Thursday, December 31, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part 4)

Augustine spends very little time in Rome as he is also disheartened by the lackluster dedication of the students he had come to teach. However, his ambition for his career as a teacher of literature and rhetoric and his continued love for his concubine were to be major obstacles to his ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. During his time in Rome he meets Ambrose who was a major Christian player in Milan. It would ultimately be Ambrose who baptizes Augustine in Christ's name. As mentioned in our last segment, Augustine had begun to move away from the Manicheans' philosophy and yet used their connections to better his career. In 384, and entirely due to these very same connections, he won a highly prestigious position in Milan as the professor of rhetoric for the imperial court.

He was joined in Milan by his mother who continued to pressure him into a conversion to the Christian faith. But, unable to release his lustful desires and his need for female companionship, he sends his long-loved concubine back to Carthage (Augustine's son would remain with him) and allows his mother to arrange an appropriate Christian marriage to a girl of thirteen years. He would have to wait two whole years until the marriage could be official so he takes yet another concubine instead during this waiting period. It is interesting to note again that Augustine speaks of very few people with any kind of love outside his mother and his newly growing group of Christian fellows yet he speaks always of his first concubine with respect and sincere devotion. But, she is not important enough to ever be named, perhaps because Augustine feels such intense shame over what he perceives to be only lustful desires.

Augustine's conversion is full of dramatic theatre and overwhelming physical machinations. Book VIII deals solely with his conversion and what Augustine learns about the Great Idea of Will. Separating himself further and further away from Manichees who viewed all soulful creatures as having two conflicting wills, one based in evil and the other based in good, Augustine finds himself staring at the Truth of which he had so long sought.

For there is no means whatsoever by which corruption can injure our God, whether by an act of will, by necessity, or by chance. This is because he is God and what he wills is good and he is himself that same good: whereas to be corrupted is not good. And you are never compelled, my God, to do or suffer anything against your will, because your will is not greater than your own power. It would be greater only if you were greater than yourself, for the will and power of God are God himself. (VII, 4)

Yet still, Augustine suffers immensely within himself because despite this Truth he had finally come to fully believe, he could not will himself to make a final and full conversion as he saw it which was to completely turn away from the seductions of the material world. In many ways, the language Augustine uses about himself tell the story of an addict whose will is perverse and who "was now its reluctant victim rather than its willing tool." Augustine states that, "For the rule of sin is the force of habit, by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will, yet deservedly, because it fell in the habit of its own accord." (VIII, 5) Augustine becomes, "a house divided against itself" (VIII, 8) whose wants and desires can no longer be placed before the Truth for which his soul craves.

Augustine and his friend Alypius are visited by an old friend named Ponticianus from Africa whose spiritual father was also the Christian monk Ambrose. Ponticianus was quite surprised to find Paul's Epistles to the Romans sitting atop a table in Augustine's home and begins in earnest to share with Augustine and his friend the story of his own (almost) conversion. He begins to recount the story of the illiterate Egyptian monk Antony who entered into a Christian church, heard a passage of scripture and took it to be words spoken only for him. These words led Antony to lead a strict ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. But, it was not only the story of Antony that lead to Augustine's final, excruciating dark night of the soul, but the story of Ponticianus' own experience when he had heard the story of this famed monk the first time for himself. Ponticianus was still a member of the Emperor's royal guard and he had witnessed two of his friends readily and instantly giving up their lives in service to the Emperor in order to follow the words of Christ. These men left the material world and ventured into lives dedicated solely to the pursuit of Truth in the name of Christ. Ponticianus himself could not take that leap, despite his joy for his friends and his heart's desire to do so.

Augustine, obviously, felt that this story was meant solely for him when he states, "While he was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself." (VIII, 7) Augustine laments that twelve years had passed since reading Cicero's Hortensuis which had lead him to Platonic thought and ultimately to the teachings of Paul. And yet, in all that time, he had been totally unable to accomplish what even unschooled men had the courage to do: to enter willingly into the service of God.

What is the matter with us? Augustine asks Alypius, What is the meaning of this story? These men have not had our schooling, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here grovelling in this world of flesh and blood! Is it because they have led the way that we are ashamed to follow? Is it not worse to hold back? (VIII, 8)

At this point, Augustine is set upon by "madness that would bring me sanity." (VIII, 8) He flees to the community garden of his home and throws himself down upon the ground, beating his fists against himself, tearing at his hair, and basically, commences to test his Will against that of God. Augustine finds himself staring at yet another Truth when he realizes that "The mind gives an order to the body and it obeys, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted." (VIII, 9) Augustine is confused and aghast at himself for his shame that his will has only the power to control the limbs of his body and nothing more. At last, his dueling wills exhausted, he collapses under a fig tree in tears where he is visited by an image of Continence and many men and woman and children. In this visitation, she extends her arms to him and asks him a simple set of questions:

Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? It was the Lord their God who gave me to them. Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills. (VIII, 11)

Even this visage did little to quell Augustine's tormented soul. Somehow though, through the sounds of his weeping, he did hear a small child's voice telling him to "Take it and read it" in a sing song fashion. At last he remembered the story of Antony and managed to get himself up off the ground and find his way back to Paul's Epistles to the Romans where he read, Not revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites. Rom. 13. 13-14. After reading this passage, Augustine was finally able to conjure the strength and courage to relinquish all his desires for ambition and for the love women (except the love of his mother, of course, since she is still the instrument through which God's love had been shared with Augustine). He tells his friend Alypius of his discoveries and he is also converted on the spot with Augustine. The last lines of Book VIII tell of the joy experienced by his mother upon hearing of her son's conversion. His mother rejoices, "far fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than any she had hoped to find in children begotten of my flesh." (VIII, 12) Thus, did God also rejoice as his wayward sheep had finally come back to the flock.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Three)

Augustine continues his exploration of the nuances of sin throughout his Confessions, however, as he ventures to Carthage for the continuation of his studies, a tangible shift occurs in his search for Truth. It is a new stage in his life in which he shifts his focus to the Great Ideas of Good and Evil which compel and elude him as he continues his spiritual autobiography. Also in play is Augustine’s themed continuation of his own life as a parable. He becomes the Prodigal Son or the wayward sheep that strays from the herd with God the ever present herdsman. Augustine states that, "Yet all the while, far above, your mercy hovered faithfully about me." (III, 3) Alas, Augustine had no eyes to see that God was with him throughout his life and, due to his own misperceptions, God seemed totally absent during his years as a young adult in Carthage and beyond.

Augustine describes Carthage as an, "hissing cauldron of lust" (III, 1) where he became addicted to the pursuit of love or, as he later came to know it, lust. He fell in love with the theatre, poets, philosophers and astrologers (sensualists) who he credits with leading him further and further away from the Truth of God.

Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again. To them it was no more than a name to be voiced or a word to be read in their libraries of huge books...while my hunger was for you, for Truth itself, they served me up the sun and the moon...not you yourself nor even the greatest of your created things. (III, 6)

Augustine describes himself locked in a world starved of anything real or true and yet he also finds companionship with friends and with a concubine who bore him a son. It is interesting to note that Augustine claims to have been totally faithful to his concubine (for more than ten years) and that he was with her only due to his own lustful nature. Augustine never names this woman and scholars will probably never know more than what Augustine shares about her in his Confessions. Yet, he was faithful to her and to the son she bore him and after he decides to abandon her he speaks of her with words of respect and love.

During his time at Carthage, his father dies (which he barely mentions) and he abandons his study of law, turning instead to the study of literature and public speaking. He finds himself inspired by the words of Cicero. He would eventually also enjoy the works of Plato who would lead him back to Paul of Tarsus. It would be Paul who inspired him to begin studying the scriptures for pure novelty's sake. His mother continued to support him financially after his father's death and she also continued with her prayers that he would find his way back to Christ. As mentioned in our previous segment, Augustine's relationship with his mother begins to mirror that of his relationship with God. Turning his back on his mother and her stalwart prayers for him becomes equivalent to turning his back on God. After completing his studies at Carthage, Augustine journeyed home to Thagaste where he began teaching literature and public speaking. However, he lamented the lack of discipline his students showed in Thagaste and so took a job teaching in Rome. The correlation between the relationships he had with his mother and with God became very apparent in a literal sense when he lies to his mother and leaves her weeping on the banks of Thageste after he sneaks away in the middle of the night for his journey to Rome.

The polarity through which Augustine views himself is absolute and finds its manifestation no place more apparent than during the many years he spent as a part of the Manichean cult. Augustine says, "I was trying to find the origin of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research". (VII, 5) The Manicheans believed in the concepts of Good and Evil as separate and disparate entities who lived and clashed with each other within every human soul.

For this same reason, Augustine states, I believed that evil, too, was some similar kind of substance, a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid or air..This they imagine as a kind of evil mind filtering through the substance they call earth. And because such little piety as I had compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created an evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater degree. (V, 10)

The Manicheans claimed to resolve questions of religion with that of science and visa versa. This claim was alluring to Augustine for many reasons as during his studies he had become quite fond of the sciences and, quite apparently, continued to struggle within himself over all things religious. Slowly, however, Augustine began to turn his back upon the Manicheans who he found to make grandiose claims about astrology, God, Christ, Good and Evil that were not backed up by the sciences of the day and they also made claims about theology which had no direct correlation to his studies or his experiences. Yet, he did not break ties with them completely as they were useful to him during his short time in Rome.

Augustine fell ill almost immediately upon reaching Rome coming once again close to death. But, he believed he was saved by God despite their prolonged separation because God was ever watchful of him. It is at this point we begin to see changes in Augustine, his continued struggle with his own ideas of Good and Evil and, most importantly, his relationship with God.

It was made clear to me also that even those things which are subject to decay are good. If they were of the supreme order of goodness, they could not be corrupt; but neither could they become corrupt unless they were in some way good, (VII, 12) Augustine states he did not know that, Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains," (III, 7) and "So, we must conclude that if things are deprived of all good, they cease to be; and this means that as long as they are, they are good. (VII, 12)

This realization helps Augustine to understand that despite his corruptible nature, or actually, because of it, he can be redeemed in the Truth and light of God. Yet, his true conversion to the Christian God would be made manifest through a heavy grief through which Augustine was unsure of his ability to endure.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Two)

Denied his Baptism in Christ, Augustine began to cope with the polarity between his mother and father, caught between their personal systems of belief. This resulted in a tangle of juicy psychology as Augustine links his feelings about God to his feelings about his mother, Monica. She, as God’s instrument, agreed to deny him his baptism. Yet, as he writes, if it weren’t for:

she (who) did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he. In this you helped her to turn the scales against her husband, whom she always obeyed because by obeying him she obeyed your law, thereby showing greater virtue than he did. (I, 2)

This dichotomous statement is intriguing and sheds light upon Augustine’s view of a virtuous sin committed by his mother, which seems to be in direct conflict with what we have already learned about his views of sin. How can it be that all sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord, even an infant’s cries, but it is somehow virtuous for a woman to “turn the scales against her husband”? He witnessed his mother walking a theologically fine line as she thwarted his paternal father’s influence while somehow still abiding in God’s Law. She never disobeyed her husband except through her enduring piety to the Christian God and her prayers for her son. Augustine credits his mother's piety as the one constant in his life which lead to his ultimate salvation and, in so doing, he estabilshes a repeating pattern in his early life which involved turning his back on his mother and God alike.

Augustine continued his studies, having been sent to Madaura, where he found that he disliked Greek and preferred Latin writers over his other studies. He found himself lost in the stories, another example that he gives of turning away from God and into a world of falsehood and fiction; “a ferment of wickedness.” (II, 2) Coming upon his adolescent years, Augustine began to yearn for the sin of lust which, he claims, would continue to haunt him until his conversion. His studies of literature and public speaking were interrupted when:

my father, a modest citizen of Thagaste whose determination was greater than his means, saved up the money to send me farther afield to Carthage…no one had anything but praise for my father who, despite his slender resources, was ready to provide his son with all that was needed to enable him to travel so far for the purpose of study..Yet this same father of mine took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight or whether I was chaste or not..Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn…my mother because she thought that the usual course of study certainly would not hinder me. (II,3)

This is how Augustine “construe[d] the character of his parents” and there is conflict in this belief. He describes himself as spoiled and self entitled, both bitter about his parent’s desire for his education and unequal in his forgiveness of one of them despite their equal roles. In a feat of impressive mental contortion, he recognizes his mother’s part in this stage of his development as God’s hand in his life and yet he offers no such accolades to his father because he is pagan and not a believer.

All of this is but a preamble to the parable about sin to come. While waiting for his journey to Carthage, at the age of 16, he had free time to spend with unruly friends. Augustine claimed that he fell prey to peer pressure and gave in to the grievous sin of theft. He and his buddies had a habit of engaging in games out of doors after dark and these games involved committing anything that might be forbidden, such as stealing pears from a tree near a local vineyard. Augustine took these pears not because of need and cannot recall if they ate more than a few. He stole them for the sake of committing a theft and fed most of the pears to the pigs. What some might consider a simple adolescent prank, Augustine elevates to such a degree that it might be better interpreted as a symbol for original sin. For “if any one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor.” (II,6) It can be assumed that there were other pranks committed by these “ruffians” but Augustine chooses specifically to tell us his story of stealing fruit from a forbidden tree.

Augustine’s inner reflections about the reasons he commits his version of original sin are quite innovative and compelling. He attempts to converse with his crime of theft as if it “were a living thing” (II,6) in order to gain a greater understanding of that which he considers to be the plight of all descendents of Adam and Eve. Augustine believes the source of all sin can be boiled down to three states of the human condition: anger, fear and grief and that sin translates or is “hatched” by a “lust for power, gratifications of the eye and gratifications of a corrupt nature.” (III,8) He goes on to converse with this disembodied sinful part of himself in an attempt to reason through the process of sin. This dialogue regarding the nature of sin suggests that he (and all of us who sin) continuously experience all the human corruptions that lead to the first sin in every act of sin committed since our removal from Eden; whether cruelty, lustfulness, inquisitiveness, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, and envy, to name but a few.

And now, O Lord of my God, now that I ask what pleasure I had in that theft, I find that it had no beauty to attract me. I do not mean beauty of the sort that justice and prudence possess, nor the beauty that is in man’s mind and in his memory and in the life that animates him…It did not even have the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive-pride, for instance, which is a pretense of superiority, imitating yours, for you alone are God, supreme over all; or ambition, which is only a craving for honour or glory, when you alone are to be honoured before all and you alone are glorious for ever.(II, 6)

Ultimately, however, Augustine uses this mental exercise as a means of discovering that the reasons for sin are of no consequence, writing that if “it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin.” (II,8) He, like Adam, was lured by others to commit his grave act of eating the forbidden fruit and thus “wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” (II,10)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confession Books 1-8 (Part One)

This essay uses the Great Books edition of Augustine's Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. As this translation is still under copyright, a translation by Albert C. Outler can be found here.

Augustine’s Confessions were written in the year 397 CE during his early 40’s and is somewhat inaccurately considered to be one of the West’s first autobiographical accounts despite the fact that there are many other classical writers who worked in the same medium previously. It is not a complete autobiography, obviously, since he would live to the ripe age of seventy-six. However, it does represent the most detailed account of any individual living in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine’s life stands upon the precipice between dramatically shifting times in human thought and in many ways both his life and his Confessions can be seen as products of this transition between historical ages. It has been suggested that Augustine is both the last Classical thinker as well as the first Medieval writer.

Undoubtedly, his autobiography was highly influential on writers during the Medieval period. Augustine’s Confessions take the reader on his spiritual journey from a state of sinfulness to his salvation in Jesus Christ. The intentional structure of his autobiography allows for Augustine to pick and chose personal events from his life that illustrate an archetypal spiritual journey.

Augustine utilizes an innovative structure within his Confessions that involves personal and sometimes brutal self-admonition interspersed with direct quotations from the Bible and lyrical passages in praise of God. The personal sins he discusses seem, on the surface, to be of little consequence, in comparison to, for example, murderers, and yet his descriptions of those sins are offered in caricature, as if he had literally sold his soul to the devil. At first reading, it can be interpreted simply that all sins are equal in the eyes of God; however, this juxtaposition also raises questions within the reader’s mind and encourages a deeper reading of the text where we ultimately see his life and his conversion as a teaching story or parable in itself. This metaphorical writing style is used repeatedly throughout the Confessions, revealing Augustine’s background in Platonic thought, the writings of Paul of Tarsus and his own deep studies of scripture.

This analysis will cover only the first eight books of the Confessions which takes us from his infancy to the moment of crisis that pushes Augustine to make a full conversion to the Christian faith. As mentioned in his Author Sketch, Augustine would be profoundly influenced by his mother Monica and his writings illustrate quite clearly his feelings of being torn between the pagan beliefs and morals of his father and the Christian beliefs and actions of his mother. This is, perhaps, the reason he begins his story with a very dualistic worldview that is not reconciled until the moment he finds his peace in Christ. Augustine touches upon many great ideas throughout the Confessions but we will be focusing on his discussions of Sin, Good and Evil, and Will.

Books I and II of the Confessions deal specifically with Augustine’s infancy and his early childhood. He offers an interesting perspective on infants and their capacity for sin as he attempts to recall this distant time in his life. “And if my wishes were not carried out," he writes, "I would get cross with elders, who were not at my beck and call, and with people who were not my servants, simply because they did not attend to my wishes; and I would take my revenge by bursting into tears. By watching babies I have learnt how they behave... and know that I behaved in just the same way myself.” (1:6) This passage illustrates Augustine’s belief that we are all, as descendants of Adam, born of sin and that “if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” (1:6) It is striking that his opinions on the sinful nature of babies are so strong considering that he spends so little time defending his ideas about a period that he admits he cannot truly recall. He does take the time to lament as he contemplates his infancy, “I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?” (1:7)

His early childhood is dealt with briefly, in much the same way, but with intuitive observations about the hypocrisy of small boys being punished for playing games instead of attending to their studies by the same masters whose livelihood depended upon even more sinful games. He terms this period of his life as one of suffering and humiliation. Yet, he views this natural tendency of young boys to enjoy playing games quite straightforwardly as further indications of inherent sin.

And yet I sinned, O Lord of my God, creator and arbiter of all natural things, but arbiter only, not creator, of sin. I sinned, O Lord, by disobeying my parents and the masters of whom I have spoken…I was disobedient, not because I chose something better than they proposed to me, but simply from the love of games. (1:10)

During this period of Augustine’s life, it is important to note that he was attending Christian schools and was as close to the faith as he would be for many years to come. It was also during this time that he developed a grave stomach illness (the first of many) which left him close to death. There is much consternation in these next passages as he describes his conflicting feelings of being passed over for his baptism when, instead of dying, he quickly recovered.

You, my God, were my guardian even then, and you saw the fervor and strength of my faith as I appealed to the piety of my own mother and to the mother of us all, your Church, to give me the baptism of Christ your Son, who is my God and my Master…So my washing in the waters of baptism was postponed, in the surmise that, if I continued to live, I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous. (1:11)

Even when Augustine wrote the Confessions at the age of forty-three, he had yet to reconcile what contour his life might have followed if he had been baptized in his early boyhood. This incident seems to set Augustine upon his spiritual quest and his search for truth. As we will see, Augustine searches for this truth in many ways but, firstly, by engaging in sin for sin’s sake.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Author Sketch: Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine, Augustinus, St. Augustine the Blessed)
Born 354 CE in Tageste, Numidia
Died 430 CE as a retired Bishop of Hippo
Works under consideration: The Confessions

Events that occurred during Augustine’s life:

Pics and Scots cross Hadrian’s Wall and attack Britain
Roman Legions begin to evacuate Britain
The Huns invade Europe
Accession of Theodosius the Great – the last Emperor of a united Roman empire
Scrolls begin to be replaced with books
Hymn singing is introduced by St. Ambrose of Milan and “Hallelujah” is born
The first written records of Japanese history
Alchemy begins with the search for the Philosopher’s stone and the Elixir of Life

Saint Augustine was born in the small village of Tageste on November 13, 354. Tageste was located in the North African Roman Provence of Numidia, present day Souk Ahras, on the eastern border of Algeria. Both of his parents were of Roman descent with possible Numidian genetic lines and Augustine is thought to have been a native Punic speaker. His father, Patricius, was a Roman administrator of Tageste but due to the village’s small size was only able to provide modestly for his family. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and a constant influence on Augustine’s life. He was highly educated in the liberal arts and ultimately became not only a transitional literary and theological figure in his time but was also torn between dueling cultural belief systems caricaturized by his pagan father and his devoutly Catholic mother. Christian schools framed the beginnings of his educational influences; however, Augustine was not baptized during his early childhood. Perhaps it was the stress of living between two ideologies or the fact that, as he later believed, God allowed him to anguish upon a path of sin in order to show him the true faith, the ardent search for truth became Augustine’s life-long pursuit.

At the age of 11 or 12, Augustine journeyed 20 miles south from his birth place to Madaura where he began his study of grammar and literature. He excelled in his studies, especially Latin, and his father was so inspired by his son’s aptitude and his own hopes that Augustine would become a lawyer that he endeavored to gather the necessary funds for Augustine to continue his education. Ultimately, a local benefactor named Romanianus sponsored Augustine to study rhetoric at Carthage. During this time, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius which he described as the foundation upon which he built his life-long interest in philosophy. At Carthage, he became a member of the Manichean cult whose claim to “reconcile religion with philosophy” must have been very appealing to a young man of 17, caught between a mother who despaired for the salvation of his soul and his own youthful appetites, both of the body and the mind. He shared a relationship with a concubine for ten years who bore him a son named Adeodatus. By all accounts, he loved this woman deeply though they would never marry. During and after his studies at Carthage he lived his life as an “intellectual pagan” and a teacher of rhetoric.

Lamenting the lack of discipline of his students in Tageste, Augustine spent a year in Rome where he began to formally break from the Manicheans and embrace neo-Platonist concepts. He was also introduced to St. Ambrose who later performed Augustine's long awaited baptism into the Christian faith. His full conversion occurred in 386 and, after the death of his mother, he journeyed back to Africa with Adeodatus and other pupils to lead a monastic life. However, a skilled orator and prolific writer would not long live an isolated life. Also, around 391, he assumed what he called the “burden of the episcopate” when he was made a priest of Hippo. He would later hold the title of Bishop for thirty five years. He died of natural causes at Hippo in 430, in the midst of a Vandal invasion.

It is speculated that Augustine wrote over 232 separate titles not including personal letters and sermons. The Confessions and The City of God are two of his most known works but the totality of his written contribution to the western canon is quite impressive. He would later inspire such scholars as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin among others.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Three)

The first two portions of this essay can be found in the archive to the right under October 2009.

Intertwined into Paul’s discourse on the nature of sin and the judgment that must accompany it is the difficult question of how redemption under the Law (for Jews) and redemption through Faith (for non-Jews) can be reconciled. The early Christian congregations were largely composed of what Luke repeatedly refers to as God-fearing pagans. As Jews, and thus the worship of the One God, spread throughout the Mediterranean, peoples who prided themselves on being universally religious (and universally tolerant) saw little reason to exclude the Jewish God from the potential options of gods to be acknowledged and, under certain circumstances, worshipped.

The unique covenant between the Jews and their God, however, made it impossible for non-Jews to fully participate in worship and the process of going from Gentile to Jew was a perilous journey, especially for adult men. What Paul was providing, through his Gospel, was an opportunity for those God-fearers not only to participate fully and more easily in the worship of the Jewish God but also to do so in a manner that he puts forward as inherently superior to the original model. None may hope to fully obey the law but all who would believe can receive baptism and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Still, it would be both impolitic and a little ridiculous for him to assert that the Law was always an inadequate tool for salvation. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew who observed the Law as were all of Paul’s ancestors. Consequently, he must create a model that both embraces and repudiates the Law. He begins, writing that:

All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. [Acts 2:12,13]

Despite his assertion here that there is an equal dispensation of grace for those who follow the law as those who might, instead, become righteous through a belief in Jesus, he continues later to suggest that the law was only given by God so that humanity might understand that it was sinful. It did not free anyone from their sinful nature as Paul laments that though “I delight in God’s law…I see another law at work…waging war against the law of the mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members” [7:22,33]. As long as the mind remains trapped in the body of sin, it, at best, remains in a constant stalemate with impure urges. Righteousness achieved through belief in Jesus, however, yields something different and, by Paul’s reckoning, better.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. [8:1-4]

The last of Paul’s central themes in his Epistle to the Romans is Love. Paul’s first examination of love focuses God’s love for humanity. God’s wrath is directed at the sin, though his judgment upon it is meted out upon the sinner. His love, however, is saved for his obedient creations and, Paul writes, that God “has poured out his love into our hearts” [5:5] and that He “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” [5:8]. It is because we are beloved by God that He has slowly unfolded a plan for our redemption, despite Adam’s disobedience that allowed sin and death to reign in His stead.

Paul’s primary concerns about love, however, reside in his assertion that believers should espouse and manifest it as evidence of their transformation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “Love,” he insists, “must be sincere” [12:9] and the believer should:

…let no debt remain standing, except for the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law…whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. [13:8-10]

Love, for Paul then, is not only an expression of the Holy Spirit at work inside of an otherwise turbulent human nature but is a pathway to peace. This stands in ideological opposition to the prevailing Roman ideology that Peace might only be obtained through Victory. As such, Christianity is offered not only as an alternative to a half-righteousness through a half-observance of the law but also to a world seemingly consumed by never-ending war in search of a peace that never comes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Two)

The first part of this essay can be accessed in the archives under October 2009.

Having defined sin as turning away from God, Paul creates a causal relationship between sin and death by offering Adam’s mortality as precedent and every death since as proof of sin’s universality. The “wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity” [1:29] that one normally associates with sinful behavior is presented more as a symptom of death than sins in and of themselves. By the reasoning, Paul writes, that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command” [5:14].

It is during this first period that Paul finds the inspiration for his own gospel of salvation for the Gentiles. Though no Law yet existed, Abraham was able to attain righteousness (or cleansing of sin) through his faith in the existence and omnipotence of God. This justification (literally, to be made just) through faith serves as Paul’s model for non-Jewish salvation as he notes that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” [4:9] As Abraham exhibited that faith before he entered into the covenant with God, outwardly manifested through circumcision, “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” [4:11].

As for the Law, Paul argues that it serves only to make one aware of sin, while doing nothing to compensate for humanity’s inherently sinful nature. In fact, The Law made being human (or at least being Jewish) more intolerable as it defined precisely what actions were sinful so that those who broke it (ie everyone) could understand why they were being punished with death. For Paul, that is what law does. It defines negative behavior and then assigns the appropriate punishment for it. Deprived of the option of being truly cleansed of sin, humanity is/was lost to a spiral of unmet expectations.

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living with me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my spiritual nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. [7:14-18]

The only solution, by this arrangement is in becoming a slave to something other than sin; a new possibility created by God in the resurrection of Jesus. Just as Abraham’s righteousness was “credited to him” by virtue of his faith in God and exhibited outwardly through circumcision, so may the believer, then, have righteousness credited to them by virtue of their faith in Jesus the Christ, as exhibited through a baptism in his name. Now while we can easily understand while the ritual pruning of a man’s foreskin might impress the sincerity of his faith upon an otherwise skeptical God, what is it about baptism specifically that conveys righteousness upon its recipients?

The key, for Paul, is remarkably simple in its construction. Death is the sentence for sin which itself is universal to the human condition. In dying, Jesus paid the literal price for his own sins (death) but, in resurrection, is now free from humanity’s sinful nature. Baptism in his name, then, is a baptism “into his death” [6:3], creating a new state of righteousness wherein one’s “old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—as anyone who has died has been freed from sin” [6:6,7].

The first half of that argument is so easily answered by common sense that it is hardly an argument at all for no reasonable person, whatever their belief, could argue that the dead might be capable of continuing to sin past the end of their life. This argument only remains ironclad, however, if one does not suppose that a person might be raised from the dead because, as far as anyone could really tell, it had never happened. That is what makes the belief in Christ’s resurrection so critical to the foundation of Christian belief. If one can believe that God made a special exception in raising Jesus from the dead and allowed him to ascend into heaven with his now-sinless nature intact, then it is just as reasonable to assume that He did so in order that humanity might be baptized into that death that they might escape their hitherto inescapable sinful nature as well. In that belief, the believer dies to their old self and is reborn, with Jesus’s sinless nature indwelt within them, into a new condition by which they are no longer a slave to sin but a slave to righteousness.

In one sense, sin carries out its own form of Judgment in that it is the root cause of death. Salvation from sin, according to Paul, goes beyond merely freeing the believer from their naturally sinful state. If justice can be said to exist, then it must exist in its highest form within any God responsible for creating all things. This means that in addition to death, which is caused by sin, sinners must also undergo a separate judgment by God whereby they are again punished for their sins. Those with clearly formed pictures of fiery lakes and eternal damnation may be surprised to find how vague Paul is, at least in his Epistle to the Romans, about when that judgment will take place and what form it will take.

In the opening chapter, Paul underscores the urgency of his gospel by proclaiming that the “wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” [1:18]. Initially, it appears that this wrath is the catalyst for all the forms of evil and depravity that humans naturally embrace, with the final judgment being death itself, the “wages” of all sin. Later, though, Paul adds on a second component when he speaks of “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” [2:5]. He reveals no details about when this day of judgment is due to occur, only saying that there “will be great trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” [2:9] on this day when “’God will give to each person according to what he has done’” [2:6].

The foundation of Paul’s theology is that everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, has committed sin and, because of that sin, is condemned to die. Paul believes that Jesus will return to usher in a new era of divine peace on Earth and that, in so doing, would reunite the living and the dead for judgment under God’s authority. While evidence outside of the Epistle to the Romans also suggests that Paul believed this would happen within his lifetime, he is vague about that aspect of Jesus’s return saying only that it would “take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares” [2:16].

Thus when Paul declares the necessity of salvation, he is essentially arguing on two different fronts simultaneously. Humanity must be saved from its own sinful nature because the effect of sin is death and death, as we all know, is bad. Humanity must also be saved from God’s judgment by being justified into righteousness through baptism into Jesus’s death. As Jesus became sinless and righteous in transcending death, so must each believer embrace the atonement that his death represents in order to shield them from God’s holy judgment. Without the resurrection, none may hope to become righteous enough in God’s eyes to avoid punishment but, in seeking righteousness through Christ, all may hope to receive “glory, honor and peace” [2:10].