Wednesday, October 21, 2009

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

Epistle to the Romans by Paul of Tarsus
Time: Written in the middle of the first century of the Common Era.
Location: Most probably Corinth.
Great Ideas: Sin, Judgment, and Love

This essay will quote from the New International Version of Romans which can be found in its entirety online here.

Paul’s contributions to the New Testament are so tantalizing because he represents the first time that a shaper of the gospel of Christ is allowed to speak to us directly. This is not to say that no one had written on or about Christ before Paul fired up his amanuensis and became, in the literary sense, himself immortal. There is evidence that a variety of documents (a “Sayings” Gospel, a “Miracles” gospel, a “Cross” gospel) were produced by the early fold of believers who emerged on the other side of Jesus’s crucifixion and proclaimed his resurrection. Those writings, however, were eventually synthesized, redacted, and expanded upon by writers who were approaching the topic decades after the fact; each with their own brand of theology to promote and set of narratives to which they attended. The Gospels, in this sense, represent work by committee even if the final product was penned and shaped by one man or woman’s hand.

More treacherously, from a critical analysis standpoint, not every Epistle attributed to Paul is inarguably his own work. An examination of the merits of the various sides of that particular argument is in order if one seeks to fully appreciate who Paul was and what his message means. That discussion is only necessary, however, if one is writing on the whole of Paul’s work or writing about an Epistle whose authorship might be worthy of some scrutiny. Gratefully, no doubt for writer and reader alike, we are not.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans must be appreciated as one of the cornerstones of Christian theology, if not the document that defines what Christianity is and how it differs from the Jewish and Hellenic traditions that Paul synthesizes even while repudiating them. It captures a tectonic moment in the development of human thought in a manner that is passionate and unimpeachably sincere; sometimes breathtaking in its concise but elegantly structured arguments. It bears the voice of a mind possessed by genius which, if Romans' historical bonafides weren’t already impeccable, might be the most compelling argument for its attribution to as an actual work of Paul’s.

It is a work that serves many functions. It is a declaration of Paul’s intention to assert his theological influence on the congregation of believers who lived in Rome. It is an introduction to the basic principles of his unique gospel (or “good news”) for those who would hear it. It includes pragmatic advice on how to deal with different tensions that might arise within the church. It deals directly with the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Paul draws heavily from the Torah to legitimize his claim that Judaism should cede to The Way described in his gospel of baptism in the death of the resurrected Jesus Christ. While all of these goals shape and contribute to the Epistle to the Romans, three Great Ideas adequately house most of Paul’s themes and provide us with adequate structure to examine the work thematically rather than in a more limited linear fashion. To this end, we’ll examine Paul’s writings in Romans on the topics of Sin, Judgment, and Love.

The first task that a writer (whether physicist, theologian, or philosopher) must face in dealing in abstractions is to define, with as much precision as language might allow, the parameters of their interpretation of a given term. Paul’s gospel hinges its urgency upon the idea that every human being is sinful and is in need of redemption through Jesus in order to escape God’s judgment. To accept even the premise of the argument, the onus is on Paul to first explain what sin is and why salvation from might be necessary before we might consider the efficacy of the solution that he provides to its inexhaustible influence.

Though his descriptions of behaviors that arise from sin are more eye-popping on the page (and thus more likely to distract the reader from the simplicity of his message), Paul lays a definition on the line in the very first chapter, writing that:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men were without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…{1:20-25]

Those hoping for an Aristotelian clarity that might read like, “Sin is the product of X,Y, and Z” will, of course, be disappointed by the layers that must be parsed in order to get at Paul’s meaning. Recall, however, that he is a Hellenic Jew writing to an audience of Greek, Jewish and Roman Christians. Not all of them accept as fact, as Paul certainly did, the indisputable literality of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, yet all must be able to accept the salvation equation as applicable to their own worldview.

To a converted Jew, like Paul, the equation is most simple. Though Adam had “clearly seen” God’s “eternal power and divine nature,” he chose to exchange “the truth of God for a lie” by eating from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” [Genesis 2:17] from which God had forbidden him. Paul reinforces this idea of sin entering the world through Adam’s disobedience later when he remarks that it “entered the world through one man” [5;12]. Interpreted more radically, Adam did not sin against God in his act of disobedience for sin did not yet exist and, by Paul’s reckoning, only God may create something from nothing. In committing an act from which he was forbidden, Adam placed his own interest above that of God’s, serving at the behest of “created things rather than the Creator” with the “created things” in question being himself. In so doing, he exchanged “the truth of God for a lie” and thus, sin was born in the fundament of human nature.

To a converted Greek, the task was more complex. For in the ascent and decline of classical Greek culture, a god’s position in the grand scheme of things was subject to constant revision. Though Zeus was acknowledged as the king of the gods, he was eclipsed in public acclaim by many others, including Athena, Apollo, and later Dionysus. Many philosophers questioned openly the existence of the gods and, while their worship remained an important part of Greek culture, reason became a god of its own, producing irrefutable knowledge that, in many cases, supplanted what could only before be believed. As Greek political influence waned, however, so went the assuredness that knowledge was a better ally than gods, imaginary or otherwise, whose power could not be resisted. Luke puts this very idea into Paul’s mouth in the Acts of the Apostles as he visits Athens and entreats its philosophers and believers alike to join him in worshiping the Unknown God who:

…made the world and everything in it [and who] is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. [Acts 17:24]

By the same logic, Paul suggests that since the creation of humanity, all nations have been able to see “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” but have allowed that vision to become distorted into images derived from nature, from animals and from humanity itself. Without the Law, given solely to the Hebrews as part of their unique covenant with God, Greeks were left to do the best they could with the information they had and things didn’t turn out too well. Now, their gods had been subsumed into Roman ones along with the rest of their once-dominant culture. Turning away from a supposed innate human understanding of God’s eternal qualities in favor of the gods’ more mercurial ones would, by this interpretation, be the source of sin.

It bears mentioning that something fundamentally new had been emerging in the Mediterranean culture in the century surrounding the time in which Jesus and Paul both lived, taught, and died. While the Persian and Egyptian cultures, long before the time of Alexander, had embraced the idea of mortals actually achieving godhood while they yet lived, the Mediterranean culture (excluding Egypt) had shown great resilience to the idea. Greek and Roman culture alike preferred elevating only the rarest of mortals to the status of divinity and usually conferred upon their death, rather than as justification for the authority of their reign. Every would-be conqueror from Thrace to Rome might claim divine parentage but men were men and gods, for the most part, remained gods.

In the span of one long lifetime (or two average ones), the lure of divine authority as a tool of governance had proven too tempting to endure and the Romans began incrementally importing these ideas into the Roman culture and all the places that it touched. Moreover, even as their claim to living divinity became more strident, the Julio-Claudian Caesars became more depraved in their abuse of common decency in the governance of their people. How difficult an argument was it for Paul to make to Greek or Roman alike that if this was their people’s conception of a god, then it was tragically deviant from the “eternal power and divine nature” that were inherent in “God’s invisible qualities?”

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