Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stowers and Romans 1:18-32

Stanley Stowers' A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles is an insightful introduction to the ancient concept of "Speech in Character", if a bit dry at times. He explains well the presence of the phenomenon in Romans 7.

However I take issue with his treatment of Rom 1:18-32. His view is very similar to mine, in that he sees Paul critiquing the hypocritical person who is busy condemning others in the passage. However, he is unwilling to view the passage as an instance of speech in character primarily because:
"[A view like the one of it being a speech-in-character] assumes as a patently explicit and obvious Jewish doctrine that God punishes gentiles severely but mercifully overlooks Jewish evil... I find no Jewish texts explicitly saying that God will ignore Jewish sin because of the covenant." (pg 29)

Well, I find a Jewish text explicitly saying that very thing: Wisdom of Solomon. ie The text from which Paul is quoting in Romans 1:18-32 (Stowers agrees Paul is referencing Wisdom pg 87). In fact, Paul quotes two entire chapters of Wisdom of Solomon (and as a result, has to paraphrase), in what is surely the longest quotation in the bible, and in doing so implicitly sets Wisdom of Solomon up as a potentially major player within the rhetoric of Romans. Well here is what Wisdom has to say on the issue of God punishing Jews and Gentiles. Immediately after the tirade about Gentile evil and their sins and the coming punishment of God upon the gentiles in chapters 13-14 that Paul quotes in Romans 1, we read:
“But you our [the Jews] God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we [the Jews] sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours. For to know you is complete righteousness, and to know your power is the root of immortality.” (15:1-3)
The writer then gets carried away once again for another chapter's worth at the evil and stupidity of gentiles and the punishments they will receive from God. Then we get another contrast with the goodness of Jews and the way God treats them positively:
"Instead of this punishment [which the Gentiles received] you showed kindness to your people". (16:2)
Then the writer gives us a long list of contrasts of how God punished gentiles and blessed Jews for the rest of the book. Here is an example:
"For they [Gentiles] were killed by the bites of locusts and flies, and no healing was found for them, because they deserved to be punished by such things. But your children [Jews] were not conquered even by the fangs of venomous serpents, for your mercy came to their help and healed them. (16:9-10)"
The Gentiles are repeatedly labeled "the ungodly" throughout. We are told "they justly suffered because of their wicked acts" (19:13). We are told that the wrath of God against Jews is stopped simply by virtue of "the oaths and covenants given to our ancestors" (18.22). The writer concludes the book with the statement:
"For in everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places. (19:22)"

Wisdom of Solomon seems to contain exactly and precisely the view that Stowers says is necessary to make sense of the idea that Rom 1:18-32 is speech-in-character! Furthermore, I believe that seeing this viewpoint as representing that of Paul's opponents explains the flow of Romans through to chapter four where Paul comments in passing that in his view God justifies the "ungodly" (ie the gentiles).

Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon

The incredibly strong similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 have long been noted by scholars. Paul appears to be deliberately quoting (paraphrasing) a Jewish piece of anti-gentile propaganda.

Isn't that a strange thing for Paul to do? Yes. We would expect Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, not to agree with such anti-Gentile and pro-Jewish sentiments.

Indeed, immediately after the quote, Paul launches into a critique of people who hold the quoted view.

Romans 1:18-32 seems to be an instance of an ancient literary device called "speech-in-character" (prosopopoeia). Or, more simply put, is what we would call a "dialog" or "debate", with Paul deliberately presenting an opposition viewpoint and responding. It is now well-established that in Romans 7 Paul uses a lengthy speech-in-character without warning his readers. Equally, in many part of Romans that take a question and answer format, Paul is obviously engaging in a pseudo-dialog with opposing viewpoints.

Seeing Wisdom of Solomon as representing Paul's ongoing debate opponent through the rest of Romans 2-4 is particularly helpful. Wisdom 15-19 takes the view that God has chosen the Jews, protects them from sin, and that as a result Jews do not sin like the Gentiles do. It is exactly such a viewpoint that Paul is arguing against in Romans 2-4 - he asserts that there is equality before God and that the Jews do not enjoy special sinlessness.

A important point is that Paul has no need to prove that every human individual sins (hence the oft-observed fact that his argument fails to prove this is irrelevant). Rather, he wants to prove that some Jews in history have been particularly sinful on occasion and that therefore the Jews as a people are not protected from sin simply by virtue of being Jews as Wisdom of Solomon claims.

The long and the short of this is that Romans 1:18-32 is not Paul speaking (just like much of Romans 7), and that Paul in fact disagrees with the speaker on many issues, and the speaker becomes Paul's debate partner for that section of Romans.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The invention of Imputed Righteousness

McGrath explains that the criteria used throughout the Reformation period to distinguish Protestant from Catholic was the question of whether justification was forensic (ie used a legal, court-based, paradigm). (pg 215) McGrath argues that the concept was fundamentally new within the Christian theological tradition, as was the Protestant separation of sanctification and justification.

"Luther... introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through their justification, humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous." (pg 213, cf 217) "The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustifcatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental intellectual discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition through the recognition of a difference, where none had previously been acknowledged to exist." ... "The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum".

Interestingly, McGrath explains that the Protestants at the time vehemently denied that their doctrine was new and unprecedented. Melanchthon claimed he was returning to Augustine's teachings on justification. McGrath explains that in reality these Protestant claims were entirely without basis and that the Catholics were Augustinian and Melanchthon was departing from Augustine. (pg 216)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Steinbart on the history of doctrine

In McGrath's book on justification he mentioned a person who caught my interest:

Gotthelf Samuel Steinbart (1738-1809) was one of the first writers of what we would call modern biblical scholarship. He extensively studied of the history of Christian doctrines, and concluded that originally Christianity had been a religion focused on moral teachings. However, over the course of time Christian doctrine had been distorted by the introduction of random views, most importantly including:
1. Augustine's invention of Original Sin
2. Augustine's invention of Predestination
3. Anselm's invention of Satisfaction
4. The Protestant invention of Imputed Righteousness
Steinbart called for a rejection of such innovations and a return to historic orthodox Christianity as it used to be prior to the invention of such doctrines.

I found it quite amazing that I, myself, have on this blog long made exactly the same arguments based on my own study of doctrinal history... arguments that Steinbart made almost 250 years ago. It is somewhat depressing that historians of doctrine have been agreeing with Steinbart's conclusions for the last 250 years, and yet nothing has changed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thoughts on doctrinal development

I like studying doctrinal history, and understanding how, when, and why, different Christian doctrines and ideas have changed over time. As a result I have formed some opinions about the validity of various doctrines based on their origins and history.

I am occasionally bemused when someone expresses the view that it's not legitimate to draw opinions on a doctrine from a study of its origins and history, and that "doctrinal development" is perfectly allowable.

I tend to side with the following view:
"the Gospel is never different from what it was before. Hence, if at any time someone says that the faith includes something which yesterday was not said to be of the faith, it is always heterodoxy, which is any doctrine different from orthodoxy. There is no difficulty about recognising false doctrine: there is no argument about it: it is recognised at once, whenever it appears, merely because it is new." (Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Premiere Instruction pastorale 27)


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

McGrath's History of Justification

I recently read Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Third Edition) by Alister McGrath.

Overall, it's not a book I'd recommend. The book runs to 400 pages and deals in detail with the thinking of medieval and reformation scholars on grace, the justice of God, and the process of justification. The two major things I got out of it were that:

1) Everyone prior to the Reformation saw "justification" as involving actually being made righteous. The Protestant ideas of forensic justification and distinguishing justification from regeneration and sanctification were fundamentally new and unprecedented in church theology.

2) The pre-Augustinian fathers didn't have much interest in the word "justification" and talked about salvation using other ideas. In the last 300 years the Roman Catholic church has largely stopped using the word also, and in the last 50 years most Protestant churches have largely stopped using it too.

There, I just condensed a 400 page book to two small paragraphs...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Roger Pearse and Cyril of Alexandria

Roger Pearse of Tertullian.org and the Thoughts on Antiquity blog has done a lot of great work over the years in making English translations of the early church fathers available online. Thanks Roger! It's great to have such works more freely available.

For some reason though, recently he has been focusing on the works of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was one of the least positive influences in Christian history, so I have mixed feelings about this. Roger comments "It is hard for anglophone readers to like Cyril." Among his many other endearing traits, Cyril was the first to permanently split the Christian church. Roger writes:
At the Council of Ephesus in 433, Cyril obtained the condemnation of his rival Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople for heresy. The vote was taken before the eastern bishops who supported Nestorius could arrive. When they did arrive they excommunicated Cyril. Both sides then appealed to the imperial government, then run by the eunuch Chrysaphius, who wisely deposed them both. After a campaign of letter writing and bribery, Cyril was allowed to return and the decisions of the synod endorsed. The Nestorian schism had begun, and has still not been resolved to this day.

After the synod, Cyril’s reputation was tarnished. Isidore of Pelusium wrote to him that, while he agreed with Cyril theologically, a lot of people thought that the Alexandrian Archbishop had behaved like a jerk. (From here)
The above is an example of one of the "great" ecumenical church councils in action. I love their careful consideration of the evidence and Christian willingness to carefully discuss things prayerfully in brotherly love. The way they handled things gives me such confidence that their decisions were correct. Thanks to this God-guided council we were saved from the errors of Nestorianism and Pelagianism by the inspired St Cyril. (As I said, Church history is somewhat depressing)

Elsewhere Roger quotes Cyril as saying:
indeed we often purchase men’s friendship with large sums of gold, and if those of high rank are reconciled to us, we feel great joy in offering them presents even beyond what we can afford, because of the honour which accrues to us from them.
But then later Roger expresses surprise when reading the letters of Cyril and finds him bribing people:
I was astonished to find, as ‘letter’ 96, a list of ‘presents’ to be given to various court personages in Constantinople. The FoC editor simply describes these as bribes, and, since they indicate that the purpose of the gifts is to purchase favour or disarm opponents, so they must indeed be!

Friday, July 04, 2008

The parable of wheat and poisonous weeds

I am still intrigued at an interpretation of the parable of the wheat and chaff I read a while ago.

In the parable, a weed is spotted by the servants growing among the wheat. Apparently this particular weed was poisonous and was well-known to the farmers in Israel at the time who knew that it was essential to remove it as fast as possible to stop it contaminating and destroying the entire wheat crop.

In the parable, the landowner orders the servants not to remove the weeds in case they accidentally remove a bit of wheat too. Here the landowner exemplifies two attributes: greed, and ignorance of sensible farming practices.

Israel at the time of Jesus had a serious economic problem of mortgagee sales, where farming families lost their ancestral land to rich and greedy landowners (and then would often be the servants on that land). So, imagine the parable ended here, and consider what Jesus' hearers would think. They would see him as describing such a landowner who has gained control of some land and that as a result of greed and ignorance has given a stupid command that results in his entire crop becoming contaminated by poisonous weeds.

If the story ended there, Jesus' listeners (presumably farmers) would have laughed at the stupidity of such landowners and the genre of the parable would be essentially a political parody as Jesus reinforced the stupidity of what was happening within Israel.

Of course, in the gospels as we have them, the story doesn't end there and gets interpreted as being about God and final judgment. A lot of scholars believe that the gospels misinterpret several of Jesus' parables in this manner, reinterpreting them to be about God
when originally they were political/economic parodies
. Given that such a massive proportion of Jesus' ministry (80% or so?) is about economics anyway, offhand it would seem unsurprising if these parables were too.