at work re-reading the scriptures in light of Christ that he managed to use the very figure who formed the crux of his opponents argument to make his own point which was precisely the opposite of theirs. The critical turn in Paul's argument is found in 4:9-11:
"Is this blessing then only for the circumcised or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith(fulness) was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after but before he was circumcised."
God counted Abraham as righteous in Genesis 15. God did not require Abraham to be circumcised until Genesis 17.  God counted Abraham as righteous before he was circumcised. That is, Abraham actually serves as the perfect example for Paul's argument because Abraham was considered righteous apart from circumcision, apart from the law. The scriptures themselves claim that God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith(fulness). 

It is faith(fulness), Paul radically claims, not circumcision or adherence to the law which has always been the true mark of God's people. Abraham demonstrated this same faith(fulness) by trusting God even when he was old and had no heir, even when God demanded the sacrifice of his heir. Abraham was righteous not because of circumcision but because he lived faithfully before God and what is true for Abraham is true for all God's people. When there is not yet a God-given law, when that God-given law fails to produce righteousness, when God is doing crazy things like promising a fatherhood of nations to an old and childless couple or raising God's messiah from the dead, "the righteous out of faithfulness will live." 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Righteousness, New Law

Paul finished the previous section of his letter having articulated the problematic predicament of humanity. We are a people too weak to stand up to the power of sin. Likewise, God's good and gracious provision of the law was too weak to help us make that stand. All it could do was point to the reality of sin. It couldn't help to defend against it. How do we know this? Because Israel's own story, its own scriptures attest to the fact. Despite hundreds of years of following the law still "there is no one righteous, not even one."

"But now..." v. 21 begins. But now something new has happened. But now there is a new possibility for righteousness. But now an entirely new epoch in history has dawned because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. But now a new strength has come to rescue our weak flesh. "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets - the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe."* This new righteousness, Paul claims, is for Jew and Gentile alike since there is no real difference between them since both have sinned. It is a gift freely given out of the redemption and atonement accomplished in Christ Jesus. As a result, there can be no boasting of Jewish Christians over Gentile Christians (or the other way around) since both are made righteous by the same God on account of the same faithfulness.

But just because God's righteousness has now been revealed apart from the law doesn't mean that God has now done away with law entirely. Rather this new righteousness revealed in Jesus requires a new kind of law. Paul says it is a law of faithfulness instead of the law of works. That is, rather than righteousness being determined by works of the Jewish law (things like circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws) the source of righteousness is now the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and living faithfully out of and in imitation of that faithfulness is the law which followers of Jesus are called to obey. Jesus is both the new righteousness revealed apart from the law and the new law of faithfulness. 

But even to call this righteousness and this law "new" is a fairly serious misnomer if by that we mean that it has no connection to what is "old". To be sure, Paul's claim that Jesus is God's righteousness and God's law is radically new in some very substantial ways. It is no small thing that Paul claimed that circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance were not necessary for Gentiles to be considered righteous. These were central pieces of Jewish identity and themselves crucial parts of the law that God had given Israel. But, in other ways, Paul wants us to see that this new law and new righteousness in Jesus really aren't so new - at least not so new as to be entirely alien to God's history with Israel. After all, Paul says that this righteousness is witnessed to by the law and the prophets.

One of those prophets was Habakkuk whom Paul has already quoted in 1:17. Paul's language in these latter verses of chapter 3 echoes and expands on much of the language Paul use in 1:17  and by that connections helps us to see yet again why that quotation from Habakkuk is so critical to Paul's understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ. In Habakkuk's opening verses we hear that the law is paralyzed and that justice goes forth perverted. This is precisely the same thing that Paul has been arguing in the opening chapters of Romans; that the law is paralyzed, weak, and powerless to produce true righteousness. In Habakkuk chapter 2, the prophet declares that "the righteous will live out of faithfulness." In other words, in a time when when the law is failing to serve its purpose and God is doing strange and unexpected things like using the Babylonians as his instrument to make Israel righteous, those who wish to be counted as righteous will still live faithfully before God trusting in God's faithfulness even its strange, new forms. Paul sees a parallel here as well; since the law has failed to produce righteousness a new righteousness must come through a life of faithfulness, even if it is the strange and unexpected faithfulness of a crucified messiah. Paul sees Habakkuk as a precedent for arguing that this is not the first time that God has called the righteous to live by a law of faithfulness as an alternative to a law of works. What is new is that this faithfulness has been embodied in the person of Jesus, the crucified messiah.  He is the new law and Paul believes that the law of Christ can produce true righteousness in a way the law of works never could.

*You may have noticed that I translated this phrase in v.22 as "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" rather than "faith in Jesus Christ." There are two issues that allow this phrase to be translated in these two ways. The first is that the word "pistis" in Greek can be translated either as "faith" or "faithfulness". It really means both intertwined together but one aspect of the word can be emphasized more than the other in certain contexts. 

The second is an issue of Greek grammar. The words "of" or "in" are not actually in the Greek text of Romans 3:22. Instead, this phrase is in what is known as the genitive case. (In English, word order is an important part of determining the meaning of a sentence. So, for example, in the sentence "Dave teaches his class lots of crazy Greek stuff." we know that "Dave" is the subject of the sentence because it comes before the verb. Greek, on the other hand, uses a case system to indicate how a word functions in the sentence. A change in case is indicated by a slight change in the spelling of a word. So, for example, "Jesus Christ" which is "Iesous Christos" in the nominative case becomes "Iesou Christou" in the genitive case.) The most typical use of the genitive case is to indicate possession but it can have a whole range of meanings throughout the New Testament. 

Two of those possibilities are known as the subjective genitive and objective genitive. You can see something similar to this in English in a phrase like the "the love of God." Does that phrase refer to God's love for us or our love for God? Is God doing the loving (so God is the subject, a subjective genitive) or is God receiving the love (so God is the object of the love, an objective genitive)? It can mean either or maybe even both at the same time but the only way you would be able to decide would be context. What makes the most sense with what is around it? If Paul said "Christ's death demonstrates the love of God" it would be clear that he was referring to God's love for us. If he said "Our love for others demonstrates the love of God" it might be more difficult to decide whose love Paul was talking about. 

Something similar is at stake in our phrase in Romans 3:22. Is Jesus Christ the object of the faith(fulness)? That is, is Paul talking about Jesus receiving our faith? Or is Jesus the subject of the faith(fulness)? That is, is Jesus the one who has himself been faithful? Of course, both are true in the big picture! The issue here is not choosing one to the exclusion of the other. The question is a matter of emphasis. Is Paul's emphasis in Romans on our belief or on God's faithfulness through Jesus Christ?  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Insufficiency of the Law

"Then what advantage has the Jew?"
It's a logical question given the kind of claims that Paul has made in Romans 2. In the verses leading up to this question in 3:1, Paul has talked about the possibility of Gentiles being a law to themselves and keeping the law without being circumcised. He has even said that such Gentiles are better off than Jews who have the law but fail to follow it. So its worth asking "Is there any advantage to being a Jew?" One could have easily misunderstood Paul as saying that Jews and Gentiles were just alike with absolutely no difference between them. Paul makes clear here at the beginning of chapter 3 that this is not the idea he intended to communicate. The Jews are still God's chosen people to whom were entrusted "the oracles of God".

But there is some sense in which Paul wants to communicate that Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing. Even though Israel is God's chosen people and hold certain advantages by virtue of their election, they are still basically in the same boat as Gentiles when it comes to being counted as righteous before God. That is what Paul has been saying for most of these three opening chapters and it is the point he is driving home in these verses. As he says in V.9:
"What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks are under sin."
Greeks, that is, Gentiles being "under sin" would have been a given in the mind of any first century Jew (as we saw in Romans 1:18-32). Paul spent all of chapter 2 arguing that the same is true for Jews as well, despite having the law. Just in case there is any doubt left on the matter, Paul adds a litany of quotations to his argument; quotations from Israel's very own Scriptures pointing out Israel's very own sinfulness. Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that however good and perfect a gift God's law might have been to Israel, Israel's own Scriptures testify to the reality that the law alone was not capable of assuring the righteousness of Israel. Page after page of Israel's own story speaks to the reality of Israel's idolatry, sinfulness, and injustice despite the presence of God's law to guide them. That is why Paul can say that even though there is an advantage to being a Jew, "both Jews and Greeks are under sin."

It is also why Paul closes this section by saying
"For by works of the law no human being will be made righteous in his sight for through the law comes the knowledge of sin." 
I suspect that this statement and much of this chapter are often read as a kind of eternal decree from God as if Paul were saying "No one will be saved by works because God said so (and God said so because God also said we are sinful thus our works are sinful)." In other words, we could read this chapter as a very blunt statement of the doctrine of original sin; that every human being is corrupted from birth and as a result even our best works will not justify us in God's sight. Without debating the merits of such a doctrine, I would argue that isn't exactly what Paul is saying here. Rather than repeating an eternal maxim from God, I think Paul is making an inference from human experience. He is essentially saying "Look, we know no one is going to be made righteous by works of the law because for hundreds of years of Israelite history the law has failed to make us truly righteous. In fact, the law's only real accomplishment has been to point out sin in all its sinfulness (something on which Paul will elaborate in chapter 7).  

In short, we are in need of something more than law. Even the law given by the creator of the universe was not enough to make us righteous. It couldn't prevent sin or produce justice. It couldn't make us whole. So if we are to be righteous before God, if we are to be made new and whole, we will need God to do something new, something in contrast to what has gone before, something more powerful than law. We need this:
"But now..."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Circumcision of the Heart

In the last half of Romans 1, we saw what was probably a typical first century Jewish view of Gentiles. That is, they are a people to whom God has not been revealed in the same way that God was revealed to Israel. Paul says that the Gentiles still should have been able to observe the attributes of the creator by way of his creation. However, they have not received God's good and perfect law. As a result of their ignorance of God and God's law, their lives have become ones that pervert justice and produce unrighteousness. In contrast to the Gentiles, Jews understood themselves as the chosen people of God who had been given God's law. As a result, Israel's life together was to be one where righteousness prevailed. Jews presumed that they were to be a light to the Gentiles.

Paul, a Jew himself, agreed with these presumptions. He understood (even after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus) God's law to be a good and perfect gift and he continued to believe that Israel was a people chosen by God to be a light to the rest of the world. Paul's point in Romans 2 is not to denigrate either of those realities. His point is to argue that neither of those intertwined realities - the gift of the law to Israel and Israel's election - automatically make Israel righteous. Righteousness is not a matter of being ethnically Jewish or even knowing the law but of faithfulness to God.

Paul begins by arguing that God does not show partiality. Even though God has chosen Israel that election is not a matter of favoritism. It is an election to live faithfully before God. As such, Paul says that God will judge Jew and Gentile alike according to their works. V.12-13 sum up Paul's point well when he says that those who don't have the law (Gentiles) will perish because they don't have it to lead them to righteousness but that those who have the law (Jews) and still commit sin aren't any better off because they will be judged by the law they have broken. It is not merely hearing the law that makes one righteous but doing it.

This is a place where the narrative of Habakkuk, which Paul quoted in 1:17, proves illustrative once again. In the days of the prophets, many in Israel thought that destruction could never come their way simply because they were God's chosen people. Habakkuk is shocked when he hears that God will use the Babylonians to clean up Israel. Likewise, we hear in Jeremiah the refrain "the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" reflecting the belief that no harm would come to Israel so long as God's temple stood among them. But God warns through Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and the other prophets that this is not the case; that God's people must turn back to God or destruction will be brought upon them even though they are God's people and even though they have the law and the temple. As Habakkuk says, it is out of faithfulness that the righteous will live. Paul is arguing a similar point in Romans 2; that merely being Jewish or having the law will not save or make righteous. One must put God's law into practice through faithful living.

So far, so good. I don't think Paul has said much there that is terribly different from what any first century Jew would have said. Faithful Jews would have been very happy for Jews and Gentiles alike to live faithfully by putting God's law into practice. But Paul also goes on to say something that Habakkuk and Jeremiah do not say. In v.14-15 Paul states:
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts..".
And in v.25-29
"For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 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. His praise is not from man but from God."
This is surprising because circumcision is itself a part of the law that Paul is talking about. When Paul says "if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law," I imagine that most of his fellows Jews would immediately object saying "How can one be uncircumcised and keep the law when circumcision is itself a central part of the law?" This is a question we will hear Paul begin to answer in more detail in Romans 4 where he writes about the faith/fulness of Abraham. For now, it is enough to notice the consequences of what Paul is arguing here: Gentiles can live just as faithfully in God's righteousness as Jews even without fulfilling certain parts of the law such as circumcision. Indeed, Paul go so far as to say that an uncircumcised Gentile who lives faithfully to God is more righteous than a circumcised Jew who breaks other parts of the law. We Gentile Christians may take this for granted but it was an enormous and controversial claim on Paul's part; one that puts him at odds with his fellow Jews, even at times with his fellow apostles (see Peter in Galatians), and one that will take him the rest of Romans to fully unravel.

As Gentile Christians it would be foolish of us if we did not see that Paul's admonition, which is here directed to his Jewish brothers and sisters, also applies to us. We might hear the Spirit speaking through Paul's words to us saying "You who call yourselves Christians and rely on the Spirit and boast in God and know his will and approve of what is excellent because you are instructed by the Scriptures, you who consider yourself a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in Jesus the embodiment of knowledge and truth, - you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?" Merely bearing the title "Christian" or knowing the Bible or being baptized is not enough. The righteous will live out of faithfulness to God.