The Blind Spot in My Thinking

I have to confess, as a theologian and pastor, that I’m not as knowledgable about Paul’s writings — and his overall thinking — as I probably should be. Mostly, this is because it is hard for me to read Paul as story, and while I am not opposed to right doctrine (orthodoxy) – indeed, I believe confessing the right revealed truth is essential, otherwise we are not Christians — I’m always suspicious once Paul’s writings get tossed around because it seems like too many Christians seem to espouse a salvation through faith that makes our belief and assent to a set of ideas and propositions as essential to our salvation.

Basically, the faith that saves us is ours. In my mind, that makes saving faith the kind of works that Protestants so decry.

There is some beautiful writing in Paul’s letters, but I still find them troublesome reading because I still have difficulty finding the story. It doesn’t help that with much of what Paul writes, we only have half a conversation — that is, we done have any letters written to him, or any dialogue. So it’s hard to parse what Paul is saying sometimes. At least for me. It doesn’t help that many Christians treat Paul as a kind-of lawgiver, telling us the things we need to do in order to get right with God, follow Jesus properly, and be the people of God.

That said, I have learned to read Numbers and Leviticus in some kind of context and see them full of grace. I ought to be able to do the same with Paul, and I’m not quite sure yet why I can’t.

So Andrew Wilson has done me something of a favor in his review of Doug Campbell’s book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul and he asks a question few Christians I suspect will get at first read — do you read Paul like an Arian?

Arianism, as Campbell understands it, is essentially about foundationalism, in contrast to Athanasianism, which is about apocalypticism. By this he means that Arius begins with the foundations we have in human experience and then works upwards to make judgments about the divine nature (hence “foundationalist”), whereas Athanasius urges the impossibility of doing things this way round, and the necessity of starting with revelation from God (hence “apocalyptic”). For Campbell, all mainstream contemporary readings of Romans, and particularly Romans 1–4, are foundationalist, and hence Arian. He thinks they should be apocalyptic, and hence Athanasian.

Athanasius of Alexandria was an early leader of the church (fourth century mostly) from whom we get the long and unwieldy Athanasian Creed. It is included in the Book of Concord along with the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, and ends with the rather austere statement, “This is the catholic faith; a person cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” I’ve not studied that creed as much as I should, and I know I need to. So, I’ll just let this sit for a bit.

Anyway, Wilson writes of the Athanasian approach to reading Romans:

In contrast, Campbell proposes an Athanasian reading of Romans. Rather than beginning with natural reason and working upwards to God, he argues that Paul does not envisage anybody being able to relate to God without his prior apocalyptic activity in coming downwards; that is, his revelation of himself through Jesus Christ in the gospel. Athanasianism relies totally on revelation in Christ, and sees God as acting unconditionally and benevolently towards humans while still enslaved and unable to believe: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement, in Romans, is not a penal act which freely choosing moral agents can decide to accept or reject, but an Exodus act which liberates those who could do nothing to help themselves (and hence there is no endorsement in Paul of the imperial iustitia, and the spectre of Constantinianism, that Campbell suspects to be at the root of the judicial-punitive view). God steps down and delivers us in Jesus, and there are no strings of contractual obligation (like faith) attached. Faith is not a condition of salvation, in fact; for Campbell, sola fide is a vulgar Protestant idea, since it is so based on the two contracts, and we should instead think of sola Jesus. We bring nothing to the party, he argues, not even faith. We are delivered solely and entirely by grace.

The argument for this reading of Romans as the best one takes a thousand pages of densely argued prose, and summarising it adequately here would be impossible. For Campbell, the chief strengths of his proposal are exegetical (he discusses over thirty exegetical weakness of the contractual-foundationalist view, which throughout he labels Justification Theory, that are resolved using his approach), and theological (since it views God as the indiscriminate dispenser of grace to all, rather than the contractual pedant who needs us to chip in our works and/or faith to experience his deliverance). His strongest point is that it provides a satisfactory answer to the age-old question about the relationship between Romans 1–4 and 5–8, an answer which Justification Theory in all its forms has so far failed to give (is God judge, or liberator? Is unbelieving humanity able to choose to follow God, or dead in sin? Is the Christ-event judicial, or participationist? Is salvation conditional or unconditional? And so on). But for a detailed explanation of why his view fits the evidence better than the alternatives, you’d have to get his book.

It does sound like a book worth reading. Whether it makes Paul any more story for me I do not know. (Again, I have come to love Leviticus and Numbers, and they aren’t really story — well, Numbers is eventually — so I ought to be able to love Paul’s writings as well.) I also need to spend some more time with Athanasius and his creed, if for no other reason than I want to start a worship community and use the Book of Concord, especially the creeds and the two catechisms, as foundations for our shared confession.

7 thoughts on “The Blind Spot in My Thinking

  1. Thanks for pointing out what is now a must-read book.

    The liberal Methodist church I grew up in tended to discount any part of Paul which wasn’t immediately appealing. In fact, essentially their position was that the writings of Paul are the opinions of one mortal person and, however inspired in their quality, do not have divine authority.

    When I was of college age, I went through a long dark time, and I read the NT daily (in the KJV), some of the books many times. For a long time, I didn’t think about Paul himself as an intentional author; I found many passages in the letters which I loved and left it at that. But over time I began to see Paul as an amazing prophet (one who speaks for God). The more I knew about the Roman world, the more impressed I was that this person was able to do all that he did without going stark mental. I never worried too much about “Paul’s Rules for Living”, since his writing about conduct was a response to the very imperfect people who had come to the faith, and the pathological world they all had to live in — its peculiar customs, judgments and practices. Mainly, it seemed to me, he was just trying to keep Christians from shooting themselves in the (spiritual) foot. with eyes opened to the dangerous seductions of the pagan world.

    It would be easy to write Paul off as an apostle wannabe, who concocted a conversion story and claims of personal revelation. But we only have to compare him to the charismatic cult crazies who have come and gone in our time to get a solid perspective. The alternately compassionate and irascible shepherd, insistent on his message, but always humble and profoundly grateful for the grace of God — this to me is a friend and teacher for whom I am profoundly grateful.

    There are stories in Acts, including Paul’s conversion; I would like to have read more about his post-conversion time meditating and encountering God in Arabia. But Paul is no King or Judge in the OT sense. His life was pretty mundane, mostly on the fringes of society. He worked for a living, talked mainly to small groups and traveled hard roads and sea lanes. Spent a fair amount of time in prison, sometimes whipped or beaten. Was finally executed as a criminal. From the outside, Paul looks minor-league.

    According to one of the blurbs on the Amazon page, “His strongly antithetical vision identifies ‘participation in Christ’ as the sole core of Pauline theology” Sounds good to me — Christ in us and we in Christ. I’m down with sola Jesus, too. Especially in contrast to sola Jesus-plus-my-denomination or sola Jesus-plus-our-rules-and-the-approval-of-our-elders. As long as we include the whole trinitarian being of God, and the whole story of the people(s) of God.

    • I tend to see Paul as prophetic too. That helps me with the “law” part — were prophets listened to? Not necessarily. Was Israel *still* Israel if it failed to listen to its prophet? Absolutely, but there were consequences to be lived with. Mostly what I am concerned about is a use of the “law” (which includes the “rules” Paul has given us) which basically tells people — you must do this in order to become one of the people of God.

      • But I think that Paul hasn’t given US any rules at all. He is talking to people who are new in the faith, who don’t have 2000 years of Christian experience behind them to show what works and what doesn’t. We have been told to judge according to the fruit that grows; but if the tree hasn’t been around long enough to bear fruit, how do we decide? Paul, like Jesus and the prophets, sometimes hurls threats at his audience. What else is he to do if the audience has not yet put away childish things? — he still has to treat them like unruly children. He has to speak sometimes “in a human way”. Especially since they live in such a dangerous world — in the year AD 50 or thereabouts, the human way was a horribly harsh way. When he speaks in a spiritually mature way, then God’s love is all that matters.

      • I wanted to add a qualification to my last comment. Although, in my opinion, Paul does not give rules to us living two millennia later, he does provide us with loads of insight into the nature of love and community. We just have to take the historical context into account.

        Example: In 1 Cor 14, Paul says that women should be silent in church. He invokes the Law and gives it the authority of divine command. But he ends the passage with “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Note “shame” rather than “guilt” or “sin”. He is following general rules of propriety in the eastern Mediterranean, which still hold in Islam and Orthodox Judaism, as far as I know. But it may well have been that when he got to Rome, where the status of women was far higher and the customs accordingly different, he might have changed his mind. In any case, how many even of the fundamentalist churches follow this rule? I don’t know of any who make a big deal about it. Does singing in the the choir count as “speaking in church”? Nobody cares anymore.

        Paul’s motivation and emphasis are indicated a few verses earlier: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” And at the beginning of the chapter: “Pursue love [which was just exalted in the previous chapter], and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”

        So Paul is partly concerned about appearances, and partly about what contributes to a working out of love in the community. Disorder and “shameful” behavior may distract from the primary goal, especially when trying to evangelize in a hostile dominant culture. But there are other situations, in the gospels and even in Paul, when principle matters more than appearance, and a little scandal and shock serve as a slap in the face to wake people up.

        When Paul writes a letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking to the Corinthians. Not to us. Not directly. But we can learn something from it if we keep the historical/cultural context in mind. And then sometimes, as in Ch 13, he soars to such a level that he speaks to everyone, whether he intended to or not.

  2. One thing confused me about Andrew Wilson’s review. I had thought that what he calls Athanasianism was generally accepted at least in the reformed tradition (if not all of its implications). In fact, I thought that was the meaning of total depravity — not utter evil but utter helplessness. Now I can well believe that reformed theology takes a wrong turn at some point after that. Calvin was trained as a lawyer, after all. But I thought that was one of the things it got right — that Jesus brings it all to the deal, we bring nothing; hence the term monergism – all the power and working from God, none from us.

    One reason people tend to go wrong at that point is that it sounds fine to say we are saved by faith; but if faith is none of our doing, but all grace, then what the phrase really means is salvation by election. That is an argument which has been used by anti-Calvinists, just because election sounds like a crap shoot and does not resonate well in the English-speaking world. Unless election is universal. (That was Lincoln’s compromise — a universalist Calvinist after years of instruction from a Presbyterian pastor from his wife’s church. During the terrible war, he added the belief that God gives us all a bit of Hell in this life to purify us to be able to accept his grace.) But neither side of the argument wanted to go there. I’m not sure I want to go there (i.e. Universalism) at this point, but maybe I’ll end up there.

    About the Athanasian Creed: The focus of the creed is strongly influenced by what topics were controversial in the 4th century. The terminology from that time presupposes some familiarity with Greek philosophy as well as the whole Biblical text. So naturally a lot of it will sound strange and maybe nit-picky to modern ears. I do not regard the creeds as having the same authority as Scripture. But, on the other hand, the more I learn — adding to my little stash of knowledge — the more I am impressed with the Creeds as a distillation of centuries of questing for understanding and essentials by a lot of very smart people. So I’m down with the creeds, mostly. And it’s probably where they are strangest that they have the most to teach us.

    BTW, when I described the views on Paul I heard in the church I grew up in, I didn’t mean to recommend those views or imply that I now shared them. I had hoped that the rest of the comment would make that clear, but now I’m not so sure. Anyway, to be clear, yes Paul is canonical, if sometimes obscure. [Definition of ‘obscure’: it takes a book of 1200+ pages to even begin to untangle the mess of common misconceptions.]

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