Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Roamin' Through Romans

Some personal asides on Romans [possibly stating the obvious]:

(1) Romans is for me the heart-n-soul of the NT. Luther's quote to the effect that every Christian should have Romans memorized or fully internalized is a quote that I consider wholly appropriate, as, among other things,

(a) Paul lays out the role of the law,
(b) Paul lays out the gospel, describing what God has done for us,
(c) Paul lays out quite clearly the basics regarding justification,
(d) Paul presents the results of justification,
(e) Paul presents the true assessment of mankind's standing before God.
[There is of course overlap in the above partial list.]

(2) But why does Paul's opinion matter? What does he have?

Answer: Paul is a called apostle, specially commissioned by God to preach to the Gentiles, hence Paul has divine commission. We have two options here:
(a) Claim that Paul, despite the above, is still fallible here-n-there, and hold Paul accountable to some higher norm, or
(b) Admit that God is the God of History, and, by being God, His providence would extend to a writing as important as Paul's.

There's no way to empirically prove many of the claims in Romans, so our view of the authority of Romans really hinges on probabilities. For myself, and presumably for other classical Protestants out there, the combination of Paul's apostolic authority along with the many scriptural references in both the OT and NT to God's providence and overseeing of his salvation plan [even from "before time"] makes it a quite probable deduction that what Paul writes in Romans is indeed the very Word of God, that fount of saving truth we would do well to take seriously.

Of course, this too hinges on Pauline authorship, something that no responsbile criticism denies or should deny, whether liberal or conservative.

(3) Beyond the academic items mentioned above, I have a vested interest in understanding Romans, for I am a sinner. My conscience convicts me of this fact constantly. The proposition "I am a sinner" is not one to which my mere intellectual assent follows, but it is something of which I am keenly aware.

(a) Being a sinner doesn't involve just being a bad boy from time to time, though this is certainly a part of it. Rather, the proper view [if we let the Bible norm us] is that far from being good people who do bad things, we are, in reality, corrupt beings who cannot begin to merit any sort of consideration from God; our supposedly good works are themselves corrupted through and through with our deficiencies. Our sinful acts are not what make sinful so much as it is our very nature --- corrupted beyond any human repair --- that leads us to do what is evil in God's eyes; the sinful acts and thoughts are but the manifestation of our pitiful and seemingly hopeless situation.

(b) Given that my conscience convicts me constantly, the natural and seemingly selfish question to ask --- and it is quite rational to ask this --- is just what, if anything can be done about my situation. Scripture clearly states that God is perfectly good, perfectly righteous, perfectly holy, and perfectly just. With His nature confined by these properties [among others], I can have no positive standing before God in my sinful state. And the idea of God "accepting me as I am" [to steal some squishy modern parlance] is thoroughly incompatible with His nature. God can no more be on intimate terms with sin and corruption than He can be finite or unholy.

If we realize that the standard laid out in scripture for our conduct and orientation is a strict standard of which we fall short, we are in a doomed state, for God, being holy and just, must distance himself from our unholy and unjust activities. The modern liberal Protestant hope that God will merely look the other way and tolerate our foibles is a clear contradiction of God's nature --- God would not be holy and just if he were the approving idol constructed by liberal Protestantism.

(c) Yet within the first four chapters of Romans, after being informed of our sorry and miserable state, a state that is beyond all human hope, we are told that it is not yet beyond God's sphere of agency. God has done something on our behalf --- whether His nature constrained Him to do so or whether He could have done differently is something I cannot answer with any certainty --- and this something on our behalf does several things simultaneously [as it would have to do to be consistent with God's nature]:

(i) It upholds God's justice and aversion to sin,
(ii) It upholds God's holiness,
(iii) It upholds God's mercy and love towards fallen mankind,

and, most importantly [speaking selfishly],

(iv) It allows me to meet God's standard of righteousness, even though I am not righteous. [That is, more puckishly, it saves my bacon!]

Taking (i)-(iv) together, and comprehending in a deep way exactly just what God has done for me, I cannot help but feel a sense of awe and a somewhat misplaced self-importance. I am a contingent creature, occupying a small sliver of time, and residing on a little mud ball circling an insignificant star that innocuously resides in an insignificant arm on the outer edge of a galaxy, which galaxy is an insignificant galaxy among other galaxies "nearby," which collection of galaxies forms an insignificant cluster of galaxies, which cluster of galaxies is an insignificant cluster of galaxies in what is called the Local Supercluster, which in turn is just one of various superclusters [of clusters of galaxies] inhabiting the known universe. And I have nothing to offer God, nothing that can place God on the "owe" side of the ledger.

So, in the end, I am a insignificant sinner with a nature that is antithetical to God's properties and His requirements, and I am unable to do anything about this, so great is my corruption. Yet --- and this is the very gospel itself --- God does something decisive and final on my behalf.

Romans describes this "something" that God has done, and further describes the consequences that follow from this "something."

(4) BTW, the fact that Romans describes what God has done for us doesn't entail that we'll understand exactly why what God has done for us works. While philosophers can speculate and theorize about various explanations of the mechanism [if that is the right word] by which we are saved, it is important to note that God has seen fit to not explain these things in the full fashion that would scratch any philsophical itches.

(5) If we go by the Greek text of Romans, as we should if we want to do serious exegesis, it will be discovered that Romans has a number of exegetical pickles where there can be reasonable disagreement on what exactly is being said [though the big picture is quite clear, I'd contend]. The best commentary that I've seen for Romans is CEB Cranfield's two-volume set on Romans in the International Critical Commentary series. Murray's NICNT volume [now replaced by Moo's NICNT volume] is rather stodgy in various places. Luther gets to the heart of Romans in his commentary, though I really view his commentary as a collection of lecture notes. I'd like to hit Schreiner and Moo in the future, but Cranfield is slow and somewhat exhausting going.
I have a soft spot for Hendriksen's commentary [what little of it I've read], and I must confess that I don't remember much of RCH Lenski's orthodox Lutheran commentary on Romans.

(6) Paul's arguments are not trivial matters! Paul, being Paul, seems to pick up a topic, go off on a side topic, and, sometime later, return to the previous topic. Also, it is not always clear whether Paul is using verse x+1 as a clarification [or support] of verse x or as the beginning of a new argument, or even as an aside. And Paul can seemingly use the same word or phrase multiple times in a local context and impute different meanings to the word or phrases in that context.

(7) Speaking of Greek, there are some rather deep questions regarding the various genitives that occur in Romans.

(a) What is the righteousness-of-God?
(b) What is the faith-of-Christ?
(c) What are works-of-[the]-law?

(8) Romans upholds in quite clear language the classical Protestant doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of the law --- sola fida. Romans also upholds sola gratia, namely, that God's agency comes through God's mercy and not through any sort of claim we can place on God --- just as clearly. I have yet to see any sort of argument that undermines the clearness of these doctrines; the oft-given appeal to James 2 reveals a rather disturbing lack of attention to context and to the basic exegetical principles by which we interpret any document, not just the Biblical texts. Perhaps this can be the topic of a future post, though again such a post will be completely derivative in nature, repeating what others have said.

To state things in reverse: we don't hold to sola fida and sola gratia [among other things] out of a quest to be self-consciously Protestant, but [hopefully] out of a quest to be fully faithful to the text.

[Note: I write this for fellow Protestants; were I stating this to a Roman Catholic audience it would not do to make these claims without argument.]

(9) I thought of doing a commentary series on Rom 1-4 here at PP, but the following things have convinced me to not scratch this blog itch:

(a) There doesn't seem to be an easy way of typing Greek into Blogger.
(b) What could a blog post say that isn't already in a good commentary? In general, blog posts are inferior to monographs or books, though that hasn't stopped this PP site from hoisting up material of varying quality! For dealing with the text of sacred scripture, a bit more reverence should be shown, lest scripture be shortchanged.
(c) Given a certain compulsive streak in yours truly, I'd get into so much detail and such that the blog would take too much time, and even then I'd probably be reinventing the wheel, and a square wheel at that when one looks at the serious commentaries on Romans already out there.
(d) Who knows if I'd even stick with it?

Anyway, those are some loose comments on Romans.

If anybody asks what the big point of this post was, the answer is merely to talk about Romans. [The post probably should've been titled "Random Romans Ruminations" but that title did not have quite the same punch as the current title.]

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