Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 3 — Liberation from idolatry [Peaceable Romans #5]

Ted Grimsrud—January 31, 2022

As we have seen in the previous two blog posts in this three-part series, Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome with a two-part analysis of the dynamics of idolatry—first, political idolatry and then religious idolatry. He concludes that “all are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9)—that is, both types of idolatry keep us from living the free and fruitful lives God intends for us. Paul’s intent, though, is not emphasizing the total depravity of humankind. Rather, he sets up the problem in order to provide a solution—liberation for sinners.

He states this solution beginning at 3:21. His statement is dense and open to different interpretations. I believe that if we read Paul in light of Jesus’s life and teaching and if we assume that Paul’s agenda is to empower his readers to live lives of service and healing justice, we will be best suited to discern the meaning of his theologically and ethically potent emphases in 3:21-31. Of course, fully to understand the content and implications of what he writes in those verses, we will need to analyze the chapters that follow in Romans—a task for future blog posts.

The true revelation of Jesus as savior (liberator)

Our starting point in analyzing Romans 3 should be a recognition that Paul’s theology here was decisively shaped by his own experience before he met Jesus. When Saul the Pharisee made “works of the law” central (i.e., when he focused on the boundary markers that protected the core of religious identity that for him found expression in strict adherence to rituals of separation [such as circumcision and dietary restrictions]), he had zealously devoted himself to violent persecution of the followers of Jesus. After he met Jesus, Saul renamed as Paul realized with a shock that instead of serving God, he had been serving an idol—and was guilty of blasphemy rather than faithfully serving God. So, Paul himself when he was Saul the Pharisee was stuck right in the middle of idolatry that enslaved him under the power of sin. In his trust in works of the law, he himself had been enslaved. He had been part of the dynamic of slavery to idols that concludes the negative part of his argument at 3:20.

So, when we turn to the next step in the argument, we remember that it is a personal testimony for Paul. He affirms that God’s healing justice, God’s transformative love, has been made known to humanity (and, specifically, to Paul himself) “apart from the law” (3:21). Paul’s response to the problem of idolatry flows from his own liberation. This is how the problem is solved: “Now, apart from the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22).

Paul had already made it clear earlier in his discussion of circumcision in Romans 2 that salvation comes apart from works of the law. True circumcision has to do with the heart—living in gratitude and love, practicing genuine justice. Those who are physically circumcised are as if uncircumcised if they are unjust. Going back to the original practice of circumcision, it was never the cause of salvation but the response to God’s gift of mercy. Putting circumcision first too easily leads to, as Jesus said critiquing the Pharisees, focusing on the minutia of the rules and neglecting the core elements of Torah—justice and compassion.

God’s “justice” at 3:21 joins the thread throughout the first three chapters that links together justice (or “righteousness”), injustice (or “wickedness”), and God’s decree/just judgment—all terms with a dik root. Another dik word is usually translated “justification,” pointing to how God will set things right and bring about healing and reconciliation. Contrary to Saul the Pharisee’s idea that “justice” and following the law should lead to persecution of followers of Jesus, now Paul the Apostle is clear that justice involves reconciliation and is disclosed apart from the “law” as Saul had understood it. This justice blesses all the families of the earth. God makes it known in an epoch-transforming disclosure. God’s work is primarily a work to “make known,” to transform minds, to enlighten those whose idolatry had darkened their awareness.

We must note that Paul insists that the “law and prophets” attest to God’s disclosure of genuine justice—that is, the “law” as properly understood, not as he had earlier misunderstood it. The law and prophets had both proclaimed the same message: to be just is to trust God and to love God and neighbor and to bless all the families of the earth and to value mercy more than sacrifice. The law and prophets also attest to the problems that arise when the law becomes an idol that underwrites injustice. The true Torah, in Paul’s view, is totally compatible with the disclosure of God’s justice in Jesus. The Torah witnesses to the purpose of human life for both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, which is to do the good that the Torah itself commands (Romans 2) and that the gospel enables.

Jesus’s saving faithfulness as justice

Jesus’s faithfulness in his life discloses God’s justice. As Jesus emphasized in his teaching and practice, the law is to serve human beings, not human beings to serve the law. Jesus’s own life of freedom from the Powers and their idolatrous dynamics frees (“redeems,” 3:24) all those who trust in his way as the true disclosure of God’s justice. Jesus is the most clear and profound expression of God’s work that was already seen in the liberating stories from Israel’s scriptures. They all show that the law is best summed up as “love your neighbor”—which is Paul’s understanding in Romans as well (13:8-10).

Paul emphasizes the abolition of the practice of making boundary markers the basis for relationship with God when he asserts “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:22-23). The lusters are idolaters, but equally so are the judgers. They all “fall short of the glory of God”—they are all unjust; they all violate the true meaning of Torah; they all fail to live with gratitude and to respond to the truth of God revealed to everyone.

When Paul speaks specifically of Jesus’s blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” put forward by God (3:25), he refers to Jesus’s self-sacrificial life (“the life is in the blood,” Leviticus 17:14) that led to his crucifixion as a witness to God’s justice. Jesus’s life was one of giving to others wherein he persevered to the end embodying God’s justice in face of the injustice and violence of the Powers. God “put forward Jesus” in order “to show God’s justice” (3:25). Jesus’s self-sacrifice was “effective” through his faithfulness (3:25). He was faithful, consistently and amidst all opposition, thereby showing God’s healing justice to a broken world.

In this understanding of God’s justice, there simply is no place for ethnic or religious self-superiority. “What becomes of boasting?” Paul asks. “It is excluded” (3:27). “Boasting” is a summary term that Paul uses of the practice of seeing those within the boundaries that are protected by enforcing the boundary markers. His own violent enforcement when he was Saul the Pharisee was linked with “boasting” and stemmed from a sense of superiority vis-à-vis those on the other side of the boundaries. Here, he emphasizes to the contrary, that all groups of people have equally practiced idolatry. Most importantly, all have equal access to the healing justice of God through trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus. Thus, “boasting” is excluded by the true law (“the law of faithfulness,” 3:27), which is Torah as it was intended from the start.

The point of God’s gift of Torah was to reinforce trust in God alone and faithfulness to the vocation of blessing all the families of the earth—not to provide for “works of the law” (rigid boundary makers) that would underwrite boasting, a sense of superiority that is revealed to be hypocrisy in light of the judgers’ own injustices (such as Saul the Pharisee’s violence in the name of the works of the law).

Paul concludes, “since God is one, God will justify the circumcised on the ground of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through the same faithfulness” (3:30). Paul is not saying here that Jews and Gentiles alike must accept some doctrine about Jesus as divine or as the only valid sacrifice to satisfy God’s holiness or honor. Rather, Paul is saying that for Jew and Gentile alike whole making (justification) follows from faithfulness to the true message of Torah (reiterated by Jesus): Trust in the God of healing justice, not in idols, and live lives befitting such trust.

Overcoming domination today

One of the most urgent tasks of theology in our present world is the work to appropriate biblical texts that might aid in our efforts to overcome the spiral of domination, retaliation, and violence that so corrupts our world. I suggest that the text we have been considering, Romans 1–3, is indeed a useful biblical text for developing an argument for peaceable life. In these chapters, Paul discusses two kinds of idolatry that lead to violence—the idolatry of empire and the idolatry of boundary defending religion. In both cases, exchanging trust in the kindness of God for trust in created things and human ideologies causes a descent into injustice and sacred violence.

To think of contemporary analogies to these expressions of idolatry is an important exercise. We see constantly in the news examples of imperial violence, sexual objectification, social injustice, white supremacy, exclusivist religion, and scapegoating on large and small scales. May we find strategies for response to these kinds of destructive practices that might be gleaned from our Romans text? I will briefly suggest three.

(1) Paul’s analysis and critique challenges us to consider whether ideologies and meta-narratives concerning American exceptionalism, Christian exclusivity, and neo-liberal economics are forms of idolatry. Insomuch as they lead to devaluing human beings and communities that get in the way, that are outside the circle of full humanity, or that are merely useful instruments to be used, they by definition become rivals to the true God, love of whom leads to love for all actual human beings. To recognize that our political, religious, and economic structures are God’s rivals, that they can draw us into idolatry, is a necessary first step toward gaining freedom from what Paul would call slavery to the power of sin.

(2) Paul’s argument also challenges us to use the simple call to love the neighbor as a key criterion to discern the presence of this dynamic of idolatry. Paul embraces Torah as the best expression of God’s will for human beings and the basis for an alternative to idolatry, though not Torah used for boundary markers that validate violence. Rather, Torah as love for neighbor. Any religious or political belief that justifies violence or injustice reflects the presence of idolatry. When we diminish any other human being, we diminish our own humanity and blaspheme our God. Paul asserts that God’s justice has entered the world apart from the works of the law through the model of Jesus’ self-sacrificial life and that this manifestation of God’s justice is attested by the law and prophets. The way of Jesus is the way toward genuine justice that was witnessed to by Torah and was confirmed by the proclamation of ancient Israel’s prophets.

(3) Paul’s analysis and critique ultimately point to the centrality of local communities as the context for resisting idolatry. These communities, such the Christian fellowship in Rome made up of reconciled Jews and Gentiles, provide critical mass and collective discernment to identify and live free from Empire idolatry. They model reconciliation between former rivals and thereby reveal that the use of scripture for violent boundary maintenance is rebellion against God. For Paul in Romans, justice and justification have to do with reconciliation, wholeness in relationships. Such justice witnesses against violence and injustice for all the families of the earth.

[This blog post, along with the two previous ones, is drawn from a paper presented to the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity group, American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Chicago, November 10, 2008]

First part of “Paul’s critique of idolatry    Second part of “Paul’s critique of idolatry

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

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