What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]

Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2021

When I read Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, I was struck with how much she focused on the thought of Paul the Apostle (as she interpreted it) and how little she paid attention to the life and teaching of Jesus. She presented her theology of salvation, in my opinion, in a clear and persuasive way. And I would say that she quite definitely takes her place square in the middle of the Christian tradition—Catholic and Protestant—that may broadly be categorized as Augustinian. That tradition, going back to the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo (the second most influential Christian theologian ever, after Paul himself), has been by far the dominant shaper of Christian theology in the West. Rutledge echoes the theological line from runs from Augustine through Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and down to Barth.

Christian faith with Jesus at the center

I believe that Rutledge (and the others) present a problematic understanding of salvation, though. I think they distort the biblical story’s portrayal of salvation, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, I think that salvation theology, not coincidentally, has a problematic legacy in relation to the ethical practices of the Christian churches, especially in relation to the ethics of warism and violence more broadly. A big part of these problems, I would say, seems to follow from the interpretive move to marginalize the life and teaching of Jesus (and with that, the teachings of many of the Old Testament prophets and the message of Torah itself) and foreground a certain reading of the Apostle Paul.

So, I advocate for a reading of the New Testament and a theology of salvation that places Jesus’s life and teaching at the center. I see this as simply a straightforward way to read the New Testament since it clearly places the story of Jesus as the main event. Even if the mainstream tradition does not approach theology this way, I think it should have. It is more faithful to the Bible itself to do so. I also believe that such a Jesus-centered approach underwrites a more peace-oriented perspective. No longer would the message of Jesus be marginalized, and no longer would we affirm an understanding of the cross and salvation in general that marginalizes the call to embody Jesus’s way of life as central to the very definition of Christian faith.

In making this point about centering the story of Jesus and de-centering the theology of Paul, though, I am not advocating excluding Paul’s thought from our theology. To the contrary, I believe that the tradition Rutledge embodies actually misreads Paul himself. I think reading Paul in light of Jesus is the best way to appropriate the message that Paul actually intended to convey. To read the New Testament straightforwardly, I would say, is to take the ordering of the writings there seriously.

Continue reading “What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]”

What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018

What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.

Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.

The message of Jesus

The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.

Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics. Continue reading “What does Romans 13 actually teach?”

Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017

Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.

Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options

*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]

(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.

(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.

(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation. Continue reading “Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]”

A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism”

Ted Grimsrud—November 30, 2015

One of the sessions I attended at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta was a conversation among those identified with the just war approach and those identified as pacifists on how to respond to terrorism. Three of the five speakers were what I would call “warists” and the other two were “pacifists.”

By “warism” I mean the assumption that war is morally acceptable, often necessary, and appropriately prepared for and utilized as the centerpiece of national security policy. Christian warists might use the language of “just war” to characterize their position, but they do not share the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.

In my rethinking the typology concerning attitudes toward war (revising the standard approach originally defined by Roland Bainton), I suggest two basic views—”negatively disposed” (including principled pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, and skeptical just war) and “positively disposed” (including favorable just war, blank check, and crusade). Because of their positive starting assumption concerning war, I would call the three views under “positively disposed” different versions of “warism.”

Our session in Atlanta confirmed an impression I have had on other occasions. Though those holding the  “favorable just war” view claim to represent the just war tradition, they actually are hostile to forms of just war thought that insist that the just war presumption is against war. They reject the idea that acceptance of a particular war as “just” requires that the benefit of the doubt against war be overcome with clear evidence based on just war criteria that that specific war would be just. One of the panelists, who expressed disdain toward pacifism, characterized what I call “skeptical just war” thought as a sell out to pacifism. Continue reading “A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism””

Preaching on Romans

Ted Grimsrud—January 12, 2015

Last Fall I began a new sermon series. Every month (or so), I plan to take a chapter from the book of Romans for reflection. I am especially interested in reading Romans as anti-empire literature, recognizing, of course, that Paul’s main concern was positive—what he calls “the obedience of faith.”

I think, though, Paul’s vision for faithful living can best be understood against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. To follow Jesus, to live faithfully in relation to the true God, Paul believed, required being aware of the main story that competes with the gospel—the story of empire. After all, Paul is writing this letter to Christians who actually live in the belly of the beast. And all Christians of that time would always be aware that the empire killed Jesus as a rebel against Rome.

Yesterday, in the third of the sermons, I talked about Romans 2.

Here’s a link to that sermon: “How churches go wrong.” And here’s a link to the whole series.

Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fifth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first four posts in the series.]

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Paul on the need for salvation

The interpreter of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection who has shaped the generations since most powerfully has been the Apostle Paul. Christian salvation theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. After examining key elements of Paul’s thought, I conclude that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.

Like his predecessors, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor. Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.

Romans 1–3 provides one important opportunity for Paul to spell out his understanding of Jesus as savior. At the heart of the sin problem for Paul is the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God—with the consequence that instead of experience God’s healing justice, idolators experience “wrath.”

As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are about salvation. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger directly aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel. “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

The true law exposes the sins of us all. It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols. At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives. This problem characterizes Jews and Greeks alike. This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (Rom 3:9) over all groups of people. Being a member of the empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah. In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation”

Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2011

Jesus’ approach to salvation was simple—he bypassed the sacrificial system and offered direct forgiveness. He answered a direct question about how to inherit eternal life by reiterating what he believed was the essence of the law and prophets: love God and neighbor. He told an amazing story about a terribly sinful son who is welcomed by his father back into the family simply by returning home.

In other words, if we take our cues from Jesus himself, we should not be investing his death with the kind of meaning that sees in his death the one necessary sacrifice that might satisfy God and enable God to bring salvation about. To the contrary, Jesus echoes the prophets by insisting that God operates according to the logic of mercy, not the logic of sacrifice, payback, reciprocity, and punishment. According to Jesus, God’s justice is restorative not retributive.

But what about Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Jesus’ message, Paul the Apostle? How compatible is Paul’s understanding of salvation with Jesus? Do we have to choose between the two? I think not. In this, my third post on salvation (the first was “Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” and the second was “Jesus’ death and my salvation”), I will make that case that Paul was faithful and accurate to Jesus’ main message (with the implication that later Christianity has actually misread Paul).

Like his Jesus and the prophets, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death. Continue reading “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”