Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Misuse of Romans 3:22-26

There is perhaps no passage in the bible that is less clear in meaning than Romans 3:22-26, and I think more ink has probably been dedicated to this passage than any other.

The meaning of every single phrase in Paul's ridiculously long sentence has been seriously contested among scholars. The passage is made up of a long series of prepositional phrases and it is unclear how these are supposed to be interacting with each other. The passage is also packed with important individual words such as "sin", "righteousness", "faith", "grace" which I would guess have been the sole topic of at least one hundred books each. The question of how to translate "propitiation"/"expiation"/"sacrifice of atonement"/"mercy seat"/"conciliation" has also had a ridiculous amount of ink spent on it. The recent controversy over how to translate "faith of Christ" which has spawned dozens of journal articles seems to be simply the icing on the cake.

Because of the total scholarly confusion over the passage, no one has much of an idea how to translate it. Or rather, everyone has ideas but they're all different to each other. Since the passage itself is so unclear and ambiguous, translations and interpretations of it have to be guided by a person's wider theological views. Thus what we get in translations of it is generally a clear statement of the translators theology (or their best guess at Paul's theology), rather than any worthwhile translation of the Greek. Our English translations also have a nasty habit of copying each other when it comes to difficult passages, so generally our bibles render pretty much wholesale the King James translators' guesses.

Now when it comes to using this passage in order to interpret and understand Paul's theology, I am reminded of Augustine's view that we should interpret the difficult passages in light of the clear ones and not vice versa. The thing therefore that causes the most trouble is that the passage looks clear in English. The translators have done a great job of rendering unclear Greek into crystal clear English. This has the unfortunately result that the unsuspecting English reader can think they see in this passage the clearest possible statement of their theology and start using it to interpret other passages.

So whenever I come across a theological argument which starts off by citing Romans 3:22-26 to prove its point, I smile and sit back and mentally change gear knowing I'm reading theological fantasy.

9 Comments:

Blogger Lars said...

Has anyone really compared Romans 3:26 ”he justifies him who has (the) faith in (of) Jesus” “ho ek pistis iEsous” with Romans 4:16 ”those who share (have) the faith of Abraham” “ho ek pistis abraam”? The same in greek, but translated differently in English. If 3:26 is translated as in 4:16 it should be “has the same faith as Jesus had”.

27/6/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Lars, the answer to your question is "Yes, me." See this post I wrote two months on the parallel between 3:26 and 4:16. I also wrote this much vaguer post three years ago mentioning my view of the meaning of pistis Christou.

Hays and Dunn are both aware of the parallel between 3:26 and 4:16. Hays in "Conversion of the Imagination" hilariously tries to reinterpret Romans 4:16 to be a reference to Abraham's own faith in order to agree with his view... he is not very convincing. (and Stowers agrees with his view)

27/6/07  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I don't agree that this is "a ridiculously long sentence". For, as I would analyse it, a new sentence starts at the beginning of verse 25. The Greek relative pronoun, translated "whom" in some versions, is commonly used more as a link between separate sentences. Here it can be translated "It was him whom", or simply "Him". Verses 25-26 remain a rather long sentence, but not ridiculously so.

But I would agree with you that the Greek is not fully clear, and that translations and interpretations of it tend to be based on theological presuppositions. However, I would be interested to know how you would propose that it should be translated, for an audience which is not theologically sophisticated. Or do you not believe the Bible should be translated for such audiences?

27/6/07  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

One issue with the interpretation which Lars suggests here and Andrew has also put forward is the traditional understanding, formulated by Aquinas I think, that Jesus did not have faith. Aquinas' argument is that Jesus as God knew everything fully and so could not have faith. But I see a different picture in the Bible: Jesus as a human did not have immediate access to omniscience and so lived by faith, and as such is an example to us of how to live by faith. This view seems clear in Hebrews 12:2. Thank you for pointing out that it is also here in Romans 3:26.

27/6/07  
Blogger Lars said...

I want to point out that I understand "faith" as "faithfulness" in both cases (3:26 and 4:16); "the faithfulness of Jesus/Abraham toward God".

28/6/07  
Blogger Lars said...

Andrew, a very interesting post you wrote about “the parallel between 3:26 and 4:16”(www.theologyweb.com). I have not seen this in writing before. I came across this myself a year ago when I was checking the greek text on Romans for passages with “pistis” in it. I agree with you that this is one of the strongest proofs for the “faithfulness of…” interpretation of 3:26

28/6/07  
Blogger Lars said...

…so that would mean that “…we are justified if we have the same faithfulness as Jesus/Abraham had”.

28/6/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Peter, I would concur with lars in wanting to translate pistis as faithfulness. All of the recent studies I have seen on this subject have concluded that faithfulness is the best translation and that the word is part of the ancient client/patron system, which agrees with my own studies on the subject. Typically I find the best translations of pistis in the NT to be (in order of most commonly useful to least commonly useful): Faithfulness, Perseverence, Following, Belief, Trust, Proof. I recommend the chapter in Campbell's "The Quest for Paul's Gospel" on the subject of faith as one of the best discussions on the subject. Also, the advocates of the subjective genitive reading (eg Hays and Wright) typically translate it "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ".

28/6/07  
Blogger David Rudel said...

In my book [which I think Andrew, at least, would enjoy], I link this passage with two things:

i) The similar, longer, passage in Galatians describing "publicly demonstrated" [Galatians 3:1 as part of the longer passage Galatians 2:11-3:22

ii) Jesus as a Passover sacrifice. The important points being:
A. The word generally translated "propitiation" here is (as most note) more accurately translated "Mercy seat," but in reality the term was used by Jews to refer to other places where sacrificial blood was placed. In particular it can refer to the lintels over which the blood of the paschal lamb was spread.

B. Obviously, Christ was crucified on passover.

C. Paul describes the forbearance as God "passing over" sins previously committed (hearkening to Hebrews 9:15 referring to violations done under the old covenant)
Furthermore the verbiage here places a temporal block between the time of Christ's death and the time when Paul writes [as Paul separates God showing his righteousness then versus now in the transition from 3:25 to 3:26, thus the "previously committed" refers to those sins "previously committed to Christ's death."

d) I show a longer parallel between the events occurring in the prophets, these sins "previously committed" and the events occurring in Egypt prior to the passover.

e) The notion of God calling people out of spiritual slavery and Gentile idolatry (getting back to the Gentile passage which is all about Gentiles being pulled into the kingdom) to serve the Almighty pervades the rest of this passage and is a recurring theme from chapters 3 all the way to chapters 8. This matches perfectly well the Passover, which also represents being called out of physical bondage (and idolatry) to serve the Living God.

f) The Passover and Christ's sacrifice are the two events most representative of God keeping the "promise" to Abraham, and neither occurred through keeping of the Mosaic law [once again a link to Galatians, in this case 3:15-18

I'll stop there.

However, I would recommend, especially to Andrew, to take a look at the excerpt posted on my book's temporary website.

18/2/09  

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