Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2022

One of the most beautiful road trips my wife Kathleen and I have ever taken had us driving through the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We spent the night in the village of Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. The forest certainly has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, snowy mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

The whole Bible as a peace book

This experience comes to mind as I think about Romans four. A lot of Christians, maybe especially those attracted to peace theology, are suspicious of the Old Testament. And suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy: The Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. Such a spot may redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. However, I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip driving back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise, the whole Bible has great beauty.

Romans four is a text that helps us to see the Bible in this way. I don’t want to deny that the Bible has a few spots that are irreparably foggy scattered around. Basically, though, I believe that the overall message is about mercy all the way down from the very start. The Bible tells an empowering story throughout. We may embrace its message of peace, restorative justice, compassion, and healing. The key figure in Romans four is Abraham, the great patriarch, considered to be the spiritual ancestor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Continue reading “Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]”

Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]

Ted Grimsrud—March 21, 2022

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t actually happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this post. This big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

The moral universe and Jesus’s “sacrificial” death

I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe here. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I do want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point for that perspective is that God can’t simply forgive. The moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice. Thus, salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Romans 3 has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading. I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.

Continue reading “Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]”

How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]

Ted Grimsrud—March 10, 2022

Paul begins the book of Romans with a sharp critique of the Roman Empire and its idolatrous spiral into injustice and violence, as we saw in my previous post. I believe that his critique remains perceptive. However, Paul’s main focus in Romans has more to do with how faith communities go bad than with how empires go bad. He uses his Empire critique (valid and relevant as it is) to set up his faith community critique. His readers would be nodding their heads as they approve of Paul’s initial critique. But then he turns on them: “When you are judgmental toward others, you condemn yourself, because you the judge, tend to do the same things” (2:1).

In critiquing the self-righteous judge who is also unjust and violent, Paul has himself as a death-dealing persecutor of Christians in mind. In a genuine sense, his presentation of the gospel in Romans is about what he personally learned in turning from being violent in God’s name to being committed to peace—all the way down. One thing Paul learned was that faith communities are extremely vulnerable to becoming the sites of injustice and violence—ironically, often as a direct result of their quest to be rigorously faithful.

To help us understand how faith communities go wrong, Paul focuses on one particular ritual that he had seen as central to his pre-Jesus agenda of rigorously holding to the true faith. It is well known that the Bible at times can be pretty “earthy.” One notable case is one of the central rituals in the entire story—one with enormous symbolic power in both the Old and New Testaments—the ritual of circumcision. It seems to me that this ritual, both in the Bible and in contemporary life, is problematic on several levels. But the Bible obviously sees circumcision as extraordinarily meaningful, for better and for worse. And it remains present throughout the story, often on the deeper metaphorical level. Paul uses circumcision as a key example in his critique and then in his presentation in chapter 3 of the core message of the gospel of God.

Circumcision in the midst of Empire

Paul thought about circumcision a great deal. He makes it a key image in his wrestling with the life of faith. It’s in the middle of the discernment work as his community of Jesus followers sought to relate their Jewish tradition to the influx of new believers who weren’t Jews. Paul could be pretty earthy himself on occasion, such as when he wrote about conflicts concerning circumcision and its weighty symbolic legacy. In his letter to the Galatians, he gets salty when he writes about people he believed were disastrous teachers. They legalistically tried to impose circumcision on new, non-Jewish converts to Christianity. This is what Paul wrote: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty…. If I were still preaching legalistic circumcision, I would not be persecuted by other Jews like I am…. I wish those who unsettle you, instead of just circumcising, would castrate themselves” (Gal 5:11-12).

Continue reading “How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]”

How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]

Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2022

More than a treatise on doctrine or a discussion preoccupied with the Christian religion and the Jewish religion, the book of Romans is a presentation focused on faithful living. And for Paul, faithful living meant embodying the way of Jesus. As I discussed in the first of this long series of posts working through the teaching of Romans, Paul begins Romans by setting up a contrast between the gospel of God as presented by Jesus and what we could call the “gospel” of the Roman Empire.

In the second half of chapter 1 of the book of Romans, Paul provides an analysis of the domination dynamics of the great nations of the world, which are the dynamics of idolatry that refuses to express gratitude to the Creator but instead puts trust in human creations (including empires and emperors). In trusting in creatures rather than the Creator, human societies inevitably ground their priorities in exploitation rather than gratitude and evolve toward injustice and violence. Without stating it explicitly, Paul seems clearly to evoke the awareness his readers in Rome would have of the particular injustices and violence of their city’s leadership class.

The gospel of God vs. the gospel of Caesar

As we continue to the following chapters of Romans, we will see that Paul’s focus in the book as a whole is not on a critique of Empire but on developing his alternative gospel. If the Empire’s gospel is a one of death, what does a gospel of life look like? If the Empire’s way of life leads to injustice, what is an alternative way of life that leads to justice?

Continue reading “How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]”

The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 2 (Romans 13) [Peaceable Romans #7]  

Ted Grimsrud—February 22, 2022

The Apostle Paul was a follower of Jesus. And his social views actually complement Jesus’s rather than stand in tension with them, contrary to how many Christians have believed. Part 1 of this two-part series of posts sketches a summary of key elements of Paul’s views, leaving for this second part a more detailed look at the infamous passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that, one could say, has launched many ships and other weapons of war. Romans 13, specifically 13:1-7, often serves as a counter-testimony in the Christian tradition to the idea that Paul may have taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire. As well, Romans 13 is often seen to go against the idea that Paul understood Jesus’s peaceable way as normative for Christian social ethics.

Setting the context for Romans 13:1-7

However, I will show that those verses actually are fully compatible with the peaceable way of Jesus. Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with reading these verses in light of their broader biblical context. From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible shows empires rebelling against God and hindering the healing vocation of God’s people. The entire Bible could appropriately be read as a manual on how people who follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor negotiate the dynamics of hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.

Romans 13:1-7 stands in this general biblical context of antipathy toward the empires. If we take this context seriously, we will turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor? Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a direct servant of God. Paul, of course, was well aware that the Roman Empire had unjustly executed Jesus himself. As evil as the they might be, though, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes—nations that also remain under God’s judgment.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul surely had this biblical sensibility in mind as he addresses Jesus followers in the capital city of the world’s great superpower—the entity that had executed Jesus. Paul begins with a focus on the perennial problem related to empires—idolatry. He discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry). Continue reading “The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 2 (Romans 13) [Peaceable Romans #7]  “

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).

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

Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 2 – The religious temptation [Peaceable Romans #4]

Ted Grimsrud—January 24, 2022

One of the ways that the Bible is most helpful for peacemakers is in its critique of idolatry. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans especially offers an analysis of the dynamics where lack of gratitude to the Creator leads to trusting in created things rather than in the Creator —things such as human political and human religious structures. Such trust feeds a spiral of injustice and violence as seen in the social world of the Roman Empire—and other empires since. We also see a legacy of injustice and violence in religious communities.

In the first of three blog posts, “Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation,” I looked at Paul’s critique of the Empire’s idolatrous ways in Romans 1, suggesting that this critique has an on-going validity. However, the first chapter of Romans needs to be read in conjunction with Romans 2, where Paul offers an analysis and critique of a more subtle kind of idolatry—idols probably closer to home for his readers then and now.

Idolatry II: Religious boundary maintenance

Paul’s critique of Empire-idolatry has its own validity and importance. However, it should not be read in isolation from what follows in Romans. Paul combines his Empire-idolatry critique with a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace a different kind of idolatry. Following pioneering Pauline scholar James Dunn, I will use the term “works of the law” for what Paul criticizes—in distinction from the law understood as the original revelation of Torah through Moses, something that Paul embraces. Paul’s lack of precision in his use of the term “law” makes it difficult to perceive the nuances of his argument.

Dunn sees Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” in Galatians 2:16 (“We know that a person is justified, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”) as helpful for helping us distinguish between Paul’s critique of how the law was being understood among his opponents in the churches and Paul’s strong affirmation of the continuing validity of the law (Romans 13:8-10: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”).

In his groundbreaking essay from the early 1980s, “The new perspective on Paul,” Dunn summarizes his core point: “Paul’s objection is not to ritual law, but to exclusivist or particularist attitudes which came to expression in and are reinforced by certain rituals. Not the rituals as such, but the attitude behind them, expressed typically as a ‘boasting’ in works of the law (Rom 2:17-23; 3:27ff).” Behind Paul’s critique here is his own earlier use of works of the law as boundary markers. He protected the “true faith” with extreme violence. Paul as Saul the Pharisee, before he met Jesus, had made an idol of works of the law in a way that made him guilty of the same kind of death-dealing injustice as the leaders of the Roman Empire in his harsh persecution of Jesus’s followers.

Continue reading “Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 2 – The religious temptation [Peaceable Romans #4]”

Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation [Peaceable Romans #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2022

I believe that one of the ways the stories and teachings of the Bible speak to our world today is in how they criticize the dynamics of idolatry. The biblical stories often portray violence and injustice having roots in idolatry. Trusting in things other than the creator God who made all human beings in the divine image leads to a diminishment of the value of some human beings—a prerequisite for injustice and violence. Torah, the prophets, and Jesus all emphasize the centrality of loving the neighbor as part of what it means to love God above all else.

I think that the writings of Paul the apostle are also an important part of the critique of idolatry and the envisioning of peaceable life. This is the first of a three-part series of posts on Paul’s critique of idolatry. Especially the book of Romans emphasizes idolatry and how to overcome it. Noting the importance of idolatry in Paul’s thought helps us recognize how closely connected Paul was with Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. All too often, Christian theology has tended to see more discontinuity between Paul and his predecessors than is warranted—or helpful.

The struggle against idols characterizes the biblical story from the concern with “graven images” in the Ten Commandments down to the blasphemies of the Beast in Revelation. Certainly, at times the battle against idols itself crosses the line into violence and injustice. However, for my purposes here I will assume that those accounts stand over against the overall biblical story. When anti-idolatry takes the form of violence, a new idolatry has taken its place. Our challenge is to seek to overcome evil without becoming evil ourselves.

The critique of idolatry

We find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today. If we use violence as our criterion, we could say that whenever human beings justify violence against other human beings, they give ultimate loyalty to some entity (or “idol”) other than the God of Jesus Christ. It could well be that forces that underwrite violence today—loyalty to warring nations, labeling those outside our religious or ethnic circle as less than fully human, placing a higher priority on gathering wealth than on community wellbeing—are contemporary versions of the idolatrous dynamics that biblical prophets condemn.

Continue reading “Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation [Peaceable Romans #3]”

Reading Paul in light of Old Testament social conflict [Peaceable Romans #2]

Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2022

The more I read what scholars have to say about the writings of Paul, the more I feel like they miss important elements of Paul’s thought that might speak to us today. I think of Paul as a biblical prophet alongside the great Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself, and John of Patmos who wrote Revelation. As such, I think Paul is a great witness to the message of shalom that I associate with the prophets and with Jesus.

However, the Paul of Christian biblical scholars seems more like a teacher of a new religion, one centered on beliefs about Jesus’s death and resurrection and on escaping the failures of the ancient Hebrews. Such a Paul has little to say against domination and power politics and little to say about key issues of social justice such as wealth, social power, warism, and systemic prejudice. That is, the Paul of the Christian biblical scholar seems cut off from the OT portrayal of Torah, the insights of the prophets, and even the life and teaching of Jesus.

In raising this critique here, though, I am not intending to focus on recent Christian scholarship (at least not yet). Rather, I want simply to raise a few questions about how we might approach Paul in ways that are different from the standard approaches and that have promise to be more relevant for our current world healing concerns. I like the idea of reading Paul (for right now, I will focus on Romans) in the context of the Bible as a whole, where we keep the Big Story plot line from the Old Testament in mind and where, especially, we read Paul in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.

Continue reading “Reading Paul in light of Old Testament social conflict [Peaceable Romans #2]”

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]”