Romans 9-11: Reclaiming the Story of Israel

“I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he wil turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I away their sins.’

  • Romans 11:25-27

“For God has bound all men over to disobedience sothat he may have mercy on them all.”

  • Romans 11:32

One of the most common readings of this difficult passage that I encountered both growing up in the evangelical world and in my movement towards Reformed readings (which I’ve since moved away from) is to blanket this passage with the assumption that Paul is establishing the notion of a “spiritual” Israel over and against an “ethnic” (identity) or a “ritualistic (law) Israel. That is, Paul sees the true Israel as both Jew and Gentile and the “fullness” or “all” of this collective as the elect.

If you spend any time reading Reformed theology you will encounter a reading of the word “all” that can shift between its possible usages and interpretations, such as being rendered “all types” as opposed to all or the whole. You see this in readings of 1 Corinthians 15:22 and the statement “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The “all” in Adam is taken to read universally while the “all” in Christ is taken to mean “all types” or the “sum” of the elect. It is similar for those in the evangeical world who read these verses in Romans to be speaking about “spiritual” Israel and apply the “all” to “all” who are obedient to the Gospel and confess Jesus as Lord. In both cases this flows from an understanding of Romans to be speaking about the salvation of the individual, or the process of salvation in the individual.

Now, if Romans is to be understood to be speaking to a majority Gentile community wrestling with and divided over how it is they make sense of Jewish people now returning to Rome following Rome’s previous purging of them from the city, how does this place these verses in terms of the audiences (or Pauls) question and concern? Scholar Beverly Gaventa argues that Paul’s larger argument of Chapter 9-11 should lead us directly back to Chapter 4 and his initial discussion about Abraham.

This actually used to be the minority and is now the majority view, but the majority of scholars now believe 9-11 to be the climatic moment in the narative that moves us along the journey from the specific context of these divided and largely gentile christian (using that word in a defining sense) communities to the cosmic view and back again to the specific context in chapter 12. And one important note here that comes from this majority view- Paul would not recognize Israel in the same way we would today, as a Country. Paul does not treat Israel “as an ethnic entity”, rather he “treats Israel in terms of the story of creation and redemption which flows from the story of Exodus into Exile and gets bound up in terms of covenent (promise). As Gaventa goes on to say, “coventional treatments of Romans 9-11 often overlook the fact that the primary question Paul raises (in his use of the interloceter, the imagined or fictional opponent) about Israel is a question about God.” Or in other words, the “faithfulness” of God to this covenantal promise. More directly in 9-11, the reigning question is, did God fail in this covenant promise when it comes to Israel. Why is this question raised? Because of what Paul says in Romans 4.

Taking from Gaventa, if Chapter 1 establishes that Jesus is “born from the line of David” (1:3) and that the Gospel is “for the Jew first (1:16), and Romans 2 then has effectively worked to “destabilze” categories of Jew and Gentile by saying there are gentiles who observe the law without having recieved it (in the circumcision/identity sense) and Jews who have the law (in an identity sense) while not observing it. In this sense, if circumcision can become uncircumcision (and vice versa) how then do we make sense of the covenant promise within the story of Israel? Here Gaventa reminds us that it is important to hear this as a gentile (Paul’s audience) but from the perspective of the interloceter probing Paul’s own Jewish “faithfulness”. His cosmic view of creation binds him to the “all” or whole of creation, but it does so with God’s faithfulness lingering in the shadows of his very Jewish concern for the story of Israel.

Which brings Gaventa to chapter 4 where she helps to show how it is that Paul brings in Abraham in a curious way, absent of the larger plot markers of Abrahams own Jewish roots. If you read Romans 4 what stands out is the way Paul writes Abraham in line with his gentile readers, bypassing the covenantal context all together. “There is a striking historical leap from the promise that Abraham trusted (acted in obedience or faithfulness) to the present time.”

Why does Gaventa believe this maters in a literary sense? Because of the ways Paul is striving to speak of what God has done in the cosmic sense rather than emphasizing Abrahams own character. She quotes Francis Wastson as suggesting that oddly enough “Abraham becomes a minor character in his own story.” The story of God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promise to make right in the whole of creation what is wrong translates from Abraham to “all” of creation. And this leaves an important gap which 9-11 is now returning to witht the question, what do we do with the Jewish story? This is especialy pertinent given the division is likey between gentiles taking on the Jewish identity and those who are not. The question pushes even further in chapter 8 to wonder about that whole circumcision/uncircmsion thing Paul previously presented. “Does Israel have the power to remove itself from God’s love, and if so what does this say about God?” And remember, this is not speaking about a “spiritual” Israel but rather the story of Israel. This is so cruical.

Paul’s definitive answer comes in Romans 9:6 where he says “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Here it is important to recognize something most modern translations miss- a modifier. The modifier is not present in the original Greek text and thus must be added in order to dictate a direction. The modifer “is” (it is not) tends to be the place where readings move towards the idea of a “spiritual”Israel. In context thuogh it is better translated in terms of beiing “constituted”. As Gaventa articulates it, “(the comparitive coulld be) it is not the case that the elected representatives constitute the congress”, or to set it within Romans 9:6 “it is not the case that all those who are from Israel constitute Israel.” In other words, which Paul sees in his ensuing unfolding of the story of Israel, This is a story of God’s faithfulness, not Israel itself. Israel (not spiritual but identifiable Israel) “does not derive from itself”, it exists by nature of God’s faithfulness in the created world. As Paul repeatedly brings up the question “is Israel beyond rescue” in chapter 9 the concern of Paul’s story here is for the whole of creation and how the story of Israel (9-11) fits in with the story of the gentile division (linking Abraham with both).

Implications of this reading? First, this challenges how we move into Paul’s discussion of election. Individualistic readings of Romans that read it in terms of the process of salvation see in 9-11 God’s election of the individual using the idea of “spiritual” Israel to do away with all disinctives that seperate humanity in a societal sense. It universalizes Paul’s words and removes it from the story of Israel on the basis that “all have sinned”, making the Gospel all about individuals being saved (or elected) to live in glory with God. This misses two crucial parts of Paul’s story:

  1. The cosmic story in which we find the emergence of a third player, the Powers of Sin and Death, which is portrayed as an actual agency
  2. The story of Israel, which often gets absorbed into the assumed Law-Gospel debate making the “law” (salvation by works) bad and the gospel (salvation by faith alone) good. Spiritual Israel then leads to a long history of reading Israel”s story as one of poential superseccionaist claims that now gets freed by the grace of the Gospel. This makes little sense of the questions and concerns Paul is relating through his dealing with the story of Israel, and what hangs in the balance, something that tends to fall by the waysid when pushed and pulled into renderings of a “spiritual” Israel, is the question of what do we do with God’s faithfulness in light of the story of Israel, which carries force with the gentile audiences hearing the spirit, suffering, and new creation emphasis of chapter 8.

Second, when we hear Paul’s telling of the story of Israel in chapter 9 and following election should not be standing out as though our confidence in the faithfulness of God hinges on the elect of a “remnant” that God holds secure in their salvation over and against the rest. When you hear the story in view of the Old Testament narratives what becomes clear is how election means “election for” (the sake of the world) not “election to” (individual election). To hear the phrase “I (God) will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compasion on who I will have compassion” should set us straight into those familiar and sacred stories, where in the Old Testament context it is not speaking about the salvation of individuals but of a chosen representative raised up to serve the whole of this cosmic picture of creation. Paul is emphasizing the pattern of God; his freedom to have mercy on or to “chose” the lesser in an ancient point of perspective to be a chosen representative of God’s new creation vision. It is about God’s freedom to do so over and against social expectations. Written into this of coure is a story of the unfaithfulness of Israel. To say “Jacob I loved, but Esau, I hated”, that troublesome phrase for many, is not to hear this speaking about God hating individuals. Rather this phrase is pulled from an Old Testament story about nations in conflict (the nation born from Esau and the nation born of Jacob). Here is it important to be immersed in the larger narative of the Old Testament and the patterned history that it represents. In the story of Cain and Abel we have this similar establishing picture of a family divided. The warring nations in Israel is consistently depicted as brothers against brothers, which gets read into the pattern of God’s subverting the normal familial expectations regarding the first born. This plays into God consistently switching sides from the readers perspecive in order to to stay faithful to the promise, and always using the unexpected persons and places to pull somtheing new from the destruction. This is why the story of Israel cannot be subsumed into nationalistic interests. Even the point of the “hardening” of some follows a similar track. Here Paul establishes in line with the “gving over” to resistance that we see in the Exodus story, but this always functions in service to God’s faihful promise to make, as chapter 8 says, all things new, to bring about the new creation.

It must be said here too that readings that suggest the point of all this is to establish the right of God to choose some to slavation and others not (however they interpret the final judgement) and thus read 9-11 as the process of sanctification (the making of a righteous life) simply misses the story of the Gentiles, the story of Israel and the story of God that Paul is telling. It misses God’s justice bringing hope to these contexts.

And what about justice? When the “all” is interpreted as spiritual Israel and read through the lens of individual salvation, what you end up with is a story that massages out the particular contexts of these three stories. And when we lose that context God’s justice becomes less about speaking into these contexts and all about the punishment of death deserved (for all) and punishment asborbed (for the elect in the Reformed view or the repentent in the opposing view). Any potential justice must follow this judicial sense of the word and must be predicated on death as the ony truly deserving punishment. All roads in pursuit of God’s justice lead to death as their ultimate end.

This faces real problems when trying to attend for Paul’s view of the cosmic narrative, both in the redemption of the whole of creation and in the establishing of evil as an agency and the object of God’s wrath. This misses the ways God is subverting the forms of justice Paul notes in the world through using these representatives. Now, what I am not arguing for here is universal salvation (that’s another discussion). What I am argung for is placing justification and righteousness in the same camp as part of Paul’s grander vision of God’s being faithful to the covenant promise, which is fulfilled not in some future sanctfied existence but in the defeat of the Powers and the renewal of creation that has already begun. This is so crucial to the quesiton Paul is asking in Romans, which is what about God’s faithfulness. This is what we find in the story of Israel and it is what Paul is applying to the gentile story with concern over their division regarding the work of God playing out in their context as gentile believers. The assurance of salvation is this gospel story- the death and resurrection of Jesus which defeats the Powers of Sin and Death and ushers in the new reality. What follows then, which is evident in Paul’s continued emphasis on the call to obedience and allegiance within this new reality, is the question of which reality we are standing in, that which brings life or that which brings death. This is not a matter of “believing faith. This is a matter of participation based on the faithfulness of God. This then becomes a much diffrent question then “am I saved or not”. Rather its, how can I know God is making things right in the world? That’s the question Paul is asking in Romans, and this should frame our sense of justice accordngly as it moves us to then bear witness to the fact that God is in fact faithful to that promise even in our failures. This is the true force of God’s elective work.

Romans 15,16: God’s Wrath, God’s Kindness, and the Path From Sin To Justice

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
– Romans 15:5-7

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned… be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
– Romans 16:17, 19

These verses, which bring Paul’s Gospel of God… regarding His Son (1:2) to a close intends to bring Paul’s leaders all the way back to where he begins in Chapter 2, where he writes “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, or at whatever poitn you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1)

Whos is the “you” Paul is adressing? Most scholars seem to agree on the letters timing- a period of time after Jews been purged from Rome when they are slowly beginning to return. It is likely Paul is speaking to churches made up of a majority Gentile audience, if not all, who are attempting to make sense of Jewish exiles coming into their Church.

And what is dividing them and causing them to pass judgement? Tim Gombis in his excellent work on the letter to the Romans outlines how the division sits between Gentiles who believed they needed to become Jewish in order to belong as a Christ follower (the ones Paul refers to as the weak) and those who believed the did not (which Paul calls the strong).The Weak/Strong label (Chapter 14) is not meant to evoke lesser and greater categories, but rather questions surrounding identity by way of the Law, which Paul uses in a threefold way- as a mark of identity, as an act of covenant formation (Torah) and as a fuction of fidelity or allegiance (obedience to). What lies behind this call to unity then is the exhortation to establish a Gospel for the world in line with the story of Israel through which Jesus arises. What’s important to recognize here is that Paul is not thinking in terms of a Law-Gospel or faith-works tension. This is one of the misunderstandings of the Jewish world to which Paul and Jesus belonged that arises when we read faith in terms of a “believing” faith rather than a “faithfuness” to, as well as when the terms justification is seperated from the term sanctification. The anxiety that we find in Paul’s audience and that Paul is addressing has everything to do with covenental faithfulness and identity, two things that carry both the saving (liberating) act and the call to faithfulness in tandem.

Leading up to Paul’s establishing of his main thesis (division which leads to judgment and how to heal such divisions within the Church) Paul takes a journey through the story of creation (1:18-23), outlining the problem (exchanging the glory of the immortal God, word that means both presence and image, for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (1:23), a direct rendering of the Garden narrative applied to the story at Mount Sinai and the ensuing exile), defining the outcome of the problem (God gave them over to sinful desire, which he defines later as being in bondage to or in slavery to capital letter Sin, the agency Paul describes as The Powers of Sin and Death, given that the wages of sin is Death), and then defines precisely how and why it is a problem in an exhastive list of sins/Sins particular expression in a practical sense (1:29-32), all terms that set the stage for division and which it says “deserve death”.

A couple notes here relating to Romans and the idea of justice. 1:15 clearly establishes where God’s wrath is directed “revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness… “. As Paul continues to flesh this out in his letter he sees this as the embodiment of the agency that holds humanity in slavery. God’s wrath is not then directed at humanity, but rather at the Powers which inform the final note of Paul’s letter in 16:20, where he brings us back to the garden narrative by echoing the covenant promise to “crush Satan under your feet”. The answer to the problem of Division is the defeat of the Powers, the liberating act which makes known the true image of humanity and creation. The picture Paul is painting is of God giving those who paricipate in the rule of capital letter Sin over to the “desire” that informs such an exchange of their true image, thus “storing up wrath” against ourselves, the wrath God has directed at the Powers of Sin and Death.

The point of justification then is this story of Christus Victor, the story of liberation which is given to the whole of creation. This is crucial for moving into an understanding of judgement and salvation as establishing two realities, one that brings (and is) Life and one that is and brings Death, and thus moving us towards allegiance to one reality or the other. This is what glory means, is the presence of God among and with us. The image of God revealed. Its in this way that we can gain a fuller grasp on the “faith(fulness) of Christ to the covenenat promise, God’s true measure of justice. To “deserve” death in this sense is not to deserve it because we are guilty or because we are human- this is the view of the sort of judicial system The Powers of Sin and Death bind us to. It is simply the proclamation of Christs victory over Sin and Death. It is not a depraved human in view here but Sin/sin itself, and christ liberates by moving us into a different kind of justice. And this justice in Roman’s is meant to have the context of the audience, the division and the problem in view. it is communal and specific, and from there gets wrapped up into the cosmic story Paul is unfolding.

Keep in mind too, what is said to deserve death- division. Paul is going to do a lot of work to show how Torah can be used for death work (division) or life work (unity, peace, love), and in context this comes through using Torah to include or exclude others from the justifying work of Christ

Romans 13: Death, Taxes and Reclaiming Justice

Reading with much fear and trembling in Romans 13 this morning. If Romans is a highly contentous book in Christian theology, this chapter, or at least the first 7 verses, might reflect the height of this tension given how it has been used to justify nationalism, political and religious allegiances, violence, and, of course, appeals to forms of justice that continue to run rampant here in North America by way of the “bearing of the sword” as God’s “servant”, an “agent of wrath” (13:4).

And of course, while I would argue these verses are often used out of context, common readings within the evangelical world and Reformed communities don’t arise out of nowhere. There are very real outcomes to readings of Romans that see it as describing the process of individual election to salvation. One of those outcomes is employing Divine agency and God’s sovereignty as means of justifying God’s use of violent punishment as the “just” sentence of this evil world. For that reason these verses are seen as the divine proclamation that the key and sole duty of the government is to enact penal/judicial justice by way of the sword. This is what God has raised them up to do. Those who need to fear such a government are those who have done wrong (13:4). Here we see interpretations of righteousness and justification in Romans being employed in a moral sense rather than a “just” sense of the terms. To rebel against such judicial systems, they (interpreters) say, is tantamount to rebelling against God (13:2).

A couple thoughts here:
1. This is precisely why, as I’ve been arguing for in my time in Romans, such views of justice (penal, just punishment, necessary repayment for sin) can only ever result in death. The cycles of repayment that such views of justice uphold have only one, singular trajectory, and it is not restorative. It can’t be in common readings of justification and righteousnes in Romans as “moral” terms. Restorative work belongs in the split terminology of sanctification, the result of salvation through faith. Justification is the means by which payment is made for the elect and punishment meted out for the reprobate. Such a view not only aligns with the form of justice we see in Rome, perpetuating the cycle of sin by way of repayment.

2. What happens when we connect Romans 13:1-7 to Romans 12, where the final word is “overcome evil with good” lest we “be overcome with evil”. What happens when we employ the calls of love from Chapter 12 in terms such as hospitality, harmony, devotion, peace, humility, and the call to not take revenge. What happens if we apply the call of love in the second part of Romans 13 where it says “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love on another, for he who loves his fellowman has fufilled the law.” (13:8) How does this move us away from the moral conversation of good and bad works, or law versus Gospel, to a conversation about how love breaks the cycle of repayment by way of a different kind of justice.

3. What happens if we apply Paul’s use of terminology like justification/righteousness to a past/present/future use. Paul moves fluidly through these contexts and tenses not as a matter of assurance of future salvation, but as assurance in Christ’s faithfulness o the covenant promise. This means we can live in the new creation reality now by bearing witness to it. What does this mean for 13:1-7?

4. What if Romans 13:1-7 has been wrongly cited out of context? What happens when we read Romans backwards and find the context in a divided Gentile community needing to make sense of their place within Jewish identity? Here is something to consider. Some commentators have argued Romans 13:1-7 is speaking of the authorities as “Rome”, and suggest that it is so out place with Paul’s larger argument that it must have been a later insertion. But consider this argument from scholar Mark Nanos from his book The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters. Rome is never cited in these passages. There is actually good evidence to see 13:1-7 as referring to the religious leaders in the Temple, who would have collected taxes from the gentiles as they worshipped with them. This fits with Paul’s larger concern for healing the rift between the Gentile churches regarding whether they need to become Jewish or not. It fits with Paul’s exhortation of Jewish identity in the grander picture of the witness going out into all the earth. It fits with his endorsement of the Jewish Law in relationship to wrath and Sin/sin. And keep in mind that individualistic readings of Roman’s have led to tendencies to see the Law as bad and the Gospel as good. This is not what Paul would have thought. In Roman’s 7 and 3 Paul is establishing what he sees as two different uses of Torah, one that brings death and one that brings life.

If we read it that way suddenly the verses carry a positive movement towards Paul’s larger argument of love and unity and peace. The biggest question in this view is the word “sword”. There is a technical argument there that shows how the sword is not primarily intended as a literal sword, nor likely a sword at all. It can be seen as God’s justice towards captal letter Sin, in which small letter sin attaches us to (storing up wrath). This is an admonition and a reclamation of Paul’s preceding argument then in 9-12 regarding Jews and Gentiles and justification. Just as they give taxes/revenue to respective entities (vs7) give to the authorities (religious leaders in the temple) for they are God’s servant.

Month in Review: Favorite Watches, Reads and Listens For April, 2022

Movies

You Won’t Be Alone (2022, Goran Stolveski)

“It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world. A biting, wretching thing.”

It’s only once the fullness of this story comes to fruition, conflicted as it is by the great tension of what it means to be human in largely uncaring and unconscious universe, that the horrific and the holy (to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite podcasts, the Fear of God) seem to finally come together in a way that gives rise to something rather profound, emotionally gripping, and quite beautiful behind the profane. Its a slow burn, and I’m not sure everyone will appreciate the meditative quality in the same way, especially in its more brutal moments. And yet for those willing to see the world from the perspective of these two outsiders I do think there is something powerful to experience here, something can teach us important truths about our world and our place in it.

Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)

A lovely, full bodied, good natured film about the war between flesh and spirit. It’s in a small Danish village where we meet our family, a Priest with two daughters growing up in the shadow of the Catholic-Protestant divide. These two daughters eventually catch the eye of two young men, and, following the death of the father, the arrival of Babette throws all of this set up into a bit of chaos and reflection, throwing something unexpected into the mix regarding how these two daughters make sense of the world and moral responsibility within it. 

What Babette’s arrival does is take these characters and formulate them into questions about how to be pious, especially in situations that present us with a moral dilemma. The two sisters are constantly torn between the call to be charitable towards Babette’s requests, revolving as they do around the pleasure of food and service, and the temptations of the flesh (agreeing, at her request, to take her on as their servant, for example). If they deny her request then they are denying someone the charity God wants them to give. If they don’t then they are the recipients of that which satisfies their sinful desires. It’s a fascinating, and often humorous debacle and conundrum to watch unfold.

The film ultimately pushes and pull us towards an optimistic and largely celebratory conclusion, but it’s the way it establishes the path to get there that feels so completely satisfying here.

Vitalina Varela (2019, Pedro Costa)

Captures the art of slow cinema in all its intricate, intimate and immersive potential. Set larrgley at night, much of this story is told from the shadowy corners of our main character’s ever wandering and ever shifting context.

She is an older woman who travels to and through Lisbon in search of her dead husband’s secrets. It’s never quite certain whether we are meant to see the world and information she is uncovering or if this stuff is uncovering more of her. These two things are likely very much connected.

History plays a role here, as does the image of the ghost. It’s actually this lingering sense of the past following her and haunting her even as she searches for it that moves us between the world she is seeing the ways the world is uncovering her. The film requries patience, although it’s not the kind of film that demands a huge amount of mental energy. It has a meditative quality, one that you can almost slip in and out of as it goes and still be immersed in its story and it’s journey. Wherever it is one comes back into this story however rewards with a series of beautifully crafted scenes, be it framed by a face or in a room. And each crafted scene has much to appreciate in terms of detail.

A special kind of film, to be sure, and one that demonstrates a real control over the craft.

Aprile (1998, Nanni Moretti)

Which is probably the point of this endearing, infectious, and ridiculously manic natured film. We are essentially seeing the Directors life, or a particular time in his life when he was subsumed by a film about Italian politics while also distracted by the birth of his son, through a fusion of eclectic moments (including a grand 50s era musical about an Italian chef) with him and with others. It’s tempting to call this whole thing a grand experiment, but it never actually feels that way. It feels weirdly natural and even comforting. Like a tall glass of whatever makes you happy at a time when things are complicated

It’s the freedom, or permission he gives us to let go and let loose that is this films primary gift, be it with things we can and cannot control, undesirable outcomes or personal failures. And dang if my own 44 (reference to the film) didnt need that knock upside the head.

Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk)/Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Two classics, one a meditation on matters of race and the challenges of living in its period as a woman, the second a brilliantly crafted apocalyptic that is as aware of it humanity as it is its spirituality. Both equally about a journey in trying times.

Honorable Mentions: Two new releases are contending for my current favorites of 2022; After Yang (2022, Kogonada), a spiritually centered quiet sci fi that explores the particular (the question of what it means to be Asian) and the universal (what it means to be human). Equally concerned with matters of the spirit, along with history, is Robert Eggers meticulously crafted and researched period piece The Northman. It’s as brutal as it is compelling in the way it brings the ancient world to life both in detail and in perspective. It immerses us in a worldview that sees reality as more than simply the material world, and challenges our relationship to the unseen realities of our present day as well.

Books

Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week by Jason Porterfield

Even if you are someone adamently adverse to the notion of pacificism, keep on reading past the intro. Porterfield is making a case for non-violence, however he makes one of the strongest and most cohesive arguments I have yet encountered (as someone geared towards pacificsm olready). This book also transformed my understanding of Holyweek. It is an easy read, but it is also incredibly well researched and is full of data to reinforce his claims for non-violence as the Christlike way to peace.

The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Mitosz

A fascinating journey through the well worn soil of Eastern Europe beginning with world world 2 and leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s about the place of the artist and the nature of creating art in a time and place deifned by totalitarianism. It offers some fascinating insight into tensions East and West, musings on creating art in a world where religion had lost it power (culturally, politically), and reflections on the sort of idealism that sees the role of the artist as creating meaning where the live regardless of circumstance. One gets the sense in reading this that you cannot idealize problems away, nor can you modernize problems away. Things aren’t so black and white, especially when seeing things in light of the East/West divide.

Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles #1) by Colin Meloy

Penned by the voice behind the band The Decemberists, this is a debut novel delving into fantasy for children. It has a few rough patches in terms of the writing, but I really enjoyed the vision and the world building. The message is on point, to be sure, but its simplicity contrasts with the poential depth of the wider context of Wildwood.

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’ Toole

I don’t agree with some of Toole’s conclusions (mainly his inability to see Ireland’s spiritual heritage and religious past in a more objective light), which filter in to the historical context as he goes. But the information he offers, particularly from an Irish perspective, along with his basic thesis- that Ireland became a place of intentional uknowing, caught between the preservation of its distinct identity and the push towards modernization- is an intriguing one. Lots to take away. and to consider.

Podcasts

Faith Improvised (Episodes 57-71: Romans)

I hate binging, but academic Tim Gombis’ recent deep dive into Romans proved not only timely for my own personal foray into the text, but formative. He engages the scholarship, offers new ideas based on his own work, and spends time unpacking the themes and the context.

Mere Fidelity (Episode 270, Abrahams Silence with Dr. J. Richard Middleton)

Mere Fidelity tends to pose topics and conversations that wade into potential debate. They aren’t debating here as much as probing some interesting theories around the famed story of Abraham’s potential sacrifice, not only in what it means but how it fits in the larger biblical narrative as an intentional literary movement desiring to say something about the relationship between God and humanity.

BEMA Podcast (Episode 276: John- Who is Your Father?)

I cite the BEMA podcast quite often, but every so often an episode truly deserves to be singled out. The way they exposit the text of the Gospel of John here and the insights they offer was profound. Took me straight to Church.

The Next Chapter (Episode 178: Kim Fu and A. Gregor Frankson)

Known monsters and Africanthology. Great stuff.

The Great Books (Episodes 226-228: C.S. Lewis; Episode 220: The Book of Common Prayer)

A great walk through of a selection of C.S. Lewis’ popular works along with a very interesting episode on the Book of Common Prayer.

On Script (Episode 217: Old Testament Theology, Isaiah’s Metaphors, and Canaanite Genocide)

Loved the notes on Isaiah presented here. Offers a way into the Old Testament narrative with some of its difficult ancient context and realities in view.

On Being with Krista Tipptett (Episode 907: Avivah Zornberg and Human Becoming Between Biblical Lines; Episode 905: Eugene Peterson and Answering God)

I have already picked up and finished Zornbergs Moses: A Human Life based on hearing her speak in this podcast. Can’t wait to dive in to her books on Genesis and Exodus. The way she blends the text with the midrash with a focus on what that text has to say about humanity, life, God, holiness, wisdom and knowledge, among other things is really amazing. Brings it to light and life in a way that feels faithful to the history and tradition and attentive to the lessons of recontextualization.

Music

Bad Suns- Apocalypse Whenever

Optimistic, uplifting, upbeat- perfect for the summer with its energetic form of pop.

Tenille Townes- Masquerades

A talented Canadian country artist, Townes is the kind of musician that can use genre conventions to her advantage. Masquerades is a bit darker than her previous efforts, but it has moments of optimism with great compositions that compliment the more introspective nature of the album. Definitley one of stronger country albums I’ve heard in a good while.

The Head and the Heart- Every Shade of Blue

The Head and the Hearts previous album was one that I could easily get lost in (and have gotten lost in) many times over. Soaring melodies with inspiring lyrics and lovely arrangements. This latest one feels, which fits with the albums lyrical approach, different and altogether new. It demands a bit more attention, which is not a bad thing, just a defining mark of the albums approach. It seems interested in reestablishing themselves, perhaps inspired by the pandemic, and reinventing. The melodies are still present but the arrangements are more densely layered and not as immediately accessible. For those willing to dig though this is definitely a gem.

Adam Again- Dig

A classic album that someone turned me on to again after years of neglecting it. There is a reason its considered one of their best. Gene’s lyrics along with the instrumentation and songwriting stand the test of time, proving genuinely timeless.

Cross Gray- In All That Concerns It

For something more specifically spiritually driven, this new EP (from 2021) by Christian artist Cross Gray is not only smartly done, its genuinely inspired, especially for those days in the valleys.

Coin- Uncanny Valley

Inventive and eclectic, this mix of styles and technologically driven musical approaches (perhaps qualifying as techno-pop is a creative effort worth checking out

Semler- Stages of a Breakdown

Semler has always been gifted at both showing vulnerability and composing compelling narratives that speak to his personal life in ways that transcend and translate. This album is no different, detailing a journey through a difficult time. It’s a great album with lots to ponder.

Revisiting Paul’s Letter to the Romans: My Journey With Justice Inside and Outside of the Church

I was recently asked why my focus on justice. What do I mean by this word or idea playing a pivotal role in my own journey, something I find myself coming back to at certain intersections of thought and belief (or perhaps hoped for transformation, to give that a more positive angle). One of the reasons I’ve been so intentionally focused on Romans is because I’ve been trying to articulate better, at the very least for myself, where my questions about justice stemmed from and how such questions played into my own formation both as a human and as a Christian. In truth, so much hinged on this question personally and communally, as this small word, and my growing convictions about what it means, has cost me genuine friendships, the freedom to occupy space in the Church, and even the freedom to occupy space in the world. It carries that much weight. What I beileve, or what I can believe about God, humanity and this world seems to hinge on it.

Some context: Once upon a time I decided to move from the evangelical context that had formed my upbrnging (a mix of pentecostal/alliance/non-denominaiton traditions) into being a card carrying member of the mass exodus into Reformed Theology/Practice. The reason for this initially stemmed, for me, from a desire to locate a more intellectually rigorous and bookish Christian faith. The Reformed community held a lot of appeal in thiis regard, being a people “of the book”, having a seemingly endless barage of writing on “the book”, and standing on a general commitment to articulating “right theology”. So I joined, I read (and read some more), and I became a walking, talking apologetic for the “true” Gospel. That this came at the exclusion of others was not immediately apparent to me beyond the ways the community, its writings, and its teachers set me in contest with nearly everything in the name of “protecting” the true Gospel from all the apparent heresies eroding the Church. This was played with an intellectual superiority that blended nicely with those Reformed tenants defining God’s elective purposes in terms that create necessary insiders and outsiders driven by God’s fever pitched intention to give salvation freely through a given faith in Christ rather than by works of the law. This is how my well fostered anxiety over assurance of my salvation; that being how I can I know I am saved from God’s wrath directed at me in my depravity, was allieviated.

But then it all hit a wall when I decided to ask a question from scripture. I put myelf in the shoes of Paul’s interloceter in Romans (an imagined opponent used to ask questions of Paul) and wondered “why does God blame us if we are unable to resist his will (Romans 9:19).” This question comes in response to Paul quoting from the scroll of Exodus saying “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:14).” This of course, in common Reformed interpretations, is heard to speak to the act of divine election and predestination to either salvation or judgment for the sole purpose of declaring God’s glory. This of course informed the respoonse given to me, echoing the sentiments of the interloceter (What shall we say then? Is God unjust?”), Paul’s reponse (Not at all), and the accompanying charge (who are you, o (hu)man, to talk back to God).

In other words, sure, ask the question, but heed the “word” lest you get drawn into heresy.

So then I asked another question. What if I side with where Paul begins this whole debate in 9:3, to say “I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers…” Or similarly with Moses when he says to God “But now, if you will only forgive their sin- but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (Ex 32:32). In other words, if God chooses some to salvation and others to eternal judgment, and further if God chooses those to eternal judgment for the sake of the saved (so that they can be saved), where then does that leave me in light of my own faith, especially when i try to pair that with scripture that calls me to love without condition? The further response that I got was- this is why its all about God’s glory and our total depravity. God does what God does for no other reason than to glorify Himself, and we are all simply the means to that end. Worthless worms declared worthy on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness, God’s glory manifested in human form.

Turns out that there is a fine line in Reformed Theology between the questioning and the heresy. It wasn’t long before I was being accused of Ephesians 5:10, being the one who sows division and throwing others into confusion regarding the plain and true Gospel and therefore counted among those who are judged to eternal damnation (a judgement that was made of me and at the same time not made, even to the point where I was called the literal Devil; all judgment is after all given to God alone for His good purposes. Its surpsing though how these judgments were, in my experience, used to make very clear distinctions about who or what is in and who or what is out. If its not about assurance of my salvation then it turns out such judgments and views of justice are left to be quite troublesome ideologies). Even then I still believed in God, and if God did exist then I still felt compelled to begin where Paul and Moses begin. And yet I was haunted by the question of how, if my life was more destructive than good, as others were saying at the time, I can truly justify (using the Reformed sense of the word) my existence?

Fast forward and this view of justice, or perhaps the inability to freely question it more so, has led me away from the church and the faith. And yet here I found myself faced with a conundrum. What I found in a world where God did not exist was something slightly different and yet frighteningly similar. Where God does not exist moral systems must be created in its (or His or Her) absence. And in truth, these moral systems tended to be built using the same kind of problematic terms of justice to create insiders and outsiders. Only instead of proclaiming total depravity it proclaimed a version of the sin-necessary punishment paradigm that upheld an evolutionary narrative of the righteous and unrighteous (again, using Reformed defintions of these terms). Salvation was the survival and “progress” (morally and technically) of the human race, and no matter how “good” these sytems were proclaimed to be dig a little and you uncover the same basic message- if you are not beneficial to the end game then you need to be cast out. It is, after all, the name of the game. At least in Christianity my depravity and ultimate worthlessness appeared to serve God’s glory, although I’m not sure that was entirely comforting. And this was my experience living in a world where God did not exist. Justice was measured using the same judicial terms (just like Reformed theology) where due punishment is somehow seen as satisfying a wrong doing in our efforts to create a world that we see as good. Only it does so purely in what Reformed theology would call a “works” based moral system (ironically so).

The problem is this way of thinking translates into all facets of life determining who is in and who is out in social and moral terms. And this is a problem because the judicial system is not a moral one. All kinds of problematic things happen though when we translate that into actual systems of morality, or actual moral concern. When I challenged friends (questioned) within this worldview about how we square this with our elemental nature (as in, how can you hold me responsible if nature defines my sense of the will and determines my actions) I faced the same response that I got from the Reformed community, only without the aid of Paul’s beginning sentiment to fall back on. To challenge judgments of others was tantamount to binding myself to the devil, and that made me an unjust person in the eyes of the world. And what was more ineresting at the time was that the most rational positions I could find in a world where God did not exist led me to believe that if I cause more destruction than good in the endgame of humanities survival, then it was not only better off that I ceased to exist, it was better off that I never existed at all. Any argumements that attempted to appeal to something otherwise were bringing in irrational claims that operated contrary to the nature that we can observe in non-human and human activity. They appealed to illusions as a means of meaning-making within this construct of justice that strips us of meaning if we don’t belong or measure up (and even the best meaning-making exercises reveal this to be true when set to the fire of our questions; meaning making in the world depends and operates on insiders and outsiders whether we see it or not; we are good based on there being someone worse than us that we can hold up as the measure of our assurance). Even more so, something my firends refused to admit, such means of circumventing this basic reality more often than not appealed to religious terms and ideas in order to create this meaning. Thus my conundrum was, I could not beieve in God because of this justice question, and this is where justice in the world leads me. Thus my only conclusion was that, rationally speaking, it was best if I did not exist.

Fast foward again: I have found my way back into faith based on this same question of jusice. I’ll leave this to another post, but let me simply say here that it was in engaging the ways in which Christ challenges our notions and definitions of justice that allowed me to really see how Christ challenges our assumptions about how justice must work. One of the things that had bothered me about Reformed Theology is that I always assumed, becuase I was always taught, that its view of God’s justice was what set it apart from the world. And yet by definition it looked no different. Thus I could read scripture on those terms and simply be inserting God where otherwise it would be nature and come away with the same story. Only now God is implicated by the questions that arise from this view of justice, which is why I walked away from faith (and subsequently the world). What I encountered in coming back to faith was a definition of justice that was able to speak something different into the mix. To challenge the narrative in the church and in the world with a better one. Which is what I’m reengaging with my current journey through Romans. What if we have read Romans foward with the wrong narrative in mind? What if by reading it backwards the central concern for collapsing these insider/outsider boundaries that we have reinstated based on defintions of moral “righteousness” can come to light? What if we rush to hear the words of 9:14 (I will have mercy on who I will have mercy) in light of God’s judgment of the outsiders rather than as the call of the faithful to heed God’s desire for all? What if we fail to hear the stories of Jacob and Esau/Sarai and Hagar mentioned in Romans 9 in light of God’s challenging of exclusive claims to to salvation at the exclusion of others based on God’s circumventing such human appeals to justice in those very stories? What if the whole point of chapter 9 is wrapped up in the phrase “all the earth” (9:17) not as an appeal to God’s divine plan of election to salvation but election for the salvation of the world by way of a different definition of justice?

What if our tendency to spiritualize, individualize, and internalize all of these terms in Romans as all of the Reformed writings I read did has missed the narrative Paul is writing in his Gospel as a movement from the community to the cosmic to the renewed cosmos/community in the here and now, with an emphasis on what it means to live as an individual within this new reality as a collective people. What if that is the concern for the divided community Paul is speaking to, not of a ‘believing faith” concerned with knowledge of the facts about the true gospel, but a way of obedient faith to the way of Christ in a world operating according to a particular view of justice? What if our efforts to see in Romans a seperation of justification and sanctification as two different activities and notions based on the gift of a believing faith and moral righteousness has caused us to miss how Paul sees the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant promise as the measure of the way. What if this is the same faithfulness that we are called to follow in based on justification and righteousness as terms belonging to covenant renewal (vocation and imaging terms) in the here and now? I know learning to see this changed my own perspective of God, humanity and this world. I know this commitment to a different kind of justice still deems me a heretic in the church and outside of it, but I also know where appeals to this other form of justice that we find in and outside of the church leaves me. However I grow in my understanding of justice from here I know what my experience was in those terms.

I needed a better narrative. I thank God every day that I was given one, even as I know God is constantly reshaping that within me at the same time. At least thats my prayer.

Romans: The grand narrative of God’s Wrath, the Human Vocation, and the True Justice of a World Made Right

I’ve mentioned from my time in Romans thus far the importance of “reading Romans backwards”, as Scott McKnight would suggest. This is important because of how Romans is positioned as a narrative. That is, Paul is weaving a story regarding that which he describes as his “Gospel”, “the Gospel of God… regarding his Son (1:2).” This is further described as being the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (translated: has faith, or faithfulness)” (1:16), for “in the gospel a righteousness (translated in line with just, or justification, which means to make right what is wrong) from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last…” (1:17).

Here Paul establishes the Gospel of God regarding his son as something, a truth, that is being “revealed”. The “therefore” of 2:1 then brings us into the problem- people who know this truth about the Gospel, those who “did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God”, judging others in regard to the reigning subject of this Gospels doing- the righteousness of God. The context for this judgment stems from 1:18-32 which underscores two important facets of this revealing-

  1. What is being revealed is the “wrath” of God (1:18)
  2. The wrath of God is being revealed “from heaven”, where the mystery of this faith resides, against “all the godlessness and wickedness” (1:18)
  3. Thus God, who’s nature has been made plain to “them” (who believe) through the ”invisible qualities (his eternal power and divine qualities) which have been clearly seen from what has been made (creation) (1:19-20), has “given them over” to the “desires” of their hearts which “exchanged the glory of the eternal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (1:21-23) Important to recognize glory here in imaging terms and in light of God’s presence in the world, linking us to, for example, the glory that resisdes with Moses on the mountain.

Already we are getting important pieces of the narrative puzzle that help paint a fuller picture of what is going on “from first to last”. Some important notes here. There is a common practice of reading these opening chapters in light of the salvation of the individual, reading faith in terms of “belief” or knowledge of God, reading “righteousness” out of context with the shared term justification as being made “morally” right in terms of works, and pairing Gods wrath with the total depravity of the individual person as its target, thus making salvation about the saving of the person from God’s wrath by way of a believing faith that, as we will see in Chapter 2, can only be given as it was with Abraham, therefore justifying us as “saved” in an eternal a internal sense by faith rather than works of the law. To read these early verses this way is to arrive at the end of Romans with a muddled sense of the larger narrative, missing how the Gospel moves into the world and thus speaks to the life of the individual residing within it regarding vocation and image bearing (in the sense of what the Gospel is saving us from and what the Gospel is saving us to). And so much of this comes down to how we understand these terms such as faith, righteousness, law, and later election, ect, to operate in a more holistic sense. Knowing what is causing Paul’s audience, and Paul himself, anxiety bears out much reward in regard to what I see as better (or more faithful) readings of Romans, as too often we adopt anxieties about our own individual salvation (how can we be assured of our salvation) that flow from our particular understanding of these terms as speaking to the plight of moral righteousness, thus narrowing Paul’s words to a function of a Gospel of “assurance” where we (the elect) are being saved from God’s wrath in order to go to heaven (or to the new creation)as opposed to the anxieties that we find in the larger narrative of Romans regarding the movement of God’s glory (image and presence) into the gentile world by way of a renewed covenantal faithfulness in light of the promises of the God’s covenantal faithfulness which we see evidenced in the story of Israel, a subject that has divided these communities now receiving Pau’s words.

In reading Romans Backwards we can see how division (16:17) concerning the Jew-Gentile question (14/15) has created an obstacle to the unifying power of the Gospel concerning Christ’s power (rule) in the world by way of a Church divided over matters of identity. The grand call to love (12/13) has translated to the trading of one image for another, which then also creates obstacles which are causing “fellow believers” to stumble in matters of what the Gospel declares righteousness or justice, which are covenantal terms. And all of this lies in service, for Paul, to the proclamation of the good news of this righteousness (the truth that death has been defeated and the new creation project has begun) being taken to the whole of creation in line with the original vocation of humanity that we find demonstrated in Genesis, which is the call to fill the earth as God’s image bearers. The promise of righteousness here is not “moral” righteousness, although in the bigger picture it does involve obedience to God’s kingdom rule, but the promise of new creation, of making what is wrong in the world right. And as Paul’s larger narrative indicates, this “Gospel’ encompasses a two-fold promise- “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (15:20), meaning that the Powers, the embodiment of revealed evil, which God’s wrath is being poured out on, will be defeated and destroyed, and that we can be, are being, and will be “rescued” from that which enslaves us in our trading of one image for another. It is in this that a way forward has been made within this promise through the “faith(fullness) of Christ, which, as it turns out, is the true subject matter of chapter 1.

Not unironically, when we read faith as a saving and believing faith which is given to the individual we are actually placing ourselves in the place of Christ, which is the very thing the image trading metaphor wants to resist in Chapters 1-3. In covenantal terms, which is the appropriate reading of righteousness, including the later usage in chapter regarding the faithfulness “of” God (as opposed to faith in Crist), the righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness to the covenantal promise. This is the true force of the Gospel power and the Gospel work, and it is how it points from first to last to the promise of a renewed creation that is, according to Paul, both anticipated and already here. When we live opposed to this being true by way of “judgement” of others as being outside of its reach we/you, as it says in chapter 2, “store up wrath against yourself”. Hugely important to note the trajectory here- God’s wrath is being poured out on evil itself, which will be paired with Paul’s understanding of the very real spiritual forces or Powers in terms related primarily to that which operates contrary to love. By exchanging one truth (imaging) for another we bring the judgement of evil on ourselves, which is expressed primarly through our judgment of others in ways that demonstrate something other than the self giving love Christ reveals. As Paul says in 2:4, in doing so (judging others) “do you (then) show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.”

A couple final notes here regarding justice. This contempt for “kindness” mirrors the same resistance that we see made apparent when Jesus’ arrived in Jerusalem bearing witness to a different kind of justice than they expected, one formed through sacrifice, love and forgiveness. The resistance and contempt they felt towards the idea of Jesus’ death is birthed from this idea that God’s justice does not feel just nor does it seem to bring the kind of justice we desire in the here and now. And so we exchange one image for another, making God in our image as opposed to bearing the image of God in the world, leading to the judgment of others. We see justice as the condemnation of evil through the wrath of God and miss that such knowledge comes in the form of Christ’s righteousness, meaning the proclamation of the new creation reality. We are satisfied by justice meaning due punishment rather than seeing justice as the thing that empwers us to imagine a restorative work.

Second, the force of Romans in terms of reading backwards from the resurrected and ascended Christ into the reality of our everyday world where injustice seems to reign, is that the fuller narrative of the promises of God, revealed most fully and completely in Christ, provides us the means of living the new creation values in the here and now. God’s judgment of evil is also what reveals God’s embodying of the good and the right, which is not merely moral action but the proclamation that true justice has arrived in Christ. Not in the form of repayment of sin, something that would have alligned with the appeal of justice as a “Roman”virtue, but in the fuller idea of what is wrong being made right in the very world we occupy togteher. This is what lies at the heart of our continued exchange of one way for another, which should hit hardest when we see Romans speaking directly to those who know and believe the truth. This is where Romans speaks in line with the prophetic voice as an external and communally laden judgment of the state of the failed witness, unfaithfuness to the covenant. What brings hope is that Paul speaks in the prophetic voice of expected rewnewal “so that” the true image bearing witness might flow into all the world and participate in what God is making new “through us” as living sacrfices called to be a light in the darkness. In this sense the far greater judgement is of that which is good and right. This what the pouring out of wrath on what is wrong, God’s work in Christ, frees us to do.

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).

Romans, the terminology, and the single word group of justificaiton and righteousness: A Journey Towards True Justice

Getting back into Romans with Michael Gorman in my endeavor to parse out what it means to seek a “just” world (excellent so far by the way) with conversation partners in Scott McKnights Reading Romans Backwards, the Voxology Podcast’s present series on imaging in Romans, Faith Improvised’s recent series on Romans, and Beverly Gaventa’s When in Romans among others.

I’m reminded of just how much is packed in to the opening 17 verses of Romans alone; including a reconstituting of the familiar structure of the ancient letter in order to establish it as a narrative. Here we find the establishing of a thesis (the Gospel of God concerning his Son), the inclusion of key terms that will carry through into the unpacking of this theme (obedience, righteousness, peace, justice or justification, faith, unity, belief, imaging, idolatry)

So what are the implications of this when it comes to our understanding of justice, which was seen as the foundation of virtues in Rome and fundamental to Pauls “Gospel” of Christ? First, if we see righteousness in tandem with its Greek word family then we can see the emphasis if these “words” placed on the notion of making what is wrong right rather than placing the emphasis on matters of moral “righteousness”, which is often what happens when the two words are separated in English. As in common in Reformed understandings of Romans, the Gospel is made out to be a matter of works-righteousness, meaning that it sees in the life of Israel a dependence on works as that which saves and sees in Christ a perfect moral righteousness that is given (imparted) to us through the cross as satisfying the necessary punishment for our moral failure. This is then married back into the word justify, or just/justification as the thing that is being made right by way of this necessary punishment that God endures on our behalf, meriting undeserved grace and freeing us from a law (works based righteousness) that we cannot keep satisfactorily.

And already, at the heart of the tendency towards division over how to best interpret these different terms stands the most contentious element of Paul’s letter, that of the ideas of righteousness and justification, two words that, as Gorman astutely draws out, share one word family in Greek but which have cometo get expressed in modern translation through two word families. This has led to the confusing of terms, or the disconnecting of related terms, over the years, including, problematic moves to seperate justification and sanctification as two seperate parts of the same coin. The problem is that the two words in English translation are forced to operate separately given the two word families, leading to theologies that use the word righteousness as on outcome of justification when the two words should be functioning together. What makes this equally difficult is that “just” has the ability to translate to just and justify and justification, whereas righteous cannot (righteousify or righteousification simply doesn’t work), so one is limited in its usage, the other is not, leading to very intentional renderings in later translations that try and make two different words with two different theological defintions fit together in a singular thought or theology.

What happens when we see the words justice and righteous together as part of the same family is that it then broadens the narrative and thus our perspective on the Gospel Paul is presenting, reframing our focus on what it is precisely that Paul sees the Gospel of God concerning His son to be all about. It allows us to contend for the very real realities apparent in Pauls letter(s) in ways that make more narrative sense (moral righteousness simply cannot translate across central themes; instead it makes itself the Gospel while rendering everything else as subtext). This includes, in the first 17 verses, a critique (or reform) of honor-shame systems, the intentional contrasting or the Gospels concern for peace with Rome’s equal concern for peace, and his concern for unity that comes through a unity of faith and obedience that open us up to notions of restoration and transformation as participatory realities.

One of the sad outcomes that I can note from an emphasis on moral righteousness is that it tends to prop up views or forms of justice that is forced to rest on God’s election of some at the exclusion of others. Further, it “justifies” views of justice that then see the Gospel all about this exclusive community being properly transformed through Christ’s propitiated gift of salvation, thus making it the duty of the chosen few to proclaim gods judgement of the world while laying claim to grace as the great gift of salvation. This is justified in a theological and a practical sense because gods choosing to salvation and to death is considered “just” by measure of God’s grace. This is how Gods grace is upheld as being something that is “freely given” and not in any way earned. Thus justice becomes and can only ever be about the necessary punishment that then frees some in God’s gracious move to pour out his wrath on His Son in our place to move towards full transformation of the spirit in moral terms while others are condemned (elected) to the death that our depravity deserves.

And yet, as this commentary uncovers and as I tend to believe, this way of thinking misses and miscontrues so much of the Gospel. Coming to see these two words in relationship as part of the same family can help move our readings of Romans, and thus our ideas of justice, towards a greater vision of the Gospels work and movement in the world Paul sees and describes. It can move us from ideas of moral righteousness, which has far more in common with Rome than Christ, to covenental nomism, where we see righteousness associated with God’s promise and faithfulness to the promise rather than Jesus’ moral perfection. And we can see justice then associated with peace rather than necessary punishment, a positive and forward movement towards making what is wrong in this world right. And we can make room for the world and also communal restoration rather than being forced to mine the Gospel through individual satisfaction and salvation, moving with the letter of Romans towards the clash of kingdoms that it ultimately imagines. It can see in the activity of God the function of who God is rather than the function of what God does. This gets us closer then to a better way of dialouguing about the kind of moral understanding that fits with a faith paired with obedience or allegiance, two ideas that speak to the Gospel’s interest in tansformation, which reflects much differently than the moral systems we see in the world that reflect a sin-guilt-punishment framework (such as the American justice system). That system leaves us enslaved to the very cycles God declares liberation from.

Some thoughts anyways

Confronting the Cycles of Injustice and Imaging True Justice in a World Both Familiar and Unfamiliar: Finding the Imaging and the Idolatry in Robert Egger’s The Northman

I’ve heard this described as the film you get if Director Robert Eggers was given 90 million dollars to make a Robert Eggers film.

Which of course is what did happen. More than just being an obvious observation however, this statement captures a key tension inherent within The Northman- the fact that this is a Robert Eggers film that needs to appeal to the masses. The real question then is, does his intentional and specific style leave this 90 million dollar film inaccessible, or on the other end does it sacrfice Egger’s authenticity and ingenuitity? Or does it find the magic number inbetween? I think Egger’s own process and willingness to adapt to a new world with studio demands and fresh new budgets successsfully carves that necessary path to reach that intended audience without alienating his fans. The story is more straight forward than The Witch and The Lighthouse, two films equally interested in history and mythology and deeply spiritual/religious questions, but he funnels the layered imagery, metaphor and commentary of those films into a meticulously researched historical setting and context. This is a film that immerses viewers in a world both familiar and foreign, bringing to life not merely what the medieval setting would have looked and felt like but how they would have perceived the world from their own vantage point. This means a world that will likley sit slightly uncomfortable for those of us in the West long conditioned away from a worldview that assumes a supernatural realtiy to be everybit as real as the material one. This is a world deeply interested in asking questions not about humanity’s relationship to one another, but to the gods and the spirits. Here the symbols and the metaphors bleed into the on the ground and at times all too real realities of the historical setting, filled as it is with chaos and brutality, Princely sucession and family rule based on real honor-shame aspiraitons. You might be forgiven for wondering if the world ever looked and functioned like it does in The Northman. I think the true punch of Egger’s vision and script comes when it leads us to question whether our world really loook and functions all that different today. The uncertainty of that question is what is meant to linger.

The history is centered on but not confined to the story of Amleth, most well known for inspiring Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Now just in case that inspires a little bit of anxiety for some (Shakespeare is not for everyone), its worth saying this film is not Shakespeare. We do get some of the basic construct of the Hamlet story, but what Egger’s is doing is taking the historical evidence for the story of Amleth, of which we have very little, and weaving that into an immersive world of storytelling traditions. As a bunch of different story’s kind of intersect what we get then is a striking portrait of the world that would have been engaged in the telling of these stories. This is where the astonishing level of detail comes rushing to the surface in full bloodied and full bodied form.

I do think Egger’s is also, in his own way, making very real call backs to his previous films. If you have never done this exercise, research and view the ways that The Witch and The Lighthouse are meant to function together as a cohesive narrative. The same thing is evident here with the movement based on this rise and this decent (which of course takes us to both hell and to heaven) and the richly symbolic colors (notice the movement from muted to the final sequences of blood red) mixing with the symbolism of creature and gods (the film begins with the Crow, which of course signifies Oden and Death itself). A final moment of transcendence punctuates an equally earthbound story, bringing history and myth together in a way that, hopefully, can break open our view of the world and our understanding of reality into something much, much bigger.

Thematically, this film uses some of those tragic Hamlet elements as a way into a world built and formed around particular views of justice. As I was watching this film my mind was being taken back to the story of Cain and Abel at multiple points. Not just with the family strife, although that is clearly in play here, but with the ways in which cycles of violence take root. This is not a story about heroes of old enacting justice in an eye for an eye fashion in a medieval world soaked in expectations of blood, shame and honor. There are no heroes to be found here. No truly redemptive characters. As the story goes we begin to gain portraits of people formed by the world around them and immersed in a way of thinking, seeing and being in the world in a way that would have been completely normal to them. You die in battle, you die avenging honor. You oppose the powers, but in so doing you evoke the enslaving nature of power to do your bidding. And this happens in relationship to the gods which express themselves within nature and in ways that bring blessings or curses. And just like the Cain and Abel story what we get is the problem of perpetual vengeance where justice can only be found by way of repayment for ones sins. As it says in the Genesis story, this is what fills the world with evil that cannot be atoned. A world where justice is declared by way of necessary punishment of course is just as familiar to us today, even if we feel we can detach it from such obvious displays of the barbaric. Here Egger’s is not making a judgement on the ancient world, nor is he isolating them as somehow less enlightened- truth be told they were far more enlightened than we are today in many ways. What he is doing is taking an unfamiliar world where such a question of justice is wrapped up in a world in very real relationship to the gods and making it familiar and universal, and its a really powerful approach to an age old story about revenge.

Of course, and this is certainly true for Christians, what this film needs to break the cycles of violence fueled by the patterns of necessary repayment is something that can ultimatley stop the repayment and not pay it forward. To face the judgement of the evils and atrocities that we see (and there are many on display in this film) and to condemn the evil (or in the Christian sense condemn the Powers of Sin and Death) while also liberating the people. This is perhaps most poignant for our current day given the way we see the Viking legacy sailing through the Rus region and slaying the Slavic peoples (we get some lovely old Ukrainian in the process). This is the point where it becomes clear that moralizing any of the vengeance on display in this film is not on The Northmans mind. What we need then is a voice declaring the full forgiveness of sins while also declaring that the Powers of Sin and Death have been defeated. In this, if we view this from the perspective of the cross, we can see Christ saying to the cycles and patterns of repayment begun with Cain and Abel that the blood stops with the Cross. Instead a new way of living, being, and seeing emerges, one in which the Kingdom of God takes root in the Kingdoms of this earth transforming how it is that we relate to god and to one another.

And yet, what Christ does is reveal the true reality that our appeals to justice in this world tend to cloud. This comes in the revealing of our imaging of capital letter Sin (the Powers), which of course leads to sinful expressions that ultimately lead to death. It also comes in the revealing of the imaging we have traded in the process, that of the image of God. This is where the relationship between God, humanity and creation can be healed, is by transforming our expectation of what it is that god is about and how it is that we are called to live in allegiance to gods way of being, seeing and thinking in this word. This is the true myth, as Tolkien would say, that breaks into a world full of stories of the gods and unify’s them in a singular expression of truth, one given to mystery, a mystery that then breaks through into the injustices again and again with the transforming power of love and forgivness. This is, surprisingly, how it is that new creation, that imagined world where true justice actually reigns, is bought about. Unforutnately both we, and the gods we shape in our own image, an image traded to image ourselves rather than the creator, tend towards the opposite. We see justice in terms of demands for judgment of ones enemy and we enact the gods will to fight on our behalf. When God shows up in Jesus, breaking into history as the full revelation of gods, and our, true image, we tend to reject it, rail against it, react against it, precisely because from our vantage point it feels injustice, as though such an expression remains ignorant of giving evildoers their due and declaring specific actions to be wrong. This is what we see in the film with the gods called upon to act according to their demands and ultimately the people taking the gods actions into their own hands to enact the sort of justice they desire. This is the enslavement such views of justice express. It cannot condemn evil because it justiifies evil in the process. Worse so it believes that it does so under the blessings of the gods that fight on our behalf. When it comes at others expense we see where The Northman threatens to lead this story, towards its own demise.

I won’t spoil where this film goes, but it’s not completely without redemptive notes. I think there is powerful clarity here lingering underneath the surface that points to a natural beauty, the power of new life, the inner longings for peace and restoration, the pain of injustice leading to deeper relationship with one another. But it also leaves no question about a world still enslaved to the same cycles, something we as viewers today would do well not to relegate to some relic of unenlightened history or fantastical superstions. When it comes to injustice we would do well to remember that it is not god who has abandoned the world, rather it is we who have abandoned the way of God in our demands that justice happen in the way we expect it to happen. Encountering the mystery, not in the way of blessings and curses but in the way of imaging, we can then see how this becomes idolatry, enslaving us to cycles of injustice rather than bringing us to the liberating message of peace and forgivness.

Jesus, Justice, and the Way of the Cross

As I continue to dig deeper into the question of what justice is and what justice means, I didn’t expect to find such overlap in a random book I picked up for Holy Week. Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week is not only highly recommended, it has much to say about the ways in which we imagine jusitce coming about. Each chapter walks through a day of Holy Week. Wednesdays chapter I found raised some compelling questions in terms of my own journey.

Porterfield imagines this chapter as the quiet before the storm, a beak in the action that precedes and proceeds as we move towards the cross. It’s in the midst of this quiet that we find two divergent roads meeting, each with their own particular concern for justice and their own imaginative picture of how this comes about, one leading towards Jesus the other away from Jesus. As he writes,

“Despite the eerie calm, major developments are taking place behind closed doors. The public events of the past three days now give way to private scenes of backroom deals and tableside scandals,” connected by way of three interrelated scenes where a person or a group of people grapple with how to respond to these divergent means of acheiving and imagining justice.

Here Porterfield points out the challenge of such fork in the road.
“We all prefer to identif with those who acted rightly in the Gospels. But sometimes the characters we most admire are the ones we least resemble.” Later he binds this to a question of expectations. When something appears to fail our expectations, when thinsg are not the way we believe things should be, we react, we judge, we respond. As the author outlines in the case of the Gospel, many times these expectations are reasonable and sensible and right in their concern, its when our responses meet the way of Jesus that our pursuit of and demand for justice is able to be critiqued and challenged. And in Jesus what gets exposed is how the true contest is between the way of peace and the way of violence.

What we find on Wednesday is the recognizable human tendency to choose the path where we justify a lesser evil in order to achieve a greater good. As Porterfield exposits, this is what is caught up in Caiaphas’ phrase, “You do no realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49-50). In light of their shared concern for justice, the justifiable push of the Sanhedrin was a concern for order and the (seeming) good of the whole. “If a choice must be made between the destruction of one man and the destruction of an entire nation”, then the latter was “clearly the lesser of two evils.”

Here in lies the challenge of Jesus. “One of the biggest temptations we face in working for peace is to justify violent means by an imagined good end.” This is problematic because “inherent to the claim that the ends justify the means is the mistaken belief that we can accurately predict what the end result of our means will be,” followed by the proclamation “If you want to be a practitioner of Jesus’ approach to peacemaking, then you must learn to see the means you use as nothing less than the end coming into existence.”

So how does this relate to our need for and pursuit of justice? The way we pursue justice holds the power to be prophetic in the sense that the choices we make tend to determine the kind of justice we imagine. What Jesus does is two fold- He transforms our imagination of what justice is and what it looks like and then sees in our point of response the way of bringing this imagination to life in present. What becomes clear is that this leaves us uncomfortable precisely because it leaves the present caught in this space between the arleady-not yet where justice doesn’t appear to have happened where our expectations seem to demand it, and this tends to push us towards redefining or reimagining what justice is, most readily in judicial terms where we take matters of peace and order into our own hands. We see just punishment as the means to the end we desire and end up with a form of justice that sees justice as due punishment to satisfy our desires and our needs in the here and now. We see all matters of violent responses and judicial consequence as the lesser evil, which of course then eventually transforms these things into a good. In a twist of irony, the cross becomes the image of the just punishment of Jesus, something that later gets repurposed in terms of our just punishment taken by Jesus in our place, marrying the justice of Rome, so to speak, with the justice of God.

To heed Jesus’ story on Holy Wednesday, the justice of the way, the way to the cross, we need to recognize the seeds we sow bring about the prophetic vision. “For Jesus, true peace was always the fruit of justice,” and what Jesus’ ministry imagines is a kind of justice that brings the fruit of a world made right into the present so as to reform how we go about obtaining justice. As we make our demands for particular kinds of justice we miss, as they did in Holy Week, the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. Jesus becomes something different than the messiah we signed up to follow, and that triggers our need to take control of the narrative and satisfy our need for justice in the here and now in less than ideal ways. This is what leads to death on a cross. The way of Jesus, in contrast, leads to life. Its here where our imagination can be reformed. As Porterfield says, “if crushed expectations could lead one of Jesus’ own disciples to turn on him, then they could cause us to do the same,” and often in ways we don’t even realize.