Romans: Finding Justice in the Imaging of God and the Liberating Power of Locating God’s Impartial Judgment of our Idolatry

On the subject of Justice in Romans:
As I’ve posted before, I’m currently working through Pauls letter to the Romans in order to gain a better perspective on the notion of justice. Some takeaways from today’s reading-

One of the challenges in reading Romans is locating the words of Paul in context. This is the reason why Scot McKnight argues for reading Romans backwards rather than forwards. Because Paul is using the form and structure of a letter to draw out a narrative (in interesting ways) the book functions like a movie or a book where, once you arrive at the end and gain the bigger picture, it transforms your reading of the story and connects the dots. Thus when you revisit that book or movie the next time you bring your understanding of the bigger picture with you.

The tendency in common Protestant interpretations is to read the book forward using an applied narrative. This is how we arrive at, for example, a verse like the contentious 3:23 (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) and find it speaking to human depravity and Gods just punishment. Later verses and passages often then get ignored, missing the context that can shed light on what this verse means in Pauls larger concern for the justice of God (in an ancient world where justice, of a particular form, was the highest virtue).

In Romans Paul is speaking to a group of churches he doesn’t really know addressing division and conflict between two different groups. Scholars disagree on who these two groups are, and this disagreement stems from the use of Paul of what is commonly called an “interlocutor”, an imaginary opponent placed within the narrative functioning as the opposing view. Distinguishing between when the interlocutor is speaking and when that point of view is being expressed and when Pauls interjection and point is being expressed becomes hugely important for navigating Romans as a narrative focus, as this is how the discourses play out.

Some scholars believe that there is a single audience with two different viewpoints in Romans, that being gentile christians with some believing they need to become Jews and others not (and subsequently wondering where that leaves them as gentiles). Others believe there are both Jews and Gentiles present, with opinions on whether Paul is speaking primarily to a gentile audience or a Jewish one diverging.

In any case, no matter which theory is correct we can still say with confidence that one of the central points being established in Romans 1-3 is a concern for demonstrating God’s “impartial judgement”. This is a crucial point for understanding the phrase “all have sinned”. The way this gets fleshed out is by way of a few underlying concerns regarding three central motifs- humanity’s vocation as image bearers, second the problem of idolatry (the exchanging of the image of God for a different image), third the question of covenental faithfulness relating to the problem that idolatry presents to the whole of the created order.

Important to recognize here too that to read Pauls letter to the Romans is to recognize his cosmological concern as being rooted in the Genesis narrative. The Genesis text functions as a primary hyperlink throughout Romans as Paul establishes this letter as a functioning Gospel for the “whole” of creation, as does the Wisdom of Solomon (a text that is the driving force of Galatians). As such Paul is immersing his understanding of sin, for example, in this cosmological sense, recognizing Sin in a capital letter sense by giving it agency, personality, and force. This is not purely metaphor, rather it is reflective of how Paul understands the narrative of God and Jesus as a Jewish man immersed in the faithful life with a cosmological picture of the Principalities and Powers and the Divine Council in tow.

One thing that happens when we read Romans through a common Protestant lens is that we take Pauls concern for the “impartial” justice (or judgement) of God and we filter it instead through an exclusionary purpose and focus. Whereas Paul understands the Jewish story from the perspective of his own prophetic heritage (that being the expectation of renewal within the Jewish story of unfaithfulness to the covenant that we find in Jeremiah for example). We then tend to hear in Paul a concern for reapplying certain views of “specific” election to now be “in” Christ, especially where we impose our own anxieties about an assumed faith-works tension (Gods election becomes about answering the question of how we can be confident about our future and ultimate election to salvation over and against views that emphasize works of the law as earning our salvation. This of course leads to theologies like total depravity as the primary way of reconciling the noted presence of Pauls seeming concern for impartiality in God’s judgement, making , for example, the “all” (have sinned) in Adam stand as a universal statement about the whole of humanity while taking the “all” in Christ and making it a limiting and exclusive term based on God’s elective action of grace of the faithful few).

This all, unfortunately in my opinion, misses the narrative Paul is both writing within and composing in the letter. Most readily it misses the emphasis on vocation, idolatry and covenant which inform Pauls discussions of faithfulness and belief in very specific ways. Rather than faith being something given to us as a spiritual and saving work, faith for Paul is actually about the faithfulness “of” God to the covenant, which is then set alongside the story of Israel as living within the reality of a broken covenant in their unfaithfulness, that being the failed vocation of being image bearers. This is less about making an external judgment of a world out there (nation) and stands far more in line with the prophetic judgement of Israel itself, and we can see this tension being worked out in the letter as they wonder about how to reconcile Christ’s movement (presence) into all the world with the unfaithful history of Israel. This is why questions emerge so pertinent with the interlocutor regarding how to make sense of unfaithfulness and the question of Jewish identity (the Law here being used in a functional and identifying/ritualistic sense) as having “worth”, especially when considering how the covenant of God moves out into the whole of the created order.

This is so key for reading Romans here in relationship to Gods justice. What God is saving us from and what God is saving us to become the necessary points in our ability to map how this narrative is playing out for Paul. With his specific attention placed on the Genesis text Paul places God’s justice in the view of setting right what went wrong, and this carries into an understanding of how it is God’s presence dwells in the created order. Here is where we need to hear how Paul is upholding the Jewish prophetic vision of the circumcision of the heart with tabernacle and temple imagery as the space where God dwells withing the whole of the created order, which is how he then sees Christ reforming the narrative in particular ways. Crucial here is what “righteousness” is, a word that sits in direct relationship with the justice of God. The vision of Eden in Genesis is of God’s image bearers (humanity) bringing gods presence out to whole of the earth. Filling the earth then gets exchanged for the opposite as the image of God is traded for idolatry. This, in the Babel story, leads to the scattering which the story of Israel then embodies in the covenant promise to bring humanity back together so that the earth can be filled with God’s image as the great unifier within our divisions. Paul imagines this in Christ and the movement this presents in terms of the Jewish vocation playing out in the gentile world. God must judge impartially for this to happen, and gods judgement is not spilled out on humanity in Romans but on Sin itself, which idolatry and it’s sinful expressions has allowed to enslave humanity to its workings and it’s scattering. It is this sense of allegiance that leads to the functional realities held in opposition- the way of Christ in the world and the way of the Powers, which is expressed within the image and reality of Empire. Allegiance to one reality or the other is what Paul, in Romans, sees as defining our reality as being towards life or death.

There are many particular ways we can see this within the text itself, something that has been slightly obscured by unfortunate choices in translation (faith in Christ versus the faithfulness of christ being one of them). But this definitely does help towards gaining a handle on God’s justice as being the means towards transformation of the whole of the creation rather than the means of condemnation of the individual. It frees us from seeing justice in sin-necessary punishment terms as though righteousness (and our lack of it) and gods impartial response can be whittled down to measuring short of imperfect (like, being an 8 out of 10) leading to this being the primary point of the Gospel (being made perfect through the imparting of Christ’s moral righteouness to us as the satisfying of God’s wrath towards a depraved humanity).

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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